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Caldeira slams anti-scientific witchhunts: “Are American politicians following in the footsteps of Stalin?”

By Joe Romm  

"Caldeira slams anti-scientific witchhunts: “Are American politicians following in the footsteps of Stalin?”"

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U-VA faculty Senate: Cuccinelli actions threaten “our ability to generate the knowledge upon which informed public policy relies.”

Climate scientist Ken Caldeira commented on my recent post, “WashPost: University of Virginia should fight AG Cuccinelli’s faulty investigation of Michael Mann.”

Since it’s well worth reading, I am reprinting it below — along with the powerful conclusion of the University of Virginia Faculty Senate Executive Council statement.

I gave Caldeira a chance to edit his statement, since commenting does not always perfectly express one’s thoughts:

Scientists believe that eventually everyone will know the truth.

Scientific careers are made by being right about important things, and can be ruined by displaying sloppy thinking and sloppy work.

Therefore, scientists are highly motivated to say things they believe to be true and avoid saying things they believe to be false.

I have never met a scientist who knowingly says false things. Such a scientist would be considered psychopathic.

The idea that scientists would engage in fraud, that is, would say things they know to be false, goes against the logic of the successful scientific career.

Prior beliefs can color scientific research and lead to false results through selective use of data. I believe that most scientists who are climate change deniers fall into the category “” well-intentioned scientists who are held captive by their prior beliefs. But the vast majority of these scientists are not frauds, they are simply wrong.

It is one thing to say that Michael Mann is wrong, despite the mountain of evidence to the contrary. It is another thing entirely to accuse him of fraud when there is absolutely no evidence of fraud.

There is a historical example where politicians went after scientists because the politicians didn’t like their scientific results. The example is Lysenkoism. The country was the Soviet Union.

Are American politicians following in the footsteps of Stalin?

Last week, the University of Virginia Faculty Senate Executive Council issued a “Position Statement on Attorney General’s Investigation of Dr. Michael Mann.”   The Council writes of “the unusual Civil Investigative Demand (CID)” that “the unusual and public nature of this action strongly suggest that the investigation is motivated primarily by differences of opinion regarding the scientific basis for current understanding of climate change.”

The statement concludes:

We maintain that peer review by the scientific community is the appropriate means by which to identify error in the generation, presentation and interpretation of scientific data. The Attorney General’s use of his power to issue a CID under the provisions of the Virginia [Fraud Against Taxpayers Act] is an inappropriate way to engage with the process of scientific inquiry.His action and the potential threat of legal prosecution of scientific endeavor that has satisfied peer-review standards send a chilling message to scientists engaged in basic research involving Earth’s climate and indeed to scholars in any discipline. Such actions directly threaten academic freedom and, thus, our ability to generate the knowledge upon which informed public policy relies.

Hear!  Hear!

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17 Responses to Caldeira slams anti-scientific witchhunts: “Are American politicians following in the footsteps of Stalin?”

  1. This is going beyond anti-science into Orwellian territory where propaganda trumps facts, history is rewritten, language corrupted and we give up liberty for ‘freedom’.

  2. Mike #22 says:

    Virginia has a winning strategy here. They should go after all the scientists, not just one or two here and there. That way they can drive the research scientists out of the state, shut down technology R&D centers, and kill off revenues from technology and biotechnology startups.

    This approach has worked out very well for the Russians.

  3. David says:

    Members of the National Academy of Sciences wrote a letter to Science Magazine criticizing the recent escalation of political attacks against climate scientists.

    http://www.sciencemag.org/cgi/content/full/328/5979/689

  4. Steve L says:

    Mike (@2) — I’m sure the Soviets employed this approach (at least in some sectors). Not sure about the Russians.

  5. Lou Grinzo says:

    At the risk of repeating myself for the 2,000th time: I think that as despicable as the Virginia AG’s actions are, we shouldn’t overlook the role of the media in such things. By treating the deniers and their ilk as if they have a legitimate, reasoned position (which they don’t), the media is creating an atmosphere in which politicians can resort to disgusting tactics like the one described above with impunity. The media does a lot to create an atmosphere, to set the bounds of the Overton window, whether they choose to admit it openly or not.

    I’ve been asking for years when the media would finally pull its head out of its you-know-what and treat CC deniers the same way they treat Holocaust deniers, the “HIV doesn’t cause AIDS” camp, etc. — ignore them 99% of the time and openly mock them the other 1%. Apparently the answer to my question is, “not quite yet”. (Yes, I know there’s been a bit of media backlash on this incident, but not nearly enough. The media is still so shell shocked by economic circumstances that they’re all too willing to play the role of arms merchant in the war of words, simply to prop up yet another fiscal quarter.)

  6. Jeffrey Davis says:

    re: Lou Grinzo’s position about the media, I think it’s safe at this point to say the “The Media” are political actors and not bystanders. They aren’t simply abetting climate change deniers. They’re as much a part of the power structure as purchased politicians are.

  7. Elmo says:

    Remember the people who scoffed at the “reality based community”? This has been building for a long time. Anti-Intellectualism was never really killed.

  8. WastedEnergy says:

    @Elmo (#7) Agreed – the right wing, particularly the science deniers (whether we are talking about climate change or Peak Oil) have made it clear that they are not interested in advancing competing facts of their own, but only in suppressing and muddying the clarity of extant data and its only logical result, the call for collective action. To their credit, they appear to have been largely successful in this effort, which is why the Cuccinelli story and others like it are almost never put in their proper context and again, why “Climategate” etc. was blown out of proportion (as if ad hominems were real arguments).

    In other words: The Only Thing We Have To Fear Is Truth Itself!

    And of course, the MSM again presents it as a case of “he said, she said,” the only format anyone seems to understand anymore. Equal time, Crossfire-style debate between climatologists and ideologues/industry apologists is not a recipe for a healthily informed public, nor one that appreciates the value of academics, also known as “knowledge for its own sake rather than for someone’s money’s sake.”

  9. Mark Shapiro says:

    A nit to pick with Dr. Caldeira’s last sentence:

    “Are American politicians following in the footsteps of Stalin?”

    No. It is Virginia AG Ken Cuccinelli who is following in the footsteps of Stalin. Let’s not tar politicians with a broad brush. After all, Waxman, Markey, Kerry, Lieberman, Graham, Obama, etc are politicians, too.

  10. Mark Shapiro says:

    Regarding MSM pandering to deniers, Moncktons, and other burners:

    The MSM needs those fat ExxonMobil and BP advertising dollars, now more than ever. That said, I would love to be a fly on the wall when these guys talk to media sales departments. Is it more subtle than “Nice news outlet you have here. It would be a shame if something happened to it.”

    Now that Ian McEwan has finished “Solar”, he can write “Paper”, or “Newsroom”.

  11. Mike Roddy says:

    I agree with you, Lou, and still think we need a new newspaper of record, starting from scratch by hiring courageous reporters and refusing advertising from fossil fuel companies.

  12. Anonymous says:

    For Mike Roddy, I don’t think it’ll be a newspaper of record. It’ll be something like ProPublica, which has already received a Pulitzer. Yes, there are a lot of “blogs” that would be little more than birdcage lining were they printed on paper. But on-line sites like ProPublica may be the “next big thing”.

  13. greyfox says:

    I second all the comments on the media’s role in this debacle. They have, in the name of $ and ratings, elevated marginal political entities to national ‘stardom’, given non-science and anti-science an equal footing on a variety of issues, and have only limited reporting on actual, cutting edge research. The Virginia AG’s actions are reprehensible…the first thing that came to mind was indeed the Lysenko business in the old Stalinist days. With the media’s lack of integrity (much of it is now in huge, corporate hands anyway), we have a recipe for becoming a third-world country or worse in the coming years.

  14. As an independent environmental journalist for past 16 years I have found that it has become increasingly difficult to place good science stories in past five years. You wouldn’t believe some of the ‘reasons’ important stories are turned down. Many of my colleagues have given up and work in PR.

    ProPublica and its versions are the ONLY way forward. I’ve had to start my own Community Supported Environmental Journalism Fund because it cost me $10,000 of my savings last year to keep covering stories MSM aren’t interested in. More here http://wp.me/P1Xsk-CZ including comments from leading climate scientist.

    As Mike (11) says the bottom line is that if people want good media they have to directly pay independent reporters to do it.

  15. I really hope some VA lawyers are looking into filing legal ethics complaints against Cuccinelli at the VA Bar Association. This seems like a classic abuse of power.

  16. substanti8 says:

    A grammatical quibble …

    “Therefore, scientists are highly incented …”

    Ewww … that made me cringe.  At first, I thought it must be a typographical error.  What the hell does “incent” mean?  How about motivated instead?  Since I had never seen such usage, I looked it up.  Jan Freeman also offered some interesting thoughts in her Boston Globe column a few years ago.  Those incensed by seemingly made-up words, might be incented to read it.

    BTW … the spell-checker is flagging “incent” in my comment.  :-P

    [JR: Oh, I forgot to make that change. I had already run that by Caldeira.]

  17. substanti8 says:

    On a more serious note, I would like to thank Dr. Caldeira for his years of important work.  In particular, I’ve seen his name several times on research about ocean acidification.