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December 22, 2016

“Dissent is not a crime” – Except to the New York Times

Scott Pruitt wrote:

“Scientists continue to disagree about the degree and extent of global warming and its connection to the actions of mankind. That debate should be encouraged — in classrooms, public forums, and the halls of Congress. It should not be silenced with threats of prosecution. Dissent is not a crime.”

The New York Times quotes this paragraph as the sole supporting evidence that Pruitt is, in the words of their headline, a “Climate Change Denialist”. In case you missed it, Scott Pruitt, currently Oklahoma Attorney General, is Donald Trump’s nominee for head of the Environmental Protection Agency.

This post isn’t about climate change or even about Donald Trump. It’s not about whether the EPA actions Pruitt opposed as Attorney General were or were not constitutionally or scientifically proper.  It is about how a once great newspaper has become an example of poor logic, biased reporting, and – most shameful of all – an opponent of open debate. An incompetent press is a national danger; that danger played out in an election where there were probably more votes against than for both candidates. (Not that we all don’t share the blame).

As we were taught ages ago when I went to school, let’s take Mr. Pruitt’s quote apart:

  “Scientists continue to disagree about the degree and extent of global warming….”

Does The Times think that all scientists agree exactly on the degree and extent of global warming? Is that agreement to one decimal point? To two decimal points? If they did all agree – which they don’t – it would be evidence of a conspiracy. Taking the whole earth’s temperature is hard. Knowing its past temperature across short intervals for 20,000 years is currently impossible.

“…and its connection to the actions of mankind.”

We know that a mile of ice melted off Vermont in the last 20,000 years and we know that’s not our fault; those two facts are indisputable (I think). The amount of CO2 in the atmosphere has gone up post industrialization (fact) and probably because of industrialization (strong conjecture).  Different measurements lead to different conclusions about the current pace of warming; it has lagged what “the majority of climate change models” predicted it should be. Doesn’t mean they’re wrong. Doesn’t mean they’re right certainly. Does mean more debate is needed. Which is just what Pruitt says:

“That debate should be encouraged — in classrooms, public forums, and the halls of Congress. It should not be silenced with threats of prosecution. Dissent is not a crime.”

Does The New York Times think that debate should be discouraged? Does it think that dissent is a crime? Does it think calling for debate on science makes one a “denialist” – whatever that is? Again this quote is the only evidence The Times cites in its article to support its headline. Nowhere does it quote Pruitt as saying that climate doesn’t change or even that humans have nothing to do with the current pace of change.

A debate on climate change and much, much more skeptical research is essential (all good research and researchers are skeptical). Of course climate changes; that’s what it does and that’s what it will do. We’ve adapted ourselves to exactly the climate we live in so climate change is a threat. As difficult as the study of a chaotic phenomenon like climate is; we must do our best to understand and predict it. If we can ameliorate harmful change, good – as long as we have some confidence that’s what we’re doing. We may well also have to mitigate some of the effects of climate change in the likely event that we can’t stop it any more than we can stop the earth spinning.

But the point of this post is that good science and good public policy require vigorous and free debate. For The Times to condemn someone for encouraging debate is a terrible disappointment to one who grew up ensconced in the Sunday edition each week. More important, the decline of quality press coverage is part of the reason America is not as great as she can be.

We and the press need to do better.

More posts in the climate change series:

Believers and Deniers

Combating Climate Change - The Nuclear Option

Natural Gas vs. Climate Change

Past Climate Change - The Pictures

Solar and Wind Need Natural Gas

 Natural Gas and Fugitive Emissions


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