The Sciences

False Equivalence on Left-Right Science Abuse

The IntersectionBy Chris MooneyJan 12, 2011 6:56 PM

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There's much to admire in this speech, by green iconoclasts Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger, about "Why Climate Science Divides Us, But Energy Technology Unites Us." They get a lot of things right, e.g. this:

It may be hard to remember now but it wasn’t that long ago that much of the American political establishment came to believe that the science of climate would transcend ideological and national boundaries and result in common national and global action. The idea was that climate scientists would tell us what the safe level of atmospheric emissions was, and that nations would take shared steps to reducing their emissions over the next 50 years.... What happened was effectively the opposite of what most of the scientific and political establishment predicted. More scientific research divided rather than united the polity. Increasing numbers of Americans today tell Gallup that they think the news media are exaggerating global warming. And liberals and conservatives are more polarized than ever on the question of climate change – this despite the fact that media coverage of global warming increased and increasingly excluded or dismissed skeptical views.

N&S are right that this has occurred--and right that it was naive to think that better science would solve the problem. But where they're wrong is the insinuation that both sides have equally twisted science to support their policy ends. That just isn't true--on climate, or on other matters. There are certainly liberal transgressions with respect to climate science, and I've cited some in places like my book Storm World. But they pale in comparison to the outright denial and the vicious attacks on climate scientists that we've seen on the right. So it makes me pretty outraged when N&S say something like this, and dismiss the "supposed" Republican War on Science thesis as if it's just a partisan delusion:

In this way, the effort to present both climate science and green policy prescriptions as “settled” made the controversy over climate change worse, further polarizing conservatives and liberals, not just over the nature of the solutions, but also the nature of the problem. Liberal appeals to scientific authority led conservatives not to abandon their opposition to state intervention in the energy economy but to reject climate science. Lecturing Americans about Europe’s ecological superiority and the need to “fundamentally change our way of life” offended the abiding faith that many Americans have in American exceptionalism and greatness. Green portrayals of climate change as apocalyptic struck many Americans as fear-mongering. The rise in the number of Americans telling pollsters that news of global warming was being exaggerated began virtually concurrently with the release of Al Gore’s movie, An Inconvenient Truth. Conservative skepticism, in turn, enraged liberals, who attributed it to corporate propaganda, a supposed “Republican War on Science,” and anti-intellectualism. Meanwhile, left and right increasingly adopted exaggerated views of climate scientists. Liberals started treating climate scientists as prophets and martyrs. Environment writers asked climate scientists what to do about climate change, and proceeded to treat the scientists’ answers as more authoritative and credible than the answers offered by policy experts, economists, or energy experts, many of whom have a greater understanding of climate solutions than climate scientists. Meanwhile, many conservatives treated climate scientists as frauds or even corrupt.

I don't think anyone on my "side" has presented green policy prescriptions as settled. We all know there are a variety of ways to address climate change and that the science doesn't compel a particular policy outcome. And we all know scientists aren't policy experts--as do scientists themselves. It is rather annoying to get lectured about this as if we're all still sucking on intellectual pacifiers. We know about these distinctions, we affirm these distinctions--and yet we have also documented conclusively that, for admittedly complex reasons, attacks on science are clearly more prevalent on the political right in the U.S. today, with climate being the leading case study. That doesn't mean these attacks never occur on the left--N&S ought to look at vaccines, not climate-related pecadillos, if they want to make that point. But it's not the same kind of animal. The really interesting question is why left and right have split over science in the U.S. today. And I think I have some tentative answers, even beyond those already offered in The Republican War on Science. But those who keep pushing false equivalence on us certainly aren't helping to advance this important line of inquiry. In fact, they aren't even able to ask the fundamental question.

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