Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Druyan, Breitbart, and the Persistence of Climate Change Misinformation

Last night, while I was watching Real Time with Bill Maher, I was pleased to see his round table included Ann Druyan, widow of Carl Sagan and collaborator on several of his projects.  She and Sagan were responsible for the Golden Record aboard the Voyager spacecraft, carrying the sounds of the Earth beyond our Solar System.  She also co-wrote two books with Sagan -- Comet and Shadows of our Forgotten Ancestors -- and contributed to parts of a third, The Demon-Haunted World.  Druyan worked with her husband on the monumental PBS series Cosmos, and these days she is president of the Board of Directors for the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML).

The other participants in the round table discussion were Family Guy creator Seth McFarlane, conservative radio host Amy Holmes, and the nearly-intolerable Andrew Breitbart.

As the conversation came around to climate change, Breitbart let loose with the now-debunked criticism of the scientists at the University of East Anglia, site of the so-called "Climategate" scandal.  Unfortunately, it seemed like Ann Druyan was not quite prepared to start barking at Breitbart to refute his claims, so the dogmatic right-winger got away mostly unscathed.  She is, of course, eminently capable of having the argument, but it's not so easy fighting an attack dog on national television... especially on a comedy show.  Perhaps she might have said something like this, had she ample breathing room to get it out of her mouth:

Science deniers love to cherry pick, and the controversy at East Anglia is a great example of this.  Not only do they not fully understand the science involved, but they also prefer to home in on a few instances of questionable science and extrapolate that to suggest that the whole of climate change science is false.  That's classic conspiracy theory thinking, and it's illogical.  It's sort of like taking the math test from the one student who got an answer wrong, holding it up next to all the other tests of the students who got the problem right, and claiming that there's a debate as to what the right answer really is.  In my formative years I got lots of math questions wrong, but I never tried to claim that the answer was open to debate.  I just had to acknowledge that my math was wrong.

The basic accusations against the scientists at East Anglia are these: that they fudged their data and/or their math to reflect a predetermined result; and that they deliberately suppressed the views of scientists who questioned the theory of human-driven climate change.  These are serious charges, but fortunately, they don't hold water.  The accusation that the scientists improperly manipulated their numbers comes from one e-mail exchange, in which there is reference to a statistical "trick" that is used to make two sets of data line up with each other. It sounds like they're manipulating the data, but that "trick" simply refers to a method for working with numbers, no more sinister than the concept of "cross-multiplying."  And the allegations of suppressing the views of scientists with alternative views -- as Breitbart echoed on Real Time -- have been shown to be unsubstantiated, months ago. 

In any case, clearly erroneous conclusions, like the ones discussed in some of the controversial e-mails, simply should not be published.  It's not a matter of covering up data.  Suppose you were doing some math problems with the aid of a calculator, and your answers came out like this:

1 + 9 = 10
2 + 8 = 10
3 + 7 = 10
4 + 6 = 10
5 + 5 = 10
6 + 4 = 2

Woah, what happened there?  Something is clearly amiss.  You know that 6 + 4 should equal 10, but your screen says 2, and you're pretty sure the laws of mathematics aren't breaking down before your eyes.  Obviously, you hit SUBTRACT when you meant to hit ADD.  This is easy to see, but when you're using statistical models and complex sets of data, the error may not be so easy to discern.  You know what the right answer should be, but you keep getting the answer wrong.  Like any struggling math student, you'll turn to a colleague and compare answers, and try to figure out what's gone wrong.  This is not the same thing as manipulating data to reach a predetermined conclusion.

Now, imagine you have a vocal minority of people in the world who are hell-bent on proving that math is a questionable field, that there is reason to doubt it.  Imagine that the fate of the planet rests in the balance.  And imagine that your wrong answer on the math test is going to be used as evidence to support the case of the math-deniers.  You probably wouldn't want your calculations to be made public.

Such is the case for climate change scientists.  The deniers are scrutinizing their work for any sign that the whole field is hogwash.  Unfortunately, there is extreme pressure on these scientists -- not from the science community, but from the external forces seeking to undermine their work -- and that pressure can lead them to be more reticent about sharing their data.  Under the Freedom of Information Act in the United Kingdom, climate change skeptics can badger climate scientists with requests for data, and the climatologists are required to respond within 20 days.  It's easy to see how excessive requests could be a hindrance to the actual work of the climate scientists, and in the adversarial spirit of this conflict, poor decisions about data sharing could be made.  Contrary to what the critics maintain, though, debate is encouraged in the scientific community.  It's the only way we can advance our knowledge!  But for those who don't trust science, that little detail tends to go unnoticed.

("Debate" here is a very broad term, and it should be pointed out that not all dissension is created equal.  Some questions are still debated in the scientific community, and good scientists can disagree; for instance, "how exactly did life arise on Earth?"  There are various hypotheses, and we await more evidence to nail it down.  Conversely, there is no question as to whether the Earth goes around the Sun.  Someone may come along and claim that the Sun revolves around the Earth, but his or her views could not be reconciled with the data.  There is no debate here, this "scientist's" claims can be dismissed out of hand.  This is not to say that there are no questions left when it comes to climate change, but rather that challenges to climate change theory have to be legitimate ones, not ones based on an agenda or faulty science). 

Evidence should never be suppressed or covered up, and the scientists at East Anglia were certainly clumsy with the way they spoke about their number problems and data sharing; though, since they never expected the e-mails to be made public, it's only natural that they thought fellow scientists would understand their problem and read it in the proper context.  But climate change deniers thrive on taking things out of context, so the scientists rightly feared that their numbers would be used as ammunition against them and their field... just look what happened!

As the East Anglia controversy fades from our collective memory, you can bet the climate change skeptics will remember it and continue to cite it.  It doesn't matter that five separate panels have cleared the scientists of wrongdoing.  These are details you'll only get by reading the lengthy wikipedia article.  I suspect Breitbart's audience, or Sean Hannity's audience, or Sarah Palin's audience, won't get through the whole thing.  Or if they do, they'll cherry pick their facts.


  1. I saw this episode on HBO and I'm pleased that it's not just me who found Breitbart to be insufferable.

  2. At first I didn't know who he was but then he started arguing about East Anglia so I knew he had to be a rightwingnut, when his named popped up on screen, I thought, "Oh, that guy," and promptly changed the channel. He is truly an insufferable, intolerable, and indeed a classless turd. Disingenuous is his middle name. "Debate" my ass. We had it before he even ever heard the word.