Syfy Insider Exclusive

Create a free profile to get unlimited access to exclusive videos, sweepstakes, and more!

Sign Up For Free to View
SYFY WIRE Bad Astronomy

When it comes to climate change, some people just want to watch the world burn

By Phil Plait

On Wednesday, March 29, the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology will hold a hearing entitled “Climate Science: Assumptions, Policy Implications, and the Scientific Method.”

This hearing will be a sham.

My apologies for not mincing words, but there’s no other way to say it. This committee holding a hearing on the scientific method is like an arsonist holding a hearing on how to upgrade a fireworks factory security system. I strongly doubt the intent will be to honestly investigate climate change and scientific methodology. Instead, it will likely be an attack on the science, and lay the groundwork for further impediments to it.

This isn’t hard to suss out; over the years the many sins of the committee’s majority members have been out in the open for all to see. Right after the GOP took over the House in the 2010 midterm elections, they stacked the committee with members who deny basic science — including such things as the Big Bang, evolution, climate science and even anatomy (remember Todd Akin?). Their official Twitter feed commonly posts ridiculous comments, like this one:

This isn’t just wrong, it’s amazingly wrong. Embarrassingly so.

But this is no surprise, given the committee chairman. Representative Lamar Smith (R-Texas), who took the reins in 2013, has been on a non-stop warpath against climate science ever since. He has mostly focused on the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, our nation’s premier climate change research agency. Smith has gone on fishing expeditions trying to dig up dirt, and issued subpoenas to scientists, including the former NOAA director Kathryn Sullivan — a scientist, astronaut and legitimate American hero.

Smith, on the other hand, is a conspiracy theorist, claiming that the NOAA is altering data. This is, ah, misleading, to be polite.

But none of this is enough for Representative Smith. As reported on the AAAS Science website, on March 23 Smith gave the keynote talk at a “climate conference” held by the Heartland Institute. You may remember Heartland; they were responsible for such shenanigans as an atrocious billboard comparing climate change scientists to mass murderers (a stunt that rightly lost them donors), issuing a screed about climate change and Chinese climate policy that was so bad the Chinese Academy of Science put out a statement decrying it (using the word “false” four times), misrepresenting an American Meteorological Society survey so grossly that they had to issue a statement rebuking it, and on and on.

You may not be surprised to learn that Heartland made their name defending the tobacco industry; their president, Joe Bast, even wrote an op-ed downplaying the connection between tobacco and cancer.

So, in this Mos Eisley’s Tavern of science denial, Smith perhaps felt more free to speak his mind (and is no doubt also emboldened by the current political climate against science). In his conference talk, Science reports that he said, “Next week,we’re going to have a hearing on our favorite subject of climate change and also on the scientific method, which has been repeatedly ignored by the so-called self-professed climate scientists.”

This sentence is just what you expect to see coming out the south end of a north-facing bull. Even a brief glance into the links I provide above shows that Smith is the one who either doesn’t understand or chooses not to understand the scientific method, instead letting his ideology (or his $700,000 in fossil fuel funding) blind him to reality. The irony of him uttering this statement is profound.

More chillingly, he also said he would be amplifying his criticism of research that doesn’t go along with what he calls “sound science.” This is a GOP buzzphrase used as way to thwart actual research; it’s been deployed many times to sow doubt that enough research has been done; that is, when research hasn’t reached a conclusion the person using the phrase liked.

This is very troubling, since Smith has attacked important science agencies like the NSF, trying to prove them a waste of taxpayer money. The idea that the science they’re doing is frivolous (again: meaning going against GOP ideology) has been a blunt weapon he’s wielded for years.

This is a huge problem. Politicians should not and can not decide what makes scientific research “sound. Scientific findings must not change with the political winds; if anything, the reverse is true.

And the basic science of global warming is, in fact, settled. We know the planet is heating up. We know this is due primarily to the excess carbon dioxide in the air put there by humans since the Industrial Revolution. And we know this is affecting the climate. The only unknown is just how much it’s affecting the environment — and even then, we know the effect is strong. But be assured this is precisely where Smith will focus the hearing. It’s a standard denial tactic to zero in on any uncertainty, no matter how small, and amplify it well past the point where it has any worth.

Having said that, of course science is political. It is performed by humans, and humans are political beasts. But that is precisely why we have a scientific method. A big part of that method is to obtain outside criticism, to have others examine the results to make sure no biases or bad practices have crept in.

And by “others,” I mean qualified others. People who are experts in the field, who have the experience to find the cracks in the pathway to the results presented. Not politicians who have a preconceived agenda they are trying to ram through.

Which is precisely why, when the committee tweeted this:

I replied with this:

Science is based on evidence. Let's see if honest questions are asked at this hearing. You can find out yourself: It will be streamed live at 10:00 Eastern time Wednesday. I'll be very curious indeed to hear what's said.

[Top image credit: Shutterstock/Vadim Sadovski]