Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Liberals and ClimateGate

Ideologues in the heat of argument often resort to the cliché that “everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.” That’s, at best, a gross oversimplification. Our ideological commitments help determine what counts as a noteworthy fact in our eyes. In a political culture as polarized as our own, the class of facts that are both perceived and recognized as normatively significant across ideological barricades shrinks nearly to the vanishing point. For all intents and purposes, each side has its own facts.

“ClimateGate,” i.e., the flap over the manipulation of data and the corruption of the peer review process by scientists associated with the Climate Research Unit at the University of East Anglia and the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, is a good example of that dynamic. Conservatives can’t stop talking about it because it illustrates liberals’ zeal to politicize vital institutions that can’t work as designed when they’re contaminated by ideology. Liberals can scarcely bother to say a word about it because, in their eyes, it’s just a little isolated scientific negligence stealing attention from the urgent imperative to address climate change legislatively.

Let’s consider the conservatives’ side of things a little more closely. In their eyes, ClimateGate is just another example of liberals being poor custodians of essential institutions. In this case, conservatives see liberals sacrificing the norms of scientific objectivity to a partisan agenda. Conservatives think this is of a piece with the demand that Dick Cheney be criminally prosecuted for acting on views about enhanced interrogation that are supported by a majority of Americans. In a single stroke, conservatives argue, liberals thereby manage to corrupt not only the standards of due process essential to the sound operation of the courts, but the democratic ideal that every citizen’s preferences should count in public-decision making.

That’s a serious charge. How serious are liberals about rebutting it?

Consider in this light Tom Friedman’s op-ed in today’s Times deploring the way conservatives are using ClimateGate to stop climate-change legislation (my emphasis).

“The climate-science community is not blameless. It knew it was up against formidable forces — from the oil and coal companies that finance the studies skeptical of climate change to conservatives who hate anything that will lead to more government regulations to the Chamber of Commerce that will resist any energy taxes. Therefore, climate experts can’t leave themselves vulnerable by citing non-peer-reviewed research or failing to respond to legitimate questions. . . .

“In my view, the climate-science community should convene its top experts — from places like NASA, America’s national laboratories, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Stanford, the California Institute of Technology and the U.K. Met Office Hadley Centre — and produce a simple 50-page report. They could call it “What We Know,” summarizing everything we already know about climate change in language that a sixth grader could understand, with unimpeachable peer-reviewed footnotes.

“At the same time, they should add a summary of all the errors and wild exaggerations made by the climate skeptics — and where they get their funding. It is time the climate scientists stopped just playing defense.”
I’ll leave it to others to decide whether Friedman's offering the scientific community a sound political strategy. I’m having trouble getting my mind around the fact that it never occurs to him to ask whether the “top experts” of the “climate-science community” should be mixing it up with the “oil and coal companies that finance the studies skeptical of climate change” or with the “conservatives who hate anything that will lead to more government regulations” or with the “Chamber of Commerce that will resist any energy taxes.”

Is it any wonder that liberals are having trouble holding their own in the ideological battle over climate-change when they’re this oblivious to what’s at issue?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Interesting observation, but I'm still missing a bigger point. Why does this question have to be a liberals vs. conservatives point? Whichever tent you're in, or part of the way in, shouldn't your views come down to whether you think humans are causing climate change vs. how you vote?