Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Ken Cuccinelli's Global Warming Crusade

Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli is interested in a lot of real issues, like health care reform and Medicare fraud, and you would think that this would give him enough to do. But no. His biggest obsession is his one-man crusade to prove that the science behind our fear of global warming is all fraud. This puzzles me, and it sheds some light on how Tea Party stalwarts like Cuccinelli see the world.

As the Times explains today, most of the Republican establishment is moving away from a confrontational approach to global warming issues. Representative Darrell Issa promised to hold high profile hearings on climate science fraud, but they have been "indefinitely postponed." It's easy to see why the leadership wants to tamp this down; after all, the nation's top scientists, the Nobel Prize winners and the former heads of the National Academy of Science and the like, almost all believe that man-made global warming is a real threat. The specter of a parade of such figures lecturing Congress on the need to avert catastrophe can't be too appetizing for the leadership. (Not to mention that they obviously just hate being lectured by people who think they know things the Congressmen do not.) Still, Cuccinnelli has many friends on Capitol Hill, and their desire to air these issues may yet boil over.

What interests me is that Cuccinelli and his admirers aren't making the obvious arguments against climate change alarmism. There are plenty of scientists who are skeptics about the whole business, or who think that whatever changes we cause can be easily managed. Instead of parroting their lines and trumpeting their work, Cuccinelli is trying to prove that all of the science behind the theory of man-made global warming is, as he put it, "unreliable, unverifiable, and doctored." He wants to "raise fundamental questions about the underlying science." He particularly wants to find proof of fraud; in fact, he seems to feel that if he can just get his hands on the right documents he is bound to find it.

This is completely crazy. To believe that all of the massive output of scientists interested in climate change over the past 40 years is fraudulent, or at least tainted by political ax-grinding, you have to believe some very strange things about how science works. I suspect scientific fraud is quite common, especially at the low level of citing the evidence that supports your argument while ignoring the rest. I distrust the climate models that scientists have put so much effort into developing and tweaking. But there is an enormous amount of data about climate history that no scientist questions, and that you can't question without doubting all of modern science. We know that, over the history of the earth, high carbon dioxide levels are associated with high temperatures. We know that human activity over the past 250 years had put a lot of CO2 into the atmosphere. We know that things like sea level and the distribution of plant life are quite sensitive to changes in global temperature. Knowing these things, it is almost impossible not to wonder what the continued burning of coal and oil will do to the planet.

Somehow Cuccinelli looks at the world and doesn't see any of this. He seems to think that scientists are political agents with no curiosity about how the world actually works, who just sit around their labs concocting studies that will advance their agendas. It occurs to me that this probably does describe some scientists, especially sociologists, but it does not describe all of them. More important, it does not describe the process of science. Science is engaged with the world. It is based on data. Science without data is very quickly forgotten or shunted aside, and climate alarmism simply could not have gotten all the support it now has if it were not based on data about the world. What's more, it is based on many different kinds of data, from scientists all over the world, and if Cuccinelli actually looked into this matter he would be astonished by all the effort scientists have put into tracking the changing climate and figuring out why it has changed.

By seeing scientists like this, Cuccinelli is really telling us about himself. He sees the world in fundamentally political terms. Perhaps he would say he sees the world in moral terms; in this case there is no distinction. He thinks that climate alarmism is an immoral political crusade. Therefore, it must be fraudulent. He does not accept, cannot even imagine, that there might be facts about the world that disprove his moral assumptions.

Cuccinelli's moral approach to the world explains why he does not cite the work of scientific skeptics. Their position is based on uncertainty. They like to point to the large margins of error in the models, the many things we do not yet understand (like changes in solar energy flows and the effect of clouds), the difficulty of making predictions about a system as complex as the earth's climate. Cuccinelli hates uncertainty. He has the fundamentalist's mindset, in which the things that matter are religious certainties. He is certain, as a matter of faith, that the American way of life is a good thing. Any science that suggests otherwise must be wrong and probably springs from the evil motives of America-hating socialists. That's all there is to it, and he aims to prove it.


Unknown said...

"He seems to think that scientists are political agents with no curiosity about how the world actually works, who just sit around their labs concocting studies that will advance their agendas."

Curiously postmodernist of him, no? I've long wondered if this kind of sauce-for-the-gander thing isn't partly responsible for the gradual waning of pomo's influence.

John said...

I think so. Having to confront deniers of evolution and climate change and promoters of alien abduction has given all rational people pause.

kathy said...

Oh dear, can one of you explain yourselves. Thanks.

John said...

Doubting the motives of scientists used to be a left-wing pre-occupation, as in, "so-called scientists are just formulating arguments to justify the oppression of women and minorities." Nineteenth-century racist and sexist science got a lot of play with these people, and the attempts of Freudian psychologists to "cure" gay people by rehashing their oedipal complexes. Some of this "analysis" was done under the heading of "post modernism." Now, though, questioning the motives of scientists is mostly being done by anti-evolutionists, global warming deniers, pro-life extremists, and other right-wing species, as well as conspiracy buffs who KNOW that airplanes couldn't have brought down the WTC and therefore the engineers who say so are just the paid apologists of the New World Order.