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Science, politics and lessons forgotten

1/27/2014

When I stepped outside last evening, I was greeted by a chorus of honks from a large flock of geese, flying fairly low.

When I stepped outside last evening, I was greeted by a chorus of honks from a large flock of geese, flying fairly low.

They were headed due north. It's early January.

Could it be -- the whole "Avian Migration Theory" is just a hoax?

Nah. Birds wander a bit along the way, sometimes circling in order to find an overnight rest stop.

Pundits and cartoonists continue to perpetuate a similar misconception of climate change. Record lows and heavy snows, they maintain, show how foolish climate science really is.

Since the reasons for these increasing weather extremes are relative simple, and hardly obscure, we can only assume that blatantly misrepresenting their significance is a matter of willful ignorance. Weather is different from climate, though they're related.

The earth doesn't warm evenly. Surface features are in constant flux -- vast "conveyor belts" flow through oceans and the atmosphere, constantly redistributing the sun's energy.

Disrupting these currents predictably produces more extreme weather in diverse locations. While a "polar express" brings cold air down from the north, the air it displaces creates winds that actually increase new ice formation at the South Pole. (Concomitant melting of North Pole ice dwarfs any ice growth in the south.)

We also can predict what humans regard as "stormy" weather will increase -- perhaps an absolute increase in the sheer number of storm events, or a greater magnitude of individual storm events, or both. That doesn't mean any specific hurricane "proves" global warming, any more than needing artificial snow at the Vancouver winter Olympics did. But right along with ice storms, such events are entirely consistent with climate warming, contrary to denialists' implications.

Assigning ideology priority over objective science has its hazards.

Scientific fact is apolitical; the atomic weight of carbon is the same for monarchists and anarchists.

The recognition and application of scientific fact, however, has become an intense exercise in ideological maneuver. Today, a person's stance on global warming likely reflects his political affiliations, if not simply the source of his income.

It's hard to convince someone an idea is right if his livelihood depends on believing it's wrong. Guess what Big Tobacco execs had to say about lung cancer and nicotine addiction. Guess which side of the climate "debate" the powerful fossil-fuel industry backs.

For a stark example of the social catastrophes that can result from ideologically based science policies, consider the former Soviet Union.

Though it goes largely unrecognized today, and the USSR's demise often is attributed to its being outspent by the U.S. on Star Wars hardware, Soviet long-term instability was guaranteed by disruption of Soviet agriculture.

It began with forced collectivization. Peasant farms were designed and organized by Marxist bureaucrats. The Kulak land owners, abusive but productive, were exterminated as bourgeois capitalists. Production plummeted, famines ensued.

To the rescue came Trofim Lysenko, a peasant himself. A fanatical agronomist, he dominated Soviet genetics for 30 years, achieving great power over plant science. This is ironic, since he rejected solid Mendelian/Darwinian science.

Under Lysenko's rule, agriculture was guided not by plausible theories backed by experiment, but by a desired ideology, practiced in the service of the state. He claimed genuine geneticists who opposed his methods were anti-Marxist. At his instigation, scientists were ridiculed and even sent to the Gulag.

"Lysenkoism" is the manipulation or distortion of the scientific process in order to reach an ideological conclusion furthering political objectives. It fatally compromised Soviet agriculture, leading to periodic famine and eventually the collapse of the Soviet state.

Fast forward to 21st Century America. In June 2003, after numerous less-conspicuous interventions to stifle genuine climate science, the Bush administration blatantly tampered with the integrity of scientific analysis at a federal agency, requiring deletion or alteration of key elements in an EPA report. These included deleting a thousand-year temperature record, eliminating references to compelling evidence human activity is a significant contributor to climate change, insertion of a discredited temperature-record study funded by the American Petroleum Institute, and even removal of a scientifically noncontroversial summary stating simply "climate change has global consequences for human health and the environment."

Government scientists who knew most about climate change were not allowed to participate in inner-circle White House climate discussions.

All this amounted to censorship, not just micromanagement, of ideologically nonconformist information -- facts ostensibly obtained by the government on our behalf.

Following in Lysenko's footsteps, right-wing climate denialists didn't stop with suppressing science -- they also trashed the scientists, scorning them as "environmental elitists" and hoaxers. Government research dollars favor ideologically correct research protocols as well.

The truth will win out, eventually, no matter how government ideologues and fossil-fuel plutocrats try to suppress or besmirch it. In the case of climate change, the truth will be written in storm cellars, coastlines, deserts and swamps. It's also being written now, etched on the shrinking profiles of land and sea ice, scrawled in polar vortices and hurricanes, and posted in the composition of our atmosphere.

But the American public can't read such script, and our scientific illiteracy is both a method and a goal promoted by those who depend on sustaining the unsustainable for personal gain. Perhaps, when the oceans come, our grandchildren will be selling new beach-front property for pennies on the dollar, and the Koch clan will be sitting in mountaintop retreats enjoying the view.

Somehow, I suspect, they'll come to regret getting what they wished for.

Jon Hauxwell, MD, is a retired family

physician who grew up in Stockton and now lives outside Hays.

hauxwell@ruraltel.net

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