Sunday, March 30, 2008

The silly season (in climate)

It is quite easy to get all self-righteous about the Democratic nomination process descending into an ugly, childish battle, the sort of thing usually reserved for the general elections or WWE Raw. It is not clear who is actually doing battle – the candidates, the advisors or the bobble-heads on cable – and it is not clear that most people actually care. It is all about the spectacle, the appearance of a dispute, the air of scandal. The facts, the issues, are secondary, probably even tertiary.

I like to think we are better than that. And by “we” I don’t mean Canadians – our own Liberal party has elevated political fratricide to a national art form that should be featured in future national museums alongside exhibits about the Group of Seven, the Winnipeg General Strike and the Burgess Shale. I mean those of us who hope to increase science literacy and use of science in public decision-making.

Yet those of us in the online or public science discussion community, myself included, spend a lot of our time stuck in petty arguments that from the outside appear no different that the disputes that populate what Barrack Obama called the “silly season” in politics.

There was plenty of online coverage of the Heartland Institute’s conference of climate skepticism and Fred Singer’s “non-IPCC report”. The conference and the report, in particular, were so silly, so obviously wrong as to be comical, like an alternate universe where the IPCC was composed of writers from the Daily Show, the Onion and Saturday Night Live. The goal of these efforts is not to present a rational counterargument to the prevailing scientific wisdom, but to muddy it up, just like many say is happening to Obama, and arguably, Liberal Leader Stephane Dion.

Then, there was this even sillier meme about “global cooling” (see Stoat). Our collective impatience for news has led to the bizarre phenomena of following the monthly global temperature data, like, say, they were the daily tracking polls, as if this month’s data could possibly convey some valuable information about the long-term trend. Whether January was warm or cold isn’t going to prove or disprove that the climate is warming. Take a three-year snippet out the global temperature record and you can conclude anything, that the planet is destined for another ice age or for a Venus-like runaway greenhouse effect. The same goes in politics. Take a three-day short snippet out of the polling data and you can conclude the Obama’s finished, Hillary’s finished, or even that Ron Paul’s Libertarian bid will be the deciding factor. Each of these conclusions is equally ridiculous.

If you stop and think about it, the real triumph of the IPCC, in its very existence and its receiving of the Nobel Prize, is the recognition that we need to thoroughly evaluate all the evidence and that wide agreement among the community on the basics is what matters. As Stephen Schneider explains in this fine lecture, you should mistrust any overly simplistic analysis claiming to debunk the general conclusions of the IPCC, whether that analysis is ‘skeptical’ and calls climate change a hoax or whether that analysis is ‘environmental’ claims all life on the planet is at threat of extinction. We abandon this reasoned thinking, that, as Schneider puts it, it is“the preponderance of evidence, stupid”, when we descend into debates about the meaning of a cold January in parts of the northern hemisphere, or a three-day dip in Obama’s polling among middle-class white factory workers in SE Pennsylvania, rather than use our time and energy to talk about the greater issues at hand, whether it be the need to improve understanding of ice sheet processes or the need for a comprehensive national climate policy.

The most recent example of this muddying of the discussion is the recent dust-up over the release of the pro-creationism movie “Expelled”, during which evolutionary biologist PZ Meyers was expelled from the screening, and his reaction led to further reaction by the scientific blogosphere, including Matt Nisbet, Meyers again,
Mooney and Kirshenbaum’s the Intersection, and countless others. Now, everyone involved agrees on the basic issues - evolution good, intelligent design bad - they disagree only on style (sound familiar?) Just like the campaign trail, bad things were said, calls for apologies or resignations followed, etc. etc.

It doesn’t matter who was right, or who was wrong. What matters was our, that's the greater we again, collective reaction. The phone lines lit up, as they’d say in the old days. The blogs in question had a record number of readers, a record number of comments. Just like the Democratic campaign, we were drawn by the mud, by the blood, not by the issues.

I'm not immune to the pull of the day-to-day fight, over that the long-term battle. And I'll admit, this may be new age Vancouver neighbourhood talking, the sort of place where many people walk down the street with a yoga mat in one hand (and a mug of coffee in the other, that absurd caffeinated contradiction common to the culture of gentrified North American cities). But I think sometimes we need to shut off the 24-hour news and blog cycle, sit still and just breathe a little bit. After calming down, maybe we can climb out of the mud and get back to working to improve public and political understanding of science and to talking about the issues.

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