There has been a much justified uproar over last week’s Wall Street Journal op-ed, in which a group of scientific “skeptics” reiterate the old line that we don’t have to worry about global warming, and that those who do so are engaging in climate “alarmism.” Ample refutations have been penned; in some ways best of all, my friend Jamie Vernon showed that even hotbeds of leftwing extremism like Chevron, ExxonMobil, and the Pentagon are now concerned about and taking action on global warming.
The Wall Street Journal is, indeed, completely out in the cold on this matter.
There are many ways to refute the op-ed, but I want to focus on one not enough emphasized—the tone and some of the actual words and analogies used by its writers.
You see, when scientists provide advice to policymakers—as this op-ed purports to do—they tend to use pretty hedged, cautious, and even probabilistic language. Precisely because they don’t want to be accused of being “advocates,” they avoid using charged words like “alarmism”—as the WSJ piece does–or making political statements like this one:
Alarmism over climate is of great benefit to many, providing government funding for academic research and a reason for government bureaucracies to grow. Alarmism also offers an excuse for governments to raise taxes, taxpayer-funded subsidies for businesses that understand how to work the political system, and a lure for big donations to charitable foundations promising to save the planet.
And that’s just the beginning.
The scientists writing in the Wall Street Journal go on to liken the “warming establishment” (another loaded phrase) to…well, read it:
This is not the way science is supposed to work, but we have seen it before—for example, in the frightening period when Trofim Lysenko hijacked biology in the Soviet Union. Soviet biologists who revealed that they believed in genes, which Lysenko maintained were a bourgeois fiction, were fired from their jobs. Many were sent to the gulag and some were condemned to death.
Here is a list of ways in which this “Reductio ad Lysenko” argument fails—fails horribly, and then some:
1. As I wrote in The Republican War on Science, Lysenko “promoted himself through party newspapers rather than rigorous experiments.” By contrast, the global community of climate scientists publishes repeatedly in the world’s leading scientific journals.
2. Lysenko convinced Joseph Stalin to ban genetics, and was of course able to do so because this was a totalitarian regime. The idea that anything like this is occurring in the United States, or in the global scientific community, is risible. The Lysenko analogy fails because of freedom of speech and democracy.
3. Yes, people were imprisoned or killed due to Soviet Lysenkoism. Which is another reason why the analogy is so inflammatory and inappropriate.
4. The scientific process, working normally, wholly discredited Lysenko. The same scientific process is the one that has affirmed, repeatedly, the idea that human beings are warming the planet.
Encountering the Lysenko analogy in this context, then, certainly tells us something. It just doesn’t have anything to do with whether we should trust the scientific community on global warming.
Rather, the Lysenko charge is self refuting—really, a lot like the charge that President Obama is a socialist. It betrays such a combination rhetorical overreach, and the failure to draw basic distinctions, that it not only flops but ends up as a serious foot-shooting exercise.