I'm a Republican and live in Vermont. Consequently, I'm often embarrassed by our elected representatives. Years ago, Sen. Patrick Leahy, for example, earned the nickname “Leaky Leahy” and was persuaded to resign from the Senate Intelligence Committee after leaking secrets to the press. Now, on the Judiciary Committee, he's currently seeking secret government files on the Terror War with a straight face. And there was the time when he chewed on the Bush administration's arms, legs, and ears in Congress, attributing their policies to vile motives, then afterwards, with a big smile, unctuously tried to buddy up to Vice President Cheney, who was visiting Capital Hill. Leahy loves to rub elbows with celebrities and, apparently, counted on Cheney's usual mellow courtesy to provide him a polite reception and a photo op to show the rubes back home how he was pals with a VIP. With refreshing candor, Cheney suggested the two-faced Leahy go engage in the reproductive act with himself. Our other senator, Sen. Bernard Sanders, a fervent Socialist, believes America should withdraw from the World Trade Organization because it favors multinational corporations and The Rich. The WTO is the very organization the world's major socialist state, China, was so desperate to join that it spent over 15 years trying to look winsome to WTO members. When you're flying to the left of Communist China, you may want to check your oxygen gauge. These gentlemen subtracted from their repute recently when they co-signed with Sen. John Kerry and Sen. Dianne Feinstein a letter to the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank.
The Guardian, a British newspaper, had printed an article accusing AEI of offering $10,000 provided by ExxonMobil to scientists to dispute a United Nation's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, which claims that global warming is occurring and is caused by humanity. The four senators, on U.S. Senate letterhead, wrote AEI to tell them that they would be “saddened,” if this newspaper's claims were true, “by the depths to which some would sink” to challenge the consensus proponents of human-caused global warming believe they have amassed. It further claimed this would “highlight the extent to which moneyed interests distort honest scientific and public policy discussions in Washington.” They labeled the payment a bribe and asked, “Does your donors' self-interest trump an honest discussion over the well-being of the planet?” The letter piously claimed that the signers “passionately defend” the right of “those who choose to ignore the experts” while passionately attacking those they believe fit that description. The four senators ominously declared they wouldn't “stand silently by while organizations attempt to undermine science through offers of significant amounts of money.” What exactly they would do instead of silently standing is left to AEI to imagine. The senators then demanded an apology, disciplining of those who were responsible, and a response to their letter.
Sanders, in a statement on his official web site, was more explicit: “It's outrageous that a right-wing think tank with ties to Big Oil and the Bush Administration is trying to twist scientific findings for their political purposes…Is there no limit to the lengths that some corporate-funded groups will go to protect their donors' short-term profits? Is the fate of the entire planet not important enough for them to put the common interest above their narrow self-interest? The truth is that this scandalous behavior on the part of AEI is just the latest example of how big money interests distort and undermine honest debate on the important issues facing our country in so many areas.”
Most might be taken aback by an insulting, threatening letter from four U.S. senators demanding conformity to their opinions but Christopher DeMuth, president of AEI, politely responded that the story in the Guardian was false and pointed out that AEI had answered the allegations on their web site before the senators composed their letter. A little pointing and clicking could have gotten them the information they demanded without the pompous histrionics of the letter, which, of course, was released to the media without waiting for AEI's answer. DeMuth pointed out that AEI's publications and conferences have included advocates of human-caused global warming and that much of the work they supported on the issue was related to how to respond to global warming. He said the think tank, as do other think tanks both conservative and liberal, offered stipends for research, writing, and conference participation. $10,000 isn't chump change but, in return for the many hours the experts spent on these efforts, it isn't exorbitant or above the compensation offered by other think tanks. DeMuth also insists, “AEI has never paid anyone to conduct research with a predetermined result and has never accepted a donation premised on such research.” As for the oil company money, a statement on the AEI web site reported they received a total of $1.6 million from ExxonMobil over seven years and that this sum represented less than 1% of the donations to AEI from that period.
Liberal senators aren't the only ones attacking AEI. Boston Globe columnist Ellen Goodman repeated their charges and added “…global warming deniers are now on a par with Holocaust deniers.” The outrageousness of her attack is only matched by the self-righteous, nodding acceptance of people on her side of the issue of this vile comparison. The Holocaust is a historical event that is tragically easy to prove. Human-caused global warming isn't so easily demonstrable. It requires an evaluation of past climatic conditions and projections into the future based upon scientific theories that may not be valid and data that may not be accurate. We may not even know what we need to know. Equating those that doubt conjectures about global warming to Holocaust deniers doesn't support the theories or data; it's just a vile smear meant to end skepticism by identifying it with evil. Similarly, “consensus” is employed to stigmatize skeptics as not part of the wise majority.
The invocation of consensus is the argument that young Johnny uses on his parents when he wants to do something they think inadvisable: “All the other kids think jumping off a bridge/smoking dope/going to a heavy metal concert with a biker gang is cool so why can't I.” While consensus can sometimes produce good results-maybe the other kids are right about a biker gang being a good escort to a heavy metal concert-it often produces a result that has little other than common prejudice or established orthodoxy to back it. This is hardly a scientific approach to a scientific issue. Nature doesn't respond to opinion polls, even of scientists, and many things that were once deemed a fact everyone held to be true have proven to be false after skeptics started asking questions. Indeed, the scientific process requires skepticism to drive scientific progress.
The charge that skepticism is fueled by oil money is an attack on the character of the skeptics. If you have trouble responding to skeptical questioning, call the questioner a scoundrel in the pay of evil-doers. While this may make you feel virtuous, it doesn't answer the questions. To reply in kind is to stoop to this ad hominem level of attack but, since it is in play here, we might want to consider that a lot of money is being spent promoting the concept of human-caused global warming and that, if this view results in official action, many, many billions of dollars will be consumed in any plan to limit it. A lot of people will have nice government careers spending that money. $10,000 for a research paper hardly compares.
One of the great ideals of Western civilization, approached over the centuries through enormous sacrifice, is the right to question authority, be it a powerful individual, a government, or the authority of common consensus. This sentiment was once a hallmark of liberal thought. How many Volvos at colleges across America have borne, without conscious irony given politically correct academe, the bumper sticker: “Question Authority”? In this case, the senators and the columnist are claiming consensus gives them authority and that this makes them above questioning. This betrays progress and, quite pragmatically, makes errors more likely. If the theory of human-caused global warming is valid, it will stand up to questioning and will be strengthened by it. It shouldn't need smears and threatening proclamations that it is above debate.
In her column, Goodman began by reporting she had bought an environmentally friendly fluorescent light bulb. She modestly said this wouldn't defeat global warming, adding, “Even the Prius in our driveway doesn't do a whole lot to reduce my carbon footprint, which is roughly the size of the Yeti lurking in the (melting) Himalayas.” Ironically, two days later, the Hindustan Times carried an article about the “melting” Himalayas. V. K. Raina, a leading glaciologist specializing in Himalayan glaciers and a high-ranking member of the Geological Society of India, was quoted as saying glacial retreat is being sensationalized. “Claims of global warming causing glacial melt in the Himalayas are based on wrong assumptions,” he said. Dr. R. K. Ganjoo, Director, Regional Centre for Field Operations and Research on Himalayan Glaciology, agreed, saying nothing abnormal has been found in the glaciers he has studied. And, geologist M. N. Koul of Jammu University, who is studying glaciers in another Himalayan area, declared glaciers there had not changed much in twenty years. These gentlemen may be wrong and their conclusions should be dissected but their on the spot expertise impresses me more than Goodman's glib asides.
Yet another, recent development in the human-caused global warming debate was discussed on the same date in the London Times. Nigel Calder, former editor of New Scientist, argued that orthodoxy about climate change must be challenged. He noted that solar output bears a marked congruence to climate changes (our sun is a moody entity, shining brighter and dimmer over time) and also noted experiments by the Swedish scientist Henrik Svensmark that indicated cosmic rays, generated by solar activity, trigger the formation of clouds, which trap solar radiation, causing global warming. Scientific consensus had previously insisted cosmic rays didn't trigger clouds. Svensmark's work should inspire some skeptical questioning of his experiments and of the global warming mechanism the consensus accepts. For Goodman, if she keeps to the sentiments expressed in her column, it'll inspire a quest to discover a cash explanation for the research. How did Big Oil bribe those clouds into being? Or more simply, since Calder and Svensmark collaborated on a book about the research and, presumably, will collect royalties, Goodman can dismiss the clouds as not existing at all. This is uncomfortably close to the historical case of Galileo, who was forced by the orthodoxy of his era to recant his theory that the Earth moved around the Sun and not vice versa. It's said that after he recanted, under his breath, he added, “… and yet it still moves.”
To the saddened senators, DeMuth wrote, “I want you to know that AEI will continue to sponsor research and host speakers on climate change issues whose views we regard as reasonable and worthy of attention--never seeking to undermine any consensus for its own sake, but also never paying heed to whether particular views are in or out of official favor. AEI scholars have stood in opposition to established orthodoxy many times; we cherish our intellectual freedom and are proud of the uses we have made of that freedom; we will not be silenced by threats to that freedom.”
A fair, enquiring mind must entertain the case for human-caused global warming and ask what if its advocates are right? But a fair mind must also ask what if they're wrong? And we should never let anyone intimidate us into not asking questions.
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