By Daniel Henninger
(Wall Street Journal Deputy Editor)
Real Clear Politics
December 3, 2009
Surely there must have been serious men and women in the hard sciences who at some point worried that their colleagues in the global warming movement were putting at risk the credibility of everyone in science. The nature of that risk has been twofold: First, that the claims of the climate scientists might buckle beneath the weight of their breathtaking complexity. Second, that the crudeness of modern politics, once in motion, would trample the traditions and culture of science to achieve its own policy goals. With the scandal at the East Anglia Climate Research Unit, both have happened at once.
I don't think most scientists appreciate what has hit them. This isn't only about the credibility of global warming. For years, global warming and its advocates have been the public face of hard science. Most people could not name three other subjects they would associate with the work of serious scientists. This was it. The public was told repeatedly that something called "the scientific community" had affirmed the science beneath this inquiry. A Nobel Prize was bestowed (on a politician).
Global warming enlisted the collective reputation of science. Because "science" said so, all the world was about to undertake a vast reordering of human behavior at almost unimaginable financial cost. Not every day does the work of scientists lead to galactic events simply called Kyoto or Copenhagen. At least not since the Manhattan Project.
What is happening at East Anglia is an epochal event. As the hard sciences-physics, biology, chemistry, electrical engineering-came to dominate intellectual life in the last century, some academics in the humanities devised the theory of postmodernism, which liberated them from their colleagues in the sciences. Postmodernism, a self-consciously "unprovable" theory, replaced formal structures with subjectivity. With the revelations of East Anglia, this slippery and variable intellectual world has crossed into the hard sciences.
This has harsh implications for the credibility of science generally. Hard science, alongside medicine, was one of the few things left accorded automatic stature and respect by most untrained lay persons. But the average person reading accounts of the East Anglia emails will conclude that hard science has become just another faction, as politicized and "messy" as, say, gender studies. The New England Journal of Medicine has turned into a weird weekly amalgam of straight medical-research and propaganda for the Obama redesign of U.S. medicine.
The East Anglians' mistreatment of scientists who challenged global warming's claims-plotting to shut them up and shut down their ability to publish-evokes the attempt to silence Galileo. The exchanges between Penn State's Michael Mann and East Anglia CRU director Phil Jones sound like Father Firenzuola, the Commissary-General of the Inquisition.
For three centuries Galileo has symbolized dissent in science. In our time, most scientists outside this circle have kept silent as their climatologist fellows, helped by the cardinals of the press, mocked and ostracized scientists who questioned this grand theory of global doom. Even a doubter as eminent as Princeton's Freeman Dyson was dismissed as an aging crank.
Beneath this dispute is a relatively new, very postmodern environmental idea known as "the precautionary principle." As defined by one official version: "When an activity raises threats of harm to the environment or human health, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause and effect relationships are not fully established scientifically." The global-warming establishment says we know "enough" to impose new rules on the world's use of carbon fuels. The dissenters say this demotes science's traditional standards of evidence.
The Environmental Protection Agency's dramatic Endangerment Finding in April that greenhouse gas emissions qualify as an air pollutant-with implications for a vast new regulatory regime-used what the agency called a precautionary approach. The EPA admitted "varying degrees of uncertainty across many of these scientific issues." Again, this puts hard science in the new position of saying, close enough is good enough. One hopes civil engineers never build bridges under this theory.
The Obama administration's new head of policy at EPA, Lisa Heinzerling, is an advocate of turning precaution into standard policy. In a law-review article titled "Law and Economics for a Warming World," Ms. Heinzerling wrote, "Policy formation based on prediction and calculation of expected harm is no longer relevant; the only coherent response to a situation of chaotically worsening outcomes is a precautionary policy. . . ."
If the new ethos is that "close-enough" science is now sufficient to achieve political goals, serious scientists should be under no illusion that politicians will press-gang them into service for future agendas. Everyone working in science, no matter their politics, has an stake in cleaning up the mess revealed by the East Anglia emails. Science is on the credibility bubble. If it pops, centuries of what we understand to be the role of science go with it.