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.