TPM Muckraker did some digging on the manufactured scandal du jour surrounding a few leaked emails from EPA administrators that appear to orchestrate an agency-wide cover-up of an EPA report that debunks global warming and undermines Obama's cap-and-trade rules. TPM talked to the author of the report and discovered:
- The author of the report was not a "scientist" but an "economist," and though the economist was an undergraduate physics major who has always thought of himself as occupying some borderland between science and economics, he is not a publishing research scientist with scientific credentials.
- The report was never commissioned by the EPA, but was produced apparently in the author's (Carlin's) spare time. Thus it is not an "EPA Study" or "EPA Report," but rather the hastily assembled ramblings of a climate skeptic. When I write a paper in the course of my job (scholar at a university), that paper does not become an "Internal University Report." Likewise, it's not the case that any Joe at the EPA can ride his hobby horse into scientific discussion without being asked to do so and expect to be taken seriously by people who are actually, you know, "scientists."
It's clear, then, that this is a manufactured controversy amplified by the right-wing noise-machine, alarmed by the possibility of spending more on fossil fuels, electricity, and so forth. Because the notion of spending more because a higher price actually reflects the human and environmental costs of the commodity is absolutely unthinkable to your average right-winger, they've decided to dub cap-and-trade a "tax." That's right: despite its having been a market-based approach--supported by liberal and conservative economists alike, though not particularly favored by environmentalists--to carbon emissions since the 70's, cap-and-trade is now a "tax." (It's not: it's the creation of a market. A "Pigouvian Tax" is a different animal).
But I digress.
I really only have two or three points to make here:
First, the ease with which the right turned the tables on Obama with regard to the role of science in decisionmaking is absolutely awe-inspring. After eight years of what was widely recognized as the deliberate side-lining of science (at the EPA, at NASA, at the FDA, Dept. of Interior, you name it), the right has seized on this story as an example of the same thing. But it's not: the paper is not a scientific report, it is not an "EPA Study," it was authored by an economist, and there are no grounds at all to believe that the report itself was censored. Indeed, it is available on the internet for all to see. It was simply not accepted as part of the review process, and the author was asked to stop spending time on something that was not part of his portfolio. (If my boss asks me to stop spending time on something that's not part of my job, I guess I kind of have to say "ok").
Second: expertise matters. The complaint during the Bush years was that scientists who actually did have credentials and knew what they were talking about were not listened to--or worse, were blacklisted, fired, etc.--when it came time to make decisions where scientific input was supposed to be important. In the case of the "morning after pill," when what was supposed to have been a recommendation made by scientists for scientific reasons relating to the health of women was instead made by political appointees for political reasons, expertise was not in question. Nobody doubted the credentials of the scientists, they just weren't listened to. In this case, we have to look carefully at who's saying what. Not all people with Ph.D.s are experts in things not related to their area of expertise, and not all scientists are geniuses outside of the lab. In the discussion of Global Warming, we find all too predictably that non-scientists are engaged in scientific discussion apparently motivated by political, economic and religious concerns. More importantly, experts in some fields--the "natural sciences," "chemistry," "geology"--who come out against the Global Warming Hypothesis wrongly are being treated as "scientists" with expertise necessary to evaluate claims of global warming. This is true in the Anti-Global Warming movement's Magna Carta, the petition signed by hundreds of
"scientists." PhD's Indeed, it is signed by hundreds of Ph.D.s, but I have yet to find a single scientist on the list who is a scientist with expertise in climate change. Play this game: find the name of a "Ph.D." on the list of signatories and look for his/her academic credentials and affiliation. Find the climate scientist? No? Try again. Now? How about a scientist of any sort who has published peer reviewed work on the issue of global warming? Good luck with that one. This issue has been addressed and to my mind, put to bed. The 'scientists' signing the petition are not experts in the field. Does that mean their views are unimportant and that they shouldn't be listened to? Of course not. But it does mean that the fact of their having signed a petition does not lend a shred of scientific credibility to the claims of the anti-global-warming activists.
Anyway, how does "expertise" matter here? Obviously, the EPA non-report was written by a non-scientist and was not included in the discussion over cap-and-trade because it contradicted actual reports written by actual scientists who are--thank goodness--actually having an effect on national policy. The report was not censored. It was ignored--not because it conflicted with orthodoxy but because, first, it contained nothing new, and second, because the actual scientists charged with running the show at the EPA recognized that it contained nothing new, and third, because we managed to elect a president who can adequately distinguish between good science and political, ideological garbage.
Finally, it is obvious that the scientific community needs to be vigilant, noisy, and aggressive about its own discipline. This is a different task than being vigilant about discreet scientific conclusions and areas of research. Were a cardiologist asked to perform arthroscopic surgery, the hospitals, medical boards, and the AMA would have something to day about the issue. When a geologist with expertise in the chemical stratigraphy of the Henryhouse Formation "takes on" climatologists armed only with a Ph.D.--the scientific community needs to weigh in in the form of education, professional guidelines, ethics regulations, and political force. I'm not arguing that scientists need to agree about global warming or that skepticism is not a good thing. Indeed, there are skeptics of global warming who really should be listened to, or rather, skepticism is part of the scientific process and this is a scientific process. The point is about the boundary between political discourse and scientific research. Politicians will blur that boundary when it suits them. But scientists will blur it too--will use the Ph.D. as a magic skeleton key to gain access to conversations that are outside their expertise because they are as prone as the rest of us to religious zealotry, self-interested casuistry, or the resentments that tend to accumulate over many bitter years in the lab watching grant money funnel to the hippies who hug whales and live in trees and who know nothing about discipline, hard work, and the glories of the afterlife.
But I digress.