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Playing politics with data.


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Iain Murray

A new front in the war over “sound science” opened on February 29, with the publication of a Washington Post oped by former American Prospect Online editor Chris Mooney, “Beware ‘Sound Science.’ It’s Doublespeak for Trouble.” In this article, Mooney argues that the Bush administration has twisted the idea of “sound science” so that “instead of allowing facts to inform policies, preexisting political commitments have twisted facts and tainted information.” He warns that, as a result, “The once-cooperative relationship between politicians and scientists in this country seems to be in serious jeopardy.” Yet a close look at the facts reveals that Mooney’s argument is as much doublespeak as anything he criticizes the administration for.

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Mooney accuses the Bush administration of putting “the policy before the science” of global warming. However, he uses a sleight of hand or two to misrepresent the state of the debate. Mooney argues that the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has confirmed that global warming is occurring. This is true. But then he asserts that the IPCC found that this was happening “thanks to our relentless pumping of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.” This is a distortion of the facts, one commonly believed because of unsatisfactory summaries of the scientific findings in the IPCC report. Mooney further alleges that the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) “confirmed the IPCC’s findings,” thereby embarrassing the president.

In fact, as IPCC lead author and NAS contributor Richard Lindzen of MIT has repeatedly said, these characterizations of the state of the science are inaccurate. Writing recently in Canada’s Hill Times newspaper (Feb. 23), he said,

[I]t is quite wrong to say that our NAS study endorsed the credibility of the IPCC assessment report. We were asked to evaluate the IPCC “Summary for Policymakers” (SPM), the only part of the IPCC reports that is ever read or quoted by the media and politicians. The SPM, which is seen as endorsing Kyoto, is commonly presented as the consensus of thousands of the world’s foremost climate scientists. In fact, it is no such thing. Largely for that reason, the NAS panel concluded that the SPM does not provide suitable guidance for the U.S. government…

The full IPCC report, most of which is written by scientists about specific scientific topics in their areas of expertise, is an admirable description of research activities in climate science. It is not, however, directed at policy. The SPM is, of course, but it is also a very different document. It represents a consensus of government representatives, rather than of scientists. As a consequence, the SPM has a strong tendency to disguise uncertainty, and conjures up some scary scenarios for which there is no evidence.

Similarly, in the case of our NAS report, far too much attention was paid to the hastily prepared summary rather than to the body of the report. The summary claimed that greenhouse gases are accumulating in Earth’s atmosphere as a result of human activities, causing surface air temperatures and subsurface ocean temperatures to rise. Yet, the full text noted that 20 years was too short a period for estimating long term trends, a crucial point that the summary neglected to mention. Our primary conclusion was that despite some knowledge and agreement, the science is by no means settled. [Emphases added].

[You can check Professor Lindzen's remarks by reading the body--not the summary--of the NAS report here.]

So who is misrepresenting the science, the Bush administration or its political opponents? The doublespeak surely comes from those who claim reports say one thing when the text says another. Far from making the policy choice first, in the area of global warming the administration seeks a careful review of the actual science, not just a brief reading of an unsatisfactory summary.

The idea that either Left or Right has a monopoly on the correct interpretation of science is dangerous nonsense. Attacks on the idea of sound science, whether in the pages of the Washington Post or in a report from the politically active Union of Concerned Scientists, represent attempts to promote “our science” over “their science.”

Sound science remains a useful concept, preserving the usefulness of the tool by applying objective rules that discount political considerations. That is why both Congress–through the Federal Data Quality Act–and the Supreme Court–through the Daubert Ruling on admissibility of scientific evidence–have recognized the need for such rules. Condemning objective rules because you don’t like the political results of those rules helps no one other than partisan forces. Science needs to rise above that.

Iain Murray is a senior fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, where he specializes in the debate over climate change and the use and abuse of science in the political process.



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