A Conference with No Skeptics

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Climate change “skeptics” attending the Environmental Wars conference in Pasadena sponsored by the Science Skeptic Magazine will have been disappointed by the stark lack of skepticism expressed by the morning speakers. As Sarah is also reporting in the accompanying posts, even the speaker who was invited specifically to defend the right-of-centre political position said unequivocally that that the science behind climate change has been proved beyond doubt.

Dr. Michael Shermer, the founder and editor of Skeptic, set the tone when he referred to his late-stage realization that the science was undeniable. He also said he feels a little awkward to now be cast among the “believers,” which suggests an ideological rather than scientific position. But the certainty of climate change transcends that language, he said, adding, “I don’t say that I ‘believe’ in gravity or I ‘believe’ in evolution.” Climate change is the same. (As Sarah said, the blogger from http://ideaplace.blogspot.com may have been a little unhappy about the easy agreement that Intelligent Design is hopelessly unintelligent.)

I was personally surprised at the passion that retiring California Institute of Technology President David Baltimore brought to his address. He savaged the Bush administration’s hostility to science, saying, “The last decade featured more blatant disregard for science than any time since the Second World War.”

Dr. David Goodstein was equally flat-footed, presenting a compelling and disturbing view of the peak oil trajectory we are on already.

But neither of those two speakers was nearly as frightening as Dr. Tapio Schneider, who laid out the unassailable facts of climate science and pointed to a future that is still full of variability but which will unquestionably be much different from the world we enjoy today.

The fourth speaker was Chris Mooney, author of the bestselling Republican War on Science, who set out some conditions for how and when we should worry about people misrepresenting science. It is not merely the degree of misrepresentation that is at issue, he said. We have to consider what may be the consequences of that misrepresentation, whether the people involved are actually having any influence. We have to consider how extensive the misrepresentation may be and how institutionalized the behavior may be.

In the immediate instance, the President of the United States is openly skeptical about the Theory of Evolution and has encouraged formal efforts to misrepresent that science in the school system. The effort by the Christian right and by self-serving corporations to question inconvenient science is widespread, and the questioning is well entrenched in think tanks and churches across the country (and across neighbouring countries, as well).

Ron Bailey, the Science Editor of Reason magazine, who rose to debate Mooney, gave a long and entertaining list of environmental overstatements in the past. And the rising, if scattered, applause to his more outrageous statements indicated that there is a determined minority of attendees who endorsed his relatively libertarian stance.

Bottom line, though: we are gathered at one of the best research universities in the world, hearing from speakers like David Baltimore, who won a Nobel prize in biology when he was just 37 years old. The crowd seems overwhelming liberal and overwhelmingly convinced that scientific skepticism should be rigorous and lively, but also fact-based and realistic.

Chalk one up for reason – if not for Reason.

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