Sunday, September 25, 2011

Review: The Inquisition of Climate Science

A post following up on the previous one, using James Powell's recently released The Inquisition of Climate Science to illustrate why science communication can't be left entirely to scientists. 

Powell has legitimate scientific credentials: a PhD in geochemistry from MIT, a long history of significant academic and non-academic science related jobs and a number of previous successful books on science for the informed reader. Here's how the publisher markets the book:
The Inquisition of Climate Science is the first book to comprehensively take on the climate science denial movement and the deniers themselves, exposing their lack of credentials, their extensive industry funding, and their failure to provide any alternative theory to explain the observed evidence of warming. In this book, readers meet the most prominent deniers while dissecting their credentials, arguments, and lack of objectivity. James Lawrence Powell shows that the deniers use a wide variety of deceptive rhetorical techniques, many stretching back to ancient Greece. Carefully researched, fully referenced, and compellingly written, his book clearly reveals that the evidence of global warming is real and that an industry of denial has deceived the American public, putting them and their grandchildren at risk.

In terms of the labels in the previous post, Powell is in full-on deficit model mode. Science is under attack; communication failures are blamed on public ignorance, the media, polarization and anti-science sentiments; and, crucially, the solution is to improve science literacy because a literate public will see the light and recognize the validity of the science.

My problem isn't with the documentation of the denial industry but, rather, with a) his understanding of the relationship between the denial industry (and, in particular, the Republican party) and the general public and b) the prescription for action (science literacy) that results. Simply put, the growth of the climate denial industry is more a consequence of climate denial among the public than its cause. Curiously, this fact is evident in one of Powell's blog posts designed to promote the book:
Global warming denial has not only captured the Republican members of the House, it has become mandatory for any serious Republican candidate for president. Before he entered the race, former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty embraced the need for environmental protection, clean energy initiatives, and a cap-and-trade policy on carbon emissions. By mid-spring 2011, T-Paw had reversed himself and “denounced” his previous stance, regurgitating long-disproven climate myths: “I’m old enough to remember when people were predicting there was going to be the next ice age. Until recently people were worried as much about global cooling. [Some people may have been, but scientists were not.] There is climate change but the reality is the science indicates most of it, if not all of it, is caused by natural causes. [Totally false.] And as to the potential human contribution to that, there’s a great scientific dispute about that very issue.” [Totally false.] Pawlenty summed up: “The science is bad.”

The former governor explained his switcheroo: “Well, anybody who’s going to run…has got some clunkers in their record. As to climate change, or more specifically cap-and-trade, I’ve just come out and admitted it, look, it was a mistake, it was stupid.” He went on, “Everybody in the race, embraced climate change or cap-and-trade at one point or another. Every one of us.”

To paraphrase John Kerry, the Republican leaders could all say "we were in favor of cap-and-trade before we were against it." In contrast to the standard deficit model story line -- which portrays the public as empty vessels which can be filled with information that is either correct or incorrect and have, unfortunately, been led astray by a set of powerful institutions that are propagating misinformation -- Pawlenty's statement clearly indicates that the positions of the Republican party are a consequence/reflection of views held by their base, not the source of those views. In other words, Republican candidates are responding to existing beliefs within the electorate rather than creating them.

Thus, the key question is not 'what information do the deniers need to change their mind and how can we deliver it?' but, rather, 'what factors predispose certain elements of the public to selectively perceive the world in one way rather than another and how do those factors interact with the perceptions about climate change?' Some of the most interesting work in this area makes use of the cultural theory of risk. See, for example, the research done by the Cultural Cognition Project and, in particular, The Cultural Cognition of Scientific Consensus (abstract below).
Why do members of the public disagree—sharply and persistently—about facts on which expert scientists largely agree? We designed a study to test a distinctive explanation: the cultural cognition of scientific consensus. The “cultural cognition of risk” refers to the tendency of individuals to form risk perceptions that are congenial to their values. The study, published in the Journal of Risk Research, presents both correlational and experimental evidence confirming that cultural cognition shapes individuals’ beliefs about the existence of scientific consensus, and the process by which they form such beliefs, relating to climate change, the disposal of nuclear wastes, and the effect of permitting concealed possession of handguns. The implications of this dynamic for science communication and public policy-making are discussed.

Powell's second blog post illustrates another feature typical of the anti-denier crusade: a general lack of self-reflection, particularly as it relates to the use of rhetoric.  Contrast the publisher's blurb ("the deniers use a wide variety of deceptive rhetorical techniques") with Powell's own rhetoric.
In The Inquisition of Climate Science, I pointed out that the ways in which today’s global warming deniers resemble the Lysenkoists:
Global warming deniers treat the scientists of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change with contempt, as though it were common knowledge that they are corrupt. Scientist-deniers like Freeman Dyson and Richard Lindzen vilify mainstream scientists like [James] Hansen; others demand that NASA fire him. After Hansen condemned a presentation that [Viscount] Monckton was to make to the Kentucky state legislature, Monckton wrote the head of NASA accusing Hansen of having financial ties to Al Gore and demanding an investigation. Monckton calls climate scientists evil and likens them to war criminal Radovan Karadzic.

Lysenko accused his scientific opponents of trying to “wreck” the Soviet economy. Today’s deniers accuse climate scientists of wanting to transfer money and power from the people to the government, thus helping to bring down “industrialization and development and capitalism and the Western way.”
Instead of conducting experiments that would prove his theories, Lysenko used questionnaires from farmers fearful of a one-way ticket to the Gulag. Instead of doing research, the global warming deniers use petitions.

The Soviet media endorsed Lysenko and condemned his opponents, Pravda saying that he had “solved the problem of fertilizing the fields without fertilizer and minerals….” Today, right-wing American media like Fox News and The Wall Street Journal ridicule scientists and provide the deniers with a platform to say whatever they like without fear of contradiction.

In Lysenkoism, the Soviet State denounced biological science and made the denial of genetics state policy; today’s deniers urge our government to reject climate science and make the denial of global warming state policy.
We see in Lysenkoism how science denial, when projected from the level of the state, can cost millions, even scores of millions, of lives.

This passage troubles me on a number of levels. First, anyone familiar with the details of the Lysenko case knows that the parallel is superficial at best. Denunciation by a politicized media is not the same as state sponsored rejection. And, more provocatively, from the perspective of the deniers it is the government that is wrapping itself in the mantel of 'consensus science' in order to suppress their views. More fundamentally, anyone with a smidgen of awareness about US politics knows that you can't suggest that the Tea Party and other bastions of climate change denial are similar to communists and expect them to listen to you. Powell's rhetoric, like that of many other scientists pushing the deficit model, preaches to the choir of believers. It has little to offer in terms of the real task, engaging in active dialogue with the deniers.

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