Wednesday, March 3, 2010

NYT Catching up with the World on Politicized Science

In a long overdue article, the New York Times has finally addressed as a news item the existence of legitimate concerns over the accuracy of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

For months, climate scientists have taken a vicious beating in the media and on the Internet, accused of hiding data, covering up errors and suppressing alternate views. Their response until now has been largely to assert the legitimacy of the vast body of climate science and to mock their critics as cranks and know-nothings.

But the volume of criticism and the depth of doubt have only grown, and many scientists now realize they are facing a crisis of public confidence and have to fight back. Tentatively and grudgingly, they are beginning to engage their critics, admit mistakes, open up their data and reshape the way they conduct their work.

It's good that mistakes and uncertainties are coming to the NYT front page, but even critics of catastrophic anthropogenic global warming are missing the mark.

Willis Eschenbach, an engineer and climate contrarian [states] “I don’t want you learning better ways to propagandize for shoddy science. I don’t want you to figure out how to inspire trust by camouflaging your unethical practices in new and innovative ways...The for you to stop trying to pass off garbage as science.”

The quality and accuracy of climate science should be held to rigorous standards--but the more important matter is conflating science with political policy. Whether or not man's industrial activities are changing the climate is a question that science may eventually solve. What we should do with that information is not a scientific one but an ethical and political one.

It's good to call for cleaner science, but no particular scientific finding justifies a particular political course. These two debates must be ruthlessly kept separate--for the sake of good science as well as the sake of good politics. As Ralph J. Cicerone, president of the National Academy of Science, points out:

[There's] a danger that the distrust of climate science could mushroom into doubts about scientific inquiry more broadly.

A recent paper by George Avery, "Scientific Misconduct," discusses how politics already has distorted both climate science and medical science and how attempts to further increase government responsibility for health care delivery and climate policy invites the political control of scientific inquiry itself.

Continued politicization of science will destroy science and politics, both.


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