The United States was founded by scientists, based in large part on the principles of science, and science is why we have become the world's leading economy. So it is shocking to see mainstream politicians denying the validity of science for political reasons -- a practice long associated with authoritarian regimes, not the United States.
Two U.S. senators rebuffed that troubling trend on the floor of the United States senate, in a move that may signal the beginning of a new thaw in the paralysis the United States is facing on climate change and a host of other issues.
Al Franken (D-MN) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) argued that science is the best basis for public policy, a view we haven't heard a lot of in Congress lately, and they blasted fossil fuel industry-funded propaganda on climate change as a major cause. The two senators emphasized the ridiculousness of climate denialism, and the patriotism of science-based policymaking.
Franken on why this is important
"I asked Sheldon to do the colloquy because I saw that too many of my colleagues were either ignoring the science on climate change or flat out dismissing it," Franken told me.
"As a society, we have to understand that science is a way of understanding the truth about the way things actually are in the physical world independent of how we wish they would be, and if we want public policy that actually solves problems we've got to start by basing it on what we know from science."
Scientists are our best allies
Franken began by reminding colleagues that scientists are their best allies. "Scientists are the people who gave us antibiotics, for example," he said. "Do you like being able to use antibiotics? Well, then, thank scientists."
If we are to progress as a country, he told senators, "we better put science right at the center of our decision-making. Yet, right now, foundations and think tanks funded by the fossil fuel industry are spreading misinformation about the integrity of climate science." Franken said that "Ignoring or flat out contradicting what climate scientists are telling us about the warming climate and the warming planet can lead to really bad decisions on national energy and environmental policies here in Congress."
Climate change is real, despite the Twinkie Doctor
Franken and Whitehouse both scoffed at the idea that there was any real doubt about man-made climate change, which at least 97% of climate scientists say is occurring. Imagine, Franken said, that you went to a doctor who said you're horribly overweight, you have to start exercising and lose 300 pounds or you're going to die. You say thanks, but I want a second opinion. The next doctor tells you the same thing, and the next and the next. Finally you have, ridiculously, gone to 24 doctors who all say the same thing. "The 25th doctor says 'It is a good thing you came to me, because all this diet and exercise would have been a complete waste. You are doing fine. Those other doctors are in the pockets of the fresh fruit and vegetable people.' He says 'Enjoy life, eat whatever you want, keep smoking, and watch a lot of TV. That is my advice.' Then you learn the doctor was paid a salary by the makers of Twinkies, which, don't get me wrong, are a delicious snack food and should be eaten in moderation. Am I making sense here?"
Whitehouse listed corporations and phony-science front groups that have been spending billions of dollars to influence congress and public opinion with phony science and propaganda.
"As Senator Franken has pointed out," Whitehouse said, "despite the efforts to mislead and create doubt, the jury is not out on whether climate change is happening and being caused by man-made carbon pollution; the verdict is, in fact, in, and the verdict is clear."
The senators attacked what they called "climategate-gate," the illegal hacking of thousands of private emails of climate scientists. Climate deniers posted them on the internet in an attempt to confuse the press and draw attention away from the peer-reviewed science of fifty years that shows the climate is warming and human greenhouse gas emissions are the principle cause.
One famous email from climate scientist Phil Jones referred to his using climate scientist Michael Mann's "Nature trick of adding in the real temps to each series for the last 20 years to hide the decline.'' Deniers claimed that showed scientists were trying to "trick" the public and "hide the decline" in world temperatures, a claim many media outlets parroted uncritically.
"That sounds very bad," said Franken. "Trick' and 'hide the decline.' That went viral in the conservative media -- evidence that the scientific consensus on climate change was a giant hoax. We had a member of this body who said the science behind this consensus 'is the same science that, through climategate, has been totally rebuffed and is no longer legitimate, either in reality or in the eyes of the American people and the people around the world.'"
But Franken pointed out that by using Mann's "trick" Jones meant he was going to use the most accurate data available. Scientists correlated tree ring density with global annual temperatures, and then used very old trees as a record of temperatures going back 1,000 years. This was the basis for the "Hockey stick" graph Mann and colleagues published in Nature magazine -- "Mike's Nature trick." But after about 1960, because of changes in the atmosphere, the tree ring density was less reliable, so Mann did what any reasonable person would do: he substituted in actual thermometer measurements instead, indicated below in red.
"There are thousands and thousands and thousands and thousands and thousands of measurements of the temperature around the Earth every minute, every day," said Franken. "So this was the 'trick' -- a technique to use the most accurate data available of global temperatures from things, again, called 'thermometers.'"
Whitehouse agreed. "The studies that looked at whether the climate science was phony or whether the climategate scandal was phony have all come down supporting the science and pointing out that climategate should properly be known as climategate-gate because it was the scandal that was phony."
The religious quality of climate denialism
Then Franken and Whitehouse got into the issue that is driving much of the climate problem in politics -- the difference between skepticism and denial.
When I speak to nonpartisan audiences on science and politics I am often confronted by climate deniers, who have come to view climate science not as facts, but as a partisan political position.
They are uniformly emotional as they give me one of several common denialist arguments: the medieval warming period, for example, in which they claim that it was so warm 1,000 years ago that Greenland was green. This is false. Measurements show Greenland's ice cap, which covers about 85% of the island, is hundreds of thousands of years old.
Or they argue that increased solar radiation is causing the warming. This too is false. Satellite measurements taken since the 1970s show that solar radiation has actually slightly declined since then.
As one argument is debunked they move on to any of several other bits of disinformation that have been neatly packaged out of context to fool otherwise smart people. Many of them have been ginned up by the Marshall Institute or the Heartland Institute. In fact, I wrote a book about this mindset, in part, called Fool Me Twice: Fighting the Assault on Science in America.
I often ask these emotional deniers "how many papers would it take to convince you that the scientific consensus is right?" The answer -- which hangs in their silence for all to see -- is that nothing will convince them because their contrarianism isn't driven by data -- it's driven by belief. They cite the medieval warming period in the same way a fundamentalist might quote a Bible passage.
"Now, let's make a distinction between people who are climate skeptics and people who are climate deniers," said Franken. "This is kind of an important distinction. There is nothing wrong with skepticism. In fact, we love skeptics. Scientists are, by nature, skeptical... On the other hand, a climate denier is someone who would not be convinced no matter how overwhelming the evidence. And, as I pointed out, a lot of these deniers are being paid by polluters to say what they want."
A renewed corporate citizenship
Franken and Whitehouse should be applauded for taking a principled stand for liberty and science, a stand for America's greatest promise and highest aspirations -- and a stand for her children, because while we bicker, the science shows they will pay a mounting price.
But hope is, perhaps, dawning. As Franken is quick to point out, there are several leading US companies who disagree with the disinfomation and propaganda of the fossil fuel companies and their allies. Coco-Cola, for example, says that "The consensus on climate science is increasingly unequivocal -- global climate change is happening and man-made greenhouse gas emissions are a crucial factor."
Other reasoned companies include American Electric, Bank of America, Chrysler, Cysco, DuPont, Duke Energy, eBay, Ford, Google, GM, General Electric, John Deere, Nike, Nishiland, PepsiCo, Siemens, Starbucks, Toyota, and Timberland.
A lesson in civics
With a renewed corporate citizenship, and with senate leadership of the kind demonstrated by Franken and Whitehouse, perhaps we can begin to shake loose from the policy paralysis gripping the nation and resume control of our own economic and political agenda -- and with it, our destiny -- on climate and a host of other pressing problems.
Franken and Whitehouse have provided us a lesson in civics.
You can download their entire address here. Franken and Whitehouse have delivered a striking colloquy that is an outstanding resource for civics and science teachers nationwide.
Get Shawn Lawrence Otto's new book: Fool Me Twice: Fighting the Assault on Science in America, Starred Kirkus Review; Starred Publishers Weekly review. Visit him at shawnotto.com. Like him on Facebook. Join ScienceDebate.org to get the presidential candidates to debate science.