Monday, November 30, 2009

Climate Change Debate Demands “Good Science”

In today’s world, science and technology influence our lives at every turn. Science has not only shaped our worldview; it literally shapes our view of the world. Digital technology awakens us in the morning, provides our coffee, delivers the news from anywhere in the world, helps us to plan our day, and converse around the world by wireless communication. The clothes we wear, the food we eat, and the vehicles we drive all shape our lives as fruits of science.

But science is not value-free. Science is a human endeavor and the fruits it yields to society depend upon the values of the culture. For a culture to prosper, it must value education and the pursuit of knowledge, freedom of expression, respect for ones neighbor, and reverence for all creatures and the physical order. Each of these values must be undergirded by an ethic that seeks after scientific truthi.e. ‘What is true?’ or, “What best conforms to physical reality?”– and wisdom i.e. ‘What is right?’, or ‘right application of knowledge in a world that recognizes the human capacity to do evil.’

Right application of scientific knowledge demands freedom of expression so that all who wish to participate may do so by offering rigorous critique and additional experimentation. The so-called “scientific method” has demonstrated itself to be very effective in identifying correct judgements about the natural world when scientists function as a community in a professional, ethical, and objective manner. It is particularly important that these elements be present where scientific authority is being used to influence public policy. Where one or more of these elements are missing, science risks being hijacked by a relative few who seek to use its fruits for political and economic gain.

For example, many global climate scientists utilize climate models that point to global warming to advocate both national and international policy changes aimed at reducing production of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. Such policies are designed to reduce human consumption of fossil fuels and discourage other practices that are believed to cause global warming. However, some are concerned that such policy changes will provide little relief to either planet Earth or to the poor while at the same time shifting the balance of power to central governing bodies at the national and international level.

Given the immense impact of climate change-driven public policy decisions, it is particularly disturbing that the above ingredients necessary for a “healthy science community” may be lacking. It is not my purpose here to debate whether global warming is occurring or the magnitude of the contribution of human activities to climate change. However, I am concerned about the growing evidence that scientific openness and objectivity are being suppressed by political agendas both within government and within the scientific community.

For example, the recent hacking of e-mails and documents from the Climate Research Unit at East Anglia University, Norwich, England, suggests efforts to intimidate or discredit opposing scientists (or see Wall Street Journal, April 12, 2006), suppress exchange of climate data, and suppress publications that question the assumptions of climate change models. Dr. Tim Ball, Canadian climatologist, expresses his concern in a recent YouTube interview. Remarkably, little attention is being given to the implication of the e-mail exposures.

Wouldn’t a healthy scientific community be well served if it were to openly take stock of the revealing e-mails and to own up to any private doubts or attempts to suppress conflicting or controversial data? Isn’t this an opportunity to test the expertise, professional ethics and motivations of climate scientists on both sides of the issue? Certainly, the lessons of the “Lysenko Affair” in the Soviet Union under Stalin testify of how science, hijacked by political interests, both stifled scientific progress and caused starvation and death of millions . Good science may not only provide answers to the “climate debate” but contribute to a more certain and sustained rationale for establishing lifestyles that foster human stewardship of the Earth.