We have completed maintenance on DiscoverMagazine.com and action may be required on your account. Learn More

Dangers of the Middle

The Intersection
By Chris Mooney
Jan 16, 2007 12:02 PMNov 5, 2019 10:15 AM


Sign up for our email newsletter for the latest science news

I am quoted at length in this recent Boston Globeop-ed column by Cathy Young, entitled "Common sense in the warming debate." (Via Prometheus.) I really appreciate the attention from Young, but without necessarily intending to do so, she appears to have put me in a box that I don't wish to occupy. So allow me to clarify. Young starts off like this:

Global warming is the subject of intense debate. But if ideology is getting in the way of science, maybe both sides of the debate are letting that happen. While the evidence of global climate change is overwhelming, there are skeptics who challenge the consensus view that warming is caused by human activity. These individuals are routinely accused of being in the pocket of big corporations that would be hurt by aggressive measures to curb carbon emissions. (And, in fact, many of them work for groups that receive funding from such sources as ExxonMobil). Chris Mooney, author of "The Republican War on Science," has argued that treating the issue as a legitimate debate is misleading because it bestows legitimacy on pseudoscientific propaganda. But is everyone on the other side disinterested? On his blog, Mooney notes that sometimes "environmental groups and their ilk oversell the science." On the issue of whether global warming is to blame for hurricanes, he says, "it's clear the science has been abused on both sides." People can easily see economic motives to bend the facts and abuse the science. Ideological motives are less readily apparent, but no less real; and, for quite a few people, environmentalism has become a matter of not just ideology but quasi-religious zealotry.

I am then cited again at the end:

There is a growing number of voices in the scientific community that reject both denialism and alarmism on global warming. Roger Pielke, an environmental science professor at the University of Colorado, calls such people "nonskeptical heretics" -- those who believe that human-caused global warming is a real problem, but one that can be met in part with technological management and adaptation. Mooney has come to embrace such a viewpoint as well.

There's nothing literally incorrect about how my stances are portrayed in this article. But after reading it, one might get the impression that I think (as Young apparently does) that the "industry" and "environmentalist" sides are equally culpable when it comes to misusing science in the global warming debate. In fact, however, I don't think that at all. That came across clearly in my debate with Ronald Bailey out in Pasadena at the Skeptics Society meeting a number of months back. Bailey and I were debating precisely this question: who's worse when it comes to abusing science, the left or the right? I argued the right, but there were a lot of caveats. I said my position only applied to the current political moment in the United States. And then I outlined the criteria that I was using to determine who's "worse" (while admitting that this is hardly an exact science, and that a lot of judgment was necessarily involved in such a determination). Those criteria included: consequences of the misbehavior; total extent of the misbehavior; the extent to which the misbehavior is institutionalized and self-sustaining; and the extent to which the misbehavior is strategic in nature, rather than merely consisting of occasional honest mistakes. By these lights, I strongly believe that fossil fuel interests' attempts to sow doubt about climate change, which have been well funded, institutionalized, and apparently strategic in nature (see The Republican War on Science for details), far outweigh occasional missteps by environmental groups. I fully admit that those missteps have happened, and suspect they will continue to happen. And Young is right--I do see plenty of misuses of science with respect to hurricanes and global warming, and those misuses are coming from the left as well as the right. However, I do not believe there is absolute parity between both sides when it comes to misusing science on global warming generally. I am not saying, "a pox on both their houses," to rip off Shakespeare. If a "non-skeptical heretic" is one who declares such a pox, then that's not what I am.

1 free article left
Want More? Get unlimited access for as low as $1.99/month

Already a subscriber?

Register or Log In

1 free articleSubscribe
Discover Magazine Logo
Want more?

Keep reading for as low as $1.99!


Already a subscriber?

Register or Log In

More From Discover
Recommendations From Our Store
Shop Now
Stay Curious
Our List

Sign up for our weekly science updates.

To The Magazine

Save up to 40% off the cover price when you subscribe to Discover magazine.

Copyright © 2024 Kalmbach Media Co.