Science and politics: should they mix?

Oregon Governor Ted Kulongoski: wants to replace state climatologist George Taylor over a disagreement on global warming.  Photo Legal Services Corporation.
Oregon Governor Ted Kulongoski: wants to replace state climatologist George Taylor over a disagreement on global warming. Photo Legal Services Corporation.

President Bush has been criticized for appointing scientists who agree with his policy positions to important committees. Now comes word from Oregon that Democratic Governor Ted Kulongoski wants to replace the state climatologist, George Taylor, because Taylor doesn't support the Governor's position on global warming.

Some scientists are alarmed by this. They argue that science is the process of searching for the truth -- regardless of whether or not anybody likes the answer. Also, having doubters and skeptics ask questions is necessary to keep scientists honest.

On the other hand, politicians are not scientists. Their job is to implement laws and policies which they feel are in the best interests of the people. And it's difficult to do that if key personnel openly disagree with you.

What do you think? What's the proper balance between science and public policy? Leave us a comment.

Your Comments, Thoughts, Questions, Ideas

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

Gov Kulongosi is wrong and out of line.George Taylor has a valid point,Global Warming is not caused by humans and is a normal earth cycle.For those who want to read some facts see:www.fraserinstitute.ca.

posted on Wed, 02/14/2007 - 4:29pm
bryan kennedy's picture

Your point of view is not held by the majority of the worlds climate scientists. They see overwhelming evidence that global warming is happening and is influenced by human activity. The Fraser Institute is an economic think thank that has a conservative view about how to respond to global warming. The main person who speaks for them on this issue seems to be Ross McKitrick, who is a Canadian Associate Professor of Economics. I'm not saying that an economist doesn't have a valid perspective on the issue. I think that's exactly what this thread is all about. But attempting to shoot holes in the science presented by the majority of the worlds climate scientists with economic theory probably isn't a sound practice. Global warming might be enormously expensive to fix and seriously affect our ability to grow as an economy but that doesn't mean it isn't happening.

So to get back to Gene's question, I do think it is acceptable for the governor to distance himself from George Taylor, the scientist who doesn't think global warming is the result of human activities. Again, his point of view doesn't represent the majority of experts in this area.

Incidentally, it looks like George Taylor recently spoke at O.M.S.I., a museum out in Oregon that we regularly partner with. I might ask some of our pals there to see how that conversation went. Might shed some more light on our discussion.

posted on Wed, 02/14/2007 - 5:50pm
MrScience's picture
MrScience says:

I have a beef with referring to people like Taylor as global warming "skeptics".

A skeptic is someone who will not accept a premise without evidence. There is a vast mountain of evidence that global warming is occuring, and that human activities are contributing to it. Anyone who fails to accept that is simply ignoring the evidence.

That's not being a skeptic. Calling them global warming "deniers" is more accurate.

"God grant me the company of those who seek the truth. And God deliver me from those who have found it."
-Isaac Newton

posted on Wed, 02/14/2007 - 9:59pm
Gene's picture
Gene says:

Gotta disagree with you there. My dictionary defines skeptic as "One who instinctively or habitually doubts, questions, or disagrees with assertions or generally accepted conclusions." Sounds like a pretty good definition of "scientist."

Relatively few global warming skeptics deny that the Earth has grown warmer over the last 100+ years. That is (pardon the pun) a cold, hard fact. What we are skeptical about is the generally accepted conclusion that it is all (or mostly) due to human activity. The Earth has warmed and cooled many times -- before humans started pumping carbon into the atmosphere, even before humans arrived on the scene. Observations of solar activity, experiments with cosmic rays, measurements of naturally-occurring methane -- all indicate that climate dynamics are a lot more complicated than they are often described.

posted on Wed, 02/14/2007 - 10:48pm
MrScience's picture
MrScience says:

The dictionary definitions may not reflect how terms are used in science. (Check Merriam-Webster's online dictionary + look under "mass", for example.) If "One who instinctively or habitually doubts, questions, or disagrees with assertions or generally accepted conclusions" was a good definition of "scientist", then creationists would be the true biologists, those who doubt the existence of gravity would be the physicists, and flat earthers would be the most scientific geologists.

Skeptic, as I'm using the term, and I think this is a more scientic way, would be one who does not readily accept new ideas... but always bases doubt - or lack thereof - on the evidence. A radical new idea (and, for example, Newton's concept of gravity was considered such at the time!) would be doubted by a skeptic, but if evidence arose to support the idea, they'd accept it.

Ergo, creationists are not skeptics of evolution - they base their rejection of evolution not on evidence but on religious dogma. UFO enthusiasts aren't skeptics of astronomy/physics - they don't base their belief on evidence but, conversely, a lack of evidence and unsupported conspiracy theories.

And, as Bryan points out, a great number of deniers of global warming are in fact basing their "skepticism" on defense of political and economic interests, not on evidence; the climate scientists who study global warming agree by a large majority that not only is it occurring, but humans are causing a lot of the problem.

Saying that climate is complex, while true, does nothing to counter the evidence about global warming. The fact that earth's climate has changed many times in the past, even before humans existed, also does nothing to counter the evidence that we're worsening global warming now. Many species have gone extinct in pre-human history, but that doesn't mean we're not contributing to extinctions today.

"God grant me the company of those who seek the truth. And God deliver me from those who have found it."
-Isaac Newton

posted on Thu, 02/15/2007 - 7:26pm
Gene's picture
Gene says:

Oh my... do you really want to start arguing words with someone who writes for a living? ;-)

It appears you conflate “skepticism” and “denial,” largely because you conflate “evidence” with “conclusion.” This distinction is at the heart of the Oregon debate, so it merits some attention.

So, let us define our terms. This is a general-readership blog and not a scientific paper, so we should focus on how those words are commonly understood. According to the American Heritage Dictionary, evidence is "the data on which a judgment or conclusion may be based.” A conclusion is “a judgment or decision reached after deliberation.” Already, we see a distinction. Denial is “a refusal to grant the truth of a statement.” And a skeptic, as noted earlier, is "one who instinctively or habitually doubts, questions, or disagrees with assertions or generally accepted conclusions."

So, evidence is the facts gathered; conclusion is how those facts are interpreted. Global warming skeptics – and that is the correct word – do not deny the truth of the evidence. We accept that carbon dioxide in the atmosphere traps heat (though there is debate over just how big a role it plays at various concentrations). We accept that the Earth has warmed over the last 100 years. These facts are irrefutable. Similarly irrefutable is the fact that humans have been pumping tons of carbon into the atmosphere during that time.

At the same time, however, we are skeptical of the conclusions some people draw from this evidence. For we see plenty of other evidence to contradict the conclusion that human-produced carbon is the major cause of recent warming. Our doubt is based not on preconceived notions, but on our reading of the evidence. On the other hand, global warming advocates sometimes dismiss evidence which does not fit their theory – the most famous example being the now-discredited “hockey stick” graph, which pretended that past temperature fluctuations did not happen. Your recent post dismisses the relevance of climate complexity and past fluctuations – itself a form of denial.

(Yes, many global warming skeptics are funded by political and interest groups with particular agendas. By the same token, many global warming advocates are supported by political and environmental groups with agendas of their own. Even government agencies have been anything but neutral in their funding of climate science. But this is all ad hominem, and doesn't address the evidence.)

Spiked magazine recently ran a fascinating article on the history of the word “denial,” and how it is mis-used in modern cultural and political discourse. Key graph:

The act of denial has been transformed into a generic evil. This is clear in the way that the stigmatisation of denial has leapt from the realm of historic controversies over genocides to other areas of debate. Denial has become a kind of free-floating blasphemy, which can attach itself to a variety of issues and problems. One environmentalist writer argues that the ‘language of “climate change”, “global warming”, “human impacts” and “adaptation” are themselves a form of denial familiar from other forms of human rights abuse’. It seems that some people can no longer tell what a difference in opinion looks like – it’s all just ‘denial’.

(Emphasis added.) The article makes some very good points about how “denial” has become an emotionally-charged word, used not merely to disagree with opponents, but to discredit them. It also contains this passage, which gets right to the heart of the Oregon controversy:

[S]cience cannot be legitimately used to close down debate. At its best, scientific research can provide us with evidence of important problems – but how society interprets that evidence is subject to controversy and debate, to political, moral and cultural factors. Every culture has something different to say about what is an acceptable level of risk[.] ... Science has some very important things to say about these problems that cannot and should not be ignored. But science does not provide the answers as to what a problem means for society, and how we should deal with it. That is why no subject should be treated as a taboo. It is also why science should not be used to end a discussion. In our search for meaning, we are entitled to argue and debate and freely express our views about everything. And in our conformist era, a healthy dose of disbelief is no bad thing.

As other authors have noted, the evidence of global warming is a matter for science, but the response to it is a matter of politics. Science can only provide the facts. It is up to society to weigh the facts and to draw a conclusion.

So, in Oregon, the question becomes: is the position of state climatologist primarily a scientific office or a political one? If it's a scientific post – if his job is just to collect the facts and evidence – then the governor has no business trying to politicize it. (Note that the complaint is not that Taylor is incompetent, but rather simply that he disagrees with the governor.) On the other hand, if it is primarily a political post, one that shapes public policy, then yes, the governor has every right to hire people who will work for his policies and not against them. (As I read the articles, it appears the post is not only scientific, it's not even part of the state government. The governor is trying to dictate university hiring, which is another dangerous precedent.)

Finally, your comparison of global warming skepticism to creationism, UFOlogy, flat-earthers, etc. does not hold water. As we have discussed elsewhere, creationism is not science. Like those other beliefs, it does not offer testable hypotheses. Global warming skeptics, however, do offer such hypotheses. Indeed, they are accumulating experimental evidence which shows that solar fluctuations and cosmic rays have a greater impact on the Earth's climate than carbon dioxide does. Second, many creationists engage in denial, refusing to accept solid evidence for the age of the Earth, for example. As noted, global warming skeptics do not deny facts, but rather dispute conclusions. Which leads to the final, and critical, point: creationists deny the past; global warming skeptics debate the future. When trying to explain the past, there is a mountain of evidence that one must work into any viable theory. Predicting the future, however, is inherently speculative. It may be grounded on past evidence, but by definition you cannot prove or disprove the future -- you can only wait for it to happen. Global warming skeptics do not deny the evidence of past climate change; we merely debate the validity of conclusions about the present and predictions for the future. And skeptical debate is indeed the life's blood of science.

posted on Fri, 02/16/2007 - 11:40am
bobo's picture
bobo says:

I think arguing is fun and helps you view others' ideas.

posted on Fri, 02/16/2007 - 12:39pm
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

Sure, but arguments are like rope. If someone offers you a rope, you have options...you dont have to pull. Looks like someone has plenty of spare time to debate the obvious. ; )

posted on Sun, 02/18/2007 - 3:58pm
Gene's picture
Gene says:

If it were obvious to everyone, there'd be no debate! ;-)

posted on Mon, 02/19/2007 - 12:09pm
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:


posted on Mon, 02/19/2007 - 1:58pm
Gene's picture
Gene says:

A similar situation is brewing in Delaware.

posted on Thu, 02/22/2007 - 6:36pm

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