Salon on The New Barbarism: Keeping science out of politics

Scientific American defends their online poll, while FAIR and a former editor join the critics

Climate skeptics reach a new low. Their goal: Don’t let scientists influence policy, period.

That’s Andrew Leonard, one of the must-read columnists at Salon.  He takes the opportunity of the lame Scientific American online poll to eviscerate one of the nonsensical arguments fashionable among the anti-science crowd.

As an aside, if you check out the poll results now, the disinformers have clearly driven their faithful lemmings to it in droves.  With almost 7 times as many respondents, an even higher fraction have now voted for the nonsense, self-destrucive positions, including the one Leonard dismantles:

But even if you grant that the poll was the victim of an organized attack, I’m still amazed by what we can learn from it. In response to the question “Which policy options do you support?” 42 percent of the respondents chose the answer “keeping science out of the political process.”

Say what?

Keep science out of the political process? Science? I thought it was supposed to be the other way around; that the goal was the keep politics out of science. I can understand, albeit disagree with, categorizations of anthropogenic global warming as bad science, but I’m afraid I just can’t come to grips with the notion that we should keep “science” from influencing politics at all. What is the point of civilization in the first place if we don’t use our hard-won understanding of how the universe works to influence our decisions on how to organize ourselves?

Watching one Republican candidate for office after another declare outright that they do not believe humans are causing climate change is befuddling enough. But to flat-out reject science as a guide to policy is beyond medieval. It’s a retreat to pure superstition, a surrender to barbarism. We might as well be reading omens in the entrails of sacrificial animals. Our wealth as a country, our incredible technological wonders — the Industrial Revolution! — were built upon scientific discovery.

Should the FDA reject clinical test results in deciding whether to approve a drug? Should the U.S. Corp of Engineers ignore physics when building dams and levees? Scientists say asbestos is dangerous to human health and cigarette smoking causes cancer. Who cares? Let’s continue to build public schools packed with the fire-retardant material and give free Camel nonfilters to teenagers!

We need more science in the political process, not less. The countries that understand that will thrive and prosper. The ones that don’t will undoubtedly fail, if they haven’t already doomed themselves.

Hear!  Hear!

Ironically, thanks to a push by the disinformers, a whopping 66% have now voted for “keeping science out of the political process” — and 77.6% would pay absolutely “nothing” to “forestall the risk of catastrophic climate change,” which is not terribly surprising since a 66% believe we are “powerless” to stop climate change.  #FAIL

UPDATE:  Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) also criticized the SciAm piece and poll:

The articles seems to leave the impression that the truth on climate change is somewhere in the middle:

Climate scientists feel embattled by a politically motivated witch hunt, and in that charged environment, what Curry has tried to do naturally feels like treason–especially since the skeptics have latched onto her as proof they have been right all along. But Curry and the skeptics have their own cause for grievance. They feel they have all been lumped together as crackpots, no matter how worthy their arguments.

So there are “worthy…arguments” against the idea that human alteration of the atmosphere is causing the planet to warm up? If so, Scientific American is sitting on the scientific scoop of the decade….

There’s something strange about any kind of poll on questions of science, as if the laws of nature responded to public opinion. But the adjective often used alongside of Web polls–which record the opinions of a non-random selection of Web surfers–is “unscientific.” So why is Scientific American using one to gauge opinion on climate questions?

And now Scientific American‘s editor in chief Mariette DiChristina-Gero has offered a defense of their piece, which includes a defense of their polls:

Climate Progress and FAIR also have criticized a related reader poll about climate change: Consumer media outlets frequently conduct reader polls about content, and Scientific American is no exception. The October issue, for instance, included a poll on the public’s attitudes about science. We learned that respondents were “more convinced” about the reality of climate change today than they were a year ago. Such polls are surely not “scientific,” and nobody claims they are, but their interactive nature promotes audience engagement. It’s unfortunate””although in hindsight not surprising””that certain people would take the opportunity to manipulate the results by repeat voting.

Last, both sites have noted a Shell poll with advertisement, and speculated about its significance. Advertisements are handled by the ad-sales department without the editorial board’s input or consent.

I don’t think the defense of the Shell poll works — but I will handle that in a separate post.

And I don’t see how an online poll can provide any information whatsoever about “the public’s attitudes about science.”  It provides insight into who games online polls the most — and perhaps the wording provides insight into the mind of whoever wrote the questions.  But no online poll can provide any information about what the “public” thinks.

Finally, former SciAm editor John Rennie weighs in with a thoughtful critique. He agrees with my critique of the poll:

And for SciAm to do an online poll about site visitors’ views on a contentious subject like global warming? Sheer folly. Nothing good could come of it. The likelihood that SciAm‘s name would be associated with gamed results that nobody really believed but that would be trotted out embarrassingly hereafter would border on a dead certainty.

He differs with me in some respects on the article itself.  I won’t try to summarize his nuanced comments, but I think he misread my main criticism.  I simply didn’t think Scientific American should be running this kind of personality profile, especially not one with this sentence in it, “In a sense, the two competing storylines about Judith Curry””peacemaker or dupe?””are both true,” let alone combined with an online poll asking readers which one they thought Curry was.  It was in that context that I criticized the shortchanging of the science of climate change in the piece.

I am glad my post stirred up a thoughtful debate on this important topic and welcome further comments.

32 Responses to Salon on The New Barbarism: Keeping science out of politics

  1. Mimikatz says:

    It is beyond ironic that it used to be the small-d democrats who exalted the wisdom of the “common man” while small-c conservatives believed that the educated elite were much more competent to govern.

    Of course what has happened here is that the elite in part of the business community who stand to gain a great deal in the short term is leading a bunch of not-so-elite people around by the nose. There is a type who believe that being a contrarian is more intellectually rigorous, but they don’t really have the educational background to evaluate the science, and so just go along with a different herd, the one led by the Koches and the big coal folks who are laughing all the way to the bank.

  2. Mike Roddy says:

    This could end up with an interesting outcome for formerly respected Scientific American. They now have an opportunity to come clean about the fire breathing lunatics who are trying to dominate the political process, applying orchestrated pressure on a scientific publication while they are at it. It’s as if a giant junior high marching band crawled into the pit at the National Symphony, grabbed their instruments, and announced to the crowd that they are the ones who know what they’re doing. I am tired of this kind of rabble, and am sick of scientists and politicians who won’t stand up to them.

    Let’s see if they have the cajones to do it. Otherwise, everybody should cancel his subscription.

    Good one, Andrew Leonard.

  3. I call on all these folks who want science out of politics to hand over their cellphones, computers, ipads, and cars. They can also forswear antibiotics and the rest of modern medicine. And the telephone. Even the TV (perhaps not such a loss, except if you’re addicted to Fox news).

    But on reflection, I think that perhaps the response to this appalling online poll is a blessing in disguise. The terribly formulated questions have actually exposed the absurdity of what the people rigging this poll believe. And now it’s explicitly out there in full view.

  4. This is indeed distressing.

    Rarely do we see such a blatant sociopathic expression.

    Usually our daily lives are filled with the confluence of a thousand deluded quirks and manners and reptilian wishful thinking that supports our carbon consumption.

    We now undergo a complete reset. Climate follows science. Humans follow politics. We may choose to discover the science. The growing risk of ignoring science is that we will be blown along like a dessicated leaf in a hot wind – sooner, rather than later perhaps.

  5. catman306 says:

    I’d rather keep money out of politics than keep science out of politics.

    Where’s the conservative call for keeping money out of politics? Why not?

    Could it be that these are sham issues? In the 60s hippies, conservationists, and environmentalists were the bad guys. Scientists speaking out for reality are today’s bad guys. Changing the Status Quo is tough, dirty, and dangerous work. We ALL need to put our shoulder to this wheel. Maybe we can get it to move.

  6. Theodore says:

    If I took the poll I would check the box that says “let’s keep non-scientists out of the political process”.

    If democracy is to become a workable system of government at some time in the distant future, scientific training will first need to become universal and compulsory.

  7. Jonah says:

    Quoth the SciAm editor: “Such polls are surely not “scientific,” and nobody claims they are, but their interactive nature promotes audience engagement.”

    I’m pretty sure that “audience engagement” here means “traffic to our site”. These polls are all about advertisement revenue. It certainly seems that this “poll” was written to provoke a traffic spike; congrats, you’ve all just been trolled by SciAm for money.

    It’s a shame that they’d sell off part of their reputation so cheaply. But “mortgage the future for today’s profit” is the New American Way.

  8. Michael Tucker says:

    The poll is broken and cannot be trusted. It is not possible to know how many responses were not counted or how many were counted more than once. The totals do not match the individual response counts and if you were to do the calculation, based on the responses, it would be about 49.5% who think science should be kept out of the political process.

    Online polls cannot be trusted anyway but this poll is seriously broken!

    That said, I cannot believe that half want science out of politics. I know that there are some who want to gamble with the nation’s security, health and wellbeing but it can’t be half. Do we want to end testing of water quality? How about children’s clothing and toys; should we end that testing? How about the FDA, do we need them? Have we ever had problems with food before? Has anyone been killed due to infected food? How about monitoring the beef supply? Mad Cow anyone? How about epidemics? Do we really need scientists to force us to take vaccinations? How about product safety? No one pays attention to Underwriter Lab certification right?

    BOTH the poll and the Curry article are lame attempts to bump interest in SA. If Curry had any worthy arguments against AGW they should be listed. Alluding to the existence of actual WORTHY arguments without being able to clearly state them is pure fraud.

  9. Boudica says:

    Maybe a bit late for this cycle, but a SWAT team of eminent scientists that hold a local news conference in the districts of politicians who deny climate change, evolution, or a role for science in politics could show the folly (stupidity) of ignoring science as it relates to defense, food safety, drug approval, education, etc, etc.

  10. John Mason says:

    Great piece there by Leonard – very concise and clear.

    They missed another option to vote for:

    “Keep rational thought out of politics”!

    Cheers – John

  11. Mike says:

    “In response to the question “Which policy options do you support?” 42 percent of the respondents chose the answer “keeping science out of the political process.””

    It is not what you think. It is worse. They either think the statement means science should be free of political interference or that scientists should not be engaged in politics. The WUWT crowd doesn’t get basic logic; they simply don’t read that well. This is why they think the Royal Society changed its position on AGW. This is why they can read press releases about a research result and conclude the opposite of what it says.

  12. Mark Bigland-Pritchard says:

    Looks to me like these valiant rightwing cyberwarriors who spent their days voting, clearing history and voting again don’t have enough to do. They should go out and get a job.

  13. MarkB says:

    So Scientific American is stating

    “Such polls are surely not “scientific,””

    Again, their publication is called “Scientific American”.

  14. john atcheson says:

    Eugene Ionesco said, “It is not the answer that illuminates, it is the question.”

    And the nature of the questions practically guaranteed wrong answers and wrong conclusions, starting with the notion that science is — or ever could be — a popularity contest.

    Roll back the enlightenment; burn the New Organon; bring on the Dark Ages.

    But be prepared to accept the disease, famine, and ignorance that comes with it.

  15. Ian Forrester says:

    “Scientific American” is becoming an oxymoron.

  16. Doug says:

    In 1897 the Indiana House unanimously passed a bill rejecting the value of pi, and setting it equal to one or all of three values: 3.2, 4, and 16/7 times the square root of 2. A Purdue math professor happened through in time to help the Senate reject the bill. These are people who probably think if they could get a majority they could repeal the law of gravity.

  17. CTG says:

    Doug, here in New Zealand we have a local group of deniers who are trying to sue the NZ temperature record. They don’t like the fact that NZ has been warming, so they trying to get the courts to rule that any temperature record that shows warming is “invalid”.

    I wish I was joking…

  18. Bryson Brown says:

    As a long-time (30+ years) subscriber to SciAm, I’m not happy about this at all, and I will let them know it.

  19. OregonStream says:

    It’s unfortunate—although in hindsight not surprising—that certain people would take the opportunity to manipulate the results by repeat voting.”

    In hindsight? Really? Even without repeated voting, denial groups are out there eager for any opportunity to show what the readership, or public, supposedly thinks of global warming. Since it was subject to bias, how about at least a caption stating that the poll is unscientific, and thus just a fun mouse-clicking exercise aimed at engaging the reader?

  20. Curtis Grinn says:

    To deny the science is to face the reality:

    Day by day the world progressively moves forward and into a clean energy environment. The US is left stuck to bicker over who is right and wrong. Therefore, maybe the context of the discussion needs to be changed. Instead of talking about something that seems to have so many in disagreement, talk about renewable and clean and green energy from an economic and security issue. Most people would get that topic of discussion.

  21. Peter Bellin says:

    “Such polls are surely not ‘scientific’…”

    Why put the word scientific in quotes? No poll can be ‘scientific’; some polls may have results that are representative of a segment of a particular population. In such cases, we would expect to see an estimate of opinion along with an associated margin of errer.

  22. EricG says:

    “Unscientific” is a lame description of how inaccurate these polls are. The warning on cigarette packages was once limited to:

    # Caution: Cigarette Smoking May be Hazardous to Your Health”

    Today we have this:

    # SURGEON GENERAL’S WARNING: Smoking Causes Lung Cancer, Heart Disease, Emphysema, And May Complicate Pregnancy. (1985-)
    # SURGEON GENERAL’S WARNING: Quitting Smoking Now Greatly Reduces Serious Risks to Your Health. (1985-)
    # SURGEON GENERAL’S WARNING: Smoking By Pregnant Women May Result in Fetal Injury, Premature Birth, And Low Birth Weight. (1985-)
    # SURGEON GENERAL’S WARNING: Cigarette Smoke Contains Carbon Monoxide. (1985-)

    How about:

    “TRUTH NOTICE: This poll has no statistical validity as a representation of public opinion.”

  23. OregonStream says:

    That’s fine as far as it can go, Curtis. But when there are near-term bottom lines to consider, people might want to see an advantage to accelerating the deployment of initially more expensive technologies. Otherwise, tar sands, coal-to-liquid fuels, and IGCC without any commitment to CO2 capture may be viable as big players for at least a few more decades. They could all be made to appear clean-burning in a nation that doesn’t regulate the use of the atmosphere as an open carbon sewer.

  24. Dan B says:

    I believe we need to understand the deniers better. My off the cuff observations seem to suggest that they’re people who are deeply afraid. They’re afraid for their jobs at the moment. They’re also afraid of “the other”. White people (northern european origin) are rapidly heading for being a minority group in the US. They’ve been duped by elites and ideologues who hate “government”. Their fears have made easy to manipulate.

    Once the visceral brain takes over it’s only possible to get through if you get the attention of that visceral brain. Otherwise every argument, fact, and point of view will be dismissed. The visceral brain can only be engaged by bringing up a survival scenario and then link to your version of survival.

    This is the reason that reasoning, by itself, does not stick, why facts bounce off, and why communication with no emotional content falls on ears that cannot hear.

    I’m terrified by the increase in severe weather this year. If this keeps up we won’t be able to feed the planet or maintain trade.

    We’ve got 21st Century climate that demands a 21st Century energy economy. That’s what science should be telling policy makers and a broad public.

  25. David B. Benson says:

    Not much is going to survive this sort of assult on the enlightment and reason.

  26. Keep the facts out of the political process!!

  27. Larry Coelman says:

    I have subscribed to SciAm since I was in high school. Today’s SciAm is not the same as then, world’s apart from the SciAm of Martin Gardner. This fiasco proves it beyond doubt. I am canceling my subscription immediately.

  28. Edward says:

    6. Theodore: Thank You!

  29. Artful Dodger says:

    If the SciAm Editorial Board was intellectually honest, wouldn’t they order their IT Staff to analyze their weblogs, and quantify exactly the distribution of votes submitted from the the same IP address? Also, it would be straight forward to analyze the temporal pattern of voting to identify bots. This would tell more about the Denialist campaign, and the extent to which it is organized.

  30. John Mason says:

    Dodger (#28) – that is an excellent idea. You might want to email SciAm to suggest that they undertake such an analysis.

    Cheers – John

  31. Whatshisname says:

    “Advertisements are handled by the ad-sales department without the editorial board’s input or consent.”

    On a scale of 1 to 10, I give that 9 knee slaps. But seriously, if it were me I would have blamed it on a gas leak in the building. Or ghosts — that would target your new audience. Better yet, extraterrestrial ghosts who mutilate cattle.

  32. Chris Winter says:

    Joe: I’m seeing the ExxonMobil ad for algae biofuels on this thread.
    10:28AM PST

    [JR: Take a screenshot and send it to me.]