March Madness

March Madness
March Madness
On successive weekends, the March for Science and the People’s Climate March, neatly timed to coincide with the conclusion of President Trump’s first 100 days in office, were perceived by many people as beacons warning of the environmental disaster that is sure to happen if Trump’s “anti-science” and “anti-environment” agenda is allowed to proceed unchecked. From a slightly more sanguine perspective, they reinforce that progressives appear to have lost their collective minds and hysteria will be the new normal for the foreseeable future, or at least until they get their way again.

Being pro-science and pro-environment are cornerstones of progressive dogma. As they are wont to do, progressives presume ownership in these areas. They believe that science is truth and that science can be “settled” such that no further discussion is necessary or should even be allowed. Increasingly, they are demanding radical changes on multiple policy fronts, particularly economic and energy policy, to avoid the cataclysmic events that, according to their understanding and interpretation of science, are otherwise unavoidable.

Inflexible, strident, intolerant and self-righteous, too many progressives live in a binary world where theirs is the good side and the non-aligned are so “off” that it is not impolitic to loudly and publicly vilify them for their intellectual intransigence or outright stupidity. Life must be simple in a world where doubt has been banished and refuting the arguments of those who disagree is more an exercise in naming and shaming – logic, reason and substantive argument having become passé.

Progressives’ self-proclaimed love of science and wholesale support for the environment (which today principally means stopping climate change) is vigorously propagated by much of the mainstream media and with unbridled zeal by new media. As Jack Shafer and Tucker Doherty pointed out in their recent (May/June 2017) study for Politico, The Media Bubble is Worse Than You Think, most working journalists in old or new media in the U.S. are liberal, urban and geographically concentrated in a handful of major cities on the east and west coasts of the country. Shafer and Doherty note that since 2015 internet publishing jobs started to outnumber print media jobs. They report that 73% of internet publishing jobs are in the Boston to Richmond, or Seattle to San Diego corridors and that most of these people live in “blue counties.” They further note that when, “…conservative(s) use “media” as a synonym for “coastal” and “liberal,” they’re not far off the mark.”

The relationship between the pro-science, pro-environment movement and the media is perhaps a little too cozy and the parties are a little too willing to overlook one another’s faults. One consequence is that volume and repetition often override carefully curated facts and argument, i.e., it seems that providing unwavering support for the overarching narrative is more important than verifiable truths and cogent analysis of the available facts.

Just a few days before the March for Science a piece entitled, The Other Poison Gas Killing Syrians: Carbon Dioxide Emissions, was posted by the online journal, The Nation. Author Juan Cole, a professor of History at The University of Michigan, was clearly agitated that President Trump had ordered a retaliatory airstrike against Syria over its alleged deployment of Sarin gas against civilians with deadly effect, while he and his party do nothing about reducing, but, in fact, “…are committed to increasing the daily release of hundreds of thousands of tons of a far more deadly gas—carbon dioxide.” This preposterous statement, never mind the headline, speaks volumes about both Cole and his editors’ understanding of the threat to the environment posed by CO2. Cole goes on to describe CO2 as, “the most noxious gas of all.”

According to Adip Said, in a science primer written for Biology Cabinet, Research and Advisory on Biology, “carbon dioxide is an organic compound formed by one atom of Carbon and two atoms of Oxygen (O=C=O).” The primer further notes that, “carbon dioxide is by far the most important (organic compound) for the sustainability of the biosphere (the whole of life on Earth).” Any child paying attention in elementary school science class must surely be aware of these simple, basic scientific truths but they are apparently news to Cole and The Nation who are convinced CO2 is the vilest of poisonous gases. This must rank among the most elemental misapprehensions of science ever.

The same article trucks out the variously discredited notion that climate change was a key driver of a major drought in Syria between 2007 and 2010 which displaced thousands of farm workers and their families, contributing to the conflict, loss of life, and refugee crisis in Syria. That’s a heavy burden for a simple molecule.

To be sure, this article is extremist and rooted in flights of fancy rather than fact. But there are other signs that the progressive platform suffers from more than surface rot. In a piece for The New Republic, Emily Atkin posits that Bill Nye is not the appropriate person to lead the climate fight. Known to his juvenile television audience as “The Science Guy,” Nye is not, and never has been a practising scientist. He holds a bachelor’s degree in engineering but hasn’t worked in the field for thirty-odd years. He has drawn attention lately for his climate change activism. In public appearances and YouTube videos he has become increasingly intolerant of skeptic viewpoints, makes frequent references to the climate science “consensus,” and declares the science to be settled.

Nye was front and centre in Washington during the March for Science, and was photographed behind a barricade with prominent and controversial climate scientist Michael Mann. He was also a guest on CNN just prior to the March for Science along with Princeton Physicist, William Happer, who himself is the object of some controversy as he has met with Donald Trump and is apparently under consideration for the role of chief science advisor to the president.

Happer is on record as disagreeing with the classification of CO2 as a pollutant by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) during Obama’s tenure in the Oval Office. He has also suggested that the gas is essentially benign and that the increased levels of CO2 in the atmosphere have benefitted plant growth and the planet has been greening as a consequence. His position is that, as a trace gas in the atmosphere, increased levels of CO2 do not condemn the planet to a catastrophic outcome.

As a physicist with a long and distinguished career in science, Happer’s thoughts on the issue should not be readily dismissed, but that is exactly what Bill Nye, the putative “Science Guy” did on the CNN panel. In response to Happer’s comments that humans exhale around two pounds of CO2 daily and that the planet has lately been greening, Nye went into attack mode and, as Atkin pointed out in her piece, “…scolded CNN for allowing a climate-change denier to speak with the same authority as mainstream climate scientist(s).”

Atkin then asserts that, “Nye isn’t wrong, exactly, to criticize CNN for giving Happer a platform, but he also knows better than anyone that this is how cable news conducts climate change debates.” Atkin’s concern is that Nye has become prickly and no longer uses reason to contest the positions of the other side but instead tries to shut them down. “The old Nye would have played along. He would have challenged Happer’s ignorance, and educated CNN viewers on the harms of greenhouse gases.”

Atkin’s credibility with respect to this skirmish suffers on two fronts. The first is her interpretation of Happer’s comments where she distills two points into one and in doing so misunderstands and misrepresents what the physicist said. Atkin seems to believe Happer is saying that human exhalation of CO2 has contributed to the greening of the planet. She suggests he doesn’t understand that human respiration returning carbon to the atmosphere completes a closed loop process begun when plants fix carbon from the air which is subsequently ingested by humans.

Happer’s comment about human respiration is merely intended to highlight the absurdity of calling CO2 a pollutant when it is integral to all life, including human life. His second point about the greening of the planet is substantiated by numerous studies and photographically documented by NASA satellites. A paper published in April 2016, in the journal Nature Climate Change delivered by 32 researchers from 24 institutions in eight countries reported that more available CO2 in the atmosphere was the principal driver of recent planetary greening, accounting for 70% of the increased plant growth followed by nitrogen deposition (9%), climate change (8%) and land cover change (LCC) (4%). According to NASA, “The greening represents an increase in leaves on plants and trees equivalent in area to two times the continental United States.”

Climate advocates Atkin and Nye are either ignorant of this finding or chose wilfully to ignore it. The greening is a positive externality arising from the consumption of fossil fuels and, given its scale, for advocates is an unwelcome counterpoint to their usual doom and gloom narrative. It does not, of course, represent a solution to the climate problem but it does provide mitigation. In trying to tie Happer’s two points together, Atkin asserts, “There is no such “closed loop” for the some 35 billion tons of carbon dioxide that fossil fuel combustion adds to the atmosphere every year, which is why the planet is warming.” She completely glides by the fact that the greening is net new carbon sequestration by plants on a massive scale that provides a brake for CO2-induced warming.

Nye’s response was to try and deny the legitimacy of Happer’s participation in the discussion rather than discuss the relative merits of the points he raised. This is the all too typical response from advocates; reassert the certainty of your beliefs and denigrate your opponent. While Atkin believes Nye should have argued her faulty point about a “closed loop” she is more concerned that Nye has lost his cool and no longer uses logic, fact and reason to shut down opponents.

“The problem is not Nye’s understanding of the science. It’s that he’s become unable to explain it, in simple and clear terms, to a skeptical audience. Maybe he’s been defending science for too long now, and has grown tired of debating conservative cranks whose very job is to reject everything he says. Or maybe he’s become enamored with his celebrity, and has discovered that—like the cable-news pundits and hosts he tussles with—being performative is a more lucrative path than honest inquiry and factual rigor. But so long as a partisan performance artist is the national face of the climate change fight, conservatives will continue to have a case that the left’s championing of science is all about politics.”

The second blow to Atkin’s credibility is her willingness, despite recognizing that Nye is, “…a partisan performance artist,” to grant him scientific authority over an accomplished actual scientist, in this case Happer. Presumably, the latter is just another “conservative crank.” Sensibly, of the two, which is really a “science guy,” the distinguished career physicist or the children’s entertainer? Atkin is right that Nye is ill-suited to leading the climate fight, not just because of his current state of distemper but because too many of the placard-waving marchers who follow him and the people who report on these events have a demonstrable deficit with respect to their own scientific literacy.

It’s possible Nye takes cues for the sort of behaviour he exhibited on CNN from well-known climate scientist, Michael Mann. Mann gained prominence many years ago with his “hockey stick” graph that purported to show contemporary warming proceeding at an historically unprecedented pace. Al Gore featured it in highly theatrical fashion in his hyperbolic film, An Inconvenient Truth. Mann’s findings were challenged by a number of scientists and statisticians and, depending on which side of the great climate divide you sit, you either believe he was totally exonerated or that his science is a little dodgy, or worse.

Mann interpreted the questioning of his work as a personal attack and in his book, The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars: Dispatches From the Front Lines, he rolls out his “Serengeti Strategy,” a rather clumsy analogy that seeks to position Mann as the target of predatory deniers funded by fossil fuel interests. In the book, he is critical of anyone who disagrees, friend and foe alike. Mann is serially litigious and makes a habit of denouncing other climate scientists who see things differently.

He was his usual prickly self during a recent U.S. House of Representatives’ Committee on Science, Space, and Technology hearing on Climate Science: Assumptions, Policy Implications, and the Scientific Method. During Mann’s testimony he criticized the work of fellow panelists John Christy, Judith Curry and Roger Pielke Jr., all, like Mann, tenured PhDs who have worked in the field for most or all of their careers. He chirped that Pielke is no longer working in the field and called Curry a “climate science denier.” It seems that, in Mann’s estimation, none can hold a candle to him as a scientist; they are all just wrong. This disrespect is unseemly but probably travels well in this age of social media where publicly naming and shaming is a surer path to “owning” your opponent than engaging in civil, reasoned debate. So armed, the “Science Guy” goes forth and talks smack.

What was the expected outcome of these marches and what, actually, did they achieve? Physician Jeremy Faust in a piece in Slate on April 24, The Problem With the March for Science, provides a succinct appraisal of the value of these events.

“Being “pro-science” has become a bizarre cultural phenomenon in which liberals (and other members of the cultural elite) engage in public displays of self-reckoned intelligence as a kind of performance art, while demonstrating zero evidence to justify it. On any given day, many of my most “woke” friends are quick to post and retweet viral content about the latest on what Science (and I’m capitalizing this on purpose) “says,” or what some studies “prove.” But on closer look, much of what gets shared and bandied about is sheer bullshit and is diagnostic of one thing only: The state of science (and science literacy) in this country, and most of the planet for that matter, is woefully bad.”

The March for Science and the People’s Climate March were little more than feel-good exercises where participants could publicly parade their virtue and push back against the “cranks” whose views are perhaps a little more circumspect and therefore less readily captured in a clever slogan or raucous chant. The science/climate issue has been fraught for some time. It is now another erosive agent wearing away at the thin tissue of our public discourse. As impressive as it is that so many were moved to gather and link arms in support of “science” and “climate” it would be a major step forward if the people leading the conga line and their media allies worked a little harder to understand what others are saying, were less intolerant, and could more convincingly demonstrate a legitimate claim to their assumed certainty.