Posted by: Barry Bickmore | May 1, 2010

Politicizing Science

In my previous posts, I recounted how Rep. Mike Noel (R-Kanab) had invited all sorts of non-experts to testify about climate science to his committee in the Utah Legislature.  When he finally did invite a couple experts, Noel and his colleagues gave more than equal weight to the testimony of Roy Spencer, a climatologist whose views on climate change are representative of about 2-3% of active climate scientists.

My office is next door to a very good glaciologist/paleoclimatologist, Summer Rupper, and when we heard about the circus being put on by Rep. Noel and his pals we decided to write a letter to the Legislature urging them to act more responsibly.  We got 16 other scientists at BYU to help edit and sign the letter.  (Click here to see the letter, and here to see an article about it in the Salt Lake Tribune.)  In the letter, we pointed out that some of Roy Spencer’s and others’ comments at the hearing were flatly wrong, but the main thing we tried to get across was that we felt it was inappropriate to give undue weight to fringe positions, and that these legislators were effectively trying to manipulate the science to fit their political agenda.

When we said we thought Mike Noel and Co. “politicized” the science, we meant that they have actually tried to distort what climate science says so that it will more easily support the particular courses of political (in)action they favor.  The response to our criticisms by Rep. Chris Herrod (R-Provo) showed that 1) he has a very odd idea of what it means to “politicize” science, and 2) we were right.

Here’s what Rep. Herrod said to the Salt Lake Tribune.

“The problem is the other side is already making policy that will cost trillions of dollars,” Herrod said.

“The more they say there is consensus, the more they lose credibility,” said Herrod, a real estate developer and entrepreneur who received a master’s degree in organizational behavior from BYU.

“There is no consensus,” he said. “Send us a study that addresses all the points that were made. [Without that] they are hurting their case.”

In a subsequent op-ed in the Tribune, Herrod said,

Recently, 18 Brigham Young University professors accused the Legislature’s Public Utilities Committee of politicizing the science surrounding global warming. Unfortunately, the science has already been politicized and some have an agenda.

In other words, Rep. Herrod seems to think that the science has “already been politicized” because some people have used it to support political agendas.  So does this mean that policy makers should never use scientific arguments to support their agendas?

The fact is that the balance of scientific evidence indicates that human-induced climate change will probably be a big problem.  It seems obvious to me that if science indicates there is a “big problem,” people who favor enacting some particular type of political solution can legitimately point to the science to support their views.  If there’s no problem, there’s no need for a solution, after all.  Does the fact that there is a problem mean that any given political solution is a good idea?  Of course not.  However, that doesn’t justify people who do not favor such political solutions in denying that there is a problem.  E.g., I may not like Communism, but that wouldn’t justify me in denying that workers are sometimes exploited by the rich.  In fact, I would be a complete idiot if I denied it just because Communists cite this problem as justification for their proposed solution.

Herrod did deny the problem, though.  Faced with 97.4% of active climate scientists who agree that humans are having a significant effect on climate, he could claim, “There is no consensus.”  He pontificated that unless we write an article (!!!) that refutes every single point made against the consensus-that-doesn’t-exist, we are “hurting [our] case.”

Boy, isn’t he the tough-minded politician, who won’t put up with these snotty academics trying to ram “consensus science” down his throat!  Let’s see what kind of scientific points this gritty, no-nonsense iconoclast put forward to explain why he rejects what the vast majority of the scientists believe.

First, is global warming occurring? Since the Earth is coming out of an ice age and been significantly warming throughout its history, most agree this is true.

Second, is human activity the primary source of this warming, and if so, is it enough to cause catastrophic harm? Catastrophic predictions are possible only if climate models assume positive amplification of minor man-made warming. Many “nonconsensus” scientists doubt this and other assumptions and are concerned about the reliability of the complex models.

That’s right.  He agrees that the Earth is warming, but he questions whether humans are affecting it much BECAUSE… there are some scientists who question it.

TRANSLATION:  Chris Herrod has no scientific background, so he doesn’t have a clue whom to believe.  So without any factual basis for his decision, he goes along with the 2.6% of active climate scientists who disagree with the rest about human effects on climate.  He lambastes his critics for pointing to a 97.4% majority of scientists working in the relevant fields when arguing their case, but then all he can do in response is point to the 2.6% holdouts.

Why would Herrod jump on such a tiny bandwagon?  During the hearing, Rep. Herrod approvingly quoted Vaclav Klaus, who said that global warming is “the new religion to replace Communism.”  In his op-ed, he explained,

I admit my bias. I fear a global economic meltdown and the loss of freedom much more than any global warming theory, but I am still open to discussion. Please convince me with the science; not by simply saying “there is consensus.”

So Rep. Herrod demands to be convinced with scientific arguments instead of “consensus,” but the only argument he offers is that there are a few scientists who disagree with the consensus.  He justifies himself in distorting the state of the scientific debate because he fancies himself an Anti-Communist Freedom Fighter.

I’ll have more to say about the Crusade Against Communism in Utah later.  For now, it’s worthwhile to read climatologist Rob Davies’ op-ed in response to Chris Herrod’s.



  1. […] Pierrehumbert and Tamino (here, here, and here).  My Utah readers will remember that Roy Spencer was invited to testify before a committee of the Utah Legislature last […]

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