Tuesday, May 23, 2006

The word’s out: Puffing up global warming is scientifically acceptable, a legitimate activity required to get people’s attention on this important issue.

The latest example is Al Gore’s global warming horror show, “An Inconvenient Truth.” Most people with a standard American science education (i.e. none) will leave convinced that the world is going to come to an end from climate change — or, rather, that it has already started to do so.

It’s a sad fact that some scientists, and scientist wannabes (like Mr. Gore) take this tack, because it will only weaken the public’s growing distrust in what they perceive is a scientific elite that leaves them out of the feedback loop. Presumably safe drugs develop unforeseen and fatal side effects. Engineers charged to protect a major city build levees that crash in what (in New Orleans) was a modest hurricane. Their hybrid cars don’t get the mileage EPA says they will.

So here’s what Al told Grist Magazine about global warming: “I believe it is appropriate to have an overrepresentation of factual presentations on how dangerous it is, as a predicate for opening up the audience.”

It would be nice to think he came up with this de novo. But exaggeration of global warming has long been considered virtuous.

Consider NASA’s James Hansen. He has claimed the Bush White House muzzled him on global warming. How muzzled is certainly debatable. He has far more recent news citations than any other climate scientist.

He also started the whole global warming hysteria, with some remarkably inflammatory congressional testimony in 1988, and he is Al Gore’s climate guru. Here’s what he wrote in 2003 from his Broadway office, in the online journal Natural Science: “Emphasis on extreme scenarios may have been appropriate at one time, when the public and decisionmakers were relatively unaware of the global warming issue.” In fact, in 1989, he told The Washington Post he felt it was his duty to bring global warming to the attention of the political process. Apparently it was also “appropriate” to exaggerate it for political effect.

Stanford’s Stephen Schneider, interviewed by Jonathan Schell in Discover magazine later that year, spoke of the need to “capture the public’s imagination.” Scientists would have to “offer up scary scenarios, make simplified, dramatic statements, and make little mention of any doubts we might have. … Each of us has to decide what is the right balance between being effective and being honest.”

The bias of scientists can actually be proven mathematically. Examine the major scientific journals, university press releases, or individual newspaper articles resulting from either. You’ll find out that it’s almost always “worse than we thought.” A survey I did last year put the ratio of “worse” rather than “better” news on global warming at about 15-to-1.

Of course, any new information added to a forecast has an equal probability of making it “worse” or “better,” similar to the odds for flipping a coin. The odds of throwing only one “head” in 16 tosses are less than 1 in 4,000.

There are many reasons for this bias. Most environmental scientists pursue their profession because they have some strong feelings about the environment, just as doctors often are passionate about human health and welfare.

Then issues compete for public attention (i.e. funding). Presenting them in as important a light as possible is required by such competition. And without funding, there’s no research, which means, for most scientists, a new job.

That’s “The Inconvenient Truth” about global warming. Prominent scientists feel it’s perfectly fine to exaggerate, and so does the former vice president.

Their wish is that such exaggeration brings forth the political will to regulate our energy supply because of global warming. Such a prospect will be profoundly expensive, and by every analysis, will do nothing measurable about climate change itself. Mr. Gore’s own scientists have told him this. But the cost to society from the cheapening of science will stay with us for generations.

Patrick J. Michaels is senior fellow in environmental studies at the Cato Institute and author of “Meltdown: The Predictable Distortion of Global Warming by Scientists, Politicians, and the Media.”

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