Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Tolerance Encourages

George Monbiot has objectively and demonstrably demolished David Bellamy, current darling of the climate-change skeptics.

It seems that Bellamy - who has impressive scientific credentials - sourced his claims about increased glacier growth to a site called Ice Age Now, which is run by a non-scientist named Robert W. Felix. Felix, in turn, sourced them to a magazine called 21 Century Science and Technology, which is published by Lyndon LaRouche.

Monbiot pursues the matter further, and finds that the LaRouche numbers came from Fred Singer of the Rev. Moon-funded anti-environmental thinktank SEPP. Singer claimed to have gotten them from "A paper published in Science in 1989."

Monbiot says this about that:

I went through every edition of Science published in 1989, both manually and electronically. Not only did it contain nothing resembling those figures, throughout that year there was no paper published in this journal about glacial advance or retreat.
Monbiot also hunts for the source of one of Bellamy's specific figures, and - in a moment of real journalistic inspiration - finds it:
While Bellamy's source claimed that 55% of 625 glaciers are advancing, Bellamy claimed that 555 of them - or 89% - are advancing. This figure appears to exist nowhere else. But on the standard English keyboard, 5 and % occupy the same key. If you try to hit %, but fail to press shift, you get 555, instead of 55%. This is the only explanation I can produce for his figure. When I challenged him, he admitted that there had been "a glitch of the electronics".

So, in Bellamy's poor typing, we have the basis for a whole new front in the war against climate science. The 555 figure is now being cited as definitive evidence that global warming is a "fraud", a "scam", a "lie". I phoned New Scientist to ask if Bellamy had requested a correction. He had not.
A couple of brief, obvious points. What Monbiot did in this column was the bare minimum required by responsible journalism. Any journalist who fails to do the same thing, whenever such claims are made, is a hack, a lazybones, and an enabler of lies. Before posting stories on this blog, I've often tracked sources and figures, researched conflicts of interest, and so forth; it usually takes a few hours, and it almost never takes more than a day or two. If Bellamy had bothered to cite his sources in the first place, Monbiot probably could've researched this piece in an afternoon.

As for Bellamy, he's living proof - as if we needed more - that scientific credentials are no guarantee of clear thinking, honesty, integrity, competence, or sanity. He also demonstrates just how much "scientific evidence" depends for its social meaning on media representation. A common positivist dogma is that in the glorious march towards truth, scientific errors will inevitably be caught and scientific liars inevitably exposed. Unfortunately, this view tends to ignore the larger question of whether or not anyone actually cares when these things happen, or whether any self-destructive human activities actually change as a result. It's not scientific evidence that shapes public policy, it's interpretation. And interpretation is something the scientific community - to the very limited extent that it exists in a monolithic form - is largely powerless to control.

What does it mean to consider yourself the ultimate arbiter of truth, philosophically speaking, when you have no unmediated access to the public? In an age where the purpose of public opinion is to rubberstamp policy, it means next to nothing. Reality is simply what the majority of the people believe is happening...unless, of course, they've been "misled" by "alarmists" and must be ignored for their own good. A public that has epistemic doubts about hardline materialism is perfectly natural and comprehensible, from a journalistic and political perspective. A public that wants affordable healthcare is an anomaly that must've come about through some contaminating influence.

Putting that aside, it seems likely that Bellamy's actions were those of a man who was confident first that his scientific eminence would protect him from inconvenient questions, and second that journalistic and public apathy would protect him from the consequences of unprofessional behavior. I can see where he'd get those ideas. Our media's politeness about lying - and their obsequiousness in the face of any liar who's brazen enough to feign outrage at having his or her honesty questioned - means that there's no longer any social penalty for lying, especially when the lie is comforting to the powerful, or pays homage in some way to a popular prejudice.


Wayne Hughes said...

When I challenged him, he admitted that there had been "a glitch of the electronics".

I seem to recall that in the mid 80s the IRS was investigating financial irregularities of Jerry Falwell. His response was "The devil got into the computer".


Phila said...

Climate change has always been very, very political. It's always met with near-hysterical resistance from industry, for one thing.

To be fair, some of their skepticism was perhaps justifiable, though they were always lousy at justifying it. But now, it's just pathological...it's a classic case of putting positions before interests. And I suspect that as these guys get more and more unable to own up to their mistakes, "mistakes" like Bellamy's will become more common...

GrrlScientist said...

Wow, very informative and well-written (and eye-opening)!


Anonymous said...

The has an article about this subject: http://www.csmonitor.com/2002/0926/p14s02-sten.html interesting reading.