Topic: Science & Technology

Global Warming Ethics: Part One of Three. Convenient Misrepresentations

The Scoreboard hesitates to announce that the debate over global warming is the most misleading and intellectually dishonest policy controversy yet, but it is certainly a strong contender. A large file documenting the deceit, logic-twisting double-talk and outright falsehoods perpetrated by both sides of the issue has grown so large and so fast that I cravenly avoided starting to discuss the issue in fear that once the Scoreboard began delving into the wretched ethics of both global warming advocates and debunkers, it would never be able to stop. But Al Gore's bizarre Nobel Prize for "An Inconvenient Truth" ("Peace?" Peace?) shows that the forces of reason and common sense are barreling out of control here, and The Scoreboard cannot justify staying on the sidelines.

So we begin with Al's Academy Award-winning documentary, "An Inconvenient Truth." It's a fine documentary, which like any other film in its genre has a point of view; it is not designed to be balanced, nor does it need to be. Gore not only believes global warming is taking place---a reasonable assumption, since the globe is usually warming or cooling---he believes Global Warming is happening at a dangerous level and way too fast. Global Warming with capital letters means, "oh, oh, if we don't act now, there will be beach front property in Missouri!" Well, "believes" may be giving Gore a bit too much credit. As a Senator and presidential wannabe, Gore's modus operandi was to find a policy initiative needing a spokesman, and to become the public figure most associated with it. For a while, in the mid-80s, Al's big deal was health promotion. Then he became the promoter of what he called "the information super-highway"---the Internet. Finally, he settled on the environment, and as the 21st Century dawned and he came up short of a few chads in Florida, he refined his specialty to Global Warming, in capitals.

Gore, who is not a scientist and lacks the markers of a genuinely brilliant mind, may have read all the important literature and studies on the issue and come to a completely unbiased conclusion that we all better start taking swimming lessons, but there is reason to doubt it. For one thing, he is prone to saying things like this (or rather putting his name to things like this that are written by someone else) in a New York Times op-ed piece last summer:

"…Consider this tale of two planets. Earth and Venus are almost exactly the same size, and have almost exactly the same amount of carbon. The difference is that most of the carbon on Earth is in the ground -- having been deposited there by various forms of life over the last 600 million years -- and most of the carbon on Venus is in the atmosphere. As a result, while the average temperature on Earth is a pleasant 59 degrees, the average temperature on Venus is 867 degrees. True, Venus is closer to the Sun than we are, but the fault is not in our star; Venus is three times hotter on average than Mercury, which is right next to the Sun. It's the carbon dioxide."

This prompted a thorough rebuke by Pepperdine University Professor George Reisman, who responded in part…

"No, Mr. Gore, it's not the carbon dioxide… Martian atmosphere is 95 percent carbon dioxide, yet the average surface temperature on Mars is -63° C (-81° F). (It's true that the atmosphere on Mars is only about .6 percent as dense as that on Earth, but it's also true that its relative concentration of carbon dioxide is about 2400 times as great as that of Earth, which appears to make up for the thinness of the Martian atmosphere about 14 times over.)…There is simply no informed or honest way for you to suggest that the amount of atmospheric carbon dioxide on Earth is or ever will be comparable to the amount on Venus. According to The Encyclopedia Britannica, the atmosphere of Venus is 96 percent carbon dioxide. The atmosphere of the Earth, in contrast, is less than .04 percent carbon dioxide. That's not .04, but .0004, i.e., four one-hundredths of one percent. To be precise, carbon dioxide is presently 383 parts per million of the Earth's atmosphere. All of the brouhaha going on about the subject is over a projected increase to perhaps as much as 1000 parts per million by the year 2100, i.e., to .1 percent, which is 10 one-hundredths of one percent."

It really didn't require a college professor's critique for someone to see that the Venus-Earth analogy was an outrageous stretch, but for many a casual reader, such bogus reasoning can be persuasive. Gore was using half-baked science to make an argument that would appear logical and factual to someone who didn't check the facts, understand them, or think about them very hard. Or, in the alternative, Gore himself was convinced by this argument, because he didn't check the facts, understand them, or think about them very hard. I suspect it is the latter, but never mind: Gore signed the op-ed, and if there is scientific chicanery in the argument, he's responsible for it now.

"An Inconvenient Truth" is full of such dubious "evidence." Several prominent scientists who are in agreement with the general thrust of the film have called attention to multiple inaccuracies and misrepresentations, and just recently the United Kingdom High Court ruled that "An Inconvenient Truth" could only be shown in British schools with guidance notes explaining that parts of it contain "alarmism and exaggeration." The judge said the film could be shown in schools provided that teachers were certain to point out nine significant scientific errors. One of the most obvious was the film's assertion that a sea-level rise of up to 20 feet caused by the melting of ice in either West Antarctica or Greenland was imminent, when the majority scientific opinion is that if Greenland's ice melted it would take thousands of years to cause a 20-feet sea rise. Another, well publicized before the ruling, is that the melting "snows of Kilimanjaro," a dramatic image from the documentary widely used as a symbol of climate change, is probably not caused by global warming. The judge felt such a ruling was necessary because the film was being distributed to schools as fact (the term "truth" in the title would indicate this) rather than as opinion or advocacy.

The apparent strategy of global warming advocates is to exaggerate and enhance evidence in order to change public opinion and create an irresistible policy mandate. Many of them are seeking to prove beyond a reasonable doubt a proposition that current scientific knowledge can at best prove by a preponderance of the evidence. This is unethical and dishonest, and Gore is far from the only one who indulges in it. Newsweek recently published a feature article that described those skeptical of global warming claims as "deniers," deliberately invoking the indefensible analogy of the usually responsible Boston Globe columnist Ellen Goodman, who actually equated those who were not ready to board Al Gore's bandwagon to Holocaust deniers.

As with Gore, it is impossible to know if Goodman was being intentionally dishonest or is simply scientifically ignorant. The evidence that the Holocaust happened is clear, unequivocal, unambiguous, tangible, and extensively documented. Questioning particular assessments of what is occurring or will occur is necessarily very different from disputing what the historical record shows has occurred. What will happen can never be as certain as what has happened. But the heralds of global warming don't want to permit the usual range of questioning and doubt, so they engage in factual exaggeration, like Gore has, or attack opponents with marginalization by pejorative association, like Goodman did.

Why? It appears that they believe the stakes are too high to risk being truthful and straightforward. Here is Gore in a May interview with a publication called Grist, responding to a question about scaring people with his apocalyptic global warming scenarios:

"…I believe it is appropriate to have an over-representation of factual presentations on how dangerous it is, as a predicate for opening up the audience to listen to what the solutions are, and how hopeful it is that we are going to solve this crisis."

What is intentional "over-representation of factual presentations"? It is called lying. It is called deceiving audiences, listeners, readers and students. It is misrepresentation. And it is exactly what Gore himself has accused the Bush administration of doing in the run up to the Iraq invasion regarding Iraq's "weapons of mass destruction."

A surprising number of people who consider themselves ethical endorse Gore's "over-representation" methodology, and not just blatant fact-manipulators like Michael Moore. I was moderating a symposium on corporate ethics when I suggested to a panelist, a venerable and nationally known pollster, that over-simplifying and exaggerating scientific findings while minimizing the difficulty and complexity of large scale data analysis and long-range forecasts is unethical. He emphatically disagreed, saying, in effect, that the public gets confused by the complexities, disputes and data holes that are part of the scientific process, and is too vulnerable to politically motivated opponents who exploit "minor inconsistencies." Thus the argument has to be made as persuasive as possible, even if that means distorting it.

I see.

This is essentially the argument of every prosecutor who manufactures or hides evidence to "prove" the guilt of a criminal, because the jury can't be trusted to see through the defense attorney's arguments. The jury is too gullible and stupid, the prosecutor believes, to be trusted to make the "right" decision when presented with all the evidence. People like the pollster and Al Gore feel the same way about the court of public opinion, so they lie…all in our best interests, of course. How arrogant, how misguided, and how wrong.

Neither Al Gore nor the pollster is a scientist, and their theory of public persuasion is an affront to the scientific method they supposedly revere. Theories survive or fail depending on whether they can stand up to inconsistent evidence and alternative theories, which means that the public must hear about "inconvenient truths," like the real story behind the snows of Kilimanjaro. The inconsistencies confuse the public? Well, welcome to democracy, government by the often ignorant, frequently distracted, and scientifically out-to-lunch. It's still the American way, and side-stepping informed democracy with lies is neither right, smart, nor American. And when a respectable voice from the scientific community questions global warming cant, the ethical, sensible, responsible approach is to respect his or her arguments and counter them---if possible.

On the very same day that the Nobel committee honored Mr. Gore for his work in support of the link between humans and global warming, Dr. William Gray, a pioneer in the science of seasonal hurricane forecasts, told a packed lecture hall at the University of North Carolina that humans were not responsible for the warming of the earth, and backed up his contentions with his own data. Yet he received little publicity. As with other nay-saying scientists who do not fit the description of "whacko" or "whores of industry," he was largely ignored by the media and allowed to quietly fall into the isolation chambers prepared for them by the likes of Robert Kennedy Jr., whose label for opponents of global warming theory is even more outrageous than Ellen Goodman's. "This is treason and we need to start treating them now as traitors," RFK, Jr. has said.

Now THAT's the way to encourage open and rigorous debate, Robert. Your father would be so proud.

The "global warming is a liberal plot" side engages in the same unethical tactics, of course. A frighteningly large contingent regard most science as pagan propaganda, whether it is evolution, stem cell research or climate studies. Sean Hannity, one of the most popular conservative talk show pundits, often tries to debunk global warming science by reciting a long litany of all the times scientists have been wrong, ending with the unwarranted conclusion that you just can't trust scientific research. That's an argument custom-designed for dopes: from the cars Hannity's listeners are driving in to the microphone he's using and the cable technology that allows us to see what nice hair he has, science has been right about an awful lot, and he knows it. Hauling out printed predictions of global cooling from 1983 that haven't panned out does not prove that today's climate scientists haven't learned from past experience, which is what scientists do, after all.

A related ploy, a favorite of the conservative climate change skeptics, is to argue that the exposure of a global warming advocate's "truth" as an "over-representation" proves that global warming concerns are all a bunch of hooey. For example, Gore and others made the irresponsible (and completely unprovable) claim that global warming was to blame for Hurricane Katrina, and would cause a plague of monster storms in 2006. When the hurricane season in that year turned out to be atypically mild, it was held up by Rush Limbaugh and others as evidence that global warming was a myth. But all the lack of hurricanes really proved was that some global warming advocates will say anything to frighten the public.

The question of whether human activity is causing catastrophic climate change, what the extent and long terms effects of such change might be, and whether and how it can be slowed down, mitigated, or stopped, is a question for scientists, not politicians. That the argument has broken down along ideological lines should make all of us suspicious of both sides, their motives, biases and beliefs. Effective counter-measures to global warming, if necessary and possible, are likely to have tremendous economic, technological and political consequences, and the public has a right to have the all facts presented honestly and straightforwardly.

The issue is far more complex than the public debate reveals. Think about it: how does one accurately measure the temperature of the earth? Assuming we do it more accurately now than, say, fifty years ago, how do we accurately compare today's climate to those in the past? How accurate is any prediction about the climate in the next century likely to be, when our current technology so often fails to predict when it's going to rain next week? There are hearty debates about those questions in the scientific community too, and the answers, whatever they are, influence the conclusions about global warming.

Raising consciousness about a major problem is a public service: score one for Al Gore, though it doesn't warrant a Nobel prize. But "over-representation" of facts is just a euphemism for misrepresentation and deception. If Al Gore and others will not or cannot explain the real truths and controversies about global warming to the science-challenged public, then his side of the debate needs to be anchored by someone of integrity who can. Building public support though distortion and lies is not justified, no matter what the threat to the planet might be.

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