Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Money, bias, and climate science

I've often wished that politics was more frequently informed by good science, but the pessimistic side of me (never very deeply buried) wonders if that is even possible.  There are politicians who understand science, but given the complexity of the situations that lawmakers deal with -- combining the hard facts uncovered by scientific research with the economic and business impacts, considering how any proposed changes would affect the average citizen, and keeping in mind what it takes to get reelected -- it's no wonder that governmental policy often makes a hash out of it.

You need no conspiracies in effect to have that result.  Our government is built in such a way that this is the inevitable outcome.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the current battle over climate change.  You would think that people would see the simple dichotomy between whether climate change is actually happening (something about which climatologists are hardly in doubt) and what, if anything, should be done about it.  It's amazing how few people understand that these two questions aren't the same thing.  I have more than once seen people arguing, with no apparent awareness of a break in the logical chain, that climate change isn't happening because decreasing fossil fuel use would have devastating effects on our economy.

Oh, that it were that simple.  If the world worked that way, I could just state that I didn't believe in my home and car needing expensive maintenance because it's having "devastating effects on my bank account," and they would magically take care of themselves.

Still, the politicization of the climate issue is having tremendous effects on the public perception of what is, at its base, a scientific question.  Interesting, isn't it, that by and large liberals accept that anthropogenic climate change is happening, and conservatives deny it?  You'd think that a scientific conclusion would be based upon the evidence, not on your political party.  And the research is clear; as I mentioned in a recent post, the number of peer-reviewed studies that support climate change outnumber the ones that question it by over 500:1.

A study that was just reviewed in The Guardian points up why that may be.  Over the past ten years, conservative billionaires have funneled over $120 million dollars into think tanks that have only one purpose; to cast doubt in the minds of voters and lawmakers regarding climate change.  [Source]  The two umbrella organizations that oversaw the handling of the funds -- Donors Trust and Donors Capital Fund -- spent the money on strategic planning, public disinformation campaigns, and beefing up the coffers of the handful of scientists left who deny that climate change is real.

And the conservatives, with straight faces, accuse the climatologists of being in the pay of environmental organizations.  I wonder who has deeper pockets, Donors Trust or the Sierra Club?

Lest you think that I'm just showing my bias here, take a look at "Plutocracy, Pure and Simple," by George Monbiot.  Starting in 2002, the Republicans recognized that climate change could be used as a wedge issue, and that acknowledging the science was tantamount to political suicide.  Conservative consultant Frank Luntz actually said, "Should the public come to believe that the scientific issues are settled, their views about global warming will change accordingly.  Therefore, you need to continue to make the lack of scientific certainty a primary issue in the debate."  And this script has been followed to the letter.  The think tanks that were funded by Donors Trust, Donors Capital Fund, and the likes of the Koch brothers have generated not only campaigns to raise doubt in the minds of voters, but public school curricula that include explicit statements that whether climate change is happening is "a major scientific controversy."

By my definition, a "controversy" is "something people disagree about."  500:1 in favor hardly qualifies as a "controversy."

But of course, that's not how they want the layperson, the average citizen, to see the situation.  They want the voters to think that the science is uncertain, because if the scientists can't even figure out what's going on, then we sure as hell don't want to give up our gas-guzzling cars and coal-fired power stations. 

I find the whole thing infuriating.  It's not that I don't realize that the profit motive can lead to abuses; money corrupts, and all that sort of thing.  It's more that these wealthy donors and giant money-handling machines are sowing confusion in the minds of the average man and woman -- the people who, above all, need correct information in order to make informed decisions.  And that confusion is leading to all of us, lawmaker and citizen alike, doing nothing, as the world continues to warm, the ice continues to melt, the seas continue to rise.

The result: let's stay with the status quo, even if it marches us right off a cliff.

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