Tuesday, April 19, 2005

Policy decisions and scientific uncertainty.

By way of Crooked Timber, an article by Chris Mooney in Mother Jones about the stuff that comes out of industry-funded think tanks and passes for science.

So, anyone who has listened to the politicians in Washington is aware that there's a controversy about global climate change. Funny thing is, the politicos don't present it as a controversy about how we should respond to global climate change. Rather, they present it as a controversy about whether global climate change is even a real phenomenon. Why is this funny? Because if you talk to the scientists rather than the politicians, there's really no controversy at all.

Of course, as with all scientific hypotheses, there was quite a bit of scientific skepticism early on. That's OK, though. You go out and do some science. Pretty soon, the thinking goes, you'll have more data and you'll be able to figure out whether your hypothesis is a crazy one or whether it holds up.

It's no surprise that, while the "global warming" hypothesis was still wet behind the ears, folks in industries making the stuff suspected of causing global warming were rooting for the data to undermine this hypothesis. If you're ExxonMobil, you want to keep selling oil. And while the scientific jury is still out, you'll argue that the burden of proof should be on those who suspect that the gas you're selling is hurting the environment rather than on you to prove that it's not. No one is shocked that you want the public to bet your way, given the uncertainties; you want to stay in business.

But scientific juries seldom stay out for ever. Mooney writes:

Even as industry mobilized the forces of skepticism, however, an international scientific collaboration emerged that would change the terms of the debate forever. In 1988, under the auspices of the United Nations, scientists and government officials inaugurated the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a global scientific body that would eventually pull together thousands of experts to evaluate the issue, becoming the gold standard of climate science. In the IPCC’s first assessment report, published in 1990, the science remained open to reasonable doubt. But the IPCC’s second report, completed in 1995, concluded that amid purely natural factors shaping the climate, humankind’s distinctive fingerprint was evident. And with the release of the IPCC’s third assessment in 2001, a strong consensus had emerged: Notwithstanding some role for natural variability, human-created greenhouse gas emissions could, if left unchecked, ramp up global average temperatures by as much as 5.8 degrees Celsius (or 10.4 degrees Fahrenheit) by the year 2100. “Consensus as strong as the one that has developed around this topic is rare in science,” wrote Science Editor-in-Chief Donald Kennedy in a 2001 editorial.

(Bold emphasis added.)

You want science to make an objective assessment of whether a hypothesis stands up? Get together thousands of scientific experts. From different countries. (Some of these scientists are bound to hate each other!) Let them loose on the data. If they come to something like agreement, you're about as close as you're ever going to get to proving a theory true.

Back to Mooney's article:

Even some leading corporations that had previously supported “skepticism” were converted. Major oil companies like Shell, Texaco, and British Petroleum, as well as automobile manufacturers like Ford, General Motors, and DaimlerChrysler, abandoned the Global Climate Coalition, which itself became inactive after 2002.

Yet some forces of denial—most notably ExxonMobil and the American Petroleum Institute, of which ExxonMobil is a leading member—remained recalcitrant. In 1998, the New York Times exposed an API memo outlining a strategy to invest millions to “maximize the impact of scientific views consistent with ours with Congress, the media and other key audiences.” The document stated: “Victory will be achieved when…recognition of uncertainty becomes part of the ‘conventional wisdom.’” It’s hard to resist a comparison with a famous Brown and Williamson tobacco company memo from the late 1960s, which observed: “Doubt is our product since it is the best means of competing with the ‘body of fact’ that exists in the mind of the general public. It is also the means of establishing a controversy.

(Again, the bold emphasis is mine.)

OK, here we have the industry-funded think tank at its slimiest. Under the guise of doing good science, or of educating the public, they present as uncertain a scientific hypothesis that has more data and consensus behind it than most good hypotheses will ever get. They go with the "scientists are always skeptical" angle to say, hey, these thousands of scientists could all be wrong! It's not proven 100% so ... there's still a chance it's false! And when in doubt, buy lots of oil!

Of course, the public isn't necessarily quite this stupid. If I show up at your doorstep and hand you a lottery ticket and say, "Hey, there's a non-zero probability that this ticket's a winner!" you know it would not be a good idea to advance me $10,000. (You do know that, right? If not, please email me your street address and a good time for me to swing by.) So, the think tanks have to go a little further to convince the public that there's a live scientific controversy. They have to find themselves some scientists to speak out against the hypothesis.

This is no mean feat. As Mooney notes, a review of almost 1,000 scientific papers on global warming that were published in the decade from 1993 to 2003 "was unable to find one that explicitly disagreed with the consensus view that humans are contributing to the phenomenon". But you gotta stay the course.

So who do they have critiquing the scientific consensus. Michael "Jurassic Park" Crichton. He has an M.D., which ... qualifies him as an expert on climate science?

Or maybe Steven Milloy, a FoxNews.com columnist and an adjunct scholar at the libertarian Cato Institute (which got $75,000 from ExxonMobil). Mooney doesn't identify Milloy's scientific credentials, not that it necessarily means he's without such credentials. Right-leaning news outlets, after all, did believe him enough to pick up his attack on the Arctic Climate Impact Assessment (ACIA). Quoth Mooney:

Citing a single graph from a 146-page overview of a 1,200-plus- page, fully referenced report, Milloy claimed that the document “pretty much debunks itself” because high Arctic temperatures “around 1940” suggest that the current temperature spike could be chalked up to natural variability. “In order to take that position,” counters Harvard biological oceanographer James McCarthy, a lead author of the report, “you have to refute what are hundreds of scientific papers that reconstruct various pieces of this climate puzzle.”

There is an interesting pattern that emerges: most of the "scientific" opposition to global climate change is heavily funded by ExxonMobil. Back when these guys were checking their crib notes on science and telling each other, "Skepticism! Awesome, let's go with that!" they managed to overlook "disinterested."

Mooney quotes Robert Hahn, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, as saying, “Climate science is a field in which reasonable experts can disagree.” The thing is, when those reasonable experts are also scientists, they tend to look for facts -- honest to goodness data and analyses that can be agreed upon even by the scientists on the other side of the fence -- to back up their positions. Despite the impression the politicians, the pundits, and the industry-funded think tanks may be trying to convey, that's not what's happening in the "debate" over global warming.


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