Republican War on Science, yet again

Former Surgeon General Richard H. Carmona, a Bush appointee, has told a Congressional committee that “top officials in the Bush administration repeatedly tried to weaken or suppress important public health reports because of political considerations.”

This isn’t news to anyone who’s been paying attention, but it does demonstrate, yet again, that it’s impossible to be pro-Republican and pro-science at the same time. This isn’t just a matter of the Bush administration. Every important element of the Republican base is anti-science, as are all the main pro-Republican thinktanks, blogs and so on. The issues differ from group to group (the religious right focuses on evolution and stem cells, libertarians on global warming and passive smoking, the business base on more specific environmental and public health regulation) but all of them use the same kinds of arguments. The debating tricks used by global warming delusionists have been taken straight from the creationist playbook. More importantly, all of them take for granted the view that science is inherently political, and that what matters is getting the politics right.
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Stern report previewed

With the major issues in the scientific debate over climate change having been resolved, attention has now turned to the economics of stabilising the climate and to the costs of doing nothing. Following the House of Lords economic committee inquiry last year, which spent most of its time promoting denialist attacks on climate science, and had little of value to say on the economic issues, the UK government commissioned Sir Nicholas Stern, former chief economist of the World Bank to look at the issue properly.

His report is about to be issued in the UK today, and previews have given the major conclusion – it’s much more costly to do nothing than to do something. According to the reports, the estimated cost of stabilising CO2 emissions is 1 per cent of GDP by 2050. This is at the low end of the range of estimates I’ve obtained from back-of-the-envelope exercises.

The striking feature of the reported findings relates to the potential costs of doing nothing, from 5 per cent to 20 per cent of GDP. I assume the latter estimate is based on worst-case scenarios, which have relatively low probability but are nonetheless important in working out an expected cost of doing nothing.

The credibility of the report has been enhanced by the first critical responses noted in the press. One is from Exxon shill Steven Milloy, who repeats the discredited attacks on climate science he’s been pushing for years, with a few new variations. He even drags out cosmic rays. The Guardian mentions his affiliation with the Cato Institute, apparently unaware that they dumped him a year ago over his unethical behavior.

Even more interesting is the reference to “a group of nine rightwing economists”, including the former chancellor Nigel Lawson, who criticised Stern’s discussion papers in January. What’s not noted here is that it was Lawson who launched the House of Lords exercise, rigged the process to ensure that most of the witnesses were denialists and drafted the carefully ambiguous discussion of the scientific issues which, on the one hand, correctly disclaimed any relevant expertise on the part of the committee, and on the other hand, dishonestly promoted the denialist view that the debate is still wide open. Now that this exercise has turned out to be a massive own goal for Lawson and his allies, they are naturally upset.

More tomorrow (or maybe later today) when the report is released. In the meantime, responses to Stern’s earlier discussion paper, including mine, are here

Draft review of Mooney

I’ve done a draft review of Chris Mooney’s Republican War on Science (over the page). Comments much appreciated. I’d prefer comments on the review, and on the process by which the campaign against science identified by Mooney works. There’s plenty of room to discuss the substantive issues of ID theory, GW contrarianism and so on on other threads. That said, feel free to comment on whatever interests you.

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Terrorism and Cancer

I just received an email drawing the (far from original) comparison between terrorism and cancer. It struck me that, to make this metaphor exact we’d need

* attacks on cancer researchers for seeking to ‘understand’ cancer

* even more attacks on anyone trying to find ‘root causes’ for cancer in the environment, such as exposure to tobacco smoke

* lengthy pieces pointing out that the only thing we need to know about cancer cells is that they are malignant

* more lengthy pieces pointing out that criticism of any kind of quack remedy marks the critic as “objectively pro-cancer”

I guess Steven Milloy and other “junk science” types come pretty close to providing the first two. Has anyone seen examples of the third and fourth?

Pearson discovers DDT

This piece by Christopher Pearson in today’s Oz, denouncing green opposition to DDT, encapsulates everything that’s wrong with Australia’s right-wing commentariat. Not only is almost everything in the article either false or grossly misleading, but it’s a fourth-hand recycling of points that have been flogged to death in the blogosphere.

Pearson’s source is an article in Quadrant, which in turn relies on such authorities as Bjorn Lomborg, Michael Crichton and junkscience.com (Steven Milloy), none of whom have any scientific qualifications more advanced than Milloy’s master’s degree in health sciences, and none of whom have done any research on this topic.

Having accused the green movement of being responsible for millions of deaths as a result of DDT, Pearson’s sources come up with three specific claims.

First that the ban on agricultural use of DDT in the US was unjustified by the health risks. Whether or not this is true, widespread agricultural use of DDT was a major contributor to the rapid increase in resistance that rendered anti-malarial use of DDT largely ineffective in many countries. Illegal agricultural use is still a major problem.

Second, that Greenpeace is campaigning to close the factory in India that is the sole source of DDT. Greenpeace’s official position, easily discovered is that it supports a phase-out of DDT, and its replacement by safer, but more costly substitutes, to be funded by industrialised countries. More precisely

Financial and administrative mechanisms be included in the UNEP POPs treaty to assist less industrialised countries eliminate DDT production and use

Third, that aid agencies in Scandinavia refused to fund programs using DDT. This claim isn’t supported in enough detail to check it, but it’s scarcely much of a basis for alleging a global conspiracy, especially since there are equally effective and safe, but more expensive, substitutes which the Scandinavians may well have preferred to fund.

I’ve written more on DDT, indicating just how thoroughly Pearson is engaged in recycling, and how fundamentally the case he presents is undermined by consideration of resistance.

Meanwhile, shouldn’t journalistic and magazine ethics be extended to include some kind of Google rule, prohibiting the publication of articles that can be replicated by less than an hour’s Googling, or at least the payment of more than an hour’s casual rates for such pieces.

Update Various commentators have pointed out that this kind of thing is not confined to the right wing of the commentariat. Still, the DDT story is a particularly egregious example. And I can put my hand on my heart and say I’ve never signed my name to a recycled piece like this. I do occasionally repeat myself, but that’s because not enough people listened the first time I said it.

Don't worry, be happy

I’m a worrier. I worry about the economy, global warming, cancer, even about whether life has any meaning. But now, thanks to the guys over at Troppo Armadillo*, most of my worries are over. Reading the ‘always excellentJunk Science site run by Steven Milloy, I’ve learned that

How did I come to get the wrong idea on all these questions? Well, it turns out that the National Academy of Sciences, Environmental Protection Authority, Intergovenmental Panel on Climate Change, NASA and a host of individual scientists are engaged in a vast leftwing conspiracy to alarm and deceive us.

Only a handful of scientists have had the courage to resist this conspiracy. They can be recognised by the fact that they are typically affiliated with right-thinking think tanks like the Cato Institute (where Milloy works) and prefer to publish their work with Fox News (‘we report, you decide’), rather than in corrupt journals like Science and Nature, where ‘referees’ from the scientific establishment censor the truth. Fortunately, their work is now being recognised with generous grants from the tobacco, coal and oil industries.

The good news doesn’t stop there. According to this morning’s email, I am about to receive a substantial commission on a transaction involving Nigerian gold (as long as I can beat ASIC to the punch). And beautiful girls from all over the world are just waiting to meet me.

I’m glad I’ve stopped worrying. Now if I could only cure my addiction to irony …

* More exactly, to Geoff Honnor who provided the link to Milloy’s Junk Science site, and to Ken Parish who linked to the similarly-styled Bizarre Science site.

Boring disclaimer A link to a site doesn’t imply endorsement of everything that appears on that site.

Stopped clock punditry

In his discussion of the Four Corners program on Australia’s environment, Ken Parish suggests that they weren’t hard enough on the Club of Rome and says of the environmental scares they raised “Each of them has been shown by the experience of the last 30 years to be grossly exaggerated, if not completely misconceived. See Bjorn Lomborg’s excellent book The Skeptical Environmentalist and earlier work by people like Julian Simon.”
The late Julian Simon was a good illustration of the “stopped clock” model of punditry. He routinely denied all claims about environmental hazards, and was thereby right pretty often and wrong pretty often. His admirers, like Lomborg, select the points on which he was right and ignore the fact that he denied the dangers of ozone depletion atmospheric lead, radon, asbestos etc etc. Lomborg is basically an updated version of Simon, conceding the points where Simon has been proved wrong (but without admitting error), then presenting the most optimistic possible view on all other issues as if it were scientific fact.
The relevant chapter of Simon’s book is here. Some of the sillier claims:

Radon. Eventually, too little radon found dangerous, rather than too much.
Lead ingestion by children lowers IQ. Study by Herbert Needleman led to the federal ban on leaded gasoline. Study entirely repudiated in 1994. No mention of again allowing leaded gasoline has been made, however.
Ozone hole. No connection found between thinner ozone layer and skin cancer.

As I noted, you can equally well select from Simon a list of correct claims that supposed hazards are really harmless. A stopped clock is right twice a day, but that doesn’t make it useful.

Another ‘sceptic’ to whom all of the above is applicable is Steven Milloy, whose site is aptly named “Junk Science”. Conversely, my comments on Milloy are applicable to Simon and Lomborg. And this is as good a time as any to mention an equally aptly named Australian imitator of Milloy, Bizarre Science.
Of course, these guys have their mirror-images on the Green side of the debate. For example, these guys apparently never met a chemical that wasn’t toxic, although they recommend lactobacillus fermented foods, taking advantage of one of humanity’s favourite genetically modified organisms, the product of millennia of selective breeding.