The issue of global warming is ”heating” up again, with proponents ever more fervently trying to declare the debate regarding global warming to be over. Most recently, the state climatologist of Delaware, Dr. David Legates, has come under fire for disagreeing with Gov. Ruth Ann Minner over the issue of global warming. Minner’s position is, of course, that global warming is occurring and is the result of human activity on the planet. In one of life’s quirky coincidences, I happen to know Dr. Legates fairly well.
Dave Legates served as an adviser and mentor to me while I pursued my own graduate degree at the University of Oklahoma. He aided me in my statistical approaches and helped to design the statistical methods that I used in my graduate research. I have always known Dave to be a straightforward, honest and honorable scientist, and therein lies the problem. Reasonable people should be permitted (even expected) to disagree occasionally over the interpretation of data. This thoughtful disagreement most often produces new ideas, outlooks and solutions to problems. In disagreeing, however, Dr. Legates has run straight into the prevailing dogma of science and politics.
In order to appreciate my meaning, one must understand how science is conducted. Scientists, primarily those in academia, but also those in other public and private industries, are promoted and advance mainly through their research efforts and publication record. In order to conduct research and ultimately publish the results in refereed scientific journals, scientists need money, government money mostly. Unfortunately, journals are unlikely to publish, what scientists call, negative results.
That is, if you spend five years researching a question and determine honestly through your research that there are no significant conclusions to be drawn from the work, this knowledge is valuable, but it will never be published and you will not be promoted or receive tenure. Additionally, the agency that funded your research will be highly unlikely to fund any more of your work. For instance, if you conducted a scientific experiment to test the effectiveness of a new drug on the treatment of cancer and found that patients administered the drug had the same rate of survival as those who received a placebo, these would be negative results. The information is valuable, because it has identified a fruitless path of inquiry, but it is also considered not worthy of publication, in most cases. As a result, there is an enormous amount of pressure placed upon scientists to produce significant results.
Now, apply this paradigm to the current ”human activity caused, global warming” debate. Most scientists researching the issue do so through the receipt of government grants. What do you suppose would happen to a scientist’s career if he or she took several million dollars from the federal government to study global warming and, after several years, produced results honestly that stated that, either global warming was not occurring or that there isn’t any evidence supporting the idea that it is caused by human activity? The individual would almost certainly not get published and would definitely not receive any more research funding. In essence, it would be the end of a career. When you consider that most who hold doctoral degrees spend between six and 12 years striving to get the degree, it isn’t surprising that so few are willing to risk what they have worked so hard for over something as trivial as objective inquiry.
This isn’t to say that global warming proponents in the scientific community are dishonest and faking their data. It simply means that scientists have a great deal of incentive to interpret data in the most positive ways possible. Politicians tend to encourage this approach because they use the information (in conjunction with the public’s superficial understanding of the scientific method) as the basis to pass more laws that limit freedom and regulate our lives.
This bias is the paradigm that Dr. Legates has run into. Skeptics such as myself and Dr. Legates are the voices in the crowd crying out that ”the emperor has no clothes.” We do so at great professional risk, and for little or no personal/professional benefit. The response to this skepticism is, at best, to be ostracized by our peers and, at worst, threatened with reprisals that include losing jobs, demotion or lack of advancement in our fields. This brings forth one final point: Why are the global warming proponents so determined to end the debate over global warming? If the evidence in support of the idea is so overwhelming, it should only be a matter of thoughtful debate and time before everyone comes to agreement on it. Yet, skeptics and dissenters are discredited, threatened professionally and encouraged to keep silent on the issue.
Throughout history, tyrants and despots have made their first priority the end of debate and the silencing of their critics. I suppose scientists like Dr. Legates should be grateful that he lives and works in the United States, where only his job and professional career are put at risk as a result of his opinions. In the former Soviet Union, he would most likely be in a gulag by now.
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Michael J. Shaughnessy Jr. is an adjunct professor of Biology at the University of Central Oklahoma.