Green Integrity

Chicago, Illinois. His voice was calm and unassuming. Wearing a worn tweed jacket and rather large spectacles, balding at the top with brown tufts to the side, he fulfilled the professorial stereotype to a T. There was something commanding in his voice, and the 200+ people at the lunch listened intently. The usual clinking of forks against china and ice against glass was nearly non-existent. Professor Richard Lindzen is an atmospheric physicist who teaches at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and along with his extensive work on the middle atmosphere, atmospheric tides, and ozone photochemistry, he is a well-known "skeptic" of global warming.

For context's sake, I should tell you that I'm at a conference in Chicago about environmental science and policy, and have been listening to scientists, policy makers, activists, and think tankers for the past few days. There are plenty of people here who are skeptical of man made "global warming," but also many who vociferously counter their skepticism. Yesterday, I sat in a session where three different people were claiming "irrefutable truths" about one issue, and despite the subdued hostility and my lapsed physics knowledge, I quite enjoyed listening to their spirited argument. Public debate about contentious issues is one of the things the scientific community needs most right now.

It's very passé to talk about global warming skepticism because my god we all know it's happening and that humans are responsible, but since I'm not a scientist and don't understand the complex models climate scientists use to prove their assertions about anthropogenic global warming, I try to educate myself on the science by listening to the conversations. What I've found here and elsewhere, is that the politics are hard to escape. There is substantial shaming and immense pressure directed at the so-called skeptics to give up their "foolish" work and fall in line with the mainstream on the subject. In addition, there's a fair amount of data being withheld, as was uncovered in the Climategate scandal. All of this puzzles me, and I wonder why more people aren't concerned about the apparent dishonesty and the sham information that's being paraded as scientific truth.

Think about it in terms of a soft social science, International Relations Theory. Following the same rubric of the science community: if Realism is mainstream climate science then Poststructuralism and Feminist Security Theory, both which question the assumptions of the former, should be discredited and shamed, and all those who dabble in the latter are not good International Relations theorists. I know many in the IR field believe this to a certain extent, especially in the American academy, but the non-traditional thinkers have been successful in creating their own niches which have become well respected. While many may not agree with them, their research is considered and debated within the IR community.  

Not so for climate skeptics. They are shunned and browbeaten. What is most stunning, is that scientists have copious hard data to show where IR theorists do not. A climate skeptic can show exactly where a model has been fudged or where a time line omits information. Robert Keohane asked feminist IR scholars to clarify their research program and their "scientific method," and many responded to the challenge (Ann Tickner, most notably). In the world of climate science, however, there is no debate, and requests for clarification from skeptics to the mainstream go unanswered. Gore et al are the winners while the questioners are the losers before a debate has even begun.  This strikes me as illiberal, unfree, and ultimately unscientific.

Why is this so? I believe it is because the effects of climate change induce fear and encourage immediate action to forestall further environmental damage (remember An Inconvenient Truth?). Mainsteam scientists have very effectively promoted their findings, and the populace is happy to leave science in the hands of the golden-credentialed. What ordinary person would challenge an institution backed by Presidential candidates, the U.S. government, the United Nations, and myriad influential others? The non-debate within the scientific community is a non-issue because most people have faith in the findings they see. Campaigns for climate change and global warming awareness have been resounding political successes, and people empathize with the need to protect the environment.

Back to Professor Lindzen. In his talk, he noted that all current scientific models over-predict levels of C02, and that we shouldn't be so dependent on models in the first place. Models are not objective indicators -- they are all tuned by whoever is using them and for the particular purpose for which they are being used -- and we can't take what they say as the definitive bottom line. Science is not settled, he said, and incontrovertible claims belong properly to religion, not science. Furthermore, he said the scientific community uses terms without definition or quantification (i.e. global warming, what is it exactly?), and focus on single causes to fit models when multiple causes should be considered.

Lindzen noted that tilting the record slightly is of little consequence to science (when information is on the table and peers review work), but it is of great importance to public perception. This is something the mainstream academy has seized on. Scientists cannot assume the cause before knowing what the research indicates, but he claims that's exactly what "they" do. Those who want to see the process and the evidence are decried as meddlers who care nothing about the public good.

I do not consider myself a skeptic (or a believer, really), but I do think we should all be careful to deal with science itself and not authority, even though this is not the path of least resistance.