A Climate Mob

By Keith Kloor | April 3, 2014 7:59 am

In the mid-2000s, I was researching an archaeology story that took me to several national parks in the Southwest. At one of them, the National Park Service (NPS) archaeologist discussed competing theories about the disappearance of a mysterious ancient culture. For decades, there had been heated debate among scholars over what became of this culture.

In an aside, the NPS archaeologist told me how professional squabbles in her field prompted her at one point to flee the Southwest to do archaeology in another region. Why? “One reason I left is I find southwestern archaeologists… [long pause] very unforgiving.” How so? “Part of it is the backstabbing.” The archaeologist didn’t care to elaborate, so we turned back to a discussion on the different factors that led to a depopulating of the American Southwest a millennium ago.

By this time, I had already learned that some topics in southwestern archaeology were highly contentious, that the field was fraught with cultural biases and that one scientist in particular–Christy Turner–had felt the wrath of his colleagues for research that challenged prevailing views.

Of course, turf battles and petty behavior are not unique to anthropology (though the field has its share of high profile controversies). And the fierceness of scholarly combat is usually confined to academic conferences and journals. (Sometimes it spills into public view–oh look, another example from anthropology.) But when research has public policy implications, it attracts wider interest and scrutiny. And if the research leaps onto the political stage, it becomes cannon fodder for competing agendas.

Several years after my sojourn in the Southwest, a tranche of emails from climate scientists were stolen from a university server and made public on the internet. The 2009 episode, which became known as “Climategate,” did not undermine the multiple lines of evidence for human-caused climate change. But the event reverberated globally because 1) climate change had already become an intensely political and partisan issue, and 2) the emails were leaked just prior to an international meeting that many had hoped would lead to an agreement between nations to curtail their carbon emissions. That expectation proved unrealistic.

By this time, I had recently switched from my day job as an editor covering the environment for Audubon magazine to a freelancer writing and blogging more frequently about climate change. I also started my own blog–Collide-a-Scape, where I interrogated the claims, arguments and tactics used by the various combatants in the climate debate. Sometimes I touched a nerve. It soon became apparent to me that anything I wrote on the subject of climate change–including responses to a reader at my own blog–had the potential to be cherry-picked for the blogospheric funhouse.

This is just one dimension of the warped environment that much coverage, commentary, and discussion of climate change takes place in. My own fleeting experiences pale in comparison to those of climate scientists, whose work is the subject of intense and relentless public scrutiny. A number of them have been unfairly treated, hounded, and personally slandered for years.

To those aware of this history it came as no surprise that the correspondence between climate scientists made public in 2009 revealed a siege mentality. It also revealed a side of scientists that people didn’t normally see, which I thought was then put into terrific context by one biologist:

Science doesn’t work despite scientists being asses. Science works, to at least some extent, because scientists are asses. Bickering and backstabbing are essential elements of the process. Haven’t any of these guys ever heard of “peer review”?

There’s this myth in wide circulation: rational, emotionless Vulcans in white coats, plumbing the secrets of the universe, their Scientific Methods unsullied by bias or emotionalism. Most people know it’s a myth, of course; they subscribe to a more nuanced view in which scientists are as petty and vain and human as anyone (and as egotistical as any therapist or financier), people who use scientific methodology to tamp down their human imperfections and manage some approximation of objectivity.

But that’s a myth too. The fact is, we are all humans; and humans come with dogma as standard equipment. We can no more shake off our biases than Liz Cheney could pay a compliment to Barack Obama. The best we can do— the best science can do— is make sure that at least, we get to choose among competing biases.

What’s unusual about the climate debate is that partisans don’t want you to be able to choose among those competing biases. That’s why Marc Morano wages a Tea Party-like campaign against Republican moderates who dare to talk about climate change. That’s why his counterparts in the climate-concerned community have waged a similar effort over the years to discredit University of Colorado political scientist Roger Pielke Jr., an effort that reached a shameful crescendo these past few weeks.

This is not to say that Roger is above criticism (He’s not). Or that Roger is blameless. (He’s not.) And there’s some useful context here from Dale Jamieson (ignore the headline), if you want to understand the anger that has been building against Roger since the mid to late 2000s. But I’m sorry, the torch-bearing mob that went after him after he published his first piece at Nate Silver’s new site was despicable. And now it’s turned into the sort of agenda-driven campaign and ideological cleansing that even Morano would grudgingly admire.

*As Michael Levi, the respected energy analyst observed:

The onslaught is disturbing. I’ve disagreed with Roger often, but he is genuinely well intentioned. People who care about getting good policy should want more thoughtful voices, not fewer, proposing options – and organized campaigns to run heterodox thinkers out of town are awfully ugly.

There’s a side to scientists and scholars–their arrogance, sharp elbows, and stubborn biases–that can be ugly when exposed to sunlight. What’s even uglier is when one of them is tied to the whipping post in broad daylight by a mob egged on by leading climate scientists and their henchmen.

* The initial link I provided for Michael Levi’s quote was to a National Journal article. That was a mix-up on my part. The sentence now contains the correct reference and link.

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Collide-a-Scape

Collide-a-Scape is an archived Discover blog. Keep up with Keith's current work at http://www.keithkloor.com/

About Keith Kloor

Keith Kloor is a NYC-based journalist, and an adjunct professor of journalism at New York University. His work has appeared in Slate, Science, Discover, and the Washington Post magazine, among other outlets.From 2000 to 2008, he was a senior editor at Audubon Magazine.In 2008-2009, he was a Fellow at the University of Colorado’s Center for Environmental Journalism, in Boulder, where he studied how a changing environment (including climate change) influenced prehistoric societies in the U.S. Southwest.He covers a wide range of topics, from conservation biology and biotechnology to urban planning and archaeology.

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