Friday, December 4, 2009

Science and the ACLU -- Let ClimateGate Run its Course

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) is our famous guardian of civil rights. They protect our right to say almost anything we want on the blogosphere, and much more besides. Most of the time they are a mainstay that obstructs governmental abuse of power (you know, that's what happens when the party you don't happen to like is in office!).

But some of the time, they take very unpopular stances for the exact same reason. They defend gross murderers when the latter haven't had a fair enough trial. They defend pornography or ugly speech like that of the Klu Klux Klan and other unpleasantness. Whether you think that's disgusting or not.

Most of us believe the ACLU is important, or even a vital element of a free society, because unrestrained government is repressive government.

A gut check and teachable moment
The Climategate problem (reviewed in this week's Science here, if you have a subscription, but of course many other places as well) is a challenge to us in a similar way. No matter how convinced we may be that global warming is happening and is human-made, we must allow complete investigation of the controversial emails. And we must condemn cover-ups and data massaging if that is what actually happened.

The result may be food for the Hummer crowd. It may set back the cause of definitive preventive constraints on energy use for years. It may give a great opportunity for those who can't spell 'science' much less understand it, to gloat in triumph (til their houses flood).

But this is a gut check and we must not flinch, even if we can't stand to see their smirks. We have to defend the integrity of science, no matter where it is compromised. And however it turns out, it's a teachable moment for everyone, professionals and students alike.


Anonymous said...

yep, this period shouldn't be taken as a threat, or something to be dismissed easily either.

even though i'm abit more leaning towards the "science is not settled" camp, i totally agree with:

"It may give a great gloat in triump (till their houses flood)."

if there's nothing to hide, nothing shall come out of this debacle. if there's skeletons, then i hope the good conservation movements won't be abondoned outright.

Ken Weiss said...

Yes, I agree. Personally, it seems obvious that climate is changing and for human societal reasons it doesn't even matter if it's anthropogenic (though the amount of exhaust we produce makes it hard to believe it isn't).

Cutting back on our use of nonrenewable (fossil fuel) resources saves them for our grandchildren to heat their houses with, etc. and there's no good reason not to do it.

But there is a lot of untoward behavior in science that, while perhaps not that much different (probably a lot better) than in other segments of society, and it is always best to try to minimize it as much as possible.

Holly Dunsworth said...

Well, it certainly doesn't help Mother Nature for humans to now know that dogs are apparently just as carbon-footprinty as SUVs.

We drive a responsible car but we have two dogs and we're never gonna live without dogs. This allows our neighbor with a Hummer (in Chicago!) who doesn't have dogs to look at us the way we look at him!!!

The whole thing is exhausting (pun intended).

Ken Weiss said...

What is this about dogs and their disregard for Green? I mean, we knew that in the absence of a fire hydrant, dogs go for the green...shrubs, trees, etc. But did we know they were as bad as SUVs? I at least never saw a Hummer at a fire hydrant (unlike a dog, the owner would get a ticket).

You can still feel superior, unless you have _very_ big dogs, to any Hummer owner. I mean, dogs can't be as absolutely bad, even if they are as bad per pound.

So you can still drop a hint to your neighbors....or maybe do it by having your dog drop a hint or two on his lawn!

Unknown said...

Would this not be the time to ask various people, those who are inspired to yet more science denial by a few phrases in these stolen emails, for ten years of their email? We could start with Sarah Palin. Ms. Palin, will you please supply the last ten years of your communication to a web site in Russia. We need the world to paw over your communications for superficially damning phrases so we can know the truth!

Ken Weiss said...

One could hardly argue with that. We didn't pick on Palin because her emails weren't the ones that were hacked.

Taking things out of context is a common sport and of course the media love it because it sells, and opposing groups love it because it causes eddies in the progress of the ones they oppose. That's why in this case it could be quite sad if the apparent tenor of the messages actually led to hiding facts etc.

Arjun said...

Examining public perception of climate science over the past 20 years frightens me. It provides a salient example of how policy and in general, vested interests can warp our standards for knowledge and by corollary the perception of a PHYSICAL PHENOMENON.

Suppose equal interest were paid to all other phenomena examined by science. Where would our comprehension of the world be in the absence of a systematic means of organizing and evaluating the information we gather from our observations?

While letting "anything go" (I recognize that the statement has been taken out of context, but nonetheless,) facilitates epistemological democracy, filtration through a sieve of established standards leaves kernels of greater credibility.

Ken Weiss said...

We as a society have a question about climate change, and we have a method called 'science' for investigating it. We have criteria for what we count as evidence, and so on. That does what you say--gives kernels of greater credibility.

The issue is when there are consequences of various kinds, and the scientists themselves become for whatever reason too vested in an outcome, or even a battle for influence about interpretations of their research. That may have happened here. Or, it may not.

The problem is the polarized nature of the debate because of the heavy vested interests on all sides (Greens vs oil companies and so on). If the evidence is fuzzy or uncertain, then sane debate would have to do with concepts like the risk and cost of not acting vs the risk and cost of acting one way or another.

If the preponderance of the evidence is, as it seems clearly to be, that the planet is warming and that humans probably are one cause of that, then not all evidence has to be squeakly clean for us to act on the preponderance.

But when this is a social, economic, and political arena, each side seizes on anything that suits their objectives. Even if it's just obstructionism, as is likely the case with 'Climategate', it works for their purposes.

Unfortunately, I personally don't like their purposes.