Thursday, September 08, 2011

Science and Partisan Politics

"The Republican party has abandoned science leaving the Democrats as the party of reason."

It makes a great campaign slogan but is it true? The accusations against the Republicans mainly feature Creationism and Global Warming. I will leave warming for last. As for Creationism, I will give that point to the Democrats. There seems to be more Republicans who are openly skeptical of evolution. Note the qualifiers. There could be some closet creationists among the left but they don't dare admit it.

I have no problem with people who reconcile God and evolution. They might see the billions of years between creation and the present as necessary steps or they might see God taking a more direct role in creation - possibly sending a dinosaur-killer to Earth to speed things up. On the other hand, anyone who believes in a young Earth is rejecting just about every branch of hard science.

So that's one strike against the right. Are there any crazy theories from the left?

How about Peak Oil? Just a few years ago the left was convinced that we had already discovered most of the world's recoverable oil and that it would run out by 2050. Between new discoveries and new technologies, a lot more oil is recoverable now than just a few years ago. The US alone is now considered to be sitting on the world's biggest known supply. No one is saying much about peak production any more.

One of the world's most promising technologies is genetic engineering. The left hates it. They prefer to do their gene-tinkering the old-fashioned way - expose a batch of seeds to radiation and see if any of the mutations are desirable.

After a woman died from brain cancer after using a cell phone, the left has been convinced that phones are harmful. And vaccinations. And power lines. It doesn't matter how many studies prove the opposite.

To the left, once a species is endangered, it is always endangered. They have sued to stop the government from changing the status from endangered to threatened on such animals as the bald eagle. They have also fought to have the polar bear listed because of possible future damage caused by global warming.

What's the difference between organic produce and non-organic? Organic is more likely to make you sick. Organic fertilizer is often animal droppings. If the animal is diseased then the pathogen can be incorporated into the produce. That doesn't happen with chemical fertilizer.

We did away with freon in car air conditioners and spray cans in order to stop the ozone layer from vanishing which would lead to every one getting skin cancer. That made us feel better but it didn't eliminate most sources of ozone-depleting chemicals. Some projections showed that the space shuttle alone would destroy the ozone layer. Except it didn't happen.

Toilets made before the late-1990s flushed better. The left got upset about the water levels in the aquifers in dry areas. So they mandated that the whole country has to have water-saving toilets (which actually use more water by requiring multiple flushes).

Similarly, the left worried about acid rain. Lakes were becoming so acidic that nothing could live in them. So they passed laws regulating SO2 emissions. This was done in a rush because they knew that the biggest study on acid rain was about to be released. It said that acid rain was not a problem. Acidity in lakes was rising because pine forests were recovering. The few lakes that were suffering from acid build-up could be treated with lime for pennies.

Led by Carl Sagan, a group of left-wing scientists urged nuclear disarmament. They said that a nuclear exchange would cause a "nuclear winter" in which dust would block the sun and all life would perish. Later they admitted that they over-estimated the effects and a nuclear winter was unlikely.

Going back 40 years we find credible scientists predicting that pollution would increase so much that we would have to put domes over our cities by the 1980s. Before then the population would outgrow the food supply and there would be food riots by the end of the 1970s. The people who made those predictions have moved onto climate science.

Which brings us to global warming and the claim that 97% of scientists agree that it is real. This is an interesting percentage. It implies a large number of scientists. The actual number if 75 out of 77 agree. This came from a survey of people who either work in climate studies for the government or universities. Over 1,000 were polled. They were asked 1) Has the world warmed since 1700 and 2) has human activity contributed to this. Note that these statements are so broad that many skeptics would agree with one or both. But only 82% of the people surveyed agreed. So they winnowed the respondents down. The only people who counted were those who had published major papers. That's where the 77 came from.

But what if you polled a wider sample of scientists? Solar scientists tend to think that the sun is the primary driver of climate. Some of them just published a paper in Nature showing that cosmic rays from the sun are responsible for formation of low-level clouds. Previously it was assumed that the only influence on these clouds was terrestrial. According to the article, all of the climate models are wrong. It is a miracle that this article was published. The Climategate emails showed that allowing a skeptical paper to be published can cost an editor his job. This continues to happen.

A majority of meteorologists are skeptical of global warming. They have access to temperature records and have run their own numbers.

So, yes a majority of scientists think that human-caused climate change is real but it is not an overwhelming majority.

Sometimes a majority can be wrong. There is a phenomenon known as an "information cascade" where a small but dedicated group controls an issue. This happened with dietary fat. For decades "everyone knew" that dietary fat is bad for the heart. There were no studies to show this. In fact, it was dis-proven by studies but anyone who did not agree was shouted down.

That is what happened with global warming. The evidence for it is still thin and the effects have been exaggerated. But, a small group has seized control of the conversation. They have been co-opted by big-government progressives who see the threat of global warming as a way of controlling everyone. Which is how this became a partisan fight.

Given the left's track record, I'm willing to overlook a Republican's belief in a Young Earth. They are less likely to try to use it as an excuse to change society.

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