Letters

Readers respond to Katharine Mieszkowski's "Triumph of Fringe Science."


Salon Staff
August 14, 2003 1:58AM (UTC)

[Read the story.]

Despite Mieszkowski's fixation on the politics of the Climate Change Science Program, its research agenda does more than "enshrine the suspicions of global warming skeptics into federal policy." The plan is not "fringe science" but squares with the priorities of researchers, as expressed by, among others, the Amsterdam Declaration and the American Geophysical Union. As the AGU says, "It is important that public debate take into account the extent of scientific knowledge and the uncertainties." The focus on uncertainty is truly mainstream.

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Research absolutely matters. Consider the IPCC's consensus view that human inputs have a discernible effect on global climate. This vague, first-order insight is far from a program of action. What are the very basics of the atmosphere's chemical cycles? Where do greenhouse gases stand versus other influences such as land use, desertification, solar variability and cloud nucleation? How fast and how easily can human inputs be changed? How can we determine which steps are effective and which are not? Which answers will come easily and which will always be uncertain?

Consider the Kyoto Treaty, aimed exclusively at carbon dioxide emissions. Numerical models show that the effects of CO2 emissions will last the rest of this century even under the best of circumstances. Like a common cold, it will not be shortened. However, evidence has emerged that combustion aerosol -- soot -- is also a strong greenhouse component. With no wiggle room for this uncertainty, Europe's Kyoto-inspired tax credits for diesel vehicles worsen the problem. A soot treaty along the lines of the fluorocarbon treaty (which is saving the ozone layer) would pay off generations before Kyoto. So would a methane treaty. Bush's failure to pursue these opportunities should be criticized, not his boost in targeted research funding.

Mieszkowski seems stuck in the old debate, long settled, as to the existence of global warming. But that all the advocacy groups she relies on are stuck there, too, is a failure to serve a public that needs information about climatic science and policy choices. Their (and her) attempts to obfuscate the nature of scientific uncertainty are not clearing the air.

-- Andrew Alden

Your article seems to boil down to this:

(1) Scientists that get their salaries from the oil industry doubt that global warming is real.

(2) Scientists that get their salaries from the legacy of the Clinton administration believe it is a real problem.

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Your article did NOT, of course, go into any of the scientific background for either argument. I guess that we're supposed to simply assume that since the oil companies are Evil by Nature, then they are obviously wrong, etc., etc.

I'm not exactly a fan of the oil industry, but THIS is junk science, pure and simple. How about some evidence on either side? If this is the typical argument against the current administration's policies, I can see why they are winning: All they need to do is raise doubt...

-- Steve Thomas

Unfortunately, this is just a repeat of patterns that have exhibited themselves regarding the dangers of smoking and in the evolution/creation debate. In the case of global warming, all of us will suffer real consequences. In the smoking debate, only those stupid enough to still smoke in the face of clear evidence would suffer. Of course, the evolution/creation debate highlights the problem with American society: Science has been reduced to poll questions like "Do you believe you came from monkeys?" Luckily, there are other countries and societies in the world that may lead the way.

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-- Scott Frasier

As a disinterested observer of the debate, I am disappointed by the noise made over the backing that global warming skeptics receive from those industries most threatened by global warming legislation. The reason for this correlation is the same as for the correlation between research supporting global warming and financial backing from environmental groups: These investors provide support to researchers whose initial research suggests conclusions that benefit them. That is, person A writes a paper suggesting there is/is not global warming caused by humans; group B likes that conclusion and so funds the research. Nothing insidious need be going on at all. Moreover, what's sauce for geese is sauce for ganders, and if the financial backing of global warming skeptics should make us suspicious of their claims, the same applies to global warming supporters.

The author also mentions both the IPCC and NAS reports as supporting standard global warming views, but it is the argument of many global warming skeptics that they do not; their summaries, which reiterate standard global warming theory, were written by persons not directly involved with the research but intimately involved with environmental legislation. The author does not address this point, and so fails to advance the debate.

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-- Seth Cable

Thanks for a great article about global warming. I am presently in the graduate program at the University of Utah and plan on using my degree in atmospheric chemistry and passion for the environment to help bring exactly the information you have portrayed to the very poorly informed public.

I am amazed that these so-called scientists that work with oil companies, power plants, etc., can be taken seriously. Although I am relatively new to the field, I have never met one person who has any question about the manmade effects on global temperature. To the people I know in the field, there is no doubt about it. Carbon dioxide levels have been consistently rising globally for the last 50 years (as monitored by instrumentation set up on a mountain in Hawaii, far from any direct source).

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The reports generally seen in mainstream news are reactionary in both directions. Saying that since Florida is having the hottest summer ever is evidence of global warming is no more responsible than using data that an area is cooling as evidence of cooling. A hundred years of direct temperature data compared to 4 billion years of earth existence is hardly relevant. Better science has been done with temperature estimates from ice core samples that can take temperature profile estimates much further back, but as stated much more work does need to be done. But that doesn't change the core conclusion; global warming is happening and we are contributing. A recent article in Science magazine indicates that species of plants and animals are proceeding farther north (in our hemisphere) than have ever been observed before, at any time! Pretty convincing evidence that gets little national attention.

-- Scott A. Robertson

Indeed, in response to Katharine Mieszkowski's article, it is "naive to think that scientific consensus alone would force the U.S. to ratify the Kyoto Protocol" or drive any other policy regarding the environment. No domestic policy or international agreement can or should be based solely on the findings of people who do science. Policy is the result of politics -- supposedly the negotiation of citizen values.

Within the United States, there is a complete misappropriation of science in the realm of politics and decision making. Science somehow has been conflated with politics. Rather than improve our decision-making processes, this -- much like the incest of economics and politics within Marxist regimes -- will result in disastrous failure. By mistaking politics for science, there is no other way to appropriate science but in an adversarial way ("My science is better than YOUR science").

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This is killing public trust of science. Worse, it's preventing much needed debate about what we, as individuals, value about the environment's health and how it is related to economic prosperity and social equity.

How do we rebuild public trust and avoid politics-as-science? There are many things, including making science and its funding more transparent. Most important, we need to accept that science cannot resolve conflict or provide answers; it can only provide information and suggest alternatives. Public trust can be built through the effective involvement of citizens with politicians and scientists in jointly considering policy alternatives and assessing what would help all of us, not just scientists, reach consensus.

Without creative models for public participation, like Denmark's consensus conferences, in deciding policy on science-intensive topics, any amount of scientific uncertainty can be used on the political stage to kill debate. And of course, the less spent, publicly and privately, on social and earth science, the more scientific uncertainty we have. Comprehensive and objective -- simply meaning honest and credible -- scientific analysis provides the intelligence needed to make preemptive strikes against environmental degradation with confidence and foresight.

-- Scott Miles

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When will environmentalists and the vast majority of environmental scientists wise up? They have got to stop talking endlessly about global warming and talk instead about how the environmental devastation that causes global warming (or not, according to the few bogus researchers who think the jury is still deliberating) is just REALLY, REALLY bad for the earth and all of us who live here.

For now, U.S. Republicans have a pretty firm control of the middle-American P.R. on the climate-change subject, and the understanding of science of the average citizen is so minimal that I don't think all the Sierra Club spokespeople and MIT scientists out there can change that. The term alone is self-defeating: Who hasn't heard someone say (e.g., during the long, horrid, cold spring in New England), "Yeah, right, global warming!"

But look at how people reacted to Alar, or arsenic in the drinking water. We need to focus on the general poisoning going on. Get out of the dead-end debate on global warming and get into the debate the real stats about asthma, cancer, things that cause real disease in this country, and I think the public will respond.

-- Laura Bjorkund

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The article by Ms. Mieszkowski displays a common hypocrisy that makes discussions of science and its use in setting social policy so maddening and unproductive. Throughout the article, references are made to corporate or interest sponsorship of the "naysayers," with the obvious implication being that their observations can be dismissed as junk science purchased by those who stand to lose if stronger environmental regulations are enacted. I was unable to locate any discussion in the article of what data or evidence was being offered by the naysayers and why it was wrong -- just that one can infer it's wrong because of the speculated interests of those who supplied support to the researchers at some point in their careers.

Why is there no mention of who is funding those who are cited as knowing there is a causative link between human greenhouse gas emissions and global warming? Are their sources of funding and support any less germane to establishing their credibility as it is for the naysayers? Are we also to infer that the author's article can be dismissed as yet another shrill screed from the lunatic fringe left because she is writing for an online magazine that is demonstrably leftist?

For all the prattling about junk or agenda-driven science, the article presents the author as being in desperate need of a reality check. Good science relies on results that can be repeated and independently verified. Also, the conclusions drawn from the results or data should be such that they can be proven or disproven through further experimentation. I don't care if Exxon nominates scientist Smith to the board of directors; if the data is good and the conclusions subject to further proof through testing, they should be accepted as valid and scientifically sound until proven otherwise by the experiments held to the same standard. To be sure, one should be wary of potential bias exhibited by the researcher, but just as one should not be quick to accept his conclusions, neither should one be so quick to dismiss them on such anemic inferences to sponsor-driven results.

Having been trained in the physical sciences myself, I'm blessed with some ability to see through the twists and turns of illogic and numbers fudging that interested parties use to warp science to fit their needs. This article was yet another example of agenda-driven spin applied to half truths and murky reasoning to give it the veneer of quality science. I know enough about science to say that I cannot totally dismiss the author's inferences and statements without more data to review, but I think I can use with some confidence a phrase we use in the laboratory to describe poorly executed science or reasoning -- it was hacked.

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-- Paul Romesburg

Two things. The side denying the problem of global warming argues that other researchers say that it's a problem so they'll get more federal funding. And yet the Bush administration is preventing action based on the "needs more research" claim.

Second, I would love to see the "better safe than sorry" approach become a standard part of the argument. I personally would be much less upset to find out in 20 years that we spent money and effort heading off a crisis that wouldn't really have been so bad than I would be to find out that, whoops, we'd been thinking we might fry the planet and it turns out we did.

-- Meg Triplett Bickerstaff

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You have to give the right wing credit for being consistent. From evolution and global warming to intelligence and foreign policy, if the facts disagree with the ideology then the ideology wins every time.

I read recently that conservative thinkers tend to be uncomfortable with ambiguity and lack of closure. This is consistent with their rejection of science, which welcomes ambiguity all along the growing edge of knowledge and believes that closure on a topic relegates that topic to problems in engineering. And it is consistent with their rejection of intelligence and foreign policy strategies that by nature are complex and indeterminate.

The Cold War was a triumph of liberalism in that it relied on our dealing with ambiguity and lack of closure for decades. All along there were conservative voices who believed that we needed to use force to achieve immediate closure. Those conservative voices now have the bully pulpit, command our armed forces, and are talking among themselves about World War IV.

Fringe science is scary enough; fringe foreign policy is worse.

-- Linda Tashker

No one on the "chicken little egghead" side of the debate is bothering to tell us why global warming is BAD. According to the eggheads' own models, the "average" overall warming is disproportionately caused by milder winter nighttime temperatures. The worst-case models say it's going to get slightly warmer and more arid during the summer day (Good! I can attest that 105 in Las Vegas is more comfortable than 95 in Boston), but the bigger relief comes during the cold winter nights. I'm not a Republican, and I'm not a greedy energy corporation. But I do hate the cold. Explain why milder winters should be alarming to Americans, please. Or Europeans or Asians. I'm a voter, and I vote for warmer winters.

-- Christopher Burian


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