13 April 2009

A Startling Concession

Via the First Things blog, and the New York Times:

It is no secret that a lot of climate-change research is subject to opinion, that climate models sometimes disagree even on the signs of the future changes (e.g. drier vs. wetter future climate).
The problem is, only sensational exaggeration makes the kind of story that will get politicians’—and readers’—attention. So, yes, climate scientists might exaggerate, but in today’s world, this is the only way to assure any political action and thus more federal financing to reduce the scientific uncertainty.

This admission from a Harvard Ph.D. candidate in applied mathematics and climatology is a really, really, really bad sign. We're witnessing the very subtle transition from "the facts demand action" to "the facts aren't demanding enough action". The tone of the first phrase is all concern, urgency, and instruction; that of the second is panic, irrationality, and fanaticism. It is the transition from teaching to manipulation; it's a corruption from being in service to a cause to enslavement to ideology.

It is also a consequence of the transition from print to visual media as the vehicle for transmitting information. Not too long ago, I drifted through Neil Postman's Amusing Ourselves to Death and his critique of television as a medium for public discourse came to mind as I ruminated over the quotation above. Postman claims that unlike printed media, which appealed to the structured, rational dimensions of the mind, television is image-based and therefore fundamentally oriented to the nonrational: emotions, dispositions, "the gut". This is, of course, fine for rhetorical persuasion, but his claim is that each medium carries within itself its own definition of what constitutes truth. A print-based culture, whose conversations were carried out verbally, considered the rational, linear, and ordered presentation of facts and arguments to be the standard for truth, however dressed up in elegant language they may have been. It measured its discourse by this rule.

An image-based media, however, operates by a different standard, and its truth-telling is not rigorous; it is "compelling" or "powerful" but not ultimately judged by its correspondence to reality. It is a truth primarily based upon its ability to persuade. The classic example is Richard Nixon's debate with JFK in the 1960 presidential race: many claim that Nixon's poor health and refusal to wear makeup to have been the deciding factor among the 70 million television viewers who decided Kennedy had bested Nixon (radio listeners pronounced in favor of Nixon). What is true is what persuades; can anyone be blamed, given such a milieu, for being persuasive at any cost?

Yet it is precisely the truth that disappears in such a milieu, for it is drowned by the voices straining to be heard over all others. Truth becomes a lie. It is a short road from "the
facts aren't demanding enough action" to "the facts demand that we exaggerate the facts". Is there any question that this last idea is tantamount to "the facts demand that we lie about the facts"?

A very helpful point on this subject was made in an article by Joseph Bottum and Ryan T. Anderson on the political history of stem cells. You may be wondering, Stem cells have a political history? I thought this was a medical question, a scientific question. You'd be right to wonder, and I think Bottum & Anderson strike the perfect ironic tone in the title of their article. Unfortunately, global warming isn't the first time science has gotten itself mixed up with politics, and vice versa. Science and politics aren't nearly so separate as we might believe.

Until the discovery of viable techniques of manipulating adult stem cells (known as induced pluripotent stem cell research, or IPSC), the question of embryonic stem cell research was used as a political weapon. Incredibly, many scientists tolerated this because they thought it would help them do the research they were convinced would lead to cures.

The history of the stem-cell debate is a study of what happens when politics and science reach out to each other. The politicians were guilty, but the scientists were more guilty, for they allowed—no, they encouraged—politicians to make stem-cell research a tool in the public fights over abortion, public religion, and high finance.

In the small demagogueries of a political season, the science of stem-cell research became susceptible to the easy lie and the useful exaggeration. A little shading of truth, a little twisting of facts—yes, the politics corrupted the science, but the scientists willingly aided the corruption. And with this history in mind, who will believe America’s scientists the next time they tell us something that bears on an election?

We have learned something over these years: When science looks like politics, that’s because it is.

It's hard to believe that scientists would place their credibility in the hands of politicians, but we've been watching it happen it for years. IPSC research is an OMELETTE on the face of the scientific stooges of the political left. I'm always hearing about how exasperated the rest of the world is about the idiots who have dug their heels and refused to capitulate to global-warming dogmatics, but I never hear anyone talking about how it's not always wise to trust someone just because they have some letters after their name and a job at a big university. It seems to me that such skeptics are simply holding scientists accountable for their past willingness to be the political puppets of fanatics and ideologues, and their failure to extricate themselves from the awkward alliances they have created.

3 comments:

Matthew said...

Amazing - I'm embarrassed at the same time.

Tom Byrne said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Tom Byrne said...

Nick, I will throw you. Good article.