Tom Yulsman is an Associate Professor in the University of Colorado's School of Journalism & Mass Communication, where he co-directs the Center for Environmental Journalism. He also is affiliated with CU's Environmental Studies Program.
Historic Declaration by Climate Scientists
in Author: Yulsman, T. | Climate Change December 05, 2007
Waxman vs EPA; Hansen vs Carbon
in Author: Yulsman, T. | Climate Change November 08, 2007
Sustainability: John Stossel versus Anderson Cooper
in Author: Yulsman, T. | Journalism, Science & Environment October 26, 2007
What a difference a year and maybe a movie makes
in Author: Yulsman, T. | Climate Change January 26, 2007
Tom Yulsman: Beyond Balance?
in Author: Yulsman, T. | Climate Change November 13, 2006
What is Science? Reflections on the Dover, Pennsylvania Decision
in Author: Yulsman, T. | Hodge Podge January 09, 2006
December 05, 2007
Historic Declaration by Climate Scientists
Just minutes ago, more than 200 climate scientists released an historic declaration at the United Nations Climate Conference in Bali. (Find it here: http://www.climate.unsw.edu.au/bali/) They warn that unless steps are taken immediately to begin bringing greenhouse gas emissions under control, "many millions of people will be at risk from extreme events such as heat waves, drought, floods and storms, our coasts and cities will be threatened by rising sea levels, and many ecosystems, plants and animal species will be in serious danger of extinction."
The signatories, who include many scientists we here in Boulder know well, including Caspar Ammann, Beth Holland, Kevin Trenberth, and James White, state that global warming must be kept below 2 degrees C above the pre-industrial temperature. "Based on current scientific understanding, this requires that global greenhouse gas emissions need to be reduced by at least 50% below their 1990 levels by the year 2050," according to the statement. That means "there is no time to lose." Greenhouse gas emissions must actually peak and begin to drop within the breathtakingly short period of the next 10 to 15 years.
As challenging as these goals may seem, the signatories are urging the world to go even further. "As scientists, we urge the negotiators to reach an agreement that takes these targets as a minimum requirement for a fair and effective global climate agreement."
I will be curious to hear from Prometheus readers whether they can remember an equivalent statement by a large group of prominent scientists. It involves nothing less than the fate of billions of human beings. And although the signatories have couched their declaration in scientific facts and findings, they have waded far out into political waters.
Dan Glick, a well known environmental writer and friend once related an anecdote to me about an interview he did a number of years back with a prominent scientist about climate change. Dan asked the scientist, "Based on what you just told me, why aren't you shouting from the rooftops?"
"Why do you think I am talking to you?" he responded.
Now it looks like scientists are no longer asking journalists to shout from the rooftops for them. They're doing it themselves.
November 08, 2007
Waxman vs EPA; Hansen vs Carbon
Congressman Henry Waxman excoriated EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson yesterday for the agency's approval of a new coal-fired power plant in Utah, charging that the move "is the climate equivalent of pouring gasoline on a fire."
In his opening statement at the beginning of a hearing before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, Waxman said, "The approval of new power plants without carbon controls is irresponsible; it is indefensible; and it is illegal."
In charging illegal behavior by the EPA, Waxman must be referring to the Supreme Court Decision in April finding that the agency has the authority to regulate greenhouse gases. Never mind that the court did not exactly order the EPA to set mandatory limits. Also, correct me if I’m wrong, but didn’t the petitioners ask EPA to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from new motor vehicles under §202 of the Clean Air Act? Last I looked, coal power plants were not mobile.
In any case, Waxman has been miffed since the EPA granted a permit in August for the new Deseret coal plant in Utah. "EPA didn't require any pollution controls for greenhouse gases," the California congressman said yesterday. "And it didn't consider other alternatives, such as renewable energy sources . . . It's as if the Supreme Court never ruled, and EPA never heard of global warming."
While Stephen Johnson was being flayed in Congress, a new paper was arguing that coal-fired power plants not equipped with carbon sequestration technology must be phased out before mid-century if CO2 is to be kept below the magic 450 ppm. The paper, by Pushker Khareecha and James Hansen of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, has been submitted to Environmental Research Letters, and was posted as a pre-press article on the GISS Web site.
In their paper, "Implications of 'peak oil' for atmospheric CO2 and climate," Khareecha and Hansen state that if estimates of oil and gas reserves by the Energy Information Administration prove accurate, atmospheric CO2 can be kept below 450 ppm, "provided that carbon capture and sequestration is implemented for coal and unconventional fossil fuels." They argue that gains in efficiency are necessary to "stretch" conventional oil reserves, obviating the need to turn to liquid fuels from coal, tar sands, oil shale and other unconventional fossil fuels. And they suggest that "a rising price on carbon emissions is probably needed to keep CO2 beneath the 450 ppm ceiling."
Kharecha and Hansen point out that their estimates do not take into account a variety of factors that could lead to higher atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide than their peak oil scenarios suggest. For example, the ocean’s ability to take up CO2 decreases as the amount of dissolved carbon goes up. Forests dying, permafrost thawing, and seafloor methane hydrates melting could add yet more carbon dioxide to the atmosphere. And deforestation could exacerbate the situation still further.
The authors write:
"This suggests that society adopt a low limit on atmospheric CO2, which in turn implies that the putatively vast coal and unconventional fossil fuel reservoirs (figure 1) cannot be exploited unless the resulting CO2 is captured and sequestered. This conclusion does not depend upon details of the scenarios for fossil fuel use or upon the likely errors due to our approximation of the carbon cycle. Instead it depends largely on the fact that a substantial fraction—approximately one-quarter—of anthropogenic CO2 emissions will remain in the air more than 500 years (Archer 2005), which for practical purposes is an eternity."
If you need any further convincing that leaving tar sands in the ground is on balance a good idea, check out Elizabeth Kolbert's article in this week's New Yorker. (Read an abstract here.)
Lastly, Thursday ended on a more light-hearted note with an apparent but unconfirmed and possibly contested winner in the Best Science Blog contest of the 2007 Weblog Awards. Early in the afternoon, I received an email forward from Andy Revkin about a supposed rush by supporters and foes of Climate Audit to essentially stuff the ballot boxes. In this wacky election, you could actually vote once every 24 hours. (Mayor Daley, Sr., would have been proud.) And allegedly, climate skeptics were rushing in to try to push Climate Audit over the top. But a last minute blitz from the other side apparently gave another blog, Bad Astronomy, a razor thin edge of 45 votes out of more than 54,995 cast. (In his Climate Audit blog today, however, Steve McIntyre claimed victory — perhaps before the final numbers were tallied.)
A recount is apparently in progress…
October 26, 2007
Sustainability: John Stossel versus Anderson Cooper
During the past week, ABC and CNN both tackled global environmental issues — but in completely different ways. In a 20/20 segment, John Stossel weighed in on global warming in predictable fashion, using half truths and complete nonsense to make the case that "when the Nobel prize winner says, 'the debate's over,' I say, 'give me a break!'" Meanwhile, over at CNN, Anderson Cooper, Jeff Corwin and Sanjay Gupta did a shockingly good job with a four-hour documentary titled Planet-in-Peril.
In his 20/20 segment, Stossel copied and pasted the usual exhausted arguments about global warming, including that old one about atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide rising hundreds of years after temperatures began to increase when the Earth was emerging from past ice ages. I guess he was trying to convince viewers that greenhouse gases don't actually warm the planet, almost putting him in the same company as flat Earthers.
Of course he is either willfully ignorant or willfully misleading. At risk of annoying those Prometheus readers who generally don't want to waste time on issues like this... Scientists have long known that CO2 and other greenhouse gases lag climate change in the ice core record, and they offer a widely accepted explanation. Changes in Earth's orientation to the sun are believed to initiate the rise in temperature that heralds the end of an ice age. This rise in temperature, in turn, causes greenhouse gases to be emitted into the atmosphere — for example, as permafrost melts, methane is released. And this accentuates the warming. (For an excellent explanation of this idea, see this RealClimate post.)
I have no problem with Stossel pointing out uncertainties in our understanding of climate, or even arguing in an opinion piece that "the debate is not over." But I'm not at all certain his viewers understood that his "Give Me a Break" segment on global warming was not actually journalism but straight up bloviation. Stossel is clearly motivated less by a desire to follow the truth than by blind allegiance to a laissez-faire ideology. Since the free market alone probably cannot solve global warming, Stossel's ideology likely will prevent him from ever acknolwedging even the possibility of a threat from anthropogenic climate change. He is therefore disqualified from covering this issue as a journalist.
I have to say that I was skeptical when I sat down to watch the first segment of "Planet in Peril" on CNN. The title itself seemed to promise the typical sensationalized fare. But I found it to be remarkably well reported. CNN pulled out all the stops on this one, sending Cooper, Corwin and Gupta around the world to report on biodiversity loss, pollution and climate change. They were even unafraid to include science in their reporting. Imagine that! We've now gone from not having a single full-time environmental reporter or producer in all of broadcast and cable news just a few years ago, to four hours of gorgeous high definition imagery and solid television journalism on the fate of the planet. Unbelievable.
I know some critics will say that Cooper, Corwin and Gupta were just as biased in their treatment of this material as I maintain Stossel was in his. But I'm not buying it. Whereas Stossel simply rehashed the same old tired arguments, twisting the truth along the way, "Planet in Peril" was notable for its originality and in-depth reporting. One of my favorite segments was on pollution spewing from a Chinese mine into a river used by a local village for irrigation and drinking water. People in the village are getting sick, but little is being done to clean things up. In the great tradition of television investigative reporting, Sanjay Gupta literally walked right in to the mine offices with a camera crew to conduct an interview of the unsuspecting mine manager. In China! It was stunning.
But the very best environmental coverage of the last couple of weeks came on the Colbert Report. Stephen asked Anderson Cooper how people can help the environment without any inconvenience...
January 26, 2007
What a difference a year and maybe a movie makes
by Tom Yulsman
Consider this quote: “We believe climate change is a serious issue and that action must be taken.” Last year, that might have been said by an environmentalist in testimony before Congress — or maybe not, because discussion of the issue in Congress was controlled by Republicans who were more interested in what ExxonMobil had to say on climate change. But those words were actually spoken today by Ken Cohen, ExxonMobil’s vice president for public affairs.
In a conference call with bloggers, Cohen outlined the company’s positions on the issue, coming intriguingly close to endorsing one policy response to global warming over another: a carbon tax as opposed to a cap and trade system.
"Most economists who have looked at this issue would come away saying a carbon tax makes the most sense," Cohen said. "It’s the most efficient policy. The most sector-neutral. It doesn’t favor or disfavor one part of the economy over another."
Was the company prepared to endorse this approach? "If Exxon- Mobil were to come out in favor of a carbon tax today, many people would react and say that if we’re for it, there must be some problem with it," Cohen half-joked. "We do look seriously at carbon tax proposals.”"But the devil is in the details, he said, and Exxon-Mobil’s position on any policy proposal will depend on how it’s structured. "It is a regressive tax," he noted. "Do we want it to be revenue neutral? We could take out another regressive tax, like the sales tax. How pure is the tax? Does it apply across the economy? Or does it apply only to one sector and not others?"
What I found remarkable was not his thinking on this and other policy issues per se but the very fact that a high ExxonMobil official thought it was important enough to take an hour and fifteen minutes out of his day to chat about options for global warming mitigation with a bunch of bloggers.
Well, maybe seriously. I guess that still remains to be seen.
As readers of Prometheus no doubt know, a day before the State of the Union address, the heads of 10 major U.S. corporations called on the president to support mandatory caps on greenhouse gas emissions. The group included the chief executives of GE, Duke Energy, DuPont, PG&E, Alcoa and others. The corporations have joined together with leading environmental organizations, including Environmental Defense, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Pew Center on Global Climate Change, and the World Resources Institute, to form the United States Climate Action Partnership. USCAP has put forward a plan designed to cut U.S. annual emissions of greenhouse gases by 70 to 90 percent of today’s production in just 15 years.
Cohen did not endorse or reject this approach. "This is part of a very healthy process," was about as far as he would go. Even so, there is something startling about ExxonMobil now taking part in the discussion about policy options, instead of spending lavishly to enforce gridlock. Last year, Britain’s Royal Society estimated that ExxonMobil gave $5.685 million in 2005 to 39 groups it said misrepresent the science of climate change. This year, ExxonMobil promised the society that it would halt this funding. And it has cut off its support of the Competitive Enterprise Institute.
An earthquake occurs when enough strain builds up along a fault line, causing the ground on opposites sides to suddenly break free and shift violently. In the past few years, we’ve witnessed a steady build up of strain along the fault line marking the divide between the science of global warming on one side, and public, corporate and political perceptions on the other. The scientific evidence clearly linking human activities to a warming climate has been pulling hard on the fault for years, causing some creep but no major release. Over the past year, the strain began to build even more. For example, in a poll sponsored last January by Pew Internet and the American Life Project, 64 percent of those surveyed said they believed global warming "is the result of human activity such as driving cars and burning fuels." Soon thereafter, 86 evangelical Christian leaders publicly urged prompt action on an initiative to fight global warming.
And then came the movie. "An Inconvenient Truth" premiered in May, and since then it has grossed $24,146,161 at the box office here in the U.S., making it the third highest grossing documentary film since the early 1980s. By August, polling was showing that 61 percent of Americans believed global warming was "a problem that requires immediate government action." (PDF)
Since then, Pew surveys show public support for immediate action subsiding a bit. But with California’s initiative to tackle climate change, the Democratic take over of Congress, the introduction of at least four major bills to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and strong support for action by ten major U.S. corporations, the fault line has finally broken. And now, apparently, not even ExxonMobil can deny that reality.
But now what? After corporate titans called on Bush to take strong action on global warming, his spokesperson, Tony Snow, told them not to hold their breath: "The President has always believed, when it comes to climate change, that the best way to achieve reductions is through innovation, and to figure out ways to come up with energy sources that are going to meet our economy's constant demand for energy, and at the same time, do it in a way that's going to be friendly for the environment."
Fair enough. But as we all know, we got no innovation in the president’s State of the Union address — just pablum and a throw-away line about climate change. And as Clifford Krauss pointed out in yesterday’s New York Times, "Thirty years after it was founded by President Jimmy Carter, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory at the edge of the Rockies here still does not have a cafeteria." One year after Bush visited NREL during his last spasm of support for renewable energy, "the money flowing into the nation’s primary laboratory for developing renewable fuels is actually less than it was at the beginning of the Bush administration."
Overall, the administration’s 2007 budget request for the DOE’s office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy totaled $1.176 billion. That’s half a billion less than its request for NASA’s solar system exploration program, and peanuts compared to the $3 billion NASA was seeking for the program to send people to the Moon and Mars.
When I asked Ken Cohen, ExxonMobil’s VP, what he thought about this, he said "it’s not just a function of dollars alone. For example, Stanford [to which the company has given lavishly for energy research] has told us, ‘Don’t give us more money.’" The reason, according to Cohen: Stanford doesn’t quite know how to spend additional funding.
Maybe it’s an arguable position. But I’m curious to hear what Stanford has to say about this! More to the point, Cohen did not exactly leap at the opportunity to lend support to expanded government R&D efforts in energy efficiency and renewables. At the same time, he acknowledged that much needs to be done to bring these technologies along. "Right now, 80 percent of the world’s energy demand is met with traditional fuel, oil, natural gas and coal," he said. "By the year 2030, it will still be the case that most of the world’s energy will be supplied by those sources. That’s a function of their flexibility, and the fact that they are cost effective and scalable on a global basis. So, for example, solar energy, while viable for niche applications, needs a paradigm shift to allow it to be scaled up and be as effective as traditional fuels."
If that paradigm shift is to come, Cohen seemed to suggest that it will happen largely because of private R&D, not government exertion. "The market is a very efficient allocator of resources," he concluded.
So much for ExxonMobil throwing it’s impressive bulk behind a government-led, Moon-shot R&D effort for energy efficiency and renewables. But at least Cohen pretty much admits what the company’s position is. Bush, on the other hand, talks big about government spending on energy innovation. But his actions don’t come remotely close to matching his words.
And that may well mean that we’ll have to wait two years for policy action. But it’s clear now that if nothing else, either a carbon tax or a cap and trade system is inevitable sooner or later. If ExxonMobil is not shooting either of those options out of the water — if, in fact, it is very publicly saying that policy responses not only are inevitable but necessary, and that one option actually makes more economic sense than the other (the carbon tax) — then action is much closer than I had thought possible just a few months ago.
"Let’s all agree that action should be taken," Cohen said. "We should be talking about the effective actions that we should take to start us on a path to reduce CO2." He even acknowledged that science could conceivably show that the widely discussed target of stabilizing carbon in the atmosphere at 550 parts per million is too low.
Now, after the earthquake, we find ourselves in a remade landscape.
November 13, 2006
Tom Yulsman: Beyond Balance?
[This entry is by Tom Yulsman, professor of journalism, University of Colorado. -Ed.]
Last Tuesday, the New York Times published a fascinating story by William Broad about paleoclimate reconstructions stretching back as far as half a billion years. (See: Broad stroy) The article noted that some evidence from the very deep past cast doubt on carbon dioxide’s role in global warming.
That day, one environmental reporter I know commented that the story could lead some readers to think that scientists were significantly split on the overall question of whether humans are causing global warming, and whether this should be of concern.
This gets at an issue that has been a topic of intense discussion among journalists as well as scientists — something that has come to be called "false balance." Research shows that at least until a year or so ago, journalists have been biased in their coverage of global warming by giving equal emphasis to scientists who believe humans are significantly altering the climate and those who do not. In their drive to be fair and balanced, journalists have actually misled the public into believing that opinion on this issue is evenly split, which of course it is not. (See article in PDF and this link)
But in the last year, this form of false balance seems to have faded. I don’t have data to back this up, so it is only an anecdotal observation Suffice it to say that I see far fewer articles on global warming that reflexively give equal footing to skeptics. To borrow from Roger’s terminology, journalism has moved on from simplistic "global warming: yes or no?" coverage. Most journalists now accept that on the very broad question of whether human beings are causing global warming, and whether we should be concerned about the future, the overwhelming consensus among scientists is that the answer is "yes." Every story on global warming does not now have to rehash the "yes or no?" debate with dueling scientists. And I think that’s a good thing.
But now coverage may be going too far in the other direction. In Time magazine last March, for example, Jeffrey Kluger (a very good friend, and a fabulous reporter, I might add) wrote this: "No one can say exactly what it looks like when a planet takes ill, but it probably looks a lot like Earth." Fair enough. But then he referred to Cyclone Larry (a Category 4 storm), and the "sodden wreckage of New Orleans." Natural disasters have long been with us, he acknowledged. "But when they hit this hard and come this fast — when the emergency becomes commonplace — something has gone grievously wrong. That something is global warming." (See: link)
The story is bolstered by good reporting of solid science. And I happen to believe that even if the story had included all the necessary caveats and uncertainties, the cover headline, "Global Warming: Be Worried. Be Very Worried," would have been justified. We should be worried. But unfortunately, the caveats and uncertainties were given short shrift. For example, the story notes research that finds a link between global warming and a rise in strong hurricanes and average hurricane intensity. But it does not explain that the scientific verdict is still very much out on this question, let alone quote an expert to that effect. The possible link is simply described as a fact.
Now Bill Broad’s N.Y. Times article on deep paleoclimate research has prompted some journalists to wonder whether we should go back to "global warming: yes or no?" coverage, giving more weight to skeptics than we have as of late. To the extent that the science makes us examine how we cover complex stories such as this, it’s probably a good thing. But the science presented in Bill Broad’s article should not prompt us to go back to "yes or no?" coverage.
The story describes research that is said to cast doubt on the link between carbon dioxide and global warming. In particularly, it describes research showing that when CO2 was very high in the deep past, ice ages still managed somehow to take hold.
So if there is doubt about the role of carbon dioxide in causing warming back then, shouldn’t journalists such as myself doubt its role right now, and therefore give global warming skeptics bigger play in our stories?
Of course not. First, this area of research is at the limit of scientists’ ability to discern meaningful information. The scientists employ climate proxy data stretching back half a billion years. If there's some uncertainty about paleoclimate information stretching back just 800,000 years, how much uncertainty is there in proxy data going back half a billion years? Can we really trust that data?
Another question journalists need to ask: What insights, if any, can we draw about our current climate from information about the climate system of hundreds of millions of years ago? Could the climate system then have operated in different ways than it does today? After all, in many ways it was a radically different world. There weren't even any land plants present half a billion years ago. The continents were in different positions. and the output of solar radiation may have been quite a bit different. The position of the planet relative to the Sun may have been different as well. So here’s my biggest question about this research: Is it fair to draw conclusions about current climate processes from those that may have operated then?
A posting on RealClimate (see: link) suggests we need to be very careful about drawing such conclusions:
Most importantly, one must recognize that while CO2. and other greenhouse gases are a major determinant of climate, they are far from the only determinant, and the farther back in time one goes, the more one must contend with confounding influences which muddy the picture of causality. For example, over time scales of hundreds of millions of years, continental drift radically affects climate by altering the amount of polar land on which ice sheets can form, and by altering the configuration of ocean basins and the corresponding ocean circulation patterns. This affects the deep-time climate and can obscure the CO2-climate connection (see Donnadieu, Pierrehumbert, Jacob and Fluteau, EPSL 2006), but continental drift plays no role whatsoever in determining climate changes over the next few centuries.
The RealClimate post also points out that there are huge uncertainties in estimates of carbon dioxide concentrations dating back hundreds of millions of years. Quite accurate CO2 concentrations going back almost a million years can be obtained from ice cores — the concentrations are determined from samples of the atmosphere trapped in bubbles in the ice. Beyond that, researchers must rely on far fainter, subtler and more uncertain evidence. A plot from the RealClimate post of atmospheric CO2 concentrations shows huge error bars from all but the most recent times. (See plot)
In his article, Broad mentions the uncertainties, quoting Michael Oppenheimer as saying that they "are too great to draw any conclusions right now." But earlier in the piece Broad said that "the experts who peer back millions of years . . . agree that the eon known as the Phanerozoic, a lengthy span from the present to 550 million years ago . . . typically bore concentrations of carbon dioxide that were up to 18 times the levels present in the short reign of Homo sapiens." Whenever I see "experts agree" in a story, a big, flapping red flag goes up in my mind’s eye. Which researchers? Did they all agree with that exact statement? How sure are they? Do they disagree on important details? And in this case, how can it possibly be that researchers in this field agree that CO2 was up to 18 times greater than it is today when the error bars for deep paleo CO2 concentrations are so very large? The story should have emphasized these and other uncertainties much more than it did.
When journalists cover science like this, we like to say that we are only going where the science leads us. I would imagine that this is what Bill Broad would say in defense of his fascinating piece. But with issues like climate change, the science inevitably leads to politics. When journalists stopped giving equal time to global warming skeptics — going where the science led them — the result was a political backlash, including Sen. James Inhofe’s speeches on the floor of the U.S. Senate lambasting journalists for biased coverage. I can’t help but suspect that Bill Broad saw his story as a way to restore some lost balance and journalistic credibility, by simply following the science. Once again, fair enough. But for me, the story was an unsatisfying throwback to "global warming: yes or no?" Even more important, by failing to answer key questions and fully describe the caveats and uncertainties, the story lacked appropriate balance. At the same time, it strangely took us back to false balance on the bigger issue of global warming.
January 09, 2006
What is Science? Reflections on the Dover, Pennsylvania Decision
On October 18, 2004, the Dover Area School Board of Directors in Pennsylvania attacked modern knowledge by officially elevating intelligent design to scientific status alongside Darwinian evolution and requiring that it be taught in science classes.
In his decision in the case challenging this requirement, Federal Judge John E. Jones III ruled last month that the board had violated the Establishment Clause of the Constitution. In surprisingly pointed terms, the Republican appointee of President George W. Bush swept aside the “breathtaking inanity” of the board’s policy, along with the arguments of intelligent design’s proponents. Writing that “the designer postulated by their argument is the God of Christianity,” the judge found that ID is a religious concept, not a scientific theory, and therefore cannot be taught as science in the Dover public schools. (More here.)
Among other points in his decision, Judge Jones rejected the use of scientific-sounding language by the proponents of intelligent design. To address the constitutional issue, he recognized that ID proponents dress a religious concept in scientific costume to attain a political result.
The judge refers frequently in his opinion to the notorious “Wedge Strategy” from the Center for Science and Culture of Seattle’s Discovery Institute, the leading intelligent design think tank. The strategy is something of a mission statement for the ID movement, and a plan for replacing scientific materialism with a “science” rooted in belief in a Christian god as the creator of all things.
The proponents of intelligent design see scientific materialism as the root of many evils. “The cultural consequences of [the] triumph of materialism were devastating,” states the Wedge Strategy. Among the consequences listed in the document are the denial of objective moral standards; the idea that environment dictates our behavior (here they agree at least in part with the social Darwinists!); the undermining of personal responsibility; and the utopian idea that “coercive government programs” could “create heaven on earth.” (See more here.)
An uncannily straight line can be drawn from the Scopes monkey trial of 1925 to the solution spelled out in the Wedge Strategy:
“. . . we are convinced that in order to defeat materialism, we must cut it off at its source. That source is scientific materialism. This is precisely our strategy. If we view the predominant materialistic science as a giant tree, our strategy is intended to function as a ‘wedge’ that, while relatively small, can split the trunk when applied at its weakest points.” [Emphasis added.]
In his opinion, Judge Jones uses the Wedge Strategy as evidence for his finding that intelligent design is a religiously motivated movement, not science, and therefore cannot be taught in public school science classes. In one particularly devastating section of the opinion, he quotes intelligent design pioneer William Dembski as writing that ID is a “ground clearing operation” that will help replace materialist science with Christian science, and that “Christ is never an addendum to a scientific theory but always a completion.”
That was good enough to settle the constitutional issue. But what about the broader issue at the center of the case made by ID proponents: Just what is science anyway?
Why should a system of ideas predicated on theology, in contrast to one based purely on materialism, be automatically rejected as being unscientific? As ID proponents like to say, shouldn’t finding the truth be much more important than making artificial distinctions between science and religion?
Superficially, they may seem to be on to something. After all, philosophers say distinguishing between science and non-science using formal criteria is quite problematic.
Karl Popper said this “demarcation” problem was at the very core of the philosophy of science. (See more here.) In fact, Popper argued that science could claim no unique methodology. So he advanced “falsifiability” as the solution: In order for an idea to be considered truly scientific, it must make specific predictions about what one might find if the idea were true. If those predictions are not borne out by experiments or observations, the idea is falsified and does not stand. By contrast, ideas that repeatedly survive such testing are, in Popper’s words, highly “corroborated” (but on logical grounds can never be said to be proven absolutely true).
Scientists, of course, buy Popper’s approach, arguing that intelligent design is not science because it makes no falsifiable predictions. But philosophers say there are serious problems with distinguishing between science and non-science on the basis of falsifiability. They point out that just because an idea fails to be corroborated doesn’t mean it has been falsified. Moreover, major scientific theories actually can be quite resistant to being falsified even when some observations fail to confirm their predictions.
So the demarcation issue remains.
Stephen C. Meyer (see), the director of the Center for Science and Culture, and a Ph.D. in the philosophy and history of science from Cambridge University, uses it to defend the proposition that intelligent design has equal status scientifically as Darwinian evolution, even if it is religious in nature:
“The use by evolutionary biologists of so-called demarcation arguments—that is, arguments that purport to distinguish science from pseudoscience, metaphysics or religion—is both ironic and problematic from the point of view of the philosophy of science. It is ironic because many of the demarcation criteria that have been used against non-naturalistic theories of origin can be deployed with equal warrant against strictly naturalistic evolutionary theories. Indeed, a corpus of literature now exists devoted to assessing whether neo-Darwinism, with its distinctively probabilistic and historical dimensions, is scientific when measured against various conceptions of science.” (See more here.)
If demarcation is indeed problematic, then on what grounds can a theory based on Christian religious beliefs be rejected as not being truly scientific? One might argue that it must be rejected because the conclusion — there is a God, and he designed the universe — has already been reached and is not open to question. This is, after all, a matter of faith. But isn’t it true that scientists often start with firmly held beliefs about how nature works? Moreover, ID proponents say that conventional science rests on its own unquestioned articles of faith, including the idea that God can have no part in scientific explanations of nature. (And for some scientists, there is no God at all.)
Maybe the answer to the demarcation problem simply is this: Who cares?
How science actually has been practiced seems more important than any philosophical complications to the epistemology of scientific knowledge. Judge Jones obviously felt that way. In his decision he wrote that “since the scientific revolution of the 16th and 17th centuries, science has been limited to the search for natural causes to explain natural phenomena . . . Since that time period, science has been a discipline in which testability, rather than any ecclesiastical authority or philosophical coherence, has been the measure of a scientific idea’s worth.” [Emphasis added.]
This is a social and historical argument — one that would have made perfect sense to Thomas Kuhn, author of “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.” (See more here.)
A Kuhnian argument on the issue might go like this: What should be considered science, as opposed to non-science, simply is what the community of scientists working within the relevant paradigm says it is. As philosophically unsatisfying as that approach may seem, it has without question yielded great progress in our understanding of nature.
Kuhn argued that science makes more progress when it is constrained to material explanations within particular scientific paradigms. As he wrote, "By focusing attention upon a small range of relatively esoteric problems, the paradigm forces scientists to investigate some part of nature in a detail and depth that would otherwise be unimaginable.”
It’s possible that enough anomalies in the Darwinian paradigm will eventually surface to force scientists to consider another explanation — perhaps even the idea that an intelligent designer played some role. But don’t count on it. Invoking the supernatural to explain the origin of species would suck the oxygen right out of biology. What kind of productive research enterprise could one build and sustain around testing for God? Maybe there is a way to do it, but ID proponents certainly haven’t shown what such a program might look like. Far from it. Their so-called theory is nothing more than a critique of the dominant paradigm — and an incredibly weak one at that.
So we should be relieved that Judge Jones avoided bogging down in the philosophical dispute over demarcation, choosing instead to stick with the program instead — the Enlightenment program.
As Daniel Sarewitz describes it, the program “prescribed the linking of scientific knowledge about the laws of nature to the technological control of nature itself for the benefit and progress of humanity; it was implemented in its most comprehensive and successful form by the Cold War organization of American science; and it is internalized today at every level of the diverse and complex modern research enterprise, and throughout industrialized society as a whole.” (See more here.)
The problem with the Enlightenment program today isn’t what the proponents of intelligent design say it is, namely that it takes God out explanations of nature. As Sarewitz puts it, the problem is that the Enlightenment program’s goal of “freedom from natural caprice . . . is unachievable because the very act of controlling natural systems introduces new variables that increase the unpredictability of the systems’ dynamics.”
So the emergence of complex global issues, such as biodiversity loss, climate change and the spread of disease such as AIDS, may well require some rethinking of how we do science. Many scientists already recognize this and are moving away from narrow, disciplinary research to emphasize broader, interdisciplinary approaches.
But that’s not all. Moral concepts are motivating new research agendas and ways to measure progress, Sarewitz argues. Science increasingly concerns itself with issues of “intergenerational equity” — the idea that we need to find more environmentally sustainable ways of ensuring human well being, not just for our own good but the welfare of our children and their children.
So even as God is excluded from science to protect the Enlightenment program and help ensure robust growth of new knowlwedge, science may be getting a dose of good, old fashioned morality. And thank goodness or God (your choice) for that.