A few weeks ago, Texas Governor Rick Perry made the news by not only topping the field of GOP Presidential candidates in denying climate change, but upping the ante, and blaming it on greedy scientists. Many of the other GOP candidates have claimed that scientists are trying to scam the public for nefarious purposes:
Texas Gov. Rick Perry took his skepticism about climate change one step further on Wednesday, telling a New Hampshire business crowd that scientists have cooked up the data on global warming for the cash.
In his stump speech, Perry referenced “a substantial number of scientists who have manipulated data so that they will have dollars rolling in to their projects.”
“We’re seeing weekly, or even daily, scientists who are coming forward and questioning the original idea that man-made global warming is what’s causing the climate to change,” Perry said. “Yes, our climates change. They’ve been changing ever since the earth was formed.”
It isn’t the first time Perry has accused climate scientists of fibbing. ThinkProgress’ Brad Johnson reported on Monday that in Perry’s book, Fed Up!, the governor calls climate science a “contrived phony mess.”
Among his fellow GOP presidential contenders, however, Perry’s views are not so extreme.
Herman Cain has called the very premise of climate change “a scam,” while former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) has referred to it as nothing more than a “trend,” accusing the left of “taking advantage” of it by creating “a beautifully concocted scheme because they know that the earth is gonna cool and warm.”
Back in 2009, meanwhile, Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) argued on the House floor that the very concept of global warming is faulty because “carbon dioxide is a natural byproduct of nature!”
Rick Perry even managed to further emphasize his ignorance of science when in a recent debate that he said he admired Galileo and how he “was outvoted for a while.” Bad analogy, Rick! If Perry actually knew any science, he would realize that Galileo was championing an unpopular scientific idea (heliocentric solar system) that was “outvoted” by the conservative power of that time, the Church and the Inquisition. Eventually, scientific truth won out, not the political delusions of the conservatives.
Only Jon Huntsman, who is hopelessly behind and unlikely to get the nomination in a party dominated by anti-science extremists, sounded sane. In an interview with ABC News in late August, he said:
“When we take a position that isn’t willing to embrace evolution, when we take a position that basically runs counter to what 98 of 100 climate scientists have said, what the National Academy of Science has said about what is causing climate change and man’s contribution to it, I think we find ourselves on the wrong side of science, and, therefore, in a losing position.”
But the rest of these candidates, one of whom could potentially hold the presidency for the next four years, should worry us with not only their rejection of science, but the even more alarming tactic of using ad hominem attacks and “shoot the messenger” tactics to try to discredit the overwhelming consensus of climate scientists around the world (as I discussed in my post of Aug. 24). Not only are their charges and fantasies patently absurd, but they remind us of how other demagogues, from Hitler and Stalin to Joe McCarthy, used name-calling and intimidation to threaten and suppress ideas of people who challenged their world viewpoint.
First of all, the idea that climate scientists are a global left-wing conspiracy to get rich and enforce a liberal agenda is laughable on the face of it. I know hundreds of natural scientists (geologists, biologists, chemists, and physicists in many subspecialties), and if there’s one thing they almost all share, it’s a lack of interest in politics and economics, let alone a unified socialist-communist agenda. Many got into science specifically because they weren’t interested in economics and politics, and had a gift or love for doing science instead. What they are committed to is a sincere love of the truth, and a willingness to make sacrifices of their time, money, and even comfort and personal safety to find out what is really true about nature, no matter whose agenda it might support. Only rarely do most of us think about possible political or economic implications of our research. Typically scientists try to downplay those aspects because they don’t want to attract attention or controversy! If you doubt this, just look at all the negative comments that scientists heaped on Carl Sagan or Stephen Jay Gould because they were willing to be public figures and occasionally step into the political spotlight!
As James Powell points out in his excellent new book The Inquisition of Climate Science, the very idea that a scientific community, which is built upon the foundation of peer review and challenging accepted ideas and always double-checking each other’s work (especially if you disagree), would be able to put together a giant conspiracy about the data and cover it up—AND that normally conservative organizations, from the insurance companies and big corporations like GE to the U.S. military would all be in on the conspiracy—is ridiculous in the extreme. This shows a complete lack of understanding of science and how the scientific community really works. It’s a classic case of the pot calling the kettle black, because global warming denialism is entirely a PR campaign and conspiracy by right-wing ideologues and their energy company backers, not a movement that spontaneously arose from dissident climate scientists. There is much evidence to support this contention. For example, Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway documented from memos that leaked to the press that in April 1998 the right-wing Marshall Institute, SEPP (Fred Seitz’s lobbying firm which promotes denialism and doubt about tobacco and environmental issues), and ExxonMobil met in secret at the American Petroleum Institute’s headquarters in Washington, D.C., and planned a $20 million campaign to get “respected scientists” to cast doubt on climate change, get major PR effort going, and lobby Congress that global warming wasn’t real and was not a threat. Then there was the famous 2002 memo from GOP pollster and spinmeister Frank Luntz to the Bush White House:
“The scientific debate is closing [against us] but not yet closed. There is still a window of opportunity to challenge the science….Voters believe that there is no consensus about global warming within the scientific community. Should the public come to believe that the scientific issues are settled, their views about global warming will change accordingly. Therefore, you need to continue to make the lack of scientific certainty a primary issue in the debate, and defer to scientists and other experts in the field.”
Nor are all scientists “commies”. I know of large numbers of both conservative and liberal scientists (but no outright communists or socialists), despite the claim that we’re all left-wingers. Some of the leading figures in climate research, such as Kerry Emanuel at MIT, are staunch Republicans. (Again, global warming is no left-wing ideology if it is accepted and acted upon by such conservative organizations as insurance companies, major corporations like GE, and the U.S. military). There are scientists who do have strong political opinions, but as scientists we try our best to prevent our political biases from influencing our scientific results. We’re human, of course, so occasionally research with a political agenda does get published—but then the rest of the scientific community will jump in and criticize it, so we don’t get away with our biases for long.
Finally, the idea that we do this to get rich is the most absurd charge of all, as Al Gore pointed out (and the right-wingers immediately attacked him again). Most scientists must endure a grueling 5-7 years in grad school on miserably small stipends to earn their Ph.D. Then we must live on paltry teachers’ salaries or even more tenuous “soft-money” grant funds to eke out a living. Most of the scientists in faculty posts don’t make six-figure incomes until they are near retirement, if ever. Meanwhile, people who spent much less time in grad school, like lawyers and MBAs and politicians, make the really big bucks. Once again, it’s a classic case of the pot calling the kettle black: assuming your opponent is motivated by the same things that motivate you, even though in this case it is clearly false.
In some cases, the right-wing fringe has gone to extreme lengths in their hostile attitude toward legitimate science. The FBI has reported a sharp increase in threats and hate mail and intimidation against prominent climate scientists like Michael Mann, James Hansen, and others. Australian climate scientists have also been threatened. The transition from conservative climate denialist to a dangerous anti-Semitic hate group is not difficult; one white supremacist website posted Michael Mann’s picture and those of other climate scientists and labeled it “Jew”. (In fact, most climate scientists are not Jewish, but the facts don’t matter to racists and anti-Semites). Another climate scientist told ABC News that he found a dead animal placed on his doorstep, and now he must travel with a bodyguard. As Mann said, “Human-caused climate change is a reality. There are clearly some who find that message inconvenient, and unfortunately they appear willing to turn to just about any tactics to try to suppress that message.”
Even more despicable are the right-wing politicians and pundits who actually target prominent scientists for intimidation. Jim Powell in his new book rightly compares it to the Inquisition, which threatened Galileo with torture when he espoused the heretical idea that the earth was not the center of the universe. These bullies use persecution of scientists to further their own political careers, all but inviting some of their crazy followers to gun them down. Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma is one of the most brazen. He listed the name of 17 prominent climate scientistsand claimed that they engaged in “potentially criminal behavior” for violating the Federal False Statements Act. This is the classic tactic of McCarthy-style witch hunting, or analogous to how conservative authorities (such as the Inquisition) threatened Galileo with torture when he dared speak scientific truth to power. It has a tremendously chilling effect on science, not to mention what it does to the personal lives of hardworking scientists and their families. Of course, it is an entirely baseless charge, since the truth lies with the scientists, and it is Inhofe who is distorting reality. Nevertheless, an anti-scientific troglodyte like Inhofe is capable of wasting a lot of scientists’ time and money fighting and defending themselves against charges in court or in Congress, not to mention the fact that all these scientists are now targets of gun-toting crazy right-wingers.
But the craziest of all is Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli. Even before his election in 2008, he was known to be an extreme right-winger and teabagger, and now he is abusing the powers of his office to push his extremist agenda. He is suing to release all the raw data and emails collected by Michael Mann when he worked at the University of Virginia. (Mann is now at Penn State, so Cuccinelli cannot touch him there). Cuccinelli hopes to find some sort of “smoking gun” of conspiracy along the lines of the East Anglia “Climategate” scandal. This is despite the fact, as has been proven by six independent commissions, there was nothing amiss in the emails, and no conspiracy was discovered, just careless language quoted out of context. Given the right wing’s scientific incompetence and misinterpretation of the East Anglia data, there’s no reason to think that they will have any better ability to interpret Mann’s data, should they release it. Instead, we can expect that they will find stuff that fits their preconceptions without any scientific expertise to judge the data in the first place. Cuccinelli is trying to claim that Mann had committed fraud, and should return all the research money, along with legal fees and triple damages.
This is really just a witch-hunt by an extremist politician who is using his relatively obscure position as state attorney general to further his political career. It is consistent with all the other ways he is using his office for political gain and street cred in the right-wing fringe. His crusades have ranged from the silly (trying to cover the naked breast of the crude sketch of the goddess Minerva on the Virginia state seal) to the serious. The latter include directing public universities to remove sexual orientation from their anti-discrimination policies, attacking the Environmental Protection Agency, filing a lawsuit challenging federal health care reform, and trying to reverse George Mason University’s policy about concealed weapons on campus. Polls show that the voters of Virginia are tired of his antics and want him to work on the job that most state attorney generals are paid to do: prosecuting criminals and corporations on the behalf of the state and enforcing state laws, not tilting at right-wing windmills.
Let’s hope by the time of the 2012 elections that the people will tire not only of these candidates, but their extreme anti-science agenda, with its terrible effects on scientific research and researchers. Hopefully, these demagogues will not only be voted down, but the voters will send a message that this kind of extremism (here in the defense of oil companies and other powerful corporate interests) is not to be tolerated. In the words of Army lawyer Joseph Welch, whose statements during the 1954 Army-McCarthy hearings finally derailed the Red Scare of the McCarthy era:
Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?