Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Past Climates Preserved

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As I'm sure most SKEPTICAL INQUIRER readers are aware, November 2009 was "global warming denialism month." This is not an official United Nations designation but rather the consequence of a media storm occasioned by the teapot of a number of e-mail messages stolen from the University of East Anglia's Climate Research Unit. Perhaps the most insightful press coverage of the incident was published by George Monbiot in The Guardian. Monbiot pointed out the three obvious lessons to be drawn from the email messages themselves and their subsequent controversy.

First, scientists really ought to take their critics--and their relationship with the public--more seriously. Considering the nature of academic culture, this has always been a problem. But to deny requests for raw data, even when made by third parties with no real interest in the data themselves, is bizarre and unethical. Indeed, all raw data gathered by any scientist or scientific organization working with public funding, anywhere in the world, ought to be made immediately available online after acceptance for publication of the relevant technical papers. It's the ethical thing to do, and it is simply indecent that some of the scientists involved in this case focused instead on the fact that the emails were obtained illegally--it's a red herring that does not reflect well on the integrity of said scientists.

Second, Monbiot pointed out that it is patently obvious that "the other side" does not have any real interest in the truth about global climate change; they are simply out to score public relations (and possibly political) points for their preconceived notions about the issue.

This is plainly visible to anyone who gives even a superficial reading to the many declarations of "gotcha!" and "conspiracy!" that have been thrown around. Regardless of the content of the stolen e-mails, and even of the possibly questionable ethics of some of the scientists involved, the evidence for human-caused global warming is so obvious and overwhelming that it is just as silly to deny it as it is to deny evolution, to deny that HIV causes AIDS, or to deny that vaccines don't have anything to do with autism (to mention just a few of the currently available flavors of denialism). This evidence can be found in the record of temperatures from 1850 on, the documented responses of plants and animals over the past several decades to ongoing climate change, and the thinning of sea ice and melting of glaciers, not to mention the fact that Earth temperatures have been out of sync with the solar cycle for more than forty years (and no, the Milankovic cycle doesn't explain that, just in case you were wondering).

The third conclusion drawn by Monbiot, however, is perhaps the most disturbing. Monbiot concludes that while much of the media and several politicians have made a huge deal out of a minor incident, they just don't seem to be interested in seriously addressing the real story, which is the systematic spending of millions of dollars by large energy companies to keep the public thinking that there is in fact a scientific controversy. The jury, they say, is still out (and therefore it is premature to call for any action, especially action that is likely going to impact those companies' bottom lines).

The following are two examples of the sort of real conspiracies the public ought to get angry about. The Global Climate Coalition is a group representing the American Petroleum Institute, BP, ExxonMobil, Shell, and a number of large car makers. In 1995 their own scientists put together a report that in part read, "The scientific basis for the greenhouse effect and the potential impact of human emissions of greenhouse gases such as CO, on climate is well-established and cannot be denied." The Coalition's response was to hide the report while spending millions to convince the public that the exact opposite is true. Also consider the Heartland Institute (again, co-sponsored by Exxon Mobil, as pointed out by Monbiot), which put together one of those lists of "scientists who disagree with X" (where X was human-made global warming but in a different context just as easily could have been evolution). Yet many of said scientists angrily demanded to be taken off the list as soon as they found out what the Heartland Institute was saying in their names. The Institute--in a flabbergasting breach of protocol--declined to take the names of said scientists off their misleading list. Talk about unethical behavior and attempts to cover up the truth.

Given all of the above, where exactly is the conspiracy? Demonstrably, it's on the side of the industry, despite some callous and borderline unprofessional behavior on the part of a few scientists. Who, therefore, should we be upset with? A large section of the media for blowing the e-mail controversy out of proportion while giving little if any attention to the real story. The whole episode, and indeed the global warming "controversy," shows the crucial importance of a point made by Noam Chomsky (cited in A Short Course in Intellectual Self-Defense by Normand Baillargeon): "My personal feeling is that citizens of the democratic societies should undertake a course of intellectual self-defense to protect themselves from manipulation and control, and to lay the basis for more meaningful democracy." Clearly, we have a long way to go to achieve a meaningful democracy.

Massimo Pigliucci is professor of philosophy at the City University of New York-Lehman College, a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and author of the forthcoming Nonsense on Stilts: How to Tell Science from Bunk. His essays can be found at

Source Citation
Pigliucci, Massimo. "Climate denialism." Skeptical Inquirer 34.2 (2010): 23+. Expanded Academic ASAP. Web. 24 Mar. 2010.
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