05 October 2010

Bonnie Tyler's Words Live On

OK, so, I like big hair
Remember "Total Eclipse of the Heart?" Bonnie Tyler had another hit - "Holding Out For A Hero."  And I'll thank you for refraining from the "dude likes Bonnie Tyler" jokes.  Don't fool yourself into thinking you didn't like Footloose because you DID, dammit.  Just admit it and we'll get along just fine.  But enough about that.

Today she's singing about the need for a hero to scientists  - because it's not just science funding that's under attack.  Virginia's Attorney General is at it again:
Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli has sent a new civil subpoena to the University of Virginia, renewing a demand for documents related to a work of a former university climate scientist that was stymied when a judge blocked his previous request in August.
For those of you just joining us, Cuccinelli's target is Michael Mann, a researcher who worked at the University of Virginia until 2005.  To be quite general, I think Mann's research said something along the lines of "climate change is happening quickly." Then someone stole some of his emails and alleged he and other scientists were faking their data or something like that, creating the farce the media sometimes called "climate-gate."  Mann has since been exonerated from the allegations, though to the best of my knowledge no one has ever caught the person or people who hacked into those computers and stole and published those private emails.

I'll readily acknowledge that when Cuccinelli did this the first time I thought it was nothing more than a stunt by a political opportunist in the wake of this faux scandal. After all, his subpoenas were obviously sloppily crafted and they were quickly shot down by a judge.  But now it's apparent he wants to press this issue. He's trying to intimidate researchers and he's essentially adding a page to the climate change denial playbook - if you can't win an argument on the merits, make stuff up and use taxpayer resources to sue.

It's clear that AG Cuccinelli, drawing on his vast experience of exactly zero days as a climate change researcher, now believes he can tell what's good research and what's not:
"Specifically, but without limitation, some of the conclusions of the papers demonstrate a complete lack of rigor regarding the statistical analysis of the alleged data, meaning that the result reported lacked statistical significance without a specific statement to that effect," the CID alleges.
Of course this isn't the first time that climate science has come under attack from a politician. There are plenty of scientists who are quite used to this sort of thing in a variety of fields - evolution, reproductive research, even vaccines.  But this clear abuse of power strikes me as particularly egregious - the specific allegations have already been shown to be without merit, and the AG is simply on the wrong side of the science.  If I were a Virginia taxpayer, I'd want a refund.

But Cuccinelli gets away with it for one simple reason: there is no organized opposition.  No one stands up for science in our public discourse or in our policy debates when standing up for science gets the least bit uncomfortable or expensive.  When a researcher's conclusions start to rub someone the wrong way, someone just makes stuff up about the researcher, turns him into a villain, and suffers absolutely no consequences for their lies. Scientists have no allies who will come to their defense, because scientists have done remarkably little to build relationships with influential people beyond their own, cloistered communities. (It's called "ivory tower" for a reason, people.)

And no, I don't consider the occasional rant from a science blogger, with or without f-bombs, to be "consequences." (Though I quickly searched the science blogosphere for reactions to this and I didn't even find this.)  Bottom line: there is no real, organized, diverse opposition that encourages people to take action and demonstrate a real down side to attacking science and scientists.

I'm sure someone at the University of Virginia will say something along the lines of "attacking scientists is bad."  I'm guessing the words "chilling effect" and "academic freedom" will be used.   And I'm guessing that will be the extent of opposition.  Because, you know, it's uncomfortable to get into discussions like this.

There are political constituencies in this country that Cuccinelli would not dare attack.  Many of those constituencies have much less money than you may think.  But they're organized. They have leaders.  They have people who mobilize.  And they're not afraid to mix it up.

Not so for scientists.  And as long as this continues, scientists will continue to be "picked off," a handful at a time.

I'm probably not going to make too many friends for saying this - but it's the truth.  Scientists don't seem to have much trouble mocking their critics from behind their keyboards or using heated language when talking about science itself.  But I really don't see much when it comes to speaking truth to power.  I really don't see much when it comes to building a movement that would make people like Cuccinelli think twice before pulling a stunt like this.  Going on the attack is uncomfortable.  Executing a well-planned and coordinated attack is time-consuming on top of uncomfortable.  People would rather advocate or do something polite or "positive."

But it's long past time for scientists to go on the attack.  It's long past time for someone among their ranks to emerge as a leader. It's long past time for scientists to organize.

Who's going to step up?

1 comment:

custom essay writing company said...

ohhh Lord. I's love to visit her concert!! only even for just one track, Holding Up To The Hero for example (a masterpiece for all time). she is so great