Tuesday, February 21, 2012

The Thing About Science

If you're serious about doing science, it can break your heart. Things you thought were true, when subjected to experimental confirmation, just aren't. So you figure an alternative way to check it, repeat what you did before to make sure you didn't get something wrong. And the results still come out the same way.

When it's happened to me, I've conceptualized it as coming into contact with an adamantine wall of reality that busts up my mental concepts. And it continues to stand, unscathed, while I decide whether to gather up the pieces or just let them rot.

But others see it differently. If you want to sell cigarettes or carbon-based fuels, the issue has nothing to do with that adamantine wall and everything to do with much more malleable minds. So we saw the cigarette manufacturers play their waiting game in the 1960s as the evidence piled up that their product caused lung cancer and other illnesses. As people died, the public began to realize that the cigarette manufacturers were pushing their financial interests.

Global warming doesn't kill people the way cigarettes do, so science has had a harder slog against those who make money from it. And, like the cigarette manufacturers, the sellers of fossil fuels have not been shy in putting forth their own story, science be damned, or harassing those they see as their opponents.

Not only are people not coughing blood, it's going to take more than eliminating a small pleasure/addiction from our lives to respond to global warming. So the public is more willing to aid and abet the fossil-fuel pushers. All they have to do is what they've been doing. Plus the political angle: if liberals are for it, we're agin' it is currently a powerful motivator in some quarters.

So Peter Gleick became frustrated enough to do something dumb. The documents from the Heartland Institute are real, and they document some of the ways that those who make money from the commercial status quo dupe those who have some gripe against those who argue for change. Someone broke into university e-mail accounts a while back to try to discredit the scientists. Gleick used deception, those others used hacking. Gleick admits his wrongdoing; the hackers remain anonymous.

Neither is particularly praiseworthy. Me, I prefer feeling out where that adamantine wall lies. But for something that will change the world as global warming is likely to, there will be a lot else going on.

Coverage of Gleick's admissions:

Climate Progress
Andrew Revkin
The Guardian
Brad Plumer
Balloon Juice

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