Scientific American Drifts From Science

A few weeks ago, Scientific American sent twenty questions to the four Presidential candidates, asking for their policy positions on scientific issues. I think that’s a fine idea. The next President will control billions of dollars in federal funding for science, have to set priorities for our various department and agencies that do science and have to deal with scientific issues like disease, vaccines and climate change. These questions won’t reveal much about what the candidates think, but will reveal the kind of people they surround themselves with who actually write the answers. Are they surrounding themselves with real scientists or cranks? Big government lackeys or free market gurus? Earth-first idiots or global-warming-is-a-fraud crackpots?

Having read through the answers, it’s about what I would expect. It’s mostly pablum but gives you a general sense of their philosophies. Clinton thinks government can solve everything, Johnson is very in favor of free markets, Stein is a crackpot and Trump is kind of all over the place. All show some grasp of the issues but differ on their approaches. In terms of the quality of answers, I would rank them Johnson, Clinton, Trump, Stein, but … that is an entirely subjective rating. I rate Johnson high because I favor free markets and Stein low because she’s a crank who favors massive government intervention in everything.

Well, that wasn’t enough for Scientific American, who decided to “grade” the candidates on their answers. They rated Clinton highest (64 points), Stein (44 points), Johnson (30) and Trump (7). But their ratings having nothing to do with the actual science and everything to do with politics.

Both Trump and Johnson are hit for favoring free market approaches to climate change. Why? Because Scientific American doesn’t think the free market can handle climate change. Maybe it can’t, but that’s an opinion not a fact. It’s fine for pundits to have opinions but SA is presenting this as though it is some kind of objective analysis, which it clearly is not.

It get worse. They are heavily biased against Trump, frequently giving him zeros on issues where he’s not entirely wrong. They give him 0 points on education because he favors bringing more market forces to bear on education. Trump may be right or wrong on that (I think he’s right) but they bash him because ITT folded and Trump University was a scam. This has nothing to do with what Trump said. It’s bashing him for things he said outside of the forum and for issues unrelated to what he’s talking about. If you’re going to hit Trump for the failure of ITT (which he had nothing to do with), why not hit Clinton for taking millions in “for profit” college money? Clinton and Trump give basically the same answer on nuclear power, but Clinton gets two points and Trump gets one because reasons. On scientific integrity, they give Trump 0 points because … Politifact has rated a lot of his utterance as untrue. Look, I’ll be the first to call Trump a liar but this has nothing to do with his answers to this specific question. It’s ridiculous.

But it gets even worse. On nuclear power, they give Jill Stein 2/5 points. Jill Stein’s answer on nuclear power is one of the worst answers the entire debate. She plans to shut nuclear power down based on junk science and favors on-site storage based on junk science. Her proposal would almost certainly make climate change worse, not better. And if we’re going to judge candidates by what they’ve said elsewhere, she once claimed nuclear power plants were bombs. Stein is a complete crank on nuclear power. There is no way she should get any points on this. She also get 2/5 on food, even though she’s a complete crank on GMOs and farming.

Nowhere is this bias more visible than the question on vaccines. Trump is given 1/5 for occasionally engaging in anti-vaccine nonsense. But Stein is given 3/5 when her entire party is devoted to anti-vaccine nonsense; nonsense she has not seen fit to dispel. Seriously, Scientific American? Seriously?

I’m glad someone is asking the candidates questions about science policy. But Scientific American needs to just lay out the questions and answers and leave it that. We do not need this kind of biased analysis showing up in a supposedly scientific magazine. Write about it on Politico or Daily Kos or whatever.

You might wonder why this set me off. It’s because this is one of the biggest problems facing science today: the efforts by scientists and scientific publications to wed scientific facts to political opinions. This shows itself most thoroughly in the debate about global warming where disagreeing with left wing policy solutions to global warming is considered a form of “denial” on par with claiming the planet isn’t actually warming. The debate over global warming (and a host of other issues) would be light years easier if we separated those two; if we said “you can accept that global warming is real and not accept my solutions to it”. SA’s “grading” of the answers to the science debate is just the latest in the misguided philosophy of mistaking opinions about scientific issues for facts about scientific issues. And it needs to stop. These issues are way too important.

Silencing Science

Again, before we get into this, here is where I am coming from: global warming is real; we are almost certainly causing it; it is very likely to be bad; proposed liberal solutions are terrible and often counterproductive.

To wit:

A landmark bill allowing for the prosecution of climate change dissent effectively died Thursday after the California Senate failed to take it up before the deadline.

Senate Bill 1161, or the California Climate Science Truth and Accountability Act of 2016, would have authorized prosecutors to sue fossil fuel companies, think tanks and others that have “deceived or misled the public on the risks of climate change.”

The measure, which cleared two Senate committees, provided a four-year window in the statute of limitations on violations of the state’s Unfair Competition Law, allowing legal action to be brought until Jan. 1 on charges of climate change “fraud” extending back indefinitely.

“This bill explicitly authorizes district attorneys and the Attorney General to pursue UCL claims alleging that a business or organization has directly or indirectly engaged in unfair competition with respect to scientific evidence regarding the existence, extent, or current or future impacts of anthropogenic induced climate change,” said the state Senate Rules Committee’s floor analysis of the bill.

No no no no no no no no no no no NO NO NO! Bad legislature! Bad, bad legislature. Go sit in a corner and think about what you almost did.

I’m not going to mince words: this bill was (and probably will be again) a totalitarian piece of shit. It would have opened up climate skeptics to lawsuits because of their speech and opinions (keeping in mind that “climate skeptics” is class that often includes me because I oppose liberal solutions to global warming). Not only that, it would have extended that liability back for 30 years, allowing climate skeptics to be sued for statements they made when the science was way less certain.

Not only is the bill an attack on the First Amendment, it’s an attack on science. Science benefits from criticism, even criticism from cranks. In the case of climate science, methodology has been improved and data made more readily available to the public in response to skeptics. This has made the case that global warming is real stronger.

I understand where this is coming from. Climate scientists have found themselves the targets of a massive disinformation campaign. Garbage climate memes (polar ice caps are growing! Global cooling! It’s the sun!) proliferate no matter how often and how thoroughly they are debunked. In many cases, it’s gotten personal with online attacks and death threats.

But as Megan McArdle pointed out, fighting fire with fire isn’t helping:

There is a huge range of possible beliefs that go into assessing the various complicated theories about how the climate works, and the global-warming predictions generated by those theories range from “could well be catastrophic” to “probably not a big deal.” I know very smart, well-informed, decent people who fall at either end of the spectrum, and others who are somewhere in between. Then there are folks like me who aren’t sure enough to make a prediction, but are very sure we wouldn’t like to find out, too late, that the answer is “oops, catastrophic.”

These are not differences that can be resolved by name calling. Nor has the presumed object of this name calling — to delegitimize thoughtful opposition, and thereby increase the consensus in favor of desired policy proposals — been a notable political success, at least in the U.S. It has certainly rallied the tribe, and produced a lot of patronizing talk about science by people who aren’t actually all that familiar with the underlying scientific questions. Other than that, we remain pretty much where we were 25 years ago: holding summits, followed by the dismayed realization that we haven’t, you know, really done all that much except burn a lot of hydrocarbons flying people to summits. Maybe last year’s Paris talks will turn out to be the actual moment when things started to change — but having spent the last 15 years as a reporter listening to people tell me that no, really, we’re about to turn the corner, I retain a bit of skepticism.

(McArdle, who thinks global warming is real and we should take action just in case it turns out be very bad, was immediately branded a Koch shill and a denialist for having the temerity to suggest that calling every heretic a Koch shill and a denialist wasn’t a great way to promote science. So, yeah. She also links Warren Meyer’s outstanding series of posts on why is a “lukewarmer”. I don’t agree with everything he says, but he has a very good grasp of the science and makes the case for a conservative set of policies to address global warming.)

This is long past being absurd and going into territory that’s outright dangerous. We have Attorneys General investigating “denialists”. We have cartoons depicting violence against “denialists”. We now have a legislature trying to effectively silence “denialists” by gutting the First Amendment. Global warming is becoming less of a science/policy issue and more of a Culture War issue and we really can’t afford that.

Enough. It’s tiring, I know. But the only way to fight bad speech is with good speech. That has always been the case, it is currentlty the case and it always will be the case. If the global warming alarmists want to make some progress, decoupling the science case that global warming is real from the political case that we must do X, Y and Z would be far more beneficial than passing blatantly unconstitutional law to try to shut people up. You’ll get a lot more people to talk about global warming if talking about global warming doesn’t necessarily mean giving government even more power over our lives.

Update: In related news, Andrew Cuomo has issued an executive order to boycott businesses that boycott Israel. I support Israel. I think the boycott business is ridiculous. I think a government moving against boycotters is a horrific intrusion on free speech and free association.

No, You Can’t Sue, Part Duh

I’ve made it clear where I stand on global warming: I think it’s real, I think we are causing it, I’m pretty sure it’s going to be bad, I don’t think our government has a clue what to do about it. Yet, I feel very comfortable saying that this is bullshit:

The Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI) today denounced a subpoena from Attorney General Claude E. Walker of the U.S. Virgin Islands that attempts to unearth a decade of the organization’s materials and work on climate change policy. This is the latest effort in an intimidation campaign to criminalize speech and research on the climate debate, led by New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman and former Vice President Al Gore.

“CEI will vigorously fight to quash this subpoena. It is an affront to our First Amendment rights of free speech and association for Attorney General Walker to bring such intimidating demands against a nonprofit group,” said CEI General Counsel Sam Kazman. “If Walker and his allies succeed, the real victims will be all Americans, whose access to affordable energy will be hit by one costly regulation after another, while scientific and policy debates are wiped out one subpoena at a time.”

The subpoena requests a decade’s worth of communications, emails, statements, drafts, and other documents regarding CEI’s work on climate change and energy policy, including private donor information. It demands that CEI produce these materials from 20 years ago, from 1997-2007, by April 30, 2016.

This isn’t coming out of nowhere. Several climate activists have bene calling for precisely this sort of investigation for a while and several other AG’s have been pondering such a move. But while I strongly disagree with the CEI about the reality of climate change, this is an extremely chilling move (no pun intended).

Walter Olson again:

If the forces behind this show-us-your-papers subpoena succeed in punishing (or simply inflicting prolonged legal harassment on) groups conducting supposedly wrongful advocacy, there’s every reason to think they will come after other advocacy groups later. Like yours.

This is happening at a time of multiple, vigorous, sustained legal attacks on what had been accepted freedoms of advocacy and association. As I note in a new piece at Cato, Sen. Elizabeth Warren has just demanded that the Securities and Exchange Commission investigate several large corporations that have criticized her pet plan to impose fiduciary legal duties on retirement advisors, supposedly on the ground that it is a securities law violation for them to be conveying to investors a less alarmed view of the regulations’ effect than they do in making their case to the Labor Department. This is not particularly compelling as securities law, but it’s great as a way to chill speech by publicly held businesses.

Make no mistake. This isn’t about racketeering and it certainly isn’t about science. It’s about shutting people up. And as a defender of free speech, I will defend it for everyone. The CEI is not engaged in criminal conduct. Nor are they part of a shadow conspiracy of evil oil interests to wreck the planet. At worst, they are guilty of deception in talking about global warming. More likely, they are guilty of motivated reasoning, rejecting global warming because they don’t want it to be true. Neither of those things is a crime. McArdle, on the similar BS inquiry into Exxon Mobil:

State attorneys general including Walker held a press conference last week to talk about the investigation of ExxonMobil and explain their theory of the case. And yet, there sort of wasn’t a theory of the case. They spent a lot of time talking about global warming, and how bad it was, and how much they disliked fossil fuel companies. They threw the word “fraud” around a lot. But the more they talked about it, the more it became clear that what they meant by “fraud” was “advocating for policies that the attorneys general disagreed with.”

New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman gave the game away when he explained that they would be pursuing completely different theories in different jurisdictions — some under pension laws, some consumer protection, some securities fraud. It is traditional, when a crime has actually been committed, to first establish that a crime has occurred, and then identify a perpetrator. When prosecutors start running that process backwards, it’s a pretty good sign that you’re looking at prosecutorial power run amok.

Frankly, the CEI is an odd place to start if we’re going to start bashing anti-science people. The CEI, at worst, is delaying action on a climate crisis that might have negative effects in the future (pushing aside pseudoscientific theories that global warming created ISIS and such). But anti-GMO activists, by contrast, are killing people right now. They’re preventing the use of the golden rice which could stop thousands of people from going blind right now. And don’t get me started on the anti-Vaxxers. But you don’t hear anyone talk of prosecuting them. Why not? Because they’re not associated with Evil Big Oil.

This is garbage. Attorneys General who engage in this sort of tyrannical lawfare need to hounded out of office. This is a companion to my post below on lawsuits against gun companies and it has the same principle: the law is not a weapon to use against people you disagree with. Because once we establish that it is, it will take about ten seconds for that law to be used against your interests.

SCOTUS vs. EPA

So this happened:

In a major setback for President Obama’s climate change agenda, the Supreme Court on Tuesday temporarily blocked the administration’s effort to combat global warming by regulating emissions from coal-fired power plants.

The brief order was not the last word on the case, which is most likely to return to the Supreme Court after an appeals court considers an expedited challenge from 29 states and dozens of corporations and industry groups.

But the Supreme Court’s willingness to issue a stay while the case proceeds was an early hint that the program could face a skeptical reception from the justices.

The 5-to-4 vote, with the court’s four liberal members dissenting, was unprecedented — the Supreme Court had never before granted a request to halt a regulation before review by a federal appeals court.

That last part is true. However, it is also true that we have never had the federal government try to enforce a far-reaching rule like Obama’s coal regulations over the objections of Congress, over the rights of the states and through a highly contentious (and likely unconstitutional) reading of the Clean Air Act. Ilya Shapiro:

In June 2014, the Environmental Protection Agency proposed a new rule for regulating power-plant emissions. Despite significant criticism, on August 3, 2015, it announced a final rule. It gives states until 2018 — it “encourages” September 2016 — to develop final plans to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, with mandatory compliance beginning in 2022. EPA cites Section 111 of the Clean Air Act as justification for the Clean Power Plan, but that section can’t give the agency such authority. Section 111(d) doesn’t permit the government to require states to regulate pollutants from existing sources when those pollutants are already being regulated under Section 112, as those deriving from coal-fired plants are.

I think global warming is real and reducing carbon emissions is important. But it’s clear to me that the EPA does not have the authority to do this unilaterally. And it’s also clear to me that, with such a bitterly contested rule, the Court is right to stay implementation until the issue has been decided. We’re not just talking about an enormous burden on the states and power plants. We’re talking about a fundamental change in the way the EPA does business. You don’t just start doing that when there’s a very good chance you’ll be stopping it a few months from now.

Update: There are some indications that the White House may proceed anyway in defiance of the Court. What will it take for Congress to act here?

The Paris Agreement

You know, I’m getting a little tired of every do-nothing climate agreement being hailed as having saved the planet. This weekend, the media exploded about a “breakthrough” climate agreement signed in Paris; one that is going to “save the Earth” from global warming (as always, remember what George Carlin said about “saving the Earth”). You can read a good breakdown from Ronald Bailey but a good summation could me given by Michael Corleone.

The offer is nothing.

The nations have agreed, in principle, to massively cut global emissions with the goal of going carbon free later in the century. They’ve also agreed, in principle, to provide some assistance to countries negatively impacted by the effects of global warming. It goes into effect if enough nations sign on and will review those goals every five years.

But there’s no enforcement mechanism. There’s nothing binding. The deal is so flimsy that Obama’s not even going to bother sending it to Congress because it doesn’t agree to anything they need to act on (and because Congress would probably overwhelmingly reject it the same way they overwhelmingly rejected Kyoto). It’s a slightly fancier piece of paper and that’s all.

Even if the goals were enacted, the reduction in projected global warming is small, maybe one degree if the countries do everything they say they are going to do. That’s actually less than the reduction in projected global warming that’s resulted from better science: improved models and better analysis of temperature trends that have dropped the projected global warming in this century by several degrees.

If you judge an agreement by its goals — which seems to be the only way the Left ever judges anything — the Paris Agreement is fantastic. But if you judge it by what it actually does, the Paris Agreement is nothing. All it really does is emphasize the dirty little secret of the global warming debate: We don’t have a solution to the problem of global warming.

Oh, there are things we can do to buy time. Better energy efficiency. Using alternative energy as practicable, especially nuclear. Cutting down on industrial methane emissions. Switching to less carbon-intense fuels, like natural gas. Making our energy grid more efficient and responsive. These can slow the process of global warming, possibly for decades. I’ve written previously on how to buy time on global warming without wrecking the economy here and here.

But the simple fact is that we will not solve this problem until we have an energy source that is as reliable, as efficient, as portable and as powerful as fossil fuels. That might be a more advanced nuclear fission. It might be nuclear fusion. It might be sunlight captured in space and beamed down the Earth. It might be efficient energy storage (and no, filling a warehouse with lithium batteries is not efficient energy storage). But we are at least a couple of decades away from being able to go “carbon free”.

When that technology is developed, we won’t need grand international agreements to force everyone to use it. The market will eat that right up. And that brings us to the final dirty secret of global warming: these meetings and these treaties aren’t about saving the Earth. They’re about consolidating power. They’re about lavishing money on special interests. They’re about, for many counties, wealth transfers from rich countries to poor ones (a major sticking point in the negotiations was just how much rich countries should “compensate” poor countries for environmental damage; most environmental damage right now is caused by … poor countries). They’re about having fancy expensive meetings in exotic locales where were world leaders can set nobel goals decades away that they will never have to worry about. They then pat themselves on the back and bask in the worship of the media and environmentalists despite having accomplished fuck all.