Friday, February 4, 2011

Politics Through the Lens of a Scientist

Me the scientist has always felt downright alienated by the way politicians have ultimately framed the climate change issue.  Lately it's too much of a political landmine and/or political old news to even get a mention at all, but that doesn't surprise me considering the pressing, deep-running and stubborn economic problems of the 2008-? recession.

Leading up to our forgetfullness of the whole issue, and even now, when it still get mention, there is a push from the political right to frame climate change as an "is it real or is it not" debate--which was true one to two decades ago when there was ample room for many legitimate skepticisms, yet the ongoing succession of refuting evidence has been ignored at best and deliberately redirected into pointless irrelevant realms of non-logic at worse. 

This is a game that is nothing new to politics but that doesn't make it not shameful.  And scientists, used to following a process that requires--however imperfectly--an honest adherence to truth only as far as one can reach it with carefully designed hard work, can so easily find it deeply wrong that truth in the political word is mutable or else possibly flimsily correct but full of glaring omissions.  The world-views are almost completely incompatible.

That plenty of policy-makers would deliberately obscure what science tells us doesn't really surprise me, because the reality of climate change sucks and who wants to do something hard when they could do something easy instead?  But it disappoints me so, from a "human civilization can address and solve problems" standpoint, and the thing that really does get my science blood boiling is when arguments that display an utter failure to grasp the science are held us as legitimate counterpoints, with the same level of credibility as thoughtful scientific inquiry.

The most crass example of this is of the "well trees need carbon dioxide so it's good for the environment and so it can't cause climate change QED" variety, but slightly more sophisticated yet equally scientifically wrong assertions exist, and at least in popular media stand among some of our politicians as if on the same scientific footing with verified fact.

This is not to say that scientists can never be wrong either.  In fact scientists set out to prove themselves and each other wrong all the time, and there is a wide, gaping, expansive difference between realizing that your understanding needs refinement after putting in the research and brainpower, and saying "well it's snowing so global warming can't be real" and not probing any further than that.

We can, and we should, have a debate on whether or not climate change is worth the high economic cost of dealing with now that the economy sucks or even if it didn't--and I would fundamentally argue and you may disagree that even amid a recession, this is the most pressing issue of our time and that reasons both economic, moral, and Preserving Of Our Own Asses abound to address this--but we aren't having that argument, and that's not because nobody on the right is scientifically literate and they all really thinks that carbon dioxide is good for trees and so what's the problem.

Perhaps the root of the political breakdown is that addressing it climate change is hard and involves things that conservatives don't like much. The kinds of proposals that have thus far been brought forth to address climate change stink of socialism and social engineering, which the right runs from at all costs and most Americans in general are highly wary of.

That doesn't have to be, though!  The only reason the past few climate bills are so liberalnomics oriented is because the liberals are the ones who made the show of sticking the green plank in their platform, and they're proposing to fix the issue according to how they look at society and absent input from the right about how to do it differently.  If you fundamentally disagree with the methods, as most fiscal conservatives no doubt do, that's a separate debate from whether or not there is a problem.  The Bigger Man approach, the Right Thing, is to still address the problem, to have the debate for what it is, and as a scientist, it is very, very difficult to have patience with anything less, even being fully aware that the ways of reasoned inquiry are not the ways of politics.

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