Works in Progress

Week in Review / by Evan Lerner /

Whether it is climate change or life on Mars, revealing the hairy—and human—underbelly of how science is done means controversy for the public at large.

Illustration: Shipra Gupta

The inescapable story of the last two weeks has been what the kids are calling “ClimateGate.” Hackers got a hold of ten years worth of emails from one of the world’s top climate change research centers, the Climate Research Unit at the University of East Anglia, and published them, airing laundry of various degrees of dirtiness.

The most damning of the revelations was that scientists appear to have conspired to fight a Freedom of Information Act request by deleting emails and raw data. This has led CRU’s director, Phil Jones, to temporarily step down while an independent investigation takes place.

Beyond that, the gloves have come off as both sides try to claim victory by framing the debate in their favor. Outside the enclaves of active deniers and actual climate scientists, the commentary surrounding ClimateGate comes off as even-handed, criticizing researchers to task for cutting corners but ultimately siding with the consensus on anthropogenic global warming. If there was one particularly gloomy theme that ran through this commentary, it was that the researchers shot themselves, and science, in the foot when it comes to its credibility among the populace. 

But the New Republic’s John Derbyshire, of all people, mounts a half-defense entitled “Trust Science.” He admittedly “cops out” on whether the science is settled; the most he will say is that it seems like the Earth is “enjoying” a warming period (yes, enjoying). His cop out is more of a political calculation than an admission of ignorance, though; after two high-profile rank-breakings by conservative bloggers—Charles Johnson and Andrew Sullivan—it looks like Derb is trying to hedge on whether attacking or defending science will lose him more conservative cred.

Derbyshire isn’t scientifically illiterate—he’s come to the defense of evolution more than once—and his defense in this case consists of reminding climate change skeptics that science itself is a process of continued skepticism. Consensus emerges when alternatives have been systematical eliminated. But with friends like these, you don’t need enemies. Here’s his description of who is doing the research he purports to defend:

The climate-change legions are recruited mainly from the Western Left-intelligentsia, their kitbags stuffed with all the sub-Marxist and ethno-masochist flapdoodle of the modern academy. They hate capitalism, they hate Western civilization, and they hate their own ancestors.

He follows that paragraph with one that charitably suggests that climate change skepticism isn’t entirely free of politics, either. You don’t say? I nearly missed that after reading the description of science as being a nest of communist race-traitors

If there’s one good takeaway from Derb’s piece it’s that it is important to remember just who the real contrarians here are. The best of our collective research and analysis may point to only one conclusion—that humans are causing potentially devastating shift in our climate—but it is obvious that outside academia’s walls, this is far from received wisdom.

Senator James Inhofe, the Senate’s most outspoken global warming denier, has been working his shtick as a member of Congress for over 20 years. We’re still closer to his vision of how carbon emissions should be handled than we are to Al Gore’s. And Gore’s position is moderate compared to that of people who actually work with the raw data everyday.

The CRU scientists apparently didn’t want to respond to the stream of FOIAs they received because they believed deniers would intentionally misrepresent the raw data in order to further confuse the public. The irony is, however, that it likely doesn’t matter what non-scientists believe. Plenty of raw data is available from elsewhere, but the lines of attacks from Glenn Beck, thousands of web trolls, and now a number of House Republicans still conflate disagreements on how to represent an anomalous year of tree-ring data with the entire edifice of climate change research.

Whether this is intentional or unintentional, the term for this disinformation technique won’t be published here, but might be referred to as coitus rattus. They have successfully moved the window of the public debate to whether science provides a worthwhile basis for political decision-making, not how to control for temperature collection gaps in various climate models or how many parts-per-million of carbon dioxide our atmosphere can tolerate. 

Need proof? Inhofe may crow that cap-and-trade legislation will be one of the casualties of ClimateGate, even though a Pew Research Poll suggests that half the nation supports it. Tarring climate change science could conceivably lower that number, though I wouldn’t be too sure: The Pew poll also suggests that less than a quarter know that cap-and-trade has anything to do with climate change.

Life (and Death) on Mars

The furor surrounding ClimateGate is a stark reminder that the practice and process of science is something totally opaque to most people. New scientific knowledge is generated in a landscape of individuals, experiments, institutions, and publications (a process complex enough to warrant several fields of academic study). The incremental and provisional nature of discovery is not something that maps itself well to professions that people have more day-to-day interaction with. 

Space science is one field that seems to generate exceptions. The Moon landing is often held up as the pinnacle of the public’s engagement with science; successfully getting a team of humans onto the Moon got the entire world to gather around their televisions.

But now we have a small army of remote-control robots exploring a whole other planet and this fact barely registers, even when their missions are in grave danger. Spirit, one of the two rovers currently traversing the face of the Red Planet, may have found its final resting place. While the nearly six years of service it has provided is almost all windfall on top of its original three-month mission, it now seems to be permanently stuck on the edge of a lonely crater. But even in death, Spirit works on: in a last-ditch effort to free a stuck wheel, the rover kicked up some sulfates, which could be evidence of steam vents and the microbial life that might have thrived in them. 

Which is why it isn’t totally strange that when NASA has even more compelling evidence that there was once microbial life on our nearest planetary neighbor, it isn’t even a national news event. The most likely answer is that NASA has been burned before. The purported microbial fossils come from a meteorite that was first in the news more than a decade ago, when NASA’s initial suggestion that it contained evidence of Martian life was shot down. Then there were the Vikings missions in the ‘70s, which were met with a similar fate. The disappointment and disillusionment that occurred there makes LCROSS’s failure to raise a Wile-E-Coyote-style dust cloud look pretty tame. 

The dearth of interest in the fate of our Mars missions—whether there once was life there, or what the lunar water discovered by LCROSS means for our species—has the same roots as the continued confusion over climate change. Progress of knowledge, for most people, means coming to concrete results that are unlikely to change or be re-evaluated over time. They are less interested in knowledge generation as an iterative process.

Nick Bostrom, director of the Future of Humanity Institute at Oxford, thinks that evidence of past life on Mars is bad news for us. That would mean life is common, and its total extinguishment equally so. As fascinating as this hypothesis is, if the terrestrial evidence of life’s precarious nature isn’t enough to get people to pay attention, I’m not sure what the fossils of Martian microbes are going to do for us.

Each week, Seed’s Evan Lerner offers his take on the events and issues that shape science, science policy, and science journalism. Read previous Weeks in Review here, or follow him on Twitter.

Originally published December 3, 2009

Tags bias climate policy robotics space truth

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