The Eclectic One

…Because labels are a poor substitute for thinking

Obama picks top climate change scientists and the MSM gets opposing views from philosophy majors?

Posted by Bill Nance on December 19, 2008

President-Elect Barack Obama has chosen two top scientists for his scientific advisory team, according to this article appearing on MSNBC.com.

But that’s not the real story here. The real story is about how the press continues to seek opposing views for any story it does, regardless of the lack of qualifications of the dissenter to even have an informed opinion on the subject.

Case in point:

The appointments of Harvard University physicist John Holdren as presidential science adviser and Oregon State University marine biologist Jane Lubchenco as head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which will be announced tomorrow, dismayed conservatives but heartened environmentalists and researchers. (emphasis mine)

Who cares what “dismays conservatives?” Is this a political issue or a scientific one?

That the shills for energy companies and polluters and the politicians who swallow their lies are “dismayed” means nothing. If they announce plans for Senate opposition to a seat that’s newsworthy, but that isn’t in the story.

The Bush administration’s political appointees have edited government documents to delete scientific findings and to block scientists’ recommendations on issues involving climate change, endangered species, contaminants in drinking water and air pollution.

“The Bush administration has been the most remarkably anti-science administration that I’ve seen in my adult lifetime,” Nobel laureate David Baltimore, former president of the California Institute of Technology, said in an interview. “And I do think that there will be a sea change in the Obama administration with the respect shown for the findings of science as well as the process of science.”

And then the reporter goes out for an opposing view from, wait for it…

The Competitive Enterprise Institute.

Yep, you guessed it, the press goes for an opposing view of the statements of fact in the article, statements absolutely no one disputes except Bush appointees, to an organization focused on right-wing economics, wholly funded by companies like Exxon Mobil, which has given millions to opponents of global warming (like that’s a big surprise). And who do they find to voice a solid scientific countervailing view? Myron Ebell.

Yep, everyone’s favorite right-wing nutjob, who seems to rear his ugly head every time climate change is mentioned by the press. There’s only one minor problem with Ebell being the source of this contrasting opinion: He’s not a scientist. In fact, he doesn’t even hold an undergrad degree in any scientific discipline. He’s a philosophy and economics major.

The way science works is not some free-wheeling debate of simple opinions. That’s fine for political issues, or even for economics, which is far more art than science. Science works differently than say a political debate, because science is constrained by observable and testable phenomena, not just someone’s idea of how best to approach a policy issue.

The way science is done is as follows:

First, a fact is observed. In this case, that global temperatures are rising. If you can’t observe and prove the existence of a phenomena to your peers, no one will even listen to you. The observation and reporting of the phenomena is terrific, and is something astronomers for instance, do all the time. But that’s not a scientific theory. We observe all kinds of things for which we have no conclusive or even authoritative theories to explain.

Having observed a phenomena, you attempt to come up with a hypothesis to explain it. The hypothesis has to be compatible with the observed data, and has to be testable with repeatable experiments which can show whether the hypothesis is plausible, most importantly, if thehypothesis can accurately predict a result.

The next step in the process is to perform the tests you’ve designed to prove your hypothesis. Once you have done this, assuming the experiments you’ve conducted seem to conclude your hypothesis is correct, you write a report and submit it to a peer-reviewed scientific journal…

Where it’s promptly ripped to shreds by the top minds in the field. Let me repeat that for those who may not be aware. Your peers rip your work to shreds. Scientists take positive glee in disproving someone’s hypothesis, especially if it contradicts another widely accepted or pet theory. They replicate your experiments, carefully examine both the observed phenomena and the methodology of your experiments and attempt to come up with alternative theories or other possible causes of the phenomena. Only then, if they can’t poke too many holes in your hypothesis and a consensus is developed, does your hypothesis become accepted as a valid, if often still hotly debated, theory. (It is still a “theory” because almost no theory can be demonstrated as undeniable fact. Only the observed phenomena is fact. The theory explaining the observation remains just that, a scientific theory).

Climate change opponents have done almost none of this work that has held up to scrutiny. The science on this stuff has been debated, tested, re-tested and questioned by the very top minds in the world and at this point, virtually no credible scientists deny that global climate change is occurring, that it is at least partly caused by human activities and that absent a reduction in our production of greenhouse gasses or some way to clean the atmosphere of them, we’re in for a global climate catastrophe.

I haven’t studied the data. I’m not qualified to do so, and neither in Myron Ebel. I can’t comment on the truth or validity of the test results, the computer modeling etc. All I can do, and all most of you can do, is rely on what the experts say.

It’s time for the press to stop interviewing economists on matters of hard science as though their opinion has any more meaning than any other layman’s half-assed guess. There’s an overwhelming consensus on this issue. That shills for corporate polluters scream the science isn’t valid means nothing. At the least the press could find some of the 2% of scientists who disagree with the consensus. I think those dissenters are probably wrong, and that the penalty for doing nothing is potentially so catastrophic that listening to their advice is rolling some very badly weighted dice. But at least they’re qualified to have a valid opinion. People like Myron Ebel are just noise.

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