Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Moral Short Circuits

This week I've been doing some research on the next article in my series on digital fabbers and small-scale manufacturing. The next article will tackle the subject of organic and printable semiconductors and electronics. While I was digging up reference sources, I came across a very interesting article by Brian Martin, Professor of Social Sciences at the University of Wollongong, Australia, and an associate of Whistleblowers Australia, an organization devoted to protecting those who uncover corruption within our present systems of social power.

The article that caught my interest is titled, “Scientific fraud and the power structure of science,” and it deals with the fact that the great majority of scientific research being performed at present is funded by and produced for the dominant holders of political and economic power. He also states that this produces a strong tendency in the scientific community to produce statements that are not entirely truthful, even though they are usually convenient for the agenda of the agency or corporation funding the research. Those scientists who become genuinely convinced of a point of view contrary to that of the dominant interests usually find their careers wrecked if they voice their views too loudly.

All this has an interesting bearing on the present debate about the reality of climate change, and what, if anything, should be done about it. The “Climategate” controversy has been the rage lately, with right-wing voices crying loudly that “Climategate proves that all this 'climate change' talk is just a ploy to deprive us of prosperity and the American way of life!” But the truth doesn't support their assertions.

The “Climategate” denouncers say that e-mails stolen from the Climate Research Unit (CRU) of the University of East Anglia prove that the scientists who say that global warming is real and that it is caused by our industrial society are deliberately falsifying data to make their case more compelling. I haven't read all of the e-mails; but let's assume that these assertions are true. This still leaves several troubling facts unanswered. First, the e-mails span a period from thirteen years ago to the present. But the CRU has been in existence since 1971. From the mid 1970's onward, it has been doing research on the effects of greenhouse gases on the earth's climate. Are the critics on the right going to tell me that the CRU had been doing bogus science all that time?

Secondly, the CRU was hardly alone in studying the effects of human activity on climate. The United Nations World Meteorological Organization also studied the issue, and in 1976 issued a warning that “a very significant warming of global climate was probable.” (Sources: Wikipedia and the World Meteorological Organization.) In fact, the study of man-made climate climate change has a rather long and distinguished history, starting from Svante Arrhenius in 1896 through G.S. Callendar in 1938 to the Cold War scientists of the 1950's and 1960's who sought to provide military planners with accurate models of potential changes to climate, to the scientists from the 1970's onward who built on the work of these pioneers. Are the critics on the Right going to tell me that all of these people were conspiring to “promote socialism and wreck the American way of life!”?

Third, though I haven't read all the e-mails, I have read at least one. It isn't the dramatic “smoking gun” that Fox News would like me to believe it is.

What does this have to do with scientific fraud, some may ask. Only this: the acknowledgment of the reality of global warming, and the role human activity plays in global warming, would present a huge moral problem to those whose activities most strongly promote global warming. Moral problems are inconvenient. Thus we have “scientists” who are handsomely paid to either deny that global warming is happening at all or to deny that human industrial activity plays such a pivotal role, and workers in scientific organizations who are handsomely paid to sabotage real science. Then there is the politically motivated watering down and temporizing of the reports that actually manage to get published. The denial or watering down of climate change facts does not threaten the powerful interests who are the patrons of modern day science.

For the record, I believe that climate change is real, and that it is caused by human activity. When my family first moved to So. Cal., there were many days in the winter that were decidedly cold. One October when I was in high school, the temperature dropped to the low 30's. Much later, in the 90's after I been through the Army and gone to college and had a few more “miles under my belt,” I was surprised to witness heat waves in November. I never had a problem believing in climate change (nor did I ever doubt the man-made damage to the ozone layer, especially after I, a black man, started getting sunburned in the summertime.) But then again, maybe I was hallucinating. Or maybe I'm part of some conspiracy to wreck the American way...

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