Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Partisan science

Senator James Inhofe (R-OK) gave a long speech recently on the Senate floor to support his claim that global warming is a hoax. He had a little data, but mostly he presented one-sided arguments why he’s right and anyone who disagrees with him is wrong, mostly attacking media and Al Gore rather than getting to the data of any specific point the way a scientist would. Scientists say recent global warming has been measured. Inhofe says so was warming 1000 years ago. Yes, but the current warming is more, and the reasons for the warming then don’t seem to be the cause now. Inhofe doesn’t mention any of that. He always stops when he’s ahead. Fitting that pattern he also doesn’t mention how one can be sure that increased carbon dioxide levels lately are from burning fossils fuels, due to a lack of carbon 13 that would be present in volcanic gases or other natural sources. Good scientists look at all the data. Partisans don’t.

Then partisans accuse scientists of being selective if they try to narrow their data to what’s reliable. Inhofe attacked Naomi Oreskes of UC San Diego for publishing her study of 928 papers on global warming in Science in 2004. Oreskes found none of these rejected the idea that there is currently global warming due to human activity. Claims that there are indeed papers that reject this point to editorials and trade publications, not research articles, but OK, so it’s an overwhelming consensus, not a unanimous one. Does Inhofe address this? No, he just takes his shot at Oreskes and runs away.

It takes very little effort to do a search on any of Inhofe’s claims and see that reality is very different from what Inhofe claims. I always wonder about such a speech, whether the content is bad science, bad history, bad foreign policy, or bad theology. Is this just partisanship, or is it outright lying? I’m sure some people that just repeat the arguments of other don’t know anything of how distorted such arguments are. They don’t know the primary sources. So some blogs applauded Inhofe, saying how devastating this will be to their opponents. Not if it’s a pack of lies, guys.

Scientific illiteracy in the US is striking. Many people don’t think about the difference between good data and useless data. Many don’t understand the difference between data and argument, the former being a fact, the latter possibly being complete fantasy. Yet what strikes me more is that this is not mostly about science. It’s mostly about partisanship. People sound about the same saying their theology is right as Inhofe was here. I’m tempted to say that’s a difference between Republicans and Democrats, but I’m sure it’s not. Republicans are currently more successful at this, but I’m sure Democrats can be partisan, too. Maybe Republicans are telling bigger lies, the kind that supposedly makes for better propaganda. Maybe they’re more incisive and disciplined about it, maybe more confident.

One thing I’m sure of is that you can’t fool all of the people all of the time. In addition, science will continue. Just as this is a pretty crazy time to be opposing evolution with so much more data from molecular genetics on the way, it’s pretty crazy to be calling global warming a hoax when there is already data showing warming and increased carbon dioxide from human activity. How much that will matter is uncertain, but it’s certainly not a hoax.

The real story will take more than one or two election cycles to play out, as the real story about aging baby boomers and the national debt will as well. Republicans don’t care how harshly history will treat them beyond that. Neither would Democrats. Political animals adapt to changing conditions even faster than biology does, so maybe a Republican President in 30 years will be repudiating the prejudices of current Republicans, appealing to a new generation of voters who don’t feel lied to by current lies. I’m pretty sure the future I would choose where everyone rejects partisanship is not where we’re going.

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