Taking Climate Science from the Journal to the Congress

There are only a few stories that just plain worry me. Most of them I find horrific, but somehow amusing (i.e. the suing of NASA by an astrologer over their recent comet mission). However, a story that is gaining momentum is the “request of U.S. Rep. Barton, member of the House Science and Commerce Committee, for three climate scientists to fork over financial records, CVs, raw data, and analysis code to the committee in order to scrutinize their conclusions that the most rapid climate change in recent Earth history has taken place in the last hundred years”:http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/sci/tech/4693855.stm.

What is most worrying about this is not that I side with those for or against the notion of human-induced climate change; the overwhelming scientific evidence tells us that (1) humans often affect their climate in significant ways locally and (2) globally we are inducing a new round of climate change by introducing high levels of “greenhouse gases” into the atmosphere. This isn’t about my belief or world view being shaken by the other side – this is about a Congressman, untrained in the scientific process, seeing a few dissenters to a consensus and using that as leverage to drag three scientists before Congress to be scrutinized by experts of Barton’s choosing. As the above BBC article notes, what is to stop Congress from doing the same to evolutionary biologists, earth geologists and geochemists, or even particle physicists, whose work daily challenges the faith of millions?

What’s even more amazing is that this action, unprecedented in my lifetime, is not based on a controversy within the scientific community. We haven’t cried foul on these scientists’ efforts, which have not only been peer-reviewed (an extensive and painful process, I will attest!) but also CONFIRMED by independent scientists. That means Barton, a Texas politician with ties to the energy industry, has made this request for other reasons. He claims that it is because the research may force us to spend a lot of money to try to address the problem of rapid, human-induced climate change; it therefore demands public scrutiny.

I agree with Barton on this point. This science challenges our nation, and the nations of the world, to re-think the very BASIS of modern existence: electricity, heat, cooling, and clean water all basically provided by a system powered on fossil fuels. To radically alter one’s modern state to achieve wellness with the surrounding environment is an expensive endeavor. However, the process that Barton has initiated – collect their financial an professional records and *presumeably* hand them to a hand-appointed “panel of experts” in order to find the tiniest flaws – flies in the face of the scientific process.

Science is not a monolithic entity to be put on trial, whose results can be placed in a hearing room or a court room in front of a public starved of proper math and science education, and handled in a reasonable way. Science is an adaptable organism, assimilating new data and forming new conclusions about the world. A single scientist is held to the piercing microscope that is peer review, a multi-tiered process of scrutinizing the data, the methods, the conclusions, a process that can take months or even years. This is not a process undertaken by an untrained public, but by rigorously trained scientists (often from several disciplines) with completely different backgrounds and insights.

Thus, I am very concerned when I see a hungry group of critics in the pay of the energy industry making statements like “We’ve always wanted to get the science on trial”, and “we would like to figure out a way to get this into a court of law”, adding “this could work”. Science on public trial, with some kind of average jury hand picked by the defense and prosecution, is not sound science. Science handled by the audience of scientists, national and international, with repeatable and testable consequences, is good science.

It pleases me to see that this is not a partisan issue, either. Republican Sherwood Boehlert has stepped up to butt heads with Barton, calling “the intervention … ‘at best foolhardy'” and arguing that “the tone of the original letters reflects on the committee’s ‘inexperience’ in matters of science”. Bravo, Sir. Bravo.

But in the end, Barton has already opened Pandora’s box. Let all of us, each scientists, make certain that this time hope also makes it out of the box.

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