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We are now accustomed to the persistent efforts of conservatives to resist the near-unanimous scientific judgment that the earth is well into a potentially catastrophic epoch of climate change—global warming—that for the first time in the history of the planet appears to be substantially caused by human activity (burning fossil fuels).

How has it come to pass that scientific research can be cast into question by those who oppose its conclusions? I suggest that it has been ever thus. We had, at best, a few decades in the twentieth century when most people accepted the conclusions of science as incontrovertible. As early as the 1950s we saw the tobacco industry systematically subvert the scientific consensus about smoking and cancer. As late as the 1920s we had the Scopes trial on whether a science teacher should be allowed to teach evolution.

Modern empirical science emerged between Galileo and Einstein. At no time during that span can we say that scientific findings were considered incontrovertible. Indeed, the inherent character of empirical research always leaves open the possibility of contradiction or revision based on empirical evidence. Such arguments among scientists are acceptable to scientists themselves, even when they reject opposition by the uninitiated. But the uninitiated have never been silent. Today they are more vocal than they have been in decades, if ever.

The latest version of this aversion to demonstrable truth is found in a column by George Will . His basic point is that the climate is always changing, and that it would be unduly risky to assume that the present episode is susceptible to any human action to rein it in.

He cites two books about historical episodes of climate change. The first, The Third Horseman: Climate Change and the Great Famine of the Fourteenth Century, by William Rosen, shows how natural variation in climate interacted with human economic and political actions to create the great famine.

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The second book, Global Crisis: War, Climate Change, and Catastrophe in the Seventeenth Century, by Geoffrey Parker, makes a similar point for the era of the “Little Ice Age.”

When George Will extends this argument to the present, to argue that the climate change we are experiencing is also naturally caused, most people familiar with the contemporary climatological research would emphatically disagree.

Will’s point (with which few would disagree) is that these were episodes of climate change that had natural causes, even if human societies worldwide made them worse. However, when he extends this argument to the present, to argue that the climate change we are experiencing is also naturally caused, most people familiar with the contemporary climatological research would emphatically disagree. The whole point of the current debate is on the issue of whether human action is the predominant cause of global warming. The two authors he cites (both historians, not climatologists) will no doubt be horrified to have their work used as Will has used it.

Those of us who believe the climate change hypothesis, and support human action to mitigate it, may not be sensitive to our own areas of skepticism. Take genetically modified food (GMOs for short). There is a good deal of scientific research that fails to show any negative impact on human health from consuming such foods. Or take fracking, the technique of injecting a chemical slurry into oil and gas wells under high pressure to force out the oil or gas. Again, there is quite a bit of scientific work that fails to show negative effects on human health or the environment from fracking.

Opponents of GMOs or of fracking will quite rightly point out that most of the research in question is funded by the corporations that have a stake in a positive outcome. Countervailing research is often underfunded. In contrast, most of the research on climate change is not funded by the big energy companies; instead, it is funded by foundations that have no inherent interest in the conclusions.

[dc]T[dc]he point is, though, that we are all sensitive to the political implications of science. We will support that science which comes to conclusions we agree with, and we will oppose science that contradicts us. Doing science is doing politics by other means. Once again.

john peeler

John Peeler