The Skeptical Teacher

Musings of a science teacher & skeptic in an age of woo.

Global Warming Denial: Full of Hot Air

Posted by mattusmaximus on April 25, 2009

As I’m going through my day at school earlier this week, I did the usual thing – after lunch I went by my mailbox.  Inside I find an article from a colleague of mine with the following message on a sticky note: “It’s nice to see a newspaper giving time to the conservative viewpoint on global warming.”  Argh.

instrumental_temperature_record

Full disclosure: I tend to be more liberal than conservative in my personal politics, but to imply that there is such a thing as “conservative” science and “liberal” science does a grave disservice to science in general.  I might add this goes the other way as well – when Al Gore’s movie “An Inconvenient Truth” (AIT) came out a few years ago, I refused to watch it even though many of those on my side of the political isle were encouraging me to do so.

When they (my liberal friends) asked me why I wouldn’t see it, I told them the exact same thing I tell my conservative friends: I get my information on the science of global warming/climate change from scientific sources, not political ones.

In fact, I went straight to the source on the science of global warming & climate change: the National Academies of Science and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. I encourage you to do the same, as opposed to paying attention to political sources (liberal or conservative) for your information on scientific topics.  Later, I will outline why it is I consider this “political filtering” of science to be dangerous.

And, for the record, I did consider AIT to be a politically-oriented film, mostly because the messenger was Al Gore.  True, the circulation probably wouldn’t have been as wide had Gore not been the spokesman in the film, but then those who place their conservative ideology ahead of science wouldn’t have been able to make the political argument against global warming science so effectively without Gore as spokesman.

But all this political gamesmanship is beside the point: the science is clear, anthropogenic global warming (AGW) is a reality. Now, global warming deniers will bring up an entire list of objections to and obfuscations of the consensus in the scientific community on this topic, and after you see enough of them you start to notice something interesting.  The style & logic (or lack thereof) of these anti-AGW folks is eerily similar to that of creationists when they try to tear down evolutionary science.  I’m not saying that all AGW-deniers are creationsts; what I’m saying is that their mode of thinking is similar in that they start with a preconceived political ideology and distort or ignore the science to fit with this preconceived worldview.  This is often manifested in one of two ways: selective thinking (“cherry-picking” the data) or even conspiracy mongering.

If you’re interested in reading some of these AGW-denialist claims and the best rebuttals to them, I suggest you check out the RealClimate.org blog where they discuss the Responses to common contrarian arguments. They also have a great wiki where they address numerous climate change myths perpetuated by AGW-deniers.  The reason why I reference RealClimate.org because it is a blog about climate science by actual climate scientists.  And while I’m at it, I also recommend ScienceBlog’s How to Talk to a Climate Skeptic.

In addition, let me say that those of the liberal political persuasion are by no means immune from allowing their political ideology to trump science.  Examples of such anti-scientific attitudes on the left include anti-nuclear power hysteria, woo concerning genetically modified foods, and conspiracies about Big Pharma.

So, to finish this entry, why is it that allowing political ideology to trump science is such a big deal?  Allow me to illustrate the answer by appealing to history… specifically, the spectacular failure in the former Soviet Union of allowing Lysenkoism to trump accepted biological science.  As the Skeptic’s Dictionary states:

Lysenkoism refers to an episode in Russian science featuring a non-scientific peasant plant-breeder named Trofim Denisovich Lysenko [1898-1976]. Lysenko was the leading proponent of Michurianism during the Lenin/Stalin years. I. V. Michurin, in turn, was a proponent of Lamarckism. Lamarck was an 18th century French scientist who argued for a theory of evolution long before Darwin. Lamarck’s theory, however, has been rejected by evolutionary scientists because it is not nearly as powerful an explanation of evolution as natural selection. …

… Lamarckism is favored by those who see will as the primary driving force of life, e.g., the 20th century French philosopher Henri Bergson. Evolution is hated by many of those who believe God created everything and everything has a purpose: the fundamentalist teleologists of the world. One might think that Marxists would prefer Darwin’s theory of evolution with its mechanical, materialistic, deterministic, non-purposive concept of natural selection. Lamarckism looks like it might be preferred by free market advocates with their emphasis on will, effort, hard work and choice. But then Russia and the Soviet Union weren’t really Marxists. They turned the dictatorship of the proletariat into the dictatorship of the professional dictator (Lenin, then Stalin). And even with the death of Stalin, the dictatorship of the communist party leaders who controlled everything, including the economy, took over.

In any case, Michurin’s views on evolution found favor with the party leadership in the Soviet Union. When the rest of the scientific world were pursuing the ideas of Mendel and developing the new science of genetics, Russia led the way in the effort to prevent the new science from being developed in the Soviet Union. Thus, while the rest of the scientific world could not conceive of understanding evolution without genetics, the Soviet Union used its political power to make sure that none of their scientists would advocate a genetic role in evolution.

It was due to Lysenko’s efforts that many real scientists, those who were geneticists or who rejected Lamarckism in favor of natural selection, were sent to the gulags or simply disappeared from the USSR. Lysenko rose to dominance at a 1948 conference in Russia where he delivered a passionate address denouncing Mendelian thought as “reactionary and decadent” and declared such thinkers to be “enemies of the Soviet people” (Gardner 1957). He also announced that his speech had been approved by the Central Committee of the Communist Party. Scientists either groveled, writing public letters confessing the errors of their way and the righteousness of the wisdom of the Party, or they were dismissed. Some were sent to labor camps. Some were never heard from again.

Under Lysenko’s guidance, science was guided not by the most likely theories, backed by appropriately controlled experiments, but by the desired ideology. Science was practiced in the service of the State, or more precisely, in the service of ideology. The results were predictable: the steady deterioration of Soviet biology. Lysenko’s methods were not condemned by the Soviet scientific community until 1965, more than a decade after Stalin’s death.

Those who have some kind of twisted perception that political ideology supercedes physical reality would do well to study the folly of Lysenko and that sad episode in the history of Soviet science.  That goes for everyone, no matter what their political affiliation, because if we simply apply these lessons to “the other side” of the political debate, we could very well find ourselves falling into the same trap.  And especially on topics of such importance as global warming, that could be bad news for us all.

4 Responses to “Global Warming Denial: Full of Hot Air”

  1. […] Original post by mattusmaximus […]

  2. badrescher said

    Good points. I have refused to watch AIT for similar reasons. Propaganda is propaganda, regardless of whether it brings awareness to an important cause.

    At the Skeptic Society Conference a couple of years ago themed “Environmental Wars”, a very interesting debate took place between Ron Bailey & Chris Mooney. Although Chris Mooney clearly won, this was due mostly to his persuasive presentation and less to the facts, which left me wondering if the question debated was answerable. The question was “Distorting Science: Who is worse – the Left or the Right?”

    The Left tends to lie about climate change and other environmental issues, distorting facts about recycling, energy, pesticides, etc. The Right denies that climate change is a problem at all and refuses to listen to scientists unless the findings those scientists present are consistent with what they want to be true.

    We ALL need to face REALITY, because that is the only thing that will lead us to a solution. We need to stop ignoring the problem and stop distorting the facts. We need to do our best to predict the path global warming will take if unchecked (we don’t really know, after all), and take measures to correct it if this path is as bad as we currently think.

  3. […] Global Warming Denial: Full of Hot Air […]

  4. […] been that of human-influenced global warming, also known as anthropogenic global warming (AGW).  As I’ve posted before, for a variety of reasons – ranging from basic ignorance of climate science to outright […]

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