Dude, Where’s My War on Science?
An Attack on EPA’s Policy Process Fails Peer Review
Science Progress contributing editor Chris Mooney surveys the interactions between science, politics, and culture. He is the author of several books, including The Republican War on Science and the forthcoming Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, co-authored by Sheril Kirshenbaum. He and Kirshenbaum blog at “The Intersection.” (Photo: flickr.com/sarahfelicity)
It was probably inevitable. Given the mileage progressives got out of slamming the Bush administration for abusing science, conservatives were bound to bring parallel charges against the Obama administration. There had already been earlier murmurs of such allegations—for instance, in a series of baseless attacks on President Obama’s science adviser, John Holdren, falsely charging that he fails to recognize the difference between “science” and “policy.” But only now have we seen the first major attempt to invert the “war on science” narrative and use it against the Obama team.
The saga began on June 26, when CBSNews.com’s Declan McCullagh—the journalist responsible for launching the infamous Al Gore/Internet story—breathily reported that the Obama administration Environmental Protection Agency “may have suppressed” a scientific report skeptical of human-caused global warming. Based on internal emails provided by the conservative Competitive Enterprise Institute, McCullagh’s story highlighted the work of a longtime EPA employee named Alan Carlin, an economist at the agency’s National Center for Environmental Economics. Carlin, it turned out, had prepared a 98 page report questioning the mainstream scientific understanding of climate change on multiple fronts. The scandal, McCullagh suggested, was that Carlin’s dissent was not adequately considered in the process leading up to the agency’s recent proposed endangerment finding on greenhouse gases.
In their zeal to find a “war on science” episode to claim as their own, however, these conservatives forgot one essential matter: substance.
Conservatives pounced on the “news”—here was an apparent science whistleblower story that closely paralleled many alleged Bush era scandals. “Are we witnessing the Democrat war on science?” asked Ben Domenech at the New Ledger. The leading global warming skeptic blog, Watts Up With That, soon posted the “censored” internal EPA document, claiming it had been obtained “courtesy of our verified contact at the EPA, who shall remain anonymous”—real cloak and dagger stuff. And Senator James Inhofe (R) of Oklahoma, who has long been the leading congressional enemy of accurate science on climate change, promptly called for a “criminal investigation” into EPA’s malfeasance—on Fox News, of course.
In their zeal to find a “war on science” episode to claim as their own, however, these conservatives forgot one essential matter: substance. If the claims about climate science in Carlin’s report—co-authored with another EPA employee from the same office, John Davidson—aren’t plausible; if leading climate scientists do not accept them; if they lack all credibility; then where there’s smoke there’s no fire. For not only would the EPA be correct to reject Carlin’s claims on substantive grounds, but indeed, as an expert scientific agency it would be bound by its mandate to do so.
Here’s where conservatives’ claims absolutely falls apart. Carlin is, as has constantly been pointed out in the aftermath of McCullagh’s article, an economics expert, not a climate scientist. And as climate scientists have considered his claims, they have withered.
Climate researcher Gavin Schmidt of NASA, for example, has written a very devastating analysis of the claims made in Carlin’s paper, calling it “a ragbag collection of un-peer reviewed web pages, an unhealthy dose of sunstroke, a dash of astrology and more cherries than you can poke a cocktail stick at.” For instance, much like Washington Post columnist George Will notoriously did earlier this year, Carlin’s report claims the globe is in a cooling trend. This is an egregious misreading of the last 10 or so years of global temperatures, and is based quite literally on a trick: If you begin with the hottest year on record—1998—then of course it looks like we’ve been cooling since then.
The Carlin report also contains numerous other climate science canards, including suggestions that the temperature trends we’ve seen are better understood as a result of solar variability than of human activity—a claim that flies in the face, as Gavin Schmidt puts it, of mountains of peer-reviewed research undertaken to detect climate change and attribute its causes. On a scientific level, this just won’t cut it.
Alan Carlin is simply not James Hansen, arguably the most famous of many scientists who claimed to have had their work suppressed or in some way interfered with during the Bush administration. You will recall that the Bush administration had taken a stance critical of mainstream climate science; Hansen felt compelled to defend it; and then NASA underlings interfered with his access to the media. That’s a vastly different story from the present one: The Obama administration has taken a stance aligned with mainstream climate science; Carlin is criticizing it; and his scientific claims are not standing up very well. Of course the Environmental Protection Agency can’t use them to help make policy. According to the EPA, Carlin’s claims were, in fact, considered—and rejected.
All of which is not to discount the possibility that a real science scandal could emerge under the Obama administration. I rather doubt it will happen on global warming, but surely there could be a scientific issue where a dissenter within the administration advances scientific claims with quite a great deal of merit to them, only to find these claims disregarded or, worse, interfered with in some way. If that happens, I and many others will criticize the administration for it. But first there will have to be some scientific substance to the whistleblower’s case; the claims should be, at minimum, seriously arguable based on the latest and best science. That’s something conservatives have flagrantly failed to understand in the present instance.
It’s precisely that disregard for scientific substance, of course, which explains why they could perpetrate a “war on science” in the first place.
Finally, it’s worth adding that even if they were documented to have occurred, one or a few instances of real scientific suppression by the Obama administration would still not render this administration somehow equivalent to the last in its nefariousness. The core point about the Bush administration is that abuses of science were systematic and legion in number, as documented by myself, the Union of Concerned Scientists, and many others. And this overwhelming assault on science was unprecedented in modern American politics. Thus far the Obama administration has done nothing remotely comparable.
Chris Mooney is contributing editor to Science Progress and author of several books, including The Republican War on Science and the forthcoming Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, co-authored by Sheril Kirshenbaum. He and Kirshenbaum blog at “The Intersection.”
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