Mercury Rising 鳯女

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Archive for April 6th, 2011

Useful idiot

Posted by Charles II on April 6, 2011

Professor Richard Muller, UC-Berkeley (from UCLA Today)

Margot Roosevelt of the Los Angeles Times has reported that climate change skeptic Richard Muller, a physicist at UC Berkeley, testified to Congress that his first review of the data– whose largest funder is the Charles Koch Foundation–unexpectedly confirmed the scientific consensus that there is global warming (or, perhaps more accurately, climate chaos) by demonstrating that the “urban heat island effect” does not distort the temperature series data. Sadly, this project also receives some federal funding through Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory. The project has been criticized for relying entirely on statistical analysis while excluding people whose specialties are related to the mechanism by which warming can occur. And, regrettably, Muller is saying that he has yet to look at 98% of the rest of data, meaning that this charade could go on for years.

Unfortunately, this is a pattern: a scientist working out of his area of expertise has his opinion amplified by financial interests who would profit if it were right, while the people who are most knowledgeable get a cursory hearing outside of the scientific journals. That’s why you hear so much about the health benefits of certain foods, while the risks of lead, tobacco, and radioactivity are suppressed, often for generations: industries who profit from misdirecting you publicize any scrap of evidence that supports their case, while there is no one except honest citizens and the increasingly-rare honest journalist to publicize the reverse. The case study is probably William Shockley, the Nobel Prize winning inventor of the transistor who, alas, resurrected scientific racism from its earlier eugenic roots. Shockley was brilliant and persuasive, but he was working outside his field of expertise. He would have been ignored had there not been powerful interests that use racial discrimination as a means of keeping people divided and willing to work for less.

It is not proven that carbon emissions and methane and other greenhouse gases cause climate change.  Essentially nothing in science is proven: it can only be established to be repeatable within certain limits of uncertainty. And so any person who wants to test the data and come to a different conclusion is welcome to do so. But any scientist is trained to keep in mind that there are two kinds of error in science: the possibility of missing a true effect and the possibility of wrongly reporting an effect that does not exist. Furthermore, scientists at the professorial level are aware that there are consequences to each kind of error. If we are wrong that human activity causes global warming/climate chaos, generously estimated as a 5% probability, and we do take action, then we will spend several hundred billion dollars, and end up with a cleaner environment, improved public health, and cheaper transportation among other benefits. Oil companies will make their money a little slower, and certain industries (like service stations and auto dealerships) will likely undergo significant changes and some people–millions probably–will have their lives disrupted. We should not neglect the losers, and compensate them in some way. But if we are right that human activity causes global warming/climate chaos–a greater than 95% probability– and do nothing, then we will destroy the world.

All the trillions of dollars in corporate coffers will not save billions of human lives. The geoengineering  “solutions” being proposed, to alter the climate by, say,  injecting sulfur dioxide into the upper atmosphere are, very simply, insane. What are the consequences if they do not work as anticipated, versus the consequences of simply reducing emissions? Ironically, there’s a very simple geoengineering solution that would reduce emissions without enormous unintended consequences: convert more sunlight into work.  But this one doesn’t stand to make any industry billions in excess profits, and so it is not discussed.

Every scientist, every person, should feel free to hold a contrary opinion and research unpopular ideas. Even the idea that certain human subgroups are more or less adept at certain things is not disproven. I’ve always wondered why so many melanin-deficient people seem to be so fixated on violence as a solution and so deficient in human empathy for suffering–perhaps a valuable inquiry could be made into that question.  But when research largely benefits a commercial interest while potentially producing great public harm, every scientist has a duty to find something else to do. Otherwise, no matter how sincere they may be, they become someone else’s useful idiot.

(By the way,  kudos to Roosevelt for writing a reasonably balanced piece on a complicated topic. One wishes she had pointed out that so-called “Climategate” has been investigated and dismissed as yet one more right-wing hallucination. But this is better journalism than the LA Times has a right to expect from its oppressed staff).

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