Following the Right Scent on Climate

AP Photo/Seth Wenig
AP Photo/Seth Wenig

Healthy, effective scientific research requires the participation of trained people with many takes on a subject. Trying to eradicate the participation of those who do not share one politically approved view on climate has been a profitable political tactic, but it is completely destructive for science, which has been seriously damaged by climate activism.

Recent attempts to openly attack prominent scientists have crossed a line, raising this destruction to new heights, making real scientists think twice about working on climate. The attacks are carried out with a particularly pungent red herring that makes it nearly impossible to keep the hounds from distraction.

Ideas, Events, and Gossip

There is a saying that great minds discuss ideas, broad minds discuss events, and small minds discuss other people. Let’s name those types of discussion I, II, and III respectively. Science and mathematics is type I. The subject of climate is definitively science and mathematics, yet for more than 25 years, popular and press discussion has dwelled obsessively on it as a type III discussion instead. Scientifically, climate is a deep, daunting mystery, wrapped in a complexity that tests the limits of what humans know or what they may ever know. Yet somehow the profound human limitations brought out by its scientifically uncompromising, rugged, alpine face gets lost in a socio-political fog rooted in grade school reasoning based on what daddy says and mendacious tattling about what the bad kids did when teacher was not looking.

Libelous websites devoted to such tattling have been with us for years. There are many distortions and falsehoods on them. But what did the bad kids actually do wrong? Well, nothing. That is, unless you feel it is wrong to be seen in public with an acquaintance of the dentist of someone who worked once for an oil company. Moreover it is not that libelous to falsely accuse people of being paid for something when there is nothing wrong with being paid for that thing in the first place. However, there is such a powerful fossil fuel taboo in some circles that even private organizations, advocating skepticism about the prevailing climate dogmas, desperately try to avoid any hint of funding from anything mildly connected with fossil fuels.

What is the problem with receiving such funding? Apparently oil companies give handsome sums to climate activist organizations that do not find it taboo to take oil money. Those very recipients simultaneously damn others for taking such funds, even when none were received, sought, or offered. Why should oil companies fund skeptical groups to say what they would say anyway? They’d get nothing but a kick in the pants for their trouble from the dogmatists.

Does this tattling make any sense? This is the climate fervor. Sense has nothing to do with it. The tattling is sleaze over sense, and soap opera over substance. But let’s burrow into the internal logic of it, anyway, without implying any external coherence.

Scientist A gets paid by Person B to say something scientific, C. If A does not believe in C, then A is dishonest. There is a commandment about bearing false witness, so this is as basic a sin as there is. Person B is complicit. The larger the payment, the worse it appears. But what if Scientist A believes in C, then there is no lie. Moreover if B only gives money to help A express C, then B supports a truth, even more so if B does not care one way or the other about C.

It all depends on what A really thinks about C and whether B actually cares about C. But it gets more complicated if B and A do not quite agree on what C is. They may not even be aware of their disagreement. What then? B could be complicit in a lie while A is completely innocent, and of course A could be dishonest even if B is innocent. The calculus of sin can be quite messy. If that were not complicated enough, A could be seduced into believing C. B sends flowers, and A likes the way the light falls on B’s shiny hair. A and B might both be honest but just distracted, and so on.

The Right Scent

The fine moral shadings of the inner machinations of A and B over C are legion. But none of them (none!) concerns the truth or falsehood of C. Science is unequivocally about C and nothing else! Science has nothing to do with the inner struggles of A and B. Scientists, when being scientific, don’t test the virtue or morality of experts to decide what’s true in nature, because they don’t believe any experts. That’s how they got to be experts. History shows that humans do an excellent job at getting things wrong, even without lies. Not believing experts is scientific. If you want to know the truth of C, just test it. Test things, not persons!

That could be the alternative translation of one of the most famous mottos in all of science, Nullius in Verba, which widely translates as “on the word of no one.” That means on science you do not take the word of the Royal Society, not the National Academy, not the word of Nobel Laureates, not the word of heads of state, or Mother Theresa. You do not take the word of any moral or scientific authority. You don’t take the word of 97 percent of the scientists. You don’t take the word of Naomi Oreskes, and you don’t take the word of movie stars or Greenpeace.

What you do is check things for yourself. Anything in a scientific journal should be checked. Anyone publishing in a journal should expect one’s work to be checked. If it cannot be checked because it is not transparent or reproducible, then the author and the journal are at fault. If it is not reproducible because of unique circumstances, like cost or duration, it may be necessary to go with the word of the authors tentatively, but it is definitely degraded in terms of scientific merit if so. The truth of science is found in type I discussion, not type III. It is the ultimate democracy.

The Stinky Fish

Let’s consider a current special case to illustrate these concepts. Dr. Wei-Hock Soon of the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics has been regularly listed as one of the bad kids on the tattling websites because of his climate research. The insinuation is that he has accepted bribes from oil companies to take the positions he does. The implied allegation is only bad in his case because the complaining persons don’t like his positions. Recently he coauthored a paper that caused them much consternation, igniting a campaign from the same quarters that generate the tattling websites, to get Dr. Soon fired. A letter was written to his employer accusing him of crimes that even Kafka would find hard to follow. But basically they boil down to the usual: taking money for lies and not confessing. Welcome to the inquisition.

Lost in the vexatious interpretations of the nonstandard language, used for arrangements in academic soft money positions, are some simple facts. The Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics employs Dr. Soon, paying him wages through money that it receives from grants, as it does for many others it employs. The grants that have been singled out by activists were like all of the others, not paid to Dr. Soon, but his employer. The Smithsonian is the sole source of his very modest living; there are no pay offs. Suggesting otherwise is false, if not a political lie. This red herring is so effective because even contesting the charges ensures that no one actually looks at the contents of the publication that set the whole thing off. It’s diabolical.

Because the press hounds followed this red herring so eagerly, activists followed up through intimidating letters from congressman to university and corporate officials, naming skeptical scientists, implying that questioning climate dogma can have serious personal repercussions. Disturbing and threatening as the revealed totalitarian impulses of this activism is, it reinforces the lesson of the climategate scandal: popular climate discourse is actually a dogma posing as science. Not only does this undermine the credibility of science, but also it destroys the collegiality needed for scientists to question each other about their works in order to move human knowledge ahead. Science has been set back a generation by the red herrings of climate activism. It’s time for it to end.

Fortunately the antidote for this stink is straightforward: think with your own head. What was in the research paper that made the savages so upset? Check the research, but leave the scientists themselves alone!


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