Monday, August 31, 2009

Global warming goes on monkey trial!

Now this is just absurd. In a story that’s been making its way around climate blogs over the last week, the US Chamber of Commerce is calling for the EPA to literally put global warming science on trial—specifically, a “Scopes monkey trial of the 21st Century”:

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, trying to ward off potentially sweeping federal emissions regulations, is pushing the Environmental Protection Agency to hold a rare public hearing on the scientific evidence for man-made climate change.

Chamber officials say it would be "the Scopes monkey trial of the 21st century" -- complete with witnesses, cross-examinations and a judge who would rule, essentially, on whether humans are warming the planet to dangerous effect.

"It would be evolution versus creationism," said William Kovacs, the chamber's senior vice president for environment, technology and regulatory affairs. "It would be the science of climate change on trial."

The original Scopes monkey trial was, of course, the famous 1925 trial of John Scopes, the Tennessee high school teacher arrested for teaching evolution in his classroom. Scopes’ legal guilt was never in doubt, so the two lawyers were free to duel back and forth over faith and reason—William Jennings Bryan arguing for traditional religion, and Clarence Darrow defending the science of evolution. The media turned the trial into a circus, and the nation tuned in to watch images of pitchfork-waving townspeople burning effigies of poor Scopes. In every sense of the word, it was evolution, not John Scopes, on trial.

Scopes lost his monkey trial, and was ordered to pay a $100 fine (overturned on appeal). But in the court of public opinion, Clarence Darrow’s takedown of Bryan, and Bryan’s utter inability to respond, destroyed the credibility of those who opposed evolution’s teaching.

Now it’s the powerful US Chamber of Commerce’s turn to put science on trial. Do they think this time around the outcome will be different? Why would the Chamber willingly expose its shoddy arguments to the spotlight? Maybe they oppose evolutionary science as well as global warming?

More likely, they understand full well their position’s intellectual bankruptcy, and just aren’t too worried about it. Because their strategy isn’t to convince the public through rational debate, but to sow doubt by generating “global warming goes on trial” headlines and hoping the public won’t read past the headlines. After all, Joe Sixpack’s short attention span and lack of scientific training make it hard for him to sort out scientific fact from fiction, so he’s likely to accept whichever side’s conclusions support his views on the role of government.

And unlike William Jennings Bryan, who framed his arguments in terms of faith versus reason—an untenable strategy today—the Chamber has a better strategy for framing the debate: “pseudoscience.” The strategy is to pack your arguments full of scientific-sounding jargon but little actual meaning, and pay off a cadre of “scientists” to repeatedly regurgitate these talking points, in order to add an appearance of credibility to global warming denial. (In fact, it’s the preferred strategy of today’s creationists—they call it “Creation Science.”) To the layman, it all sounds legit; the jargon gives him a few talking points he can spout off whenever challenged, making him feel more secure about rejecting the scientific consensus without really understanding what he’s saying. And the more times you repeat it, the more ingrained the lie becomes.

It may work, but I don’t see it as a winning strategy. When you hold a lie to a lamp, the truth shines brighter. And the evidence for human-caused global warming is so ironclad, the arguments against it so transparently made-up, that if the two were actually put side by side in public spectacle, I’d expect that none but the most hardcore deniers could continue to believe the drivel. The denier lawyers would go home as thoroughly humiliated as William Jennings Bryan after his shellacking by Darrow.

In fact, Bryan died five days later, a sad end to an otherwise admirable life.

So if that’s what the deniers at the Chamber of Commerce want to put themselves through, I say bring it on! Who wants to be Clarence Darrow?

Ever argued with someone over climate change and been stumped by a pseudoscientific sound bite? Just curious about the topic? I’ll be posting on the basics of climate change arguments across the next several weeks—the three facts that disprove any denier talking point; the smoking gun evidence for global warming; defenses of cap-and-trade that don’t rely on numbers; why opposing global warming legislation makes you a socialist; and others.

  • If you’re really interested in the science, RealClimate has excellent articles, most of which are pretty understandable.
  • And for your daily dose of global warming politics, Joe Romm has you covered at ClimateProgress.

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