Thanks to Joe Romm, I just became aware of the latest effort to undermine evolution education in the U.S.—and to denigrate climate science education as well. It’s a new bill in Oklahoma, but it fits a pattern that anti-science forces have already employed successfully in Louisiana and Texas. As the National Center for Science Education explains of the new Oklahoma bill:
Entitled the “Scientific Education and Academic Freedom Act,” SB 320 would, if enacted, require state and local educational authorities to “assist teachers to find more effective ways to present the science curriculum where it addresses scientific controversies” and permit teachers to “help students understand, analyze, critique, and review in an objective manner the scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses of existing scientific theories pertinent to the course being taught.” The only topics specifically mentioned as controversial are “biological evolution, the chemical origins of life, global warming, and human cloning.”
What are the existing scientific theories pertinent to human cloning that need to be understood, analyzed, critiqued, and reviewed? Are the people who write these things even remotely clued in to the issues involved?
But I digress.
The big point here is that increasingly, evolution and climate change are being tied together in attacks on science education.
It’s freezing out in the northeast—and to hear some pundits and strategists tell it, global warming may be largely frozen out of President Obama’s pending State of the Union address.
In other words, if waiting for the president to say “climate change” is your drinking game strategy for tomorrow night, you may wind up painfully sober by the end of the speech.
As Joe Romm notes, even those pre-speech analysts who do intimately understand the climate issue (and most do not) want the president to talk about energy innovation, not how much of a risk we’re running from ongoing warming. And at a time when the unswerving focus is the economy and jobs, and the president has just named the CEO of a clean energy company, General Electric, to head his new Council on Jobs and Competitiveness, you have to figure they’re on to something.
After all, even in the last State of the Union Obama only mentioned climate change twice. And he only did so to quickly reframe it as a clean energy issue:
UPDATE: After posting this, I realized that the idea that climate denial is ideological, rather than corporate driven, is also the explicit and central argument of Oreskes and Conway, Merchants of Doubt. There was no intention to slight them–it’s just that I’d read Dunlap and McCright more recently, so their work was at the front of my mind. I’ve added a reference below, and my apologies to Oreskes and Conway.
Recently, I’ve been reading some research by Riley Dunlap, a sociologist at Oklahoma State University who collaborates frequently with Aaron McCright, another sociologist at Michigan State. Together, they’ve done penetrating work on the right wing resistance to climate change science in the US, and in particular, on the role of conservative think tanks in driving this resistance.
In a series of 2010 papers, however, I’m detecting a theme that runs contrary to what many often assume about the driving forces of climate denial. It is this: McCright & Dunlap argue that while corporate interests may once have seemed front-and-center in spurring resistance to climate science, at this point it’s becoming increasingly apparent that ideological motivations are actually the primary motivator. Or as they put it: “conservative movement opposition to climate science and policy has a firm ideological base that supersedes the obvious desire for corporate funding.”
The last time I found myself paying attention to the American Association of Petroleum Geologists (AAPG)–which calls itself “the world’s largest professional geological society”–the year was 2006. At the time, AAPG had caused something of an uproar by giving its “journalism award” to the late Michael Crichton’s anti-global warming novel State of Fear. This triggered a variety of criticisms–including this one by the council of the American Quaternary Association, remarking that “In bestowing its 2006 Journalism Award on Crichton, AAPG has crossed the line from scientific professionalism to political advocacy. In our opinion, the group should be upfront about its new status.” (Later, the AAPG changed the prize’s name to the “Geosciences in the Media” award, which certainly removes one criticism–if not others.)
You can’t say the Crichton award was inconsistent: To this day, AAPG remains an organization that questions the seriousness of human caused climate change.
The House of Representatives Committee on Science and Technology certainly isn’t the most powerful in Congress. It doesn’t wield the budgetary clout of Appropriations. It doesn’t oversee massive agencies like the Department of Health and Human Services.
But it’s a historic fixture of postwar, science-centered America—a committee originally formed after the Soviet launch of Sputnik, and one that today oversees the major research agencies: NASA, NOAA, NSF, and numerous others. For much of its history, whichever party controlled Congress, the committee was therefore run by a legislator with a sympathetic understanding of the scientific community—leaders like George Brown on the Democratic side, and Sherwood Boehlert for the Republicans.
That’s why it’s pretty alarming that the committee’s current leadership appears highly unsympathetic to the views of the U.S. scientific community, and particularly U.S. climate science researchers.
In mid December, you may recall, Media Matters exposed an email from Fox News editor Bill Sammon instructing his reporters to “refrain from asserting that the planet has warmed (or cooled) in any given period without IMMEDIATELY pointing out that such theories are based upon data that critics have called into question.” It was no surprise that Fox was guilty of misrepresenting the science on climate change—anyone who has watched the channel cover the subject has seen this—but it was nevertheless appalling to find the goal so blatantly stated.
But there’s been less discussion of a finding that closely accompanied this revelation. In a survey late last year, Stanford political psychologist Jon Krosnick found that more frequent Fox viewers were significantly less likely to trust climate science and climate scientists than those who don’t watch the channel, or who watch it less.
It’s a typical blog comment for this time of year. “I hope,” wrote one of my ‘skeptic’ readers, “the folks in the NEUSA and Europe didn’t hurt their backs when shoveling all that global warming.”
This common insinuation–that somehow, human-caused climate change is refuted by the perennial occurrence of bad winter weather–puts us scientific rationalists in a bind. The problem is that unlike many denier talking points, there isn’t really even an argument being put forward here that might be refuted. It’s more of a “nyah nyah,” followed by, “I never believed you to begin with, but this time of year, I just feel sorry for you.”
For those concerned about ensuring the accurate use of science in U.S. politics and political decision-making—about stopping what everybody now calls the “war on science”—we now stand at a critical juncture. What happens next will be extremely important. That’s the topic of this post; but first, let’s review how we got here.
1. The Last Administration Misused and Abused Science To a Degree Unprecedented in Modern American Politics.
There are still a few contrarians who question this conclusion. But they’ve long since lost the argument.
A voluminous number of science abuse case studies from the Bush administration were investigated and documented by myself, the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), and many others across the journalistic and NGO communities. Importantly, we demonstrated that a) during the Bush years, scientific information itself was regularly distorted for political reasons (e.g., these were not just disputes over policy, but over matters of fact and what is true about the world); and b) this happened on some of the most high profile issues of the day, where the scientific facts or scientific consensus was clear and the administration undermined them anyway (like stem cells and global warming).
Republicans in the U.S. Congress are gearing up to block any major move by the Environmental Protection Agency to regulate greenhouse gases–even though the Supreme Court ordered the agency to do so back in 2007. And even though the Congressitself is clearly not going to do anything else to address the problem in the next two years.
But yesterday we learned there’s a paradox at the heart of this obstructionist strategy. If the EPA doesn’t act or is hamstrung–and if Congress continues to dawdle–then guess what? A new global warming case just taken up by the Supreme Court may therefore stand a better chance of surviving the highest level of review—thus providing another possible way of restricting and punishing the polluters who are contributing to climate change.
It was the chief environmental narrative of the 2010 midterm elections. The field of Republican Senate and House challengers, charged bloggers, were a bunch of “climate zombies.” Tea Party backed insurgents were knocking off GOP moderates who took climate science seriously—like Delaware’s Mike Castle—and it was becoming harder and harder to find a good Republican who did accept the scientific consensus on climate change.
Then, when Republicans swept into the House of Representatives, fears about the party’s denialist tendencies compounded further. There was word of “ClimateGate” hearings, aimed at prying loose additional emails and documents from mainstream global warming researchers. Whether or not such hearings actually take place, a vision of today’s U.S. Republican Party as monolithically in denial about what we’ve been doing to the planet has clearly taken root.
Democracy is utterly dependent upon an electorate that is accurately informed. In promoting climate change denial (and often denying their responsibility for doing so) industry has done more than endanger the environment. It has undermined democracy.
There is a vast difference between putting forth a point of view, honestly held, and intentionally sowing the seeds of confusion. Free speech does not include the right to deceive. Deception is not a point of view. And the right to disagree does not include a right to intentionally subvert the public awareness.