A new federal tome has put climate change in the news cycle for a too-brief momentextended a bit thanks to the cultural power of Pat Sajak and the pope. Like a doctor at an annual physical saying, “You’re even fatter than last year, and it’s not good for you,” the National Climate Assessment (NCA) tells us once again that temperatures, sea levels, ocean acidities, and greenhouse gas levels are on the way up. We hear these things but maintain the same habits because we dread implementing the prescription now more than we fear the possible heart attack down the road. Actually, for many of my fellow conservatives that analogy does not hold. The experience probably feels more akin to being dragged by your wife to a homeopathic herbalist chiropractor and being told that you need weekly adjustments and a gluten-free vegan diet.
Big decisions, whether in the life of a person or a nation often boil down to trust. America has been hemming and hawing for a while now, trying to decide if the 97 percent or so of climate scientists who say we have a big manmade problem are looking out for our best interest or are self-serving quacks.
Jesus taught his followers, “Simply let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes’ and your ‘No,’ ‘No,’” and he decried the “oath” culture of the day. In his spiritual classic The Divine Conspiracy, the late philosopher Dallas Willard rightly labeled this a rejection of verbal manipulation. Today, swearing by heaven is less common, but verbal manipulation is alive and well. We live in an age of spin where the goal is to say something that is very narrowly true but will create a much broader impression. To varying degrees, this mindset undergirds communications from used car lots to White House press briefings. Anger is often not far behind.
The downward spiral of spin can be seen in the once again relevant “hockey stick” story, currently at the root of a defamation suit by Penn State meteorology professor Michael Mann against the Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI) and the National Review. For those unfamiliar with the case, here are the basics.
Thermometer records peter out within a couple hundred years and so scientists must rely on a variety of indicators to estimate past temperatures. Tree rings are one such proxy, but an imperfect one because other factors influence growth. While graphing temperatures during the past millenniumthe final result being relatively flat with a major spike at the endMann used several proxies including tree rings, but when that data set started to diverge from more reliable thermometer readings in the 1960s, Mann just stopped displaying it.
Some colleagues called for fuller disclosure, but, as leaked emails showed, Mann feared skeptics would have a “field day” that could “undermine faith in the paleoestimates.” Professor Mann seemed to be feeling the pinch of what the late scientist Stephen Schneider once called the “double ethical bind.” Professional ethics called for putting all the caveats out there, but the desire to “make the world a better place” pushed some to cater to the media’s appetite for sound bites and give “simplified, dramatic statements, and make little mention of any doubts we might have.” Schneider concluded, “Each of us has to decide what the right balance is between being effective and being honest. I hope that means being both.”
Mann chose his vision of effectiveness over complete honesty, and his graph was later included in the widely discussed 2001 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report. When the “Climategate” emails emerged in 2009, the right wing press and blogosphere did indeed have a field day, but instead of just undermining faith in paleoestimates, the scandal undermined much more.
In the emails, another scientist, Phil Jones, described the deletion as a useful way to “hide the decline,” and that phrase became a media mantra. It was spun to mean that the mercury was dropping while the corrupt climatologists were telling us just the opposite. Rush Limbaugh and Fox News egged it on. Truth be told, temperatures indeed were going up. Mann’s decision to hide a slice of declining tree ring temperature proxies was influenced by the fear of being spun, but it instead spawned a tornado of spin that obliterated others’ hard-won credibility. Honesty would have been the best policy after all.
Of course, lots of conservative journalists, bloggers, politicos, and talking heads had followed the same path as Schneider and Mann. In order to most effectively discredit climate science, they had sacrificed full honesty or hastily embraced ignorance. “Hide the decline” was most effective if it was misunderstood. A real but middling issue was touted as a smoking gun.
Rand Simberg of CEI later called Mann the “Jerry Sandusky of climate science” who “molested and tortured data,” a sentiment echoed by Mark Steyn at National Review who also labeled the work “fraudulent.” Mann responded with a libel suit that has cleared major legal hurdles.
A bit like an icy brawler trying to get his final shots in before being carted off to the penalty box, National Review recently made Mann its unflattering cover boy. Around the sort of factual reporting on “hide the decline” that was often lost in the din of 2009, the magazine attacks Mann as “the climate inquisitor” who with his “frank hostility to free inquiry . . . has behaved less like a scientist than like a religious figure who feels he has been given the final interpretation of the Bible.”
It is easy to get carried away with verbal pugilismno doubt, this author could be brought up on such chargesbut those who call Jesus teacher and Lord should strive for a better way. Dallas Willard noted that an aspect of the truly transformed life is becoming “the kind of person who is not dominated by anger and who truly loves and respects others [and wants] to assist others in that transition.” We owe all of our neighborsSamaritan scientists includedthe true witness of clear, unspun yeses and nos. This time around, there may be some nits to pick in the new NCA, but let’s make sure we have the planks out of our own eyes first.
John Murdock worked as a natural resources attorney for over a decade in D.C. and now writes from his native Texas. He blogs at republicantreehugger.blogspot.com.