Home > Environment > Science vs the Republicans: Part 1 (the US)

Science vs the Republicans: Part 1 (the US)

April 17th, 2004

I’ve previously observed that it’s now virtually impossible to be an orthodox Republican (or an Australian follower of Republican ideology) and believe in science. To be counted as one of the faithful, it’s necessary to take a party-line view on scientific issues ranging from global warming to epidemiology to evolution. One aspect of this, which I’ve pointed to in the past, is the proliferation of “junk science’ sites, which, while purporting to defend science, act like trial lawyers, selecting (and if necessary distorting) the evidence that supports the party line, while ignoring or libelling any researcher whose findings are politically inconvenient[1].

The eponymous Junk Science site of Stephen Milloy sets the pattern here, but it has largely been eclipsed by Tech Central Station, an Astroturf operation, run by James K. Glassman and featuring such luminaries as David Legates, Willie Soon and Sallie Baliunas. A pretty good list of other party-line sites can be found by looking at Stephen Milloy’s recommended links, though by some mistake the list of recommendations includes the (entirely reputable) American Meteorological Society [I didn't check every single recommendation, so there may be other similar cases, but the majority are clearly advocacy sites].

It’s possible to go over these sites and the overlapping sets of individuals involved in them, issue by issue, and point out the lies and distortions they churn out. Here, for example, is a post on Baliunas’ attempts to discredit the research of Crutzen, Sherwood and Molina on CFC’s and the ozone layer[2]. And here’s the redoubtable Tim Lambert, nailing the dishonest manoeuvres of Iain Murray at TCS.

But at some point, it must be necessary to abandon the case-by-case approach and adopt a summary judgement about people like Milloy and sites like TCS. Nothing they say can be trusted. Even if you can check their factual claims (by no means always the case) it’s a safe bet that they’ve failed to mention relevant information that would undermine their case. So unless you have expert knowledge of the topic in question, they’re misleading, and if you have the knowledge, they’re redundant.

Of course, there’s nothing surprising about paid lobbyists twisting the truth. What’s more disturbing is the fact that the same approach dominates the Bush Administration. Admittedly, governments have never had a perfectly pure approach to science, but the distortion of the process under Bush is unparalleled, to the extent that it has produced unprecedented protests from the scientific community. Natural scientists aren’t alone in this. Economists, social scientists and even military and intelligence experts are horrified by the way in which processes that are supposed to produce expert advice have been politicised.

fn1. There are, of course, plenty of opponents of science on the left, ranging from extreme postmodernists to deep ecologists to outright irrationalists. But at least these groups are openly opposed to the whole scientific project, denouncing it as patriarchal, exploitative or whatever. The right-wing enemies of science purport to support it, while undermining the scientific method at every opportunity.

fn2. As noted in the post, Baliunas shut up very quickly once Crutzen, Sherwood and Molina won the Nobel prize for their work. Unlike most of the practitioners of junk science, she has a proper scientific job in addition to her various thinktank gigs, and doesn’t seem willing to trash her credibility as completely as she would have to do to keep up the fight on this issue.This interesting exchange on Tim Lambert’s blog illustrates the extent to which those in the junk science camp who have to turn up to work with real scientists will go to avoid being pinned down on this issue.

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  1. Louis Hissink
    April 17th, 2004 at 23:12 | #1

    May I quote you “To be counted as one of the faithful, it’s necessary to take a party-line view on scientific issues ranging from global warming to epidemiology to evolution”

    This we call Lysenkoism.

  2. April 18th, 2004 at 07:18 | #2

    Also see Lambert’s more recent posts on the use of a “statistical principle” by Milloy and others:

    http://cgi.cse.unsw.edu.au/~lambert/cgi-bin/blog/science/

  3. Geoff Honnor
    April 18th, 2004 at 11:40 | #3

    Noted aficionado of Junk Epidemiology, Thabo Mbeki, is a Republican? And what about the political affiliations of the Australians who spend 2 billion per year on Junk Natural Medicine – surely they’re not all right-wingers?

    Inordinante faith in crap science knows no political boundary.

  4. John Quiggin
    April 18th, 2004 at 11:45 | #4

    Geoff, read footnote 1.

  5. Dano
    April 18th, 2004 at 13:12 | #5

    The interesting thing about TCS, though, is that the good discussion in the comment threads has left. The curious who seek more information in the comments need only spend a few seconds. It is painfully obvious that the writing on TCS is one-sided and supports the sponsors – therefore the articles on TCS, IMO, appeal to those who have already drunk the Kool-aid.

    D

  6. Geoff Honnor
    April 18th, 2004 at 14:03 | #6

    “Geoff, read footnote 1.’

    Oh yeah. Right. Still (he said, obdurately clutching at straws) while your footnote caveat certainly covers the natural remedies snake oil cultists it doesn’t really answer the Thabo Mbeki question.

  7. John Quiggin
    April 18th, 2004 at 14:13 | #7

    I must admit I can’t explain Mbeki – it just seems like a crazy aberration on his part. It seems that he thought there was some sort of slur on Africans associated with the HIV hypothesis, but I can’t see how he could have maintained that view so long and so disastrously.

  8. Geoff Honnor
    April 18th, 2004 at 18:15 | #8

    When Justice Edwin Cameron of the South African Constitutional Court (himself an HIV positive gay man) was here a few years ago he observed (privately) that Mbeki – and much of the ANC leadership – had a number of ingrained acknowledgement blockages in respect of AIDS epidemiology in South Africa. One of them relates to the role that ANC freedom fighters are suggested to have played in providing a prime transmission vector from the frontline states (where the African HIV pandemic arose) into South Africa. Another related to the fact that HIV first manifested in South Africa amongst comparatively privileged gay white men in the latter years of the apartheid era. Correlating their very different life and risk circumstances with those of the African population was initially politically demanding in terms of buy-in. Then there’s the costs involved….

    I’m not persuaded that Mbeki bought AIDS denialism
    in fact. He’s a formidable intellect after all. It seems to me as – or maybe more – likely that he was buying time before committing to the enormous resourcing effort required to provide antiretroviral treatment. And it’s not just about providing it per se. It’s, more importantly, about sustaining provision over what increasingly (based on the developed world example) has become an indefinitely prolonged chronic illness experience. Treatment doesn’t cure but it may well sustain patients for decades – providing they keep taking it.

    South Africa won the legal battle with big Pharma over generic substitution, perhaps more swiftly than the government had envisaged.The subsequent roll-out of treatment has been continually deferred but is now in it’s nascent phase. The South African armed forces (some 60% of whose personnel, according to some estimates, are claimed to be HIV positive) have been the first beneficiaries.

    A coldly pragmatic, realpolitik take – from the government’s perspective – could perhaps have been to intervene later rather than earlier. It’s worth pointing out however that apart from Mbeki and his grotesque “Health” Minister (stll touting her immune-boosting recipe of beetroot, olive oil and rosemary a couple of months back) the South African clinical, NGO and community-based response has been entirely consistent with evidence-based best practice.

    Perhaps, therefore, Mbeki is a Republican after all.

  9. April 18th, 2004 at 18:30 | #9

    Everybody has an angle. Everybody has a bias. Some people are aware of the bias, some people are not. The best way to teach and learn is to understand your own biases and the biases of those around you.

    IPCC has an angle. Q has an angle. At times it would be wrong to accept what they say on face value. Not necessarily because they’re trying to withhold the truth – but because, through their coloured glasses, reality can sometimes look different.

    Same is true of both sides of every debate.

    For the record, I’m not a creationist and I think humans do influence the environment around them in many ways – but don’t believe that anybody has yet suggested a piece of public policy worth supporting re: greenhouse.

  10. TJW
    April 18th, 2004 at 21:27 | #10

    I don’t see any evidence that Bush’s approach has resulted in “unprecedented protests from the scientific community”. The “Union of Concerned Scientists” is simply expressing a viewpoint, and they are doing it in a fairly political way. Their opinions can’t be equated with those of the “scientific community” because they represent a fraction of that community. If you listed the number of scientists that didn’t sign their petitions you would find that far more didn’t sign (either because they refused or because they never heard of it) than did. That’s not to say that their views are not consistent with the majority of scientists or accepted principle, just that the UCS’s views aren’t evidence of it.

    And I don’t agree with your claim that those on the Left are more often dismissive of science as a whole and are therefore more honest in taking views that are inconsistent with those held by the scientific community. If you listen to most of the Greens’ claims, they continually use what they see as scientific evidence.

    And one last thing. It’s debatable as to whether social scientists are even scientists at all so maybe they should not be so horrified at the alleged abuse of science.

  11. TJW
    April 18th, 2004 at 21:49 | #11

    Here is a link to an article that maybe some might find interesting. It looks at the scientific method and doesn’t support or disagree with my previous comment. Its just a good overview on the issue of good or bad science.

    I assume Im not breaching copyright by putting it up (its less than 10% of material and is for educational purposes right?). If not then Ill take it down.

    Here is the link:
    http://home.swiftdsl.com.au/~tjw1974/The%20truth%20is%20out%20there/

  12. April 19th, 2004 at 01:50 | #12

    This is a respectable blog. In many other quarters, that remark would have started a fight about IP. (and I think your usage is fine..)

    The International School of Milan, for instance, is happy to put the whole thing online as a word doc; it does not google as appearing on an NS source so they don’t want it up.

  13. Dave Ricardo
    April 19th, 2004 at 10:46 | #13

    “Everybody has an angle. Everybody has a bias.”

    This, John Humphreys, is the post-modernist argument against the objectivity of science. I thought you were some kind of rationalist. Obviously not.

    We should keep this in mind when reading your report on the FTA – by your own implicit admission, it will just be a reflection of your biases.

    Not a good basis for making trade policy, IMO.

    “don’t believe that anybody has yet suggested a piece of public policy worth supporting re: greenhouse. ”

    Which is debatable, but has nothing at all to do with the scientific evidence for the existence of global warming.

  14. April 19th, 2004 at 15:57 | #14

    Take a step back Dave… I am no po-mo. It is not science that I think is biased – it is humans. And bias isn’t necessarily a bad thing. But to be able to effectively engage on an issue I think it important to understand what biases exist and why they exist. Without knowing that – you’re going to have trouble challenging them. The other important lesson to learn is that bias doesn’t invalidate an opinion. Just because JQ leans social democracy, Howard leans conserative and I lean libertarian doesn’t mean we’re automatically wrong or right.

    It’s not my report. It is a CIE report, in which I played one (and by no means the most important) role.

    Anyway – I would be interesting in meeting somebody who is totally without bias. You I presume Dave? Even if you don’t know it – you have been influenced by the environment around you and the people you’ve met… and these things have helped form the way you approach the world. The fact that you seem unaware of the existence of this bias makes it hard to take you seriously, IMO. I good understanding of yourself is a pre-requisite for a good understanding of the world around you.

    “Which is debatable, but has nothing at all to do with the scientific evidence for the existence of global warming.”

    I know that it’s debatable and I know it was not the same topic. It is possible for topics to evolve though Dave… or maybe I just think that because of the way I was brought up? :p

  15. John Quiggin
    April 19th, 2004 at 16:06 | #15

    John, the whole point about (the worst kind of) pomo is the slide from “everyone is biased in some way” to “there’s no difference between truth and falsehood”.

    When you respond to evidence of systematic dishonesty by observing that “everyone has an angle” you’re implicitly relying on this kind of slide.

    It may be impossible, and perhaps not even desirable, to achieve perfect objectivity, but there are rules of scientific procedure and debate in both natural and social sciences. Milloy and TCS systematically break those rules.

  16. Dave Ricardo
    April 19th, 2004 at 17:10 | #16

    John H, I understand bias and I understand social conditioning. I even understand how social conditioning can heavily influence the kinds of problems scientists choose to work on, especially those scientists who are in the pockets of vested interests.

    But that doesn’t mean, to take one obvious example, that the theory of gravity, let alone gravity itself, is a social construct that is the result of physicists’ social conditioning. If you don’t believe me, climb to the top of the Sydney Harbour Bridge, jump off, and see what happens.

  17. dsquared
    April 19th, 2004 at 18:21 | #17

    But that doesn’t mean, to take one obvious example, that the theory of gravity, let alone gravity itself, is a social construct that is the result of physicists’ social conditioning.

    I hate this example. The fact that things fall is a fact. The “theory of gravity” is a mathematical description of that phenomenon, based on a number of assumptions that are wrong and have been known to be wrong since Einstein. “Gravity itself” is an entity which does not exist, like “centrifugal force”; it’s a simple way of describing a complicated set of facts about curvature in space-time.

    The fact that we still talk about the world as if there was such a thing as “gravity”, when we know (or at least, those of us who’ve done high school physics know) that there isn’t, is the result of social conditioning. Has to be.

  18. Dave Ricardo
    April 19th, 2004 at 18:44 | #18

    dsquared, go back and read your physics textbook. There are four fundamental forces in nature, one of which is the gravitational force.

    If you’ve got a better theory of why things fall, I invite you to publish it. You will become famous, win the Nobel Prize and get rich.

  19. April 20th, 2004 at 11:01 | #19

    Dave – I think Einstein might have stolen dsquared’s glory. That fuzzy-headed bastard.

    Q – I wasn’t defending the others for their bias, I was trying to politely introduce to the discussion the fact that you also have a bias. And sometimes, it shows.

    Dave & Q – don’t worry, I believe that (as Ayn Rand puts it) existence exists.

  20. Scott Robertson
    April 22nd, 2004 at 01:34 | #20

    Interesting discussion, but I would like to add my two cents.

    You can talk all you want about natural bias, which I would agree exists in all situations (i.e. one of my Republican friends thought GWB’s press conference was good, while I thought it was one of the most embarassing performances by a president in front of a national audience ever) but applying that to a scientist is just plain illogical. If your science isn’t solid, by the nature of the review process, it will not move forward. This may be a simplistic idea, but the peer-review process (currently in danger by the OMB)seeks to weed out poor research and hypotheses. Not a perfect system, but with multiple reviewers of any submitted article, it would be difficult to get anything by all of them that wasn’t solid.

    When Crutzen/Ramanathan (didn’t he also get the Nobel?) theory became accepted (pretty brilliant to predict a “hole” several years before it was observed, don’t you think?)the only disagreement has been from contrarians, who simply pointed out weakness’s but never did research to contradict them. This is the only way, IMO, to refute what they did. The contrarian argument doesn’t work. It’s easy to point out weakness’s in research (see current ID argument being perpatrated by the religous anti-evolutionists).

    This same ideology is currently impinging on global warming. As a person who studies it, I have no doubt it is happening and we are contributing (to what degree is yet to be determined) but when the media presents a story about it, they present both points of view as if the scientific community is split about it. Not even close. And to suggest this is because of bias, I guess that is right, if by bias you mean believing what you see as being true.

    Just one more thing. Most of the articles about the contrarian position to global warming I have seen are written by people untrained in the sciences. How can they possible be trusted to interpret a subject that has literally hundreds of research articles (which they have probably read a couple at most).

    dsquared, centrifugal force doesn’t exist? Are you kidding me?

  21. April 22nd, 2004 at 13:37 | #21

    Scott – if you swing a billy of tea around to make the tea settle, the tea leaves “try” to travel in a straight line. They are constrained to travel in a curve and made to accelerate inwards. The force on them is actually inwards. For a long time, though, this was described as there being a centrifugal force making them go out, balancing this inwards force. But that’s an illusion of the rotating frame of reference; if you use an inertial frame of reference there is merely an inward mass acceleration produced by the inwards force.

    In the same way, general relativity posits no “gravity”, just a curvature of the universe that needs a balancing force; when you stand on the ground your legs push your body up, and there is no mysterious “gravity” pulling you down, just a shape of space thing. According to that description of reality, anyway.

  22. Scott Robertson
    April 23rd, 2004 at 00:00 | #22

    P.M.,

    Point taken, but as a meteorologist, the Coriolis Force (rightward deflection of motion in NH, leftward in SH) is often described by people as “ficticous” which basically means the same thing you stated above. The deflection of air movement is obviously real (to the observer), otherwise wind would move in a straight line from a high to a low and weather systems as we know them today wouldn’t exist (i.e. an inertial frame of reference). It’s not simply an illusion, like for instance if you fire a rocket at a target 1000 km away (in a straight line) the rocket will appear to be curving, which is obviously not happening. I have trouble using the same logic with air masses. The air is not appearing to rotate around a low pressure system, converging, and rising at the center, it is doing it. You see my dilema, no?

  23. April 23rd, 2004 at 00:41 | #23

    Scott – er, no.

    For one thing, the air is not rotating around the low air pressure. What it is doing, it is moving – with “minor” variations – around the earth’s axis, which is itself moving and so on. It’s just that for a meteorologist who is only concerned with the relative motions against the earth, it is a more convenient notation to use the earth as a frame of reference, fictitious coriolis forces and all. This is what I was getting at when I put “According to that description of reality, anyway.”

    Would you claim that the sun moved around the earth? Yet a notation and system like that is used today, in navigation; navigators find it very useful to work with the sun’s apparent motion across the sky, even though it’s only an illusion. Your meteorological experience shouldn’t fool you into thinking it is any more than a convenient description, just as we pretend there are magnetic forces even though all there really are are relativistic discrepancies in electric forces. This very ambiguity between convenience of working, and fruitfulness for deeper insight, is just precisely what we were being troubled by.

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