Witanagemot Justice And Senator Inhofe’s Fancy ListJanuary 30th, 2008
Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.
Anyone interested in the intersection of science and politics has to be watching with some amusement and more than a little dismay at the spectacle of professional immolation that the climate science community has engaged in following the release of Senator James Inhofe’s list of 400+ climate skeptics.
The amusement comes from the fact that everyone involved in this tempest in a teapot seems to be working as hard as possible in ways contrary to their political interests.
From the perspective of Senator Inhofe, by producing such a list he has raised the stakes associated with any scientist going public with any concerns about the scientific consensus on climate change. Not only would announcement of such concerns lead one to risk being associated with one of the most despised politicians in the climate science community, but several climate scientists have taken on as their personal responsibility the chore of personally attacking people who happen to find themselves on the Senator’s list. What young scholar would want to face the climate science attack dogs? Of course, those sharing the Senator’s political views may not mind being on such a list, but this does nothing more than further politicize climate science.
And this leads to the repugnant behavior of the attack dog climate scientists who otherwise would like to be taken seriously. By engaging in the character assassination of people who happen to find themselves on Senator Inhofe’s list they reinforce the absurd notion that scientific claims can be adjudicated solely by head counts and a narrow view of professional qualifications. They can’t. (See this enlightening and amusing discussion by Dan Sarewitz of leading experts arguing over who is qualified to comment on climate issues.) But by suggesting that knowledge claims can be judged by credentials the attack dog scientists reinforce an anti-democratic authoritarian streak found in the activist wing of the climate science community. Of course, from the perspective of the activist scientists such attacks may be effective if they dissuade other challenges to orthodoxy, but surely climate scientists deserving of the designation should be encouraging challenges to knowledge claims, rather than excoriating anyone who dares to challenge their beliefs.
I recently chatted with Steve Rayner and Gwyn Prins, authors of the brilliant and provocative essay The Wrong Trousers (PDF), who found themselves , somewhat bizarrely, on Senator Inhofe’s list. Neither has expressed anything resembling views challenging claims of human-caused climate change, however they are (rightly) critical of the political approach to climate change embodied by Kyoto. I asked them what they thought about being on the Senator’s list. Steve Rayner asked if there was some way to sue the Senator for defamation, tongue only partly in cheek. Gwyn Prins offered the following gem:
I think that pointing out that the mere fact of this funny headcounting is worthy of note: In the Anglo-Saxon witanagemot justice was achieved by oath-swearing so the number and the status of your oath-swearers mattered more than the facts of the matter; and this issue is being adjudicated on both sides – denialists and climate puritans – in just such a manner.
He is right of course, and this brings us to the dismay. The climate science community – or at least its most publicly visible activist wing – seems to be working as hard as possible to undercut the legitimacy and the precarious trust than society provides in support of activities of the broader scientific community. Senator Inhofe is a politician, and plays politics. If activist climate scientists wish to play the Senator’s game, then don’t be surprised to see common wisdom viewing these activists more as political players than trustworthy experts. If this is correct then maybe the Senator is a bit more astute than given credit for.
Ultimately, the mainstream climate science community might share with their activist colleagues the same sort of advice Representative Jim Clyburn (D-SC) offered to former President Bill Clinton – “chill.”