TCS Daily

Union Citation Blues

By Iain Murray - March 3, 2004 12:00 AM

The Union of Concerned Scientists was founded at MIT in 1968 by a group of scientists worried that America was heading for nuclear Armageddon. The world did not end in nuclear holocaust, of course, but that hasn't stopped the Union from expressing grave concern about whatever vaguely-scientific issue is currently in the headlines.

It currently being election year, this supposedly nonpartisan 501c3 organization (with an annual income of almost $9 million) has released a 46-page report subtitled "An Investigation into the Bush Administration's Misuse of Science." Leaving aside the propriety of such a foray into the election cycle by a nonprofit, one needs to ask if the Union's accusations are supported by the data. Time and again, however, they aren't.

There is actually very little new in the report. Many of the allegations of misuse of science were made not too long ago in a report put out by Rep. Henry Waxman (D.-Calif.) (see my critique here), with all there is added being some quotations from named and unnamed government scientists. The general tenor of the report is anecdotal, with little data, motives merely insinuated, and no attempt made to inquire why the administration took the steps it did.

For instance, the first item on the litany of complaints is the "suppression of research on climate change." The accusation is exactly the same as Rep. Waxman's, that the White House wanted the EPA to mischaracterize the scientific "consensus" on climate change, ignored its own research (the National Assessment on Climate Change) and championed "discredited" research (Soon et al., challenging the idea that temperatures worldwide have been stable for a millennium) paid for by the oil industry. The report fails to acknowledge that it is the National Assessment that is discredited, relying, at the admission of its own authors, on models that predict past climate no better than tables of random numbers. Nor does the report recognize that Soon et al's research was supported mostly by government grants and that the allegations that it is discredited come mostly from researchers whose reputations have the most to lose if the research is accepted.

Yet it is in its general treatment of climate science that the Union's report amounts itself to a misuse of science. The report says, "Despite the widespread agreement in the scientific community that human activity is contributing to global climate change, as demonstrated by the consensus of international experts on the IPCC [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change], the Bush administration has sought to exaggerate uncertainty by relying on disreputable and fringe science reports and preventing informed discussion on the issue." The report made reference to a National Academy of Sciences review "that confirmed human activity is contributing to climate change."

This characterization is extremely common, yet it itself distorts the findings of the IPCC and National Academy to introduce an unwarranted level of certainty into the debate. To assess why, it is worth quoting at length the renowned climatologist Richard Lindzen of MIT, one of the lead authors of both the IPCC study and the National Academies review. Writing in Canada's Hill Times on February 23, he said:

... it is quite wrong to say that our NAS study endorsed the credibility of the IPCC assessment report. We were asked to evaluate the IPCC "Summary for Policymakers" (SPM), the only part of the IPCC reports that is ever read or quoted by the media and politicians. The SPM, which is seen as endorsing Kyoto, is commonly presented as the consensus of thousands of the world's foremost climate scientists. In fact, it is no such thing. Largely for that reason, the NAS panel concluded that the SPM does not provide suitable guidance for the U.S. government. ...

The full IPCC report, most of which is written by scientists about specific scientific topics in their areas of expertise, is an admirable description of research activities in climate science. It is not, however, directed at policy. The SPM is, of course, but it is also a very different document. It represents a consensus of government representatives, rather than of scientists. As a consequence, the SPM has a strong tendency to disguise uncertainty, and conjures up some scary scenarios for which there is no evidence.

Similarly, in the case of our NAS report, far too much attention was paid to the hastily prepared summary rather than to the body of the report. The summary claimed that greenhouse gases are accumulating in Earth's atmosphere as a result of human activities, causing surface air temperatures and subsurface ocean temperatures to rise. Yet, the full text noted that 20 years was too short a period for estimating long term trends, a crucial point that the summary neglected to mention. Our primary conclusion was that despite some knowledge and agreement, the science is by no means settled.

Who, then, is abusing science and preventing informed discussion on the issue? Yet the Union's report blithely glosses over such concerns and contains assertions, backed up by no evidence, that, "The Bush Administration has repeatedly intervened to distort or suppress climate change research findings."

The report's treatment of the climate change debate is indicative of the standard of argument in the report as a whole. Assertions are made that are based on insinuation and anecdote, with little attempt to investigate the real state of the science.

In fact, there is much to criticize the Administration for in its science policy. The Federal Data Quality Act, a Federal law designed to ensure that executive decisions are based on sound science, might as well not exist for it. It continues to allow the economic sword of Damocles that is the Kyoto treaty to hang over our heads by refusing to "unsign" the treaty. And its belief that problems with the quality of science at EPA can be solved by hiring more scientists is a true triumph of hope over judgment. Yet if one had to say who distorts science more for political ends, one has to say the Union of Concerned Scientists.


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