Science-Based Catchphrase-Making

The Bush administration’s unorthodox stance on climate change and stem-cell research led to widespread accusations that it conducted a war on science. The Democrats’ response has been to promise to ‘let science guide us, not ideology’, to ‘make scientific decisions based on facts, not ideology’, and that ‘the days of science taking a back seat to ideology are over’.

But in the latest issue of Issues in Science & Technology, Dan Sarewitz shows that, on the evidence of Obama’s presidency so far, science-led policy-making is easier said than done. Take Obama’s moves to change US stem-cell policy. Bush infamously restricted the use of federal funds for embryonic stem-cell research, limiting research to existing stem-cell lines. Writes Sarewitz:

Less than two months into his presidency, Obama announced that he would reverse the Bush policies by allowing research on cell lines created after the Bush ban. The president instructed the director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to “develop guidelines for the support and conduct of responsible, scientifically worthy human stem cell research.”

In announcing the change, President Obama emphasized the need to “make scientific decisions based on facts, not ideology,” yet the new policy, as well as the language that the president used to explain it, underscores that the stem cell debate is in important ways not about scientific facts at all, but about the difficulty of balancing competing moral preferences. The new policy does not allow unrestricted use of embryos for research or the extraction of cell lines from embryos created by therapeutic cloning. In explaining that “[m]any thoughtful and decent people are conflicted about, or strongly oppose, this research,” President Obama was acknowledging that, even in its earliest stages, the small group of cells that constitute an embryo are in some way different from a chemical reagent to be sold in a catalog or an industrially synthesized molecule to be integrated into a widget. Indeed, to protect women from economic and scientific exploitation, and in deference to the moral and political ambiguity that embryos carry with them, no nation allows the unrestricted commodification of embryos, and some, including Germany, have bans on destroying embryos for research purposes. Although most Americans favor a less restrictive approach to stem cell research than that pursued by President Bush, the issue is inherently political and inherently moral. Thus, some of the cell lines approved for research under the Bush restrictions might actually not be approved under the Obama guidelines because they may not have been obtained with the appropriate level of prior informed consent of the donor, a moral constraint on science that apparently did not concern President Bush.

Or take Obama’s decision to slash funding for the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository:

At this point it is tempting to write: “It’s hard to imagine a case where politics trumped science more decisively than in the case of Yucca Mountain, where 20 years of research were traded for five electoral votes and the support of a powerful senator,” which seems basically correct, but taken out of context it could be viewed as a criticism of President Obama, which it is not. But the point I want to make is only slightly more subtle: Faced with a complex amalgam of scientific and political factors, President Obama chose short-term political gain over longer-term scientific assessment, and so decided to put an end to research aimed at characterizing the Yucca Mountain site. This decision can easily be portrayed in the same type of language that was used to attack President Bush’s politicization of science.

But not only is science-led politics difficult, if not impossible, it is also potentially dangerous. Sarewitz concludes:

… ownership of a powerful symbol can give rise to demagoguery and self-delusion. President Bush overplayed the national defense card in pursuit of an ideological vision that backfired with terrible consequences in Iraq. In turn, a scientific-technological elite unchecked by healthy skepticism and political pluralism may well indulge in its own excesses. Cults of expertise helped bring us the Vietnam War and the current economic meltdown. Uncritical belief in and promotion of the redemptive power of scientific and technological advance is implicated in some of the most difficult challenges facing humans today. In science, Democrats appear to have discovered a surprisingly potent political weapon. Let us hope they wield it with wisdom and humility.

Cut and Paste Journalism

BBC bosses today tried to make excuses for the cut-and-paste job by BBC science journalist, Susan Watts, as discovered by Tony at Harmless Sky recently. Answering criticism on Watts’ blog, Newsnight Editor Peter Rippon said:

We did edit sections of the speech to reflect the elements in it that referred to Science. The aim was to give people an impression or montage of what Obama said about science in his inauguration speech. This was signposted to audiences with fades between each point. It in no way altered the meaning or misrepresented what the President was saying. You can look for yourself above.

If this is true, it means that the editorial team at BBC Newsnight are shockingly naive. If that is true, then we would like to know, what are they doing producing the networks flagship current affairs magazine programme?

Even if we give them the benefit of the doubt with respect to their editorial oversight, by which we mean that we accept that they are naive, the feature drips with the kind of ideological prejudice that any run-of-the-mill eco-warrior can muster. This is not news, nor is it analysis. It is projection.

Here is a transcript of the feature, Restoring science to its rightful place, with our commentary.

OBAMA: We will restore science to its rightful place [snip] roll back the spectre of a warming planet [snip] we will harness the sun and the winds and the soil to fuel our cars and run our factories.

As has been pointed out, this is a cut and paste job, which sets up the background to Watts’ presentation. Peter Rippon claims this has been done innocently, and that ‘fades between each point’ underscore the ‘montage’ of different parts of Obama’s speech, as an ‘impression’ of what he had said, not what he had actually said. But these images are not of Obama, but of a victorian green house in London’s Kew Gardens. Why would different shots of 19th Century greenhouse architecture make it obvious to viewers that what they were hearing was a ‘montage’?

WATTS: President Obama couldn’t have been clearer today, and for most scientists, his vote of confidence will have come not a moment too soon.

So here is Watts’ naked position: Bush was anti science. And now ‘most scientists’ are happy because Bush is gone. Bush = anti-science; Obama = pro-science. Bush is a baddy, and Obama is a goody. Science says so. It proves it. Understand?

Watts says that Obama ‘couldn’t have been clearer’, but she had to splice his words together to get him to make her point.

You don’t need to be a Bush fan to find this kind of retrospective shallow. We’re not Bush fans. Yet, throughout the last eight years, what has struck us is that science has become the stick with which to beat Bush, not because he really stood against science, but because his critics – not just the Democrats – lacked any real substance either. That is to say, as we have in the past, that science is a last-resort of vacuous politics: it fails to make a persuasive case on its own terms, and so borrows authority from ‘science’. Like trying to use ‘science’ to prove that something is immoral, what this reveals is the intellectual exhaustion of the critic.

Watts continues:

In the eight years of the Bush presidency, the world saw the Arctic ice cap shrink to a record Summer low, the relentless rise of greenhouse gas emissions, and warnings from scientists shift from urgent to panicky.

So Bush melted the ice cap, right?

There has certainly been a shift in rhetoric from ‘urgent to panicky’, but that shift is not justified by ‘the science’. The IPCC’s AR4 gave no reason to believe that thermageddon was any closer than it was when its predecessor AR3 came out. To make it sound like it did, environmentalist commentators – notably those at the BBC – also had to cut and paste.

And as we have pointed out recently, the panicky tone of environmentalists is owed not to the emergence of new climate research but to their need to sustain leverage over a sympathetic establishment. In fact, the big stories over the last few years – the prospect of an Arctic free of summer ice, fears about peak oil after price hikes, and predictions of ‘warmest summers on record’ – all failed to materialise. If recent history shows anything, it is that environmentalists have reached the point of peak doom.

President Bush came to power at the start of a new decade, a new century, and what many thought would be a new era for science. The news that scientists had pieced together an early draft of the human genome had given a palpable lift to the end of the Clinton presidency.

There are many things you can say about the end of the Clinton administration, but ‘palpable lift’ isn’t really one of them. Clinton’s years were characterised by scandal and political crisis, offset by a very aggressive foreign policy – pretty much what the ensuing Bush administration consisted of. For example, as CNN reported in 1998:

WASHINGTON (CNN) — Saying “there will be no sanctuary for terrorists,” President Clinton on Thursday said the U.S. strikes against terrorist bases in Afghanistan and a facility in Sudan are part of “a long, ongoing struggle between freedom and fanaticism.” […]

The president said he ordered the strike against bin Laden and his compatriots because of “compelling information they were planning additional terrorist attacks against our citizens and others with the inevitable collateral casualties and .. seeking to acquire chemical weapons and other dangerous weapons.”

Doesn’t that sound familiar? As it turned out, the Sudanese factory Clinton bombed turned out to be making pharmaceuticals, not WMD. Just a few months later:

WASHINGTON (CNN) — From the Oval Office, President Clinton told the nation Wednesday evening why he ordered new military strikes against Iraq. The president said Iraq’s refusal to cooperate with U.N. weapons inspectors presented a threat to the entire world. “Saddam (Hussein) must not be allowed to threaten his neighbors or the world with nuclear arms, poison gas or biological weapons,” Clinton said.

Doesn’t that sound familiar? The point we are making here is that it is difficult for people – journalists especially – to locate territory from which to criticise Bush. Clearly, the War on Terror – and all its rhetoric – had roots in the Clinton era. The Bush administration doesn’t look so different, after all. Different styles, maybe, but the same substance. Unless, as Watts claims, they took different positions on science:

Science was riding high. But Bush was less attentive.

But According to the American Association for the Advancement of Science, things aren’t so simple:

How can it be said that Bush was ‘anti-science’ if, as the AAAS seem to indicate, research budgets increased during his administration? In ignorance of what she speaks, Watts continues:

Religion, or at least the religious vote, informed Bush policy. His very public distaste for stem-cell research mattered because it raised public suspicion of science. Creationism has grown stronger, to the point that more Americans now believe in the biblical story of creation than evolution.

It’s not as much Bush’s hostility to ‘science’ that Watts worries about, but the failure of his critics to use ‘science’ to influence public policy. One may well say that Bush’s policies didn’t reflect ‘scientific’ opinion. But the point we have made here, many times, is that science cannot produce moral arguments. Science cannot tell you that it is ‘right’ to abort or research on a foetus. These matters, which seemingly characterise the debate that was influenced by religious attitudes, are only illuminated by science to the extent that it says what may be possible to achieve. The problem, as we have outlined in the past, is that Bush’s critics hide their shame – their inability to make moral arguments – behind science. It is a fig leaf.

Watts is deeply confused. According to her, it is ‘the religious vote’ that influences Bush. But in the very next sentence, it is Bush’s ‘distaste for stem-cell research’ that raises public suspicion, seemingly with the effect of increasing the prevalence of creationism. One moment, Bush is weak because he respond to the vote, the next he is able to manipulate it. Whether we agree with Bush or not, Watts’ complaint is that Bush succeeded in making an argument to the public through the democratic process. Her complaint is with democracy. The science that Watts believes trumps democracy is good, old fashioned arrogance.

And anyway, where did Watts get the idea that adherence to Biblical interpretations of life on Earth increased under Bush? Not from Gallup, which has data going back to 1982:

Bush’s ‘distaste for stem-cell research’ is a favorite of those wishing to cast him in the role of enemy of science. But Watts’ statement simplifies the political reality to the point that it bears no relationship to the truth. US policy requires that Federal funds cannot be used for research on embryonic stem cells. State-sponsored researchers can and do work on stem cells from other sources. And meanwhile, university researchers can and do work on embryonic stem cells – just so long as they don’t use federal funds (which makes for some complicated partitioning of lab equipment in many a US university department). For what it’s worth, we, too, are not impressed by US stem-cell policies. But neither are we impressed by the simplistic portrayal of Bush’s stance, especially when the US’s regulation of embryonic SC research is mirrored in the policies of a host of European nations, including such models of Liberal democracy as Germany and Denmark.

Watts:

Scientists have got used to attempts to silence them. But now they are speaking out again. Unlike economic recession and wars which pass, climate change does not and there are deadlines if we want to avoid a point of no return. In fact scientists calculate that Obama has four years in which to save the world.

On her blog, Watts expands on her claims that scientists have been silenced, in a post that Asher Mullard, an editor at the science journal Nature, describes as ‘a meaty overview of a light at the end of the tunnel after 8 long years for scientists’…

Just last week a Nasa scientist, Jim Hansen, whom Bush had tried to silence in the past warned that Obama has just four years to save the world. But unlike Bush, Obama does listen to scientists. He’s already promoted many to top advisory positions… crucially on energy policy.

We’ve dealt with Hansen’s ‘four years to save the world’ claim elsewhere. But note that, in Watts’ world, the speculative splutterings of a single rogue scientist become ‘In fact scientists calculate that Obama has four years in which to save the world’.

If Bush did try to silence Hansen, he didn’t try very hard. Hansen has barely been out of the news this century. According to the Washington Times:

A NASA scientist who said the Bush administration muzzled him because of his belief in global warming yesterday acknowledged to Congress that he’d done more than 1,400 on-the-job interviews in recent years.

To pick but one example from his vast output, in 2007, we reported on Hansen’s 3000-word article in New Scientist where he claimed that sea level rise will be orders of magnitude faster than IPCC projections suggest. When the same magazine, in the same month, reported on Harvard scientist Willie Soon’s paper in the journal Ecological Complexity, which challenged received wisdom that climate change is imperilling polar bears, the scientific argument was ignored in favour of speculation about Soon’s alleged links to the oil industry, and that the research was part of an orchestrated campaign to undermine the environmental movement’s use of the polar bear as an icon. Who’s being silenced?

Hansen is Watts’ representative scientist. And yet he departs from ‘the consensus’ as spectacularly as any executive of ExxonMobil – he just happens to do so in a more politically correct direction.

Back to the transcript:

But unlike Bush, Obama does listen to scientists. He’s already appointed several to leading advisory positions. And although he has to deal with internal squabbles about whether cap and trade or a carbon tax is the best way to bring down greenhouse gas emissions, at least the Obama team does agree on the goal.

As did all the other presidential candidates. And as do the Socialist Workers, the UK Conservative Party, the far-right British National Party and everybody else.

So Obama has a unique opportunity to fix the recession and fix climate change at the same time. He just has to have the nerve to follow through. And this year of all years, leadership matters, because the world hopes to thrash out a global deal to cut emissions. So if he does stick to his promises on renewables, energy efficiency, carbon capture and storage, and hybrid vehicles, he’ll help loosen the grip that fossil fuels hold on all our lives.

So Obama can fix the recession and save the world from global warming… But why stop there? Maybe we could ask him to find a cure for cancer and the common cold too, by next week? Oh, and then there’s that eternal question he could answer – ‘why are we here?’ Obama’s to-do list grows as the people reporting on his progress empty their heads of reason. Watts’ analysis is, as we said at the beginning of this post, not journalism, but projection. Her story says nothing about Obama and his policies, nor does it accurately reflect the role of science and its relationship with public policy, nor does it even give a plausible account of the last decade’s political developments. It doesn’t even tell you anything useful about climate change. It is all about Watts, her hopes and her prejudices, informed only by ignorance, hidden behind a veneer of scientific authority.

There’s another question perhaps Obama can answer by, like, yesterday: what are science correspondents actually for?

Biased Broadcasting Climate – Part 2

Over at the Harmless Sky blog, the sharp-eyed, and quick-minded Tony N has spotted an alarming piece of journalistic interference with Obama’s inauguration speech.

It would seem that someone at the BBC had taken the trouble to splice the tape so that half a sentence from paragraph 16 of the inauguration speech was joined on to half a sentence from paragraph 22, and this apparently continuous sound bite was completed by returning to paragraph 16 again to lift another complete sentence.

This is journalism at its worst.

Only Four Years Left to Save Environmentalism

Another sure sign that environmentalists are struggling to sustain a rational basis for their influence emerged last week. The pages of the Observer featured the opinion of NASA activist/scientist James Hansen in two articles [1 , 2] and an editorial.

Barack Obama has only four years to save the world. That is the stark assessment of Nasa scientist and leading climate expert Jim Hansen who last week warned only urgent action by the new president could halt the devastating climate change that now threatens Earth. Crucially, that action will have to be taken within Obama’s first administration, he added.

Of all the hopes pinned on Obama, ‘saving the world’ has to be the most revealing of the hoper, be it the Observer Journalist, the Observer, or Hansen.

As we pointed out last Thursday, the environmental movement’s only leverage is the prospect of catastrophe. It has no popular appeal in any real sense. So when it appears that governments are ‘on-message’, or in any way sympathetic to its concerns, the only way to sustain its undemocratic and unaccountable influence is to escalate the sense of urgency, or their function will become redundant.

This suggests that the hoper’s nervousness is owed, not to material facts about the state of the world – obviously – but their inability to explain the world, and their tenuous grip on the public agenda.

As an apparently sympathetic Obama steps to the fold, so we see the environmental protagonists escalating the sense of crisis.

“We cannot now afford to put off change any longer. We have to get on a new path within this new administration. We have only four years left for Obama to set an example to the rest of the world. America must take the lead.”

After eight years of opposing moves to combat climate change, thanks to the policies of President George Bush, the US had given itself no time for manoeuvre, he said. Only drastic, immediate change can save the day and those changes proposed by Hansen – who appeared in Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth and is a winner of the World Wildlife Fund’s top conservation award – are certainly far-reaching.

So where did this ‘four years’ figure come from?

In 2006, the same Hansen had argued that

“I think we have a very brief window of opportunity to deal with climate change … no longer than a decade, at the most,” Hansen said Wednesday at the Climate Change Research Conference in California’s state capital.

Less than two and a half years later, the ten years is reduced to four years.

Shortly after Hansen made his ten year claim, UK and Dutch premiers Tony Blair and Jan Peter Balkenende wrote in a letter to the EU that

The science of climate change has never been clearer. Without further action, scientists now estimate we may be heading for temperature rises of at least 3-4C above pre-industrial levels. We have a window of only 10-15 years to take the steps we need to avoid crossing catastrophic tipping points. These would have serious consequences for our economic growth prospects, the safety of our people and the supply of resources, most notably energy. So we must act quickly.

The fact that science hasn’t – indeed, cannot – identify ‘catastrophic tipping points’ doesn’t bother politicians who use science in this way. The concept of a tipping point is only useful to politicians – it has little scientific meaning. It is a gun to your head. Do you trust the authority of the man holding it, or do you challenge it? If you don’t do as he says and you’re wrong, you might trigger the tipping point. You lose. But if you’re right to challenge it, the trust we have in politicians, and politics built around the myth of catastrophe itself disintegrates. You lose. Either way, the threat is that society breaks down, because either the climate will change, destroying our ‘fragile relationship’ with nature, or the myths on which authority is established are ripped from beneath it. This is the politics of fear.

Greens have presented themselves as radical alternatives to mainstream politics. But they use exactly the same language. In November 2007, we reported Caroline Lucas’s attempts to use ‘catastrophic tipping points’ to elevate herself.

Well, when you hear scientists say that we have about eight years left in order to really tackle climate change, I don’t think what the public actually want is cautiousness, what they want is real leadership, and that is what the EU is promising to give, and yet that’s what we’re failing to do here.

This was the second time we had picked up on Lucas’s claim that the planet had a deadline. Justifying her claim that climate change denial was equivalent to holocaust denial, she had said previously that

What’s prompted me is real concern that a recent opinion poll showed that half the population still don’t think that there’s scientific certainty about climate change; they still think there’s a real debate to be had there. And it worries me enormously because if we don’t have a population that really understands that 99.999% of international scientists do believe that climate change is happening and do believe that it’s human caused, if people don’t understand that then they’re not going to put the pressure on the politicians that is so desperately needed and so urgently needed because we’re being told we’ve literally got between five and ten years in which to put in place a proper policy framework to address climate change. And unless people are really convinced that it’s a problem they’re not going to act to change it.

Last year, vulcanologist Bill McQuire announced that we had just ‘seven years to save the planet‘ in a book of the same name. Amazon describe it thus,

‘Bill McGuire succinctly tackles a series of green queries… the book is an excellent first stop for getting clued up about climate change. ‘ METRO ‘..author Bill McGuire points out that to salvage a civilisation capable of maintaining a semblance of organisation approximate to what we have now, we must achieve a near-zero carbon economy by 2050’. GREENEVENTS ‘McGuire makes telling points about the size of the challenge we face if we are to escape some of the nastier effects of climate change. And his sense of urgency is well-placed.’ FOCUS

(Where would McGuire be, if it weren’t for the end of the world? Certainly not making numerous appearances on TV shows, or selling books. Doom is big business.)

In August last year, policy director and head of the climate change programme at the New Economics Foundation, Andrew Simms announced that we had just ‘100 months to save the world‘.

So, how exactly do we arrive at the ticking clock of 100 months? It’s possible to estimate the length of time it will take to reach a tipping point. To do so you combine current greenhouse gas concentrations with the best estimates for the rates at which emissions are growing, the maximum concentration of greenhouse gases allowable to forestall potentially irreversible changes to the climate system, and the effect of those environmental feedbacks. We followed the latest data and trends for carbon dioxide, then made allowances for all human interferences that influence temperatures, both those with warming and cooling effects. We followed the judgments of the mainstream climate science community, represented by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), on what it will take to retain a good chance of not crossing the critical threshold of the Earth’s average surface temperature rising by 2C above pre-industrial levels. We were cautious in several ways, optimistic even, and perhaps too much so. A rise of 2C may mask big problems that begin at a lower level of warming. For example, collapse of the Greenland ice sheet is more than likely to be triggered by a local warming of 2.7C, which could correspond to a global mean temperature increase of 2C or less. The disintegration of the Greenland ice sheet could correspond to a sea-level rise of up to 7 metres.

Is it four years or is it six? Or is it ten or fifteen? The tipping point is being used by everyone. The only thing that differs is when this tipping point is supposed to occur.

The idea of a ‘tipping point’ began as scientific speculation that climate systems ‘flip’ from one ‘state’ to another, rather than change as one variable – the concentration of greenhouses gasses in the atmosphere – changes. This idea armed environmentalists with the threat that a changing climate would suddenly – rather than over the course of millenia – reach a point where climate change was so rapid that natural processes on which human society depends would in turn collapse, leaving us starved of resources, and unable to cope with the new conditions.

The problem for environmentalists is that no such ‘tipping point’ has been identitifed by climate science, and the social consequences of moving past tipping points remain poorly defined. The NEF, for example, cannot point to any scientific literature which identifies tipping points. Instead, their 100 month calculation is formed from a variety of headline statements and studies taken from here, there, and everywhere. (They invent a tipping point).

Take for example, the figure of 2 degrees which Simms says is the point which must not be exceeded. The more technical document accompanying his article and campaign website says that this figure,

… is the maximum acceptable level of temperature rise agreed by the European Union and others as necessary to retain reasonable confidence of preventing uncontrollable and ultimately catastrophic warming.

The report doesn’t say where the rationale behind the figure of 2 degrees can be located, nor why we should take the EU’s word for it. Moreover, what is the ‘reasonable confidence’ that the NEF want to ‘retain’ about the future? It implies that what lies beyond 2 degrees is not ‘reasonable confidence’ of there being a catastrophe, but less certainty about there not being one. In other words, it says nothing about climate – 2 degrees is not a tipping point, but an arbitrary point, beyond which we can be less certain about the end of the world than before it. We might just as well observe that ‘catastrophe’ is less likely before a 1000 degree rise in global temperature than after it.

We’ve pointed out before that this is ‘politics by numbers’. In this game, all you need to do to elevate yourself over your opponents is add one to their offer. This done by commissioning someone with the appropriate letters after their name to do back-of-an-envelope calculations using the figures which have already been ‘established’ by other players in the game. It is voodoo science, and it only means anything if you already actually believe it.

Once you have performed the ritual which establishes the new magic numbers, you can present your manifesto. And so it is with the NEF. Their ‘Green New Deal‘ document is

Inspired by Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal programme launched in the wake of the Great Crash of 1929, this modernised version is designed to tackle our current crash: the interlinked crises of climate change, recession and energy depletion.

It goes on…

The global economy is facing a ‘triple crunch’: a combination of a credit-fuelled financial crisis, accelerating climate change and soaring energy prices underpinned by encroaching peak oil. It is increasingly clear that these three overlapping events threaten to develop into a perfect storm, the like of which has not been seen since the Great Depression, with potentially devastating consequences.

As we pointed out recently, one of those three crunch factors – high oil prices – is already a non fact. Like Hansen, the NEF and the Green New Deal Group elevate themselves with these kind of statements. But soon their forecasts will catch up with them.

Following Obama’s inauguration, and the NEF’s attempts to cast their ideas as the contemporary equivalent of Roosevelt’s New Deal it seems appropriate to answer Hansen’s demands to the new president with words from Roosevelt’s inuagural address.

So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.

Obama himself mentions fear:

On this day, we gather because we have chosen hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and discord.

If Obama is really to choose ‘hope over fear’, he will have to challenge the influence of the likes of Hansen. Can he do it? Well, we hope so.