They really do. At least during my lifetime many people seem to have gotten out of the habit of basing their opinions on good solid evidence, but that doesn’t mean that facts themselves no longer exist. There has been an unfortunate trend, particularly in politics, of choosing a desired course of action first and then editing or modifying the facts that support it. One example of this that has received a lot of attention is the Bush Administration’s efforts to build a case for invading Iraq culminating in Colin Powell’s presentation to the UN General Assembly. At the time the evidence seemed compelling to many of us and it wasn’t until well after the fact that we discovered just how spurious many of the allegations against Iraq were. Many of the facts that their case was built on were distorted or had previously been researched and rejected by the CIA. In the end it turns out that very little of what the Bush Administration asserted regarding Iraq’s possession of weapons of mass destruction and connections to Al-Qaeda was true. Most of it was blatantly falsified.
Another example from the Bush years was the manipulation of Federal government produced scientific reports regarding the environment by the Bush Administration to neuter their conclusions regarding climate change. In several well documented cases the Bush Administration earned the condemnation of scientists for manipulating the results of research indicating the existence of anthropogenic global warming. Evidence indicating that action must be taken to curb the use of fossil fuels was systematically suppressed by Bushies. Indeed, ignoring facts and basing decisions purely on political gain became a hallmark of his administration.
Recently the anti-science crowd (read: Conservatives) has been energized by the release of e-mails from East Anglia University in England in which climate scientists discuss whether or not to include data points which don’t fit the anthropogenic climate change conclusions held by climatologists worldwide. David Frum, a Conservative commentator, wrote this opinion piece for CNN regarding it. Leaving the clearly fabricated unattributed quotes, such as the one at the beginning referencing Abu Ghraib, to one side for a moment, you can easily see the elation he feels at having something to legitimately criticize his opponents for.
I’ve read several articles from different sources regarding these leaked e-mails, but not seen them myself, and it’s still unclear to me how damaging they really are. In the end that’s immaterial because they are clearly perceived to be damaging enough to create the controversy. For the sake of analyzing this situation let’s assume that they were what they are purported to be, evidence of scientists fudging data in order to fit the anthropogenic climate change conclusion when it otherwise wouldn’t have supported such a conclusion. That’s bad… real bad. In the pro-science community that’s worthy of excommunication.
Scientists working in academia can lose tenure for such an offense, and they know it. The way that the peer-review system works at academic institutions and other research organizations ensures that such shenanigans will be exposed eventually though, and they know that too. There are many scientists studying climate change at universities and government research facilities around the world. Each and every one of them is well motivated by the terms of their employment and the prospects of community prestige to identify and debunk the mistakes of others. In a hot field like climate research every single paper that is released is getting thoroughly scrutinized by many people with the requisite education and skills to identify mistakes, whether they be inadvertent or deliberate. Therefore, if these East Anglian researchers had released any papers based on fudged data I am entirely confident that it would have been discovered and exposed, at least within the climate research community, if not the general public.
In many situations it is difficult to identify what the facts really are. Media outlets who blur the lines between news and commentary are largely to blame. Also earning blame however are commentators, like David Frum, who form and espouse opinions on subjects which they are unqualified in every way to evaluate. Ask him why he is skeptical of climate change and you probably won’t get an answer with many facts in it. He’ll say, “Well, I just don’t think it’s been sufficiently proven,” or some such. That sounds reasonable, right? Consider, however, that with a History undergrad and Masters degree, and then a Juris Doctorate, that he cannot be expected to have a clue regarding anything of a scientific nature. For example, it is unreasonable to expect him to recognize the photographs of shrinking glaciers worldwide for what they are, incontrovertible evidence of global warming. Nor is he qualified to assess, or probably even aware of, the vast quantity of data regarding ocean current and temperature shifts that also indicate that the Earth is getting warmer. As an historian he should be aware of the significance of the Northwest Passage, the search for which was one of the great exploration endeavors of the last couple of centuries, but he is probably unaware that due to arctic shrinkage it is now regularly navigable. He is probably equally unaware of the extensive data regarding coral die-off from excessive ocean temperatures. I’m sure he hasn’t spent any time researching the vast quantity of evidence indicating a global warming trend. I doubt that that he would even understand it if he did.
But, no matter, he’s out there spouting his opinion regarding it as though he were an expert, and even worse he is challenging the very existence of empirical fact in general. That’s just criminally delusional. Thanks to CNN his delusions get wide circulation and the opportunity to convince many other under-educated voters. If you really wanna’ lose your lunch read the comment thread on his article. Many of the comments indicate that people are convinced by such arguments questioning the existence of empirical evidence. I’d like to see a study conducted regarding empiricism and voting record. I’m betting that there would be a strong correlation between Conservatism and disbelief in empiricism. After all, there’s no other way to justify most of the Republican agenda except to just make shit up. “Death panels” anyone?