Tag Archives: War On Science

How to fix the fake-news problem.

Did you know that truck drivers in Puerto Rico did NOT actually go on strike during Hurricane Maria relief efforts? Or that a former Obama White House official did NOT actually confirm that they wiretapped Trump Tower? Or that the sexual misdeed accusations against former Senate candidate Roy Moore were NOT actually a setup? Or that the Nazi’s marching (and killing) in Chancellorsville was NOT actually a liberal false flag operation? Or, sadly, that it is NOT true that President Obama is running a “shadow government” in some hidden corner of Washington DC? NOT NOT NOT NOT NOT NOT Continue reading How to fix the fake-news problem.

Donald Trump’s Science Adviser will be …

… announced in the very near future. Or never.

I swear, if you told Donald Trump that scientists said don’t lick the metal railing in the dead of winter, he’d lick the metal railing. Then, he’d get stuck, and he’d blame Obama.

At this point, according to Nature, Donald Trump has gone longer sans science adviser than any recent president, by a good margin. The previous record was held by … wait for it … Continue reading Donald Trump’s Science Adviser will be …

Watch Jeff Merkley Wipe Floor With Trump’s William Wehrum

William Wehrum is a lawyer and once, apparently, worked for the EPA. Trump is trying to appoint him to be assistant administrator for air and radiation. This is a reasonably important job that concerns many aspects of the environment.


The Republicans have already said they love this guy. Of course they do.

There is a The War on Science going on, and in Washington, the Republicans are winning it. They are winning it in over 30 states. When they have finished winning it, that is the end of civilization at least in this country.


Joel Clement Resigned today

You will remember Clement as the whistle blower at the Department of the Interior who was harassed for showing how climate change affects communities in Alaska. He was removed from his job by Fake Interior Secretory Zinke and given a new job removing staples from paperwork or something similar. Zinke similarly reassigned several others at around the same time. The inspector general has been investigating this but nothing has come of that yet.

Clement hung on for a long time but today he left his position. According to the Washington Post:

“Keeping my voice is more important than keeping my job,” he said. “I have not found another job yet. I have vast contacts inside the agency and outside. I do believe I can be a strong voice to resisting what the Zinke team is doing.”

Clement said workers at Interior are outraged by Zinke’s comment in a speech slightly more than a week ago that they are disloyal. “I got 30 percent of the crew that’s not loyal to the flag,” Zinke said, adding that policy-decision positions should be shipped from Washington to Western cities, such as Denver.

“Everyone is pissed here about his comments about loyalty. It’s the buzz in the building. You hear snide remarks all day long at how ludicrous that was. They clearly have lost respect for the leadership of that organization,” Clement said.

How the IPCC becomes a climate change denial tool

About once a day, someone tells me that human caused climate change is not real because this or that thing in the latest report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) contradicts something I, or some other scientists or science writer, has said.

I’ve noticed an uptick in references to the IPCC report by those intent on denying the reality of climate change. This even happened at recent congressional hearings, where “expert witnesses” made similar claims.

How can that be? How can the flagship scientific report on climate change, the objective source of information about the science of climate change, be used so frequently to argue that scientists have climate change all wrong?

Obviously, one way this can happen is if the information is cherry picked or misrepresented. That, certainly, happens and is almost always part of the recipe. But there is another only barely less obvious reason, and this is a reason that becomes more and more relevant every passing year. What is it? Hold on a sec, first a bit of context.

As a scientists and writer-about-science I often have access to temporarily secret information. Also, I make it a point to keep track of opinions held by trusted experts in the field, as they change and adapt to new findings. This secret information is, of course, peer reviewed research that isn’t published yet, and is under embargo.

To be embargoed means to be held in secret, but distributed to a small number of trusted individuals or agencies (often news outlets and science writers), with an “embargo date and time” after which the information is no longer secret. There are a few reasons this is done. One is that many scientific outlets rely on the splash factor to get readership, and having a paper that changes how we think about the world be released at a particular planned moment helps with that. Related is the idea that publishers, research institutions, and the scientists themselves want the paper published alongside other products to help the press and the public understand the material better, such as a press release, selected graphics, maybe a nice video. This all requires production time and effort, and it is pretty much wasted effort if it does not become publicly available at the same exact moment the paper becomes available.

A few papers exist as early drafts long before publication, and those are passed around for the purpose of getting some preliminary feedback, and to get the conversation about the topic going among experts. That is less common because many journals don’t like it, and how often this happens depends on the field of study. Indeed, there are entire “journals” that started as and still serve as semi-formalized outlets for early drafts of appers, academic theses, or reports are routinely published, sometimes years before a final peer reviewed product comes out, representing for example that year’s output from a long term grant. (NBER and BAR come to mind as examples of this.)

Authors and publishers send me embargoed papers they think I might want, or more commonly, ask me if I’d like to have a copy of an embargoed paper, giving me a chance to say yes. Often, I know of a subset of scientists who also have the paper (typically, the co-authors) and I can ask them questions about the paper before hand. Most outlets will provide a science writer with this sort of contact information. This is how all those fully formed news reports come out in the media the moment a paper is released. Days or even weeks of work has already happened, quietly and in secret, before the paper’s release.

Other research is available in other ways. I have colleagues who are always working on certain things, and they’ll say things like, “well, we don’t have it finalized yet, but this thing you said is probably wrong because X turns out to be larger than Y, even though we previously thought the opposite … we’ve got a paper coming out probably next summer on this…” or words to that effect.

All this is, of course, why I write the blog posts and you read them. You could do this too; You could have foreknowledge of the developments on the leading edge of a particular scientific field as well. You just have to become a credible quasi-journalistic outlet (I am not now nor have I ever been a journalist) and develop a pertinent Rolodex, and gain the trust of everybody. Takes a few years.

I mention all this because it makes this happen now and then: I have a concept of some aspect of climate change research that is not yet generally understood outside a limited range of experts. Then, of course, the dissemination of information catches up and everybody knows the same thing, and the revised, updated view of that bit of science is now added to general knowledge. Close behind, perhaps, follows a shift in, or refinement of, consensus. This is how science works large scale.

The scientific understanding of an active area of research is dynamic and requires currency. Six months old is old. A year or two old is ancient.

I’ll give you three examples.

A while back the generally understood consensus of sea level rise was that sea levels were going up at a certain relatively low rate, on average. However, that estimate was faulty because of a lack of integration of a full understanding of how water moves between fresh water reservoirs and the sea, and certain really cool research on ocean warming, gravitational effects, etc. had not yet been published. Also, some time was missing; there had been a couple of strange quirky sea level related events that turned out to be outliers, so data sets needed to be full updated, and a couple of years added over the passage of time. For this reason, what was generally known at one point in time was different from what came to be understood a few years later. People in my position saw it coming, people who were not tracking the literature held the old and incorrect view.

Second and related example: There was a set of estimates for how fast glaciers in polar regions (Greenland and Antarctica) would melt with global warming, and how much this process would contribute to sea level rise. However, there was some new research coming to bear on the issue that was starting to change that. Glaciers don’t just melt, but they also structurally fall apart, big chunks ending up in the sea and melting there. Some increase in understanding how that happens emerged. The upper limit of how fast that could probably happen, in the general publicly available knowledge base, was modest. But over a fairly short period of time, a previously highly speculative and closely held thought that the upper limit on how much ice could deteriorate was higher, and a similarly unexpressed thought that the lower limit on how soon that might start to happen, began to make its way into the more public discussion. This is still very much an area of uncertainty and very active research. Look for big changes and many surprises over the next 24 months. But today, the best informed experts have a very different view of what might happen, and what is likely to happen, than widely held a few years ago, because of this shift. Polar glaciers will likely fall apart and contribute to sea level rise more and sooner than the best guesses would have suggested five years ago.

A third example just went through a major change. A few years ago it was generally thought, and often repeated, that it was difficult to attribute human caused climate change as a reason behind any particular bad weather event. That has shifted dramatically over time. A set of studies a few years back failed to find any clear association in a majority of weather events. A year later, a similar number of studies, of new weather events, either attributed the events to climate change or resulted in “we can’t say one way or another.” The most recent papers are generally showing a likely connection. Meanwhile, certain research linking certain climate phenomena to a large set of bad weather events was developing. Note that the previous studies were conducted mainly ignoring this new and emerging research. I was a little like saying “We don’t know why so many more people are falling on the subway tracks these days” while ignoring a growing set of observations of bad people showing up at the subway stations and pushing people off the tracks on purpose. In the absence of consideration of this nefarious and willful behavior, one could not say that the increase in untoward events was anything other than a random uptick in numbers. Seeing and acknowledging an actual cause makes it impossible to not link the cause and effect.

This happened, as noted, slowly and in the background in the literature, and suddenly, just a few days ago, a crowing paper took that likely cause of severe weather, ran it in highly sophisticated and reliable models, and demonstrated that this is a thing. Humans release fossil carbon in greenhouse gasses (and do some other bad things), certain things about our climate system change unambiguously because of this, this causes an important but heretofore not fully understand change, which then causes additional droughts and floods across the globe.

Five years ago, that would have been regarded as speculation, worthy of consideration but nothing that could nail down our understanding of the greenhouse gas – severe weather link. Today, the link is sufficiently established to regard it as scientific fact rapidly becoming consensus, though there will certainly be a bit more fighting about it, and much refinement of the theory and data.

All of these examples can be rephrased in relation to the last IPCC report.

The most recent IPCC report was published nominally in 2014. It was restricted to existing peer reviewed literature, thus not including the pre-embargoed material (though there was an effort by many scientists to get stuff out in time to be employed in that process). The report took time to produce. The physical science basis part of the report, on which the rest is based, actually dates to 2013 nominally, though it includes some 2014 material.

It is now April 2017. A claim that “The IPCC Report said bla bla bla therefore you are wrong” is the same as “in or before 2013, at least 4 years ago, the best we knew was bla bla bla therefore your are wrong.

Let’s return to the sea level rise example and consider the thinking of how fast and how much glacial melting, and other factors, would cause sea levels to rise in the future.

There were several studies used in the IPCC report, mostly dating to or before 2011. I would regard the science in the IPCC report to reflect the thinking primarily of the first decade of the 21st century on this subject. The last 2 years, or even one year, of research on sea level rise contrasts remarkably with that early work, suggesting a faster rise and more of it. That is just what is published. I don’t happen to know of any new work coming out shortly, but I can promise you that the summaries, the estimates, and the graphics that would be produced by an IPCC-like agency working on a summary of the physical science of sea level rise as it stands right now would be significantly different than what the last such report by the actual IPCC provided in 2014.

Two IPCC reports back, it was estimated that global sea level could rise between 18 and 59 cm by 2100. The subsequent report, the most current one, estimated that sea levels can rise between 29 and 82 cm by 2100. A recent and well regarded paper, dating to early in 2016, and using the best available information and methodology, estimates that the global sea level could rise by more than a meter by 2100 from just the melting of Antarctic, not counting Greenland.

Longer term sea level rise estimates have also risen, with a key paper published in 2013 suggesting that we may be in for as much as two meters over the next few centuries, and the aforementioned most recent report suggesting “more than 15 metres by 2500.”

(I hasten to add that an estimate of between 8 and 15 meters has been on the table for a long time, coming from palaeoclimatologists, who have always seen higher levels because in the past, similar conditions today produced such high levels, indicating that current levels are actually unusually low.)

Climate science is progressing very rapidly, especially in some areas. There are things we know now, or that we feel fairly comfortable asserting as pretty likely, that one year ago, and certainly four years ago, were fairly uncertain or in some cases inconceivable.

Citing the most recent IPCC report about a climate change relate issues tells me two things:

1) You don’t read the literature or talk to climate scientists; and

2) You are not especially interested in an honest conversation about this important scientific and policy issue.

The recent work on sea level mentioned above is here, the IPCC report is here, and a summary of the IPCC and other sources is here.

Minnesota Book Award Non Fiction Category: And The Winner Is ….

The Friends of the Saint Paul Public Library, supported by Education Minnesota, ran the 29th annual Minnesota Book Awards ceremony tonight, and Amanda and I were graciously invited by author Shawn Otto and State Auditor and Gubernatorial Hopeful Rebecca Otto to join them at their table. Shawn’s wildly popular, and extremely, increasingly relevant book The War on Science: Who’s Waging It, Why It Matters, What We Can Do About It was up for the award in General Nonfiction.

There was a great deal of suspense, as Shawn’s category was the very last one of several, and there were several other awards and recognitions. Lou Bellamy of Penumbra Theater was recognized as a Kay Sexton Honoree, Steven McCarthy received the Book Artist Award, and there were other items on the agenda.

Finally, Shawn’s category came up, and the award was announced. Did he win? Here’s the video:

Congratulations Shawn Otto!

He also wrote this and this.

#Occupy #Politics Visibly with #Indivisible

Indivisible is a lot like #Occupy but instead of being in tents, we are intense in other ways.

I have been at a few Indivisible meetings over the last few weeks. One of the questions I have about the movement is this: How many people in Indivisible now had voted for Trump, or in my case, our local Republican house representative, Erik Paulsen, or the like, elsewhere? Also, how many people in Indivisible had not voted at all in the last election, or at least, were not reliable voters? And, how many people in Indivisible had voted, and generally voted Democratic/Progressive/Whatever but had not worked for any campaigns (issue campaigns or candidates)? How many people in Indivisible had not given money to candidates or politically relevant causes (like ACLU, Planned Parenthood, the Democrats, etc.) before? And, how many people in Indivisible didn’t know a lot of important stuff before but are now learning it, and want to learn more, about how our system works?

There are many reasons I want to know these things, but one pragmatic reason stands out: If we re-did the election of November 2016 right now, what would happen? How many people would vote differently, vote at all, or, prior to the election, work for a candidate that had not done so before, send off $50 to a campaign, etc.? And, how much better informed would that electorate be?

In other words, how different would the outcome of a Mulligan be, and how is that difference reflected in the apparently transformative rise of the Indivisible movement?

And, even more pragmatically, should I simply be depressed because all the people who show up at Indivisible meetings were already voting, mainly voting for Democrats, already worked for campaigns, donated some money, and were well informed about how the system all works?

The answer is: No, I should not be depressed. As represented, at least, by Indivisible people in my area, there are big changes.

I’m combining impressions of our very local group (20+ people) and our congressional district group (hundreds of people active, maybe thousands ready to do something). This comes in part from personal introductions at the beginning of meetings, a practice our local group leader has followed, and that has been very valuable to getting the group bonded and fired up. This also comes from conversations during, before, and after meetings, and at various protests or other events.

Here are my impressions.

Most Indivisibles have generally voted, but a small number have not done so reliably, and a few did not in the last election.

A small number of Indivisibles voted for the “wrong” candidate last election, locally (including at the Federal level) but perhaps almost none voted for Trump.

Combining these two numbers, if the election were held again in my district, one or two of my local state-level positions would have been Democratic rather than Republican, because it was a very close election this year (dozens of votes for our state Senator), and the state would be Democratically controlled in the legislature. I think, and some knowledgeable DFL operatives agree with me, that if we keep up this momentum, the state will turn full on blue (at the state level) in the next election. Thank you Donald and Erik.

However, that number of votes may not be sufficient to have turned the vote in our congressional race. Having said that, across the state, a couple of the races were close. If we held the election today, Minnesota would probably send one more Democrat to the House than it did, but not necessarily for my district.

What about sending money to candidates and working on elections? If a new campaign was started today, the number of individuals working for DFL (Democratic Party) candidates would be much higher, maybe 25% or even 50% higher, and the number of hours per candidate even greater. There would not be a corresponding increase in funds or work effort for the Republican candidates. Maybe a decrease. That would translate into a few percent of the vote, most likely. I believe (and I can never be proven wrong so I’m quite confident in this statement!) that if the campaign and election were redone today, because of this additional work on the campaigns, that my member of Congress would have been replaced, and more. It would be a good election. A very good one.

I’ll add this: One of the most interesting characteristics of the Indivisible movement, at least where I’ve been working in it, is the recognition that the Democratic Party is all about the election, and not about the politics, policy, and governing. Indivisible, locally, and I think this is true across the country, is doing a lot, has done a lot, and will do a lot. We will have a lot of stuff done before the Democratic Party finishes its morning coffee. We had done a big hug pile of stuff before the DNC elected its chair, just a few weeks ago.

It was Indivisible and similar movements that crashed the Republican effort to kill Obamacare. On the surface, it was the hard right Libertarians, but they mattered in this process because the more moderate Republicans were scared off by us. At the very root of the party discord that killed the Republican repeal and replace bill was the Indivisible movement showing up at the town halls, crashing the phone system, and filling inboxes with notes. The Democratic Party in Washington was able to make the moves it made because we gave them the room to do so.

You’re welcome.

When the Democratic Party finally gets its candidates for the next round of elections, Indivisible will be there to vote them in. But the Democratic Party needs to recognize that Indivisible is not an arm of the Democratic Party, and the Democratic Party needs to be asking Indivisible what it wants, now, and it needs to be helping, becoming a partner. And, by “asking indivisible” I mean asking the people who are in the movement on a local and regional basis.

I have seen that happening to a large degree, but it is not coming from the party itself. It is coming from individuals who are DFL officers who are also involved in Indivisible. It is an informal link that can’t be trusted to have much value unless it is backed by the party core, the party faithful. If that does not happen over the next few weeks, the Democratic Party is taking a very serious risk of losing relevance. Whigging out, as it were. They don’t want to do that.

What about being informed about how our system works? This is the area where the largest changes are being made. There are two entirely different areas of consideration here, and rapid change is happening in both areas. One is the system of government itself, the other is the system of power. First, about the government.

It is almost as though the system was designed to be confusing. For example, what is a “house member.”

Well, it depends. Do you mean state level or national? In Minnesota, you have a house member at the state level, and you have a house member at the federal level. The state house member is in the state house, and the federal house member is in Congress. We often use the word “Congressman/Congresswoman/Congressperson” for the federal house member. But, “Congress” also includes Senate. So, “The Congress” at the federal level is the Senate (you have two of those) and House, even though we use the term “Congressperson” to refer only to the house and “Senator” to refer only to the Senate. But not at the state level.

Unless you live, say, in New York, where you have no house members. You have Senators and Assemblymen/persons. That state, and some others, have a Senate and and Assembly. Some states don’t have two houses of their legislature, but only one.

Don’t get me started on committees and what they do (vitally important).

I think I’ve made my point. Individuals who are now indivisible but who have not been much involved before are learning all this stuff new, and believe me, they are learning it good.

Then there is the power stuff. We have a representative system where the people elect house and senate members at the state and federal level, and they toil in service of the voters. Right?


First, voters are not relevant, the elected officials represent all the people whether they voted or not. Second, only some of them represent the people. Most of them represent special interests which occassionally coincide with the will of the people. So, Big Oil and the Sierra Club fight over votes, and we give money to Big Oil and the Sierra Club to do this.

The difference is, of course, how these various entities get the money that they use to shape policy in state houses and DC. It is all our money, we are the ones paying for all of it, but the route by which the money travels from you and me to a political campaign or PAC varies in a critically important way.

We give money to Big Oil because we want to drive our cars, heat our homes, use pharmaceuticals (yes, they are often made of petroleum), etc. Every time you spend money on anything, a tiny percent goes into a political or issues campaign, sometimes a candidate’s coffers, sometimes in a super PAK, sometimes to support an ad campaign about how great Methanol is, etc. We have a multi-trillion dollar economy and several hundred million dollars of that is channeled into political activism directed by several dozen individuals who control the largest share of that economy. It is baked in.

Funding for the Sierra Club and all the other organizations, or individual candidates raising those small number donations from the voters, etc., is not baked in. That comes and goes with how much interest the general public has in particular issues and that all depends on which shiny objects are about at the moment.

Indivisible has done two things in this area. A very large percentage, maybe about half, of the people now engaged in Indivisible, did not know very much about this power and money thing. They probably knew it was there, had a vague idea, but not the details. They are now learning the details, and the are creating ways to address it.

The second is what a new Indivisible member told me at a protest event the other day. She was one of those individuals somewhat but not fully involved in previous years. Now she is involved. She said, “A sleeping giant has been awakened. And she is pissed.”

There are some 100 million independent adults or households in this country. About 100 million entities that might decide to write a check for, say, a cause or candidate, or be members of Public Radio, or join a gym, or whatever. Imagine if 10 million of them decided to get serious about his. Ten million Indivisible individuals, where “individual” means household units, being serious. They decide to tithe themselves a total of $1000 a year to contribute to political campaigns. They get semi-organized, but informally so, using the Internet. They distribute their campaign dollars across state and congressional campaigns.

Ten Billion Dollars is a lot of money. Since the House runs every two years, if this was put into all of the Congressional races, that would be 20 billion divided by 538 per race. That’s about 37 million dollars per campaign. That’s ridiculous.

I would love to see that happen, of course. But here, I mention it only as a thought experiment. Here’s a fact: Indivisible is larger than the baked-in Big Industry special interests and the liberal and progressive organizations like the Sierra Club and the ACLU combined. We can kick big money out of politics, not by making it somehow go away, but by making it small. We can force elected officials to represent the people of their respective districts by doing something very simple but incredibly effective when the numbers are large: Insisting on it.

People like Erik Paulsen and Donald Trump will not do what we want (which is, simply, to govern fairly and intelligently) because we insist. They are not built that way and never were. But once we throw all the bums out, as the old expression goes, and replace them with thoughtful, intelligent, reasonable, moderate through liberal (depending on the district) and honest individuals, then we can do something remarkable. We can take over the country.

Imagine that: The people taking over the country.

Sticking with this last issue, of knowing stuff, I want to recommend two books. I’ve reviewed them both, so here are links to both my reviews, and the amazon pages. I’ve checked my local library for both, just to make sure they have them, and yes, they have several copies: they are all out, and the reserve backlog is months long!

Shawn Otto is a political expert, author (of non fiction, fiction, and screenplays) and a bunch of other stuff, and he wrote The War on Science: Who’s Waging It, Why It Matters, What We Can Do About It. (Full disclosure: Shawn is a friend, but he’s a friend BECAUSE he writes great books, of course!) Much of what we are seeing, including the buying off of the government by the aforementioned industries, is about the war on science. Otto sets this in historical and contemporary perspective, and provides a field manual for what to do about it. This is a must read. (My review is here.)

Jane Mayer’s Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right is a very well researched and engagingly written expose of how that baked-in money works, and thus, how our government actually works. It is also a must read. (My review is here.)

Dr. Gavin Schmidt’s Epic Response to Scott Adams

Scott Adams is the creator of Dilbert, the once funny but now highly repetitive cartoon about a nerd who has a job in an office.

Dr. Gavin Schmidt is high up in the top ten list of world class climate scientists. He is Director of the currently under siege GISS Unit of NASA, where much of the climate science done by that agency is carried out. If you read my blog, you’ve read his work, because you also read RealClimate, where GS writes about climate science in a manner designed to be understandable to the intelligent, honestly interested, thoughtful individual.

Adams has a history of going after core science concepts, often substituting scientific reality with his own. He has done so with climate science.

And, he’s done it again. In a recent blog post (of yesterday) Adams tries to “convince skeptics that climate change is a problem”

This is a re-hash of earlier posts he’s written, in which he does the old denial two step. Of course climate change is real, he says. I’m not a scientist, he says. I don’t know jack about climate science in particular, he says. Then, he uses up piles of ink telling climate scientists how they’ve got all the science wrong.

His objective, I assume, is to spread and nurture doubt about climate science and science in general.

Dr Schmidt caught a tweet of Adams’, pointing to his absurd blog post, and responded with a series of tweets addressing all the things.

I wanted to preserve this excellent, well documented and richly illustrated TweetTextBook, and it occurred to me that you might want to see it too. So, here are the tweets.

Feel free to add additional relevant tweets to the comments, if you like. I hope this doesn’t break the Internet.

The War On Science: What It Is And How To Win It

Thinker, writer, and independent scholar Shawn Otto has written an important book called “The War on Science: Who’s Waging It, Why It Matters, What We Can Do About It” (Milkweed Editions, publisher)

Read this book now, and act on what you learn from it, for the sake of your own future and the future of our children and their children.

The rise of modern civilization, from the Enlightenment onward for hundreds of years, was the same thing as the rise of modern science. The rise of science was a cultural novelty with only vague foreshadowing. It was a revolution in the way humans think.

People come to believe what they believe in a way that rarely involves scientific thinking. The human mind is not inherently rational in the sense we usually use the term today. The process of learning things, of inference, and developing habits that guide our reactions to the world around us, evolved to function well enough given our usual cultural, social, and ecological context. But the modern world presents challenges that are better addressed, and problems that are only solvable, with a scientific approach. Science is something we willfully impose on our own process of thought and, at the level of society, formation of policy and law.

You have heard of the concept of “diseases of civilization.” For example, we evolved to seek and love sugars and fats, and then we developed methods of obtaining seemingly unlimited quantities of said nutrients. The success of our system of feeding ourselves solves the problem of uncertainty in the food supply and creates the problems of atherosclerosis, widespread obesity, and all too common diabetes.

Self damaging stupidity also seems to be a disease of civilization. One would think that with the rise of science, the opposite would happen, and it has to some extent.

People spend a great deal of time and energy, and other resources, acting on beliefs about food production and personal health that are contrary to their own best interests. Had a fraction of that energy been spent on trying to understand the relevant science of food production and health, those individuals would be much better off, as would the rest of society. The same pattern can be seen in all other aspects of life, from energy production and use to systems of transportation to diplomacy and warfare. Again and again, great ideas emerge that may become excellent new laws or common best practices, only to be watered down and compromised because of this self damaging stupidity. How, when, and why did we get here?

Today, increasingly and powerfully, anti-science forces are strong and shape the way people think and act to our collective detriment. This is the problem Otto addresses.

How is it that humans invented science, used science for all sorts of improvements (and, admittedly, a number of unintended negative consequences), and then came to new ways of developing policy and practice that hobble the use of this important cultural and social resource?

Shawn Otto’s book is a careful and detailed scholarly examination of this question. I struggled for a time with whether or not I should make the following statement about The War on Science, because I want this statement to be taken in a positive way, though it might be seen as a criticism. Otto’s book is similar to, and at the level of, an excellent PhD thesis. I very quickly add, however, that since this is the work of a very talented writer and communicator, it does not read like a PhD thesis. It reads like a page turner. But the substance of the book is truly scholarly, contributes new thinking, and is abundantly and clearly documented and backed up. I can’t think of too many books that do all of this.

The Enlightenment and the early rise of scientific thinking was a self conscious effort by a small number of individuals to rethink the way we think, and it was a very effective one. Almost every advance in technology, economy, and society – from vehicles and energy to the invention of money and markets, to new or modified forms of government – arose from the self conscious application of scientific thinking. The same great mind that contributed so much to the invention of modern physics and mathematics, that of Sir Isaac Newton, modernized the production of coinage and regulation of international exchange of money (as well as modern systems of engaging and neutralizing counterfeiting). The invention of the American system of government was the intentional and thoughtful product of individuals who called themselves and their actions scientific.

But, as Newton would say, for each and every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. Science is not only a powerful tool for doing new things and improving old approaches, but it is also very inconvenient. For some, under certain conditions.

It isn’t that science itself is bad for powerful entities that make up the political and industrial status quo. Science is as essential today as it has ever been, or more so, to the owners of energy companies, the producers of military gear, the growers and purveyors of food, and so on. But there are times when the best available scientific evidence suggests that the best decisions that society or government should make are contrary to the vested self interest of those power brokers. So, really, the best method, from the point of view of stockholders in major corporations or the owners of vast energy or agricultural resources, or others, is to use science but also to control the interface between scientific action and public policy.

In other words, the scientifically derived answer to a question is different when the premise is different. What is the best way to increase profits from making and selling energy? What is the best way to protect the public health while making and selling energy? These are two valid questions that, at least in the short and medium term, can produce dramatically different answers.

In 2012, Shawn Otto posed the conundrum, “It is hard to know exactly when it became acceptable for U.S. politicians to be antiscience.” One could ask the same question about leaders of industry. The answer may be fairly obvious. This became acceptable the moment the interests being served by those politicians shifted from the populous to the smaller subset of owners and investors of business and industry. The money trail, which one is often advised to follow to find a truth, leads pretty directly to that answer.

A harder question is, how did large portions of the academic world also decide to be anti-science? For this, one needs to take a more fine grained cultural approach, looking at self interest in the context of scholarship.

How does religion fit in here? The modern, mainly social network-bound, conversation about religion science, secularism, etc. is over-simplistic and mostly wrong. It is not the case that religion and science are opposite things. Rather, the rise of science was part of revolutionary changes in European religious institutions, culture, and politics. There are ironies in that story and the details are fascinating and important. Otto covers this.

Otto also identifies and discusses at length something I’ve been talking and writing about for some time. The nature of the conversation itself. If a conversation proceeds among those with distinctly different self interest, it quickly goes pedantic. If, on the other hand, a conversation proceeds among those with the common goal of understanding something better, or solving a particular problem, then it progresses and discovery and learning happen. On all of the different fronts of the “war on science” we see the honest conversation breaking down, or even, not happening to begin with, and from this nothing good happens.

Otto identifies a three-front war on science: The identity politics war on science, the ideological warn on science, and the industrial war on science. Conflate or ignore the differences at your peril. Postmodernism problemtizes the very concept of truth. Much of what you think of as the war on science is part of the ideological war on science, often with strong religious connections. The industrial war on science is in some ways the most important because it is the best funded, and the anti-science generals have a lot at stake. When cornered, they tend to be the most dangerous.

The last part of Otto’s book is on how to win this war. He is detailed and explicit in his suggestions, producing a virtual handbook of action and activism. Recognizing how the system works, how to marshal resources to reshape the conversation, what scientists need to do, what communicators need to do, are part of a coherent plan. He ends with a “Science Pledge” which is “a renewed commitment to civic leadership based on the principles of freedom, science, and evidence.” And there is nothing new in this pledge. It is, essentially, a fundamentalist approach to science, society, and policy, going back to the beginnings of the coeval rise of science and civilization. There is little in Otto’s pledge that would not have been said by Thomas Jefferson, John Locke, or Francis Bacon.

You will enjoy Otto’s “The War on Science” and it will enrich and advance your understanding of the key, existential, issue of the day. And, it won’t just inform you and rile you up, but it will also help you define goals and give you tools to meet them.

The War on Science is an essential work, a game changer, and probably the most important book you’ll read this year.

Here’s an interview with Shawn Otto on Ikonokast Podcast.

Shawn Otto’s New Book: The War On Science

I’m going to publish my full review of The War on Science: Who’s Waging It, Why It Matters, What We Can Do About It by Shawn Otto closer to the publication date, which is June 7th. (I believe you can use the above link to pre-order the book.) But I just wanted to let you know the book exists, and is amazing, you will want to read it. You will definitely, absolutely, not want to not read it. It is a must read.

This isn’t just someone yammering about the lack of respect for science in America, or about the Republican Party’s antiscienceosity, etc. Shawn’s book is actually a history of science, in a sense, exploring the interrelationship between major evolutionary changes in how science works and how it has related to the parallel evolution of politics, and how politics works. It really is one of the more important books on this topic written.

Shawn also wrote the novel Sins of Our Fathers. Here is an interview Mike Haubrich and I did with Shawn about that book. And, here is a more recent interview from Ikonokast, with Shawn, about science and anti-science.

Here’s a way to get a special, signed, copy of the pre-print of Shawn Otto’s book, and donate to a good cause at the same time:

Here’s a great way to support the environment and good environmental policy action while getting ahold of a collectible pre-publication version of my next book, THE WAR ON SCIENCE. I have just a couple collectible uncorrected advance reader copies left, and I’ve donated two of them to the DFL Environmental Caucus, who is auctioning them off on Ebay as a fundraiser. These have gone for over $200 each at other fundraisers. I will sign and personalize them for the winning bidders per your request and mail them to you. If you care about science-related environmental issues like climate change, clean water, clean energy, and a host of others, then policy action is where the rubber hits the road, and electoral politics like the kind the DFL Environmental Caucus engages in helps bring pressure to bear on lawmakers on the campaign trail, giving them reason to do the right thing when it comes to passing evidence-based policy. So bidding massively on this book should be a no-brainer. Help the world, help your kids and grandkids, help the DFL Environmental Caucus, and get a great book at the same time. What’s not to love? Dig deep! And PS: if you’re a lobbyists, ignore this. They don’t solicit donations from lobbyists during the regular legislative session.


Attacking Climate Science and Scientists

You are a scientists and you are doing two things.

First, you have finished a preliminary study and submitted a grant proposal based on your evolving idea about something, and you have just submitted a related paper to a peer reviewed journal. Well, OK, that’s a bunch of things, but they are all related to the temporal stream of the research you are expected to do as a member of the academic community.

Second, you are having conversations with your mentor, your colleagues, others, about this research in which you are traveling up and down various alleyways searching for answers to outstanding questions, ways to refine your methodology, approaches to explaining complex things. Most of the time, just when you think you might have cornered an answer, it turns out to be just another question briefly disguised as a result. But, the whole time, you are having this conversation and it is fruitful and productive, and helps your research move forward.

Suddenly, Nefarious Guy, who is the antagonist in this story, appears on the scene. The first thing Nefarious Guy does is to force you to release the data from your preliminary study, and to put a copy of the peer reviewed paper you’ve submitted on the internet. The result? Some bogus dood at another institution gets hold of your preliminary study, publishes the result under his own name. Meanwhile, the journal contacts you and says they are rejecting your paper. They want new, as yet undistributed results taking up the precious pages of their journal, and your paper is no longer new, since it is all over the internet. The last four years of work is now severely damaged. Your tenure committee is not impressed with your excuses. Your career is damaged. Later, when you give a talk to some high school kids on what is like to be a scientist, a youngster asks, “What advice would you give to someone like me, who really wants to be a scientist?” You are compelled, ethically, to tell her to start off by making friends with a lawyer and not having very high expectations for her career.

But Nefarious Guy did not end his antics there. He also got hold of many of those conversations you’ve been having with your colleagues. You see, those conversations, in conformity with the way the modern world works, have largely been via email, and these emails have been acquired and made public. Now, Nefarious Guy and his minions have been mining these emails and putting bits and pieces of them out there, stripped of their actual context and embedded in a stream of lies about how the research was done and what the motivations of the researcher “really” are.

This dishonest misrepresentation of the honest conversations you’ve had does not damage your career, because all the other scientists and academics, including the granting agencies, can see right through Nefarious Guy’s exploits. But his actions do something worse. They damage science itself, because they become part of the public discourse, and the public is generally gullible, often looking for a reason to complain anyway, and do not understand the nature of what has happened.

Nefarious Guy is a stand in for any number of politically motivated science deniers who wish to damage the scientific process, discredit the widely held scientific consensus on climate change, and punish individual scientists for being honest and truthful.

One such individual is Congressman Lemar Smith of Texas. Michael Mann, a climate scientist who has been subjected to some of this sort of nefarious activity, recently wrote an Op Ed in the New York Times that talks about Smith’s assault on climate science.

Mann notes that Smith “has long disputed the overwhelming scientific evidence that carbon dioxide emissions from burning fossil fuels are changing the climate. Now he is using his committee chairmanship to go after the government’s own climate scientists, whose latest study is an inconvenience to his views.”

Last month, Smith subpoenaed climate scientist Kathryn Sullivan of NOAA demanding the release of those honest convo emails and other similar documents pertaining to climate change related research published in Science. The study produced results most inconvenient. Essentially, it was a detailed look at the data showing that the famous #FauxPause in the rise of global surface temperatures was indeed faux.

NOAA told Smith to take a hike. Smith doubled down. More than once. It is important to note that no one is denying access to data, methods, or results. The entire scientific community is appalled at Congressman Smith’s requests and his implications that these scientists are up to something. The information Smith needs to prove himself wrong are available. This is nothing but an expeditionary move to damage science and some of the scientists who do that science.

Mann notes that Smith has tried to do this sort of damage before, sometimes with success.

Mann concludes,

While there is no doubt climate change is real and caused by humans, there is absolutely a debate to be had about the details of climate policy, and there are prominent Republicans participating constructively in that discourse. Let’s hear more from these sensible voices. And let’s end the McCarthy-like assault on science led by the Lamar Smiths of the world. Our nation is better than that.

The New York Times gave Smith right of reply, in which he doubles down yet again, asserting that “federal employees at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration have altered temperature data to try to refute an 18-year plateau in global temperatures…” He insists that satellite data refute the idea that warming has continued. That satellite data to which he refers is the cooked up unpublished and unreviewed, known-to-be-faulty bogus result of a couple of science deniers. Well, it is published, in a blog post, but not in the peer reviewed literature.

No wonder so many Americans distrust Congress. Both houses.