Home / General / How science becomes “fact” in conservative circles

How science becomes “fact” in conservative circles


On March 30th, The Economist published “Climate science: A sensitive matter,” in which James Hansen, formerly of NASA, noted that “the five-year mean global temperature has been flat for a decade.” The article then outlines the many ways in which the scientific community is attempting to account for the fact that the mean global temperature is “already at the low end of the range of projections derived from 20 climate models.” Different models are consulted, other mechanisms suggested, alternate sensitivities proposed, i.e. science happens.

Or, as Rich Lowry wrote at the National Review on April 2nd, “[i]n other words, the scientific ‘consensus’ [has] been proven wrong.” Granted, he actually writes that the consensus “will have been proven wrong” if the mean global temperature remains flat “for a few more years,” but that’s a difference without distinction. First, because he declares himself arbiter of a scientific consensus he doesn’t understand; second, because he chooses the scientifically precise date of “a few more years” before the consensus he doesn’t understand will be invalidated; and third, because he’s drawing the conclusion that “the ‘sensitivity’ of the global climate to carbon emissions has been overestimated” despite the fact that his own article contains a paragraph about factors that might be mitigating warming. He tacitly admits that carbon emissions may still have a warming effect, it’s just that, for example, “new coal-fired plants in China and India, releasing so-called aerosols into the atmosphere that act to suppress warming, may be partly responsible for the stasis in temperatures.”

Which is only to repeat myself: he’s writing about a science he doesn’t understand; moreover, he’s doing so from a position of ignorance so profound he doesn’t even realize his arguments might be entirely compatible. In the same way that I can be both an athlete and a writer, so too can carbon emissions be pushing temperatures up while aerosols drive them down. Arguing that X doesn’t do Y because A does B isn’t much of an argument.

Unfortunately, he’s sharing his misunderstanding of logic and science in the influential pages of the National Review, which means that despite the fact that he misrepresents processes he doesn’t understand, his conclusion will shortly acquire the status of received wisdom as it’s repeated, in ever more ignorant forms, by other writers in the pages of the National Review. For example, today Victor Davis Hanson wrote “[t]he global warming hysteria—with no measurable planet warming in the last 15 years despite sizable increases in carbon emissions—is abating[.]” His evidence? He doesn’t need to cite evidence.

Lowry already established this new conclusion as a fact.

Which means I can propose my own new theory: based on the evidence above, conservatives require six days to transform science into stupid and stupid into ideology. I less-than-eagerly await the inevitable proof of my error.

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  • Jo

    In his defense the level of ignorance, stupidity, and source incest regarding global warming among people who take NR seriously is already so high that I don’t think this article can make it perceptibly worse.

  • Murc

    I would be insanely thrilled if we could dump tons and tons of carbon into the atmosphere with no, or few, ill effects.

    But I remain skeptical.

    • SEK

      The problem with conservatives finding this mitigation theory attractive is that, well, it’s the equivalent drug abusers who modulate their energy level with successive courses of heroin and cocaine.

      • mxyzptlk


        The choice of high-functioning substance dependents with discriminating tastes since Miles Davis got weird and John Belushi spat at his television.

        (Substances may be coca-based, opium-based, or carbon-based.)

    • ChrisTS

      Whereas I, as a bad person, would like to dump it with full effects on just a few people.

  • Captain Haddock

    Now connect this to the Crazification Factor and you’ll have a book on your hands.

  • Linnaeus

    Sounds like a good time to revive my MA thesis.

  • Leeds man

    based on the evidence above, conservatives require six days to transform science into stupid and stupid into ideology.

    Loser. My data shows conclusively that science and stupid wingnut ideology are entangled quantum states. Instantaneous correlation, man!

    • Anonymous

      Spooky agnosis at a distance

    • DocAmazing

      The Leeds Uncertainty Principle: you can determine an National Review writer’s level of intelligence or sanity, but not both simultaneously.

  • howard

    since changes in global climate aren’t happening, all those pictures of water where there once was ice in the arctic must be fakes….

    • cpinva

      “since changes in global climate aren’t happening, all those pictures of water where there once was ice in the arctic must be fakes….”

      brought to you by the same people who faked pictures of the moon landings. it’s all a millenium ages old conspiracy!

  • tt

    The Economist article itself is annoying. The Hansen quote is not given any context (what’s his explanation?). Cherry-picking the recent literature is not actually a good way to get a general sense of the opinions in the field. It feels like they are baiting the denialists while trying not to give up their credibility.

  • sparks

    There are explanations. One needs also to ask if heating is going in other places besides the atmosphere. Places like the deep ocean.

    A small link on why short-term trends (5-year mean for 10 years) aren’t greatly useful, although sometimes they can show significance. Sorry it’s a little heavy on stats, you can read the text and get the gist.

    • sparks

      Linky a no-show. Bah, I am sick of WP. Just go to Open Mind and read the post entitled Too Little Time.

  • Jon Hendry

    “so-called aerosols”?


    • sharculese

      Hairspray is a liberal plot.

      • arguingwithsignposts

        I oppose the hairspray mandate!

      • Bill Murray

        well John Waters is gay

  • anon

    ok, i’m open to hearing why the temps have been flat and why we’re scraping the bottom of the model predictions. give me something other than bashing the morons.

    • rickhavoc

      Scale. Your lifetime is not the measure. 15 years is the onset of an inhalation.

    • tt

      You can find a good discussion of the issue here. See also the link Pseudonym posted above. I would add that getting near the 5% bottom of the confidence interval at one time point isn’t all that strong evidence against the models.

    • Bill Murray

      2005 is tied with 2010 for the hottest year ever; so, for most data sets containing these two points and containing data representing the years 2003-2012, the fit to a linear relationship is very likely to have a slope statistically indistinguishable from zero

  • rickhavoc

    Do not wrestle with pigs. Win or lose, you will be covered in shit, and the pig enjoys it.

    • I’ve heard that many times before and I always wonder: how do we know? Has anyone asked the pigs if they like it? Is the aphorism based on empirical pig-wrestling data that shows piggy squeals of triumph and glee re shit-covered humans? Is there a farm somewhere with “wrestling fool” carefully spun in a spider’s web?

      • witless chum

        Pig allegedly prefer concrete swimming pools and clean water to mud and shit holes to cool off, if they can get them, so I imagine the testing would not yield any of the predicted results.

        Ripping on pigs for being mud-covered when we lock them in muddy pigpens is more like conservatives current favorite pass time, wrecking the government and then yelling “look, the government’s wrecked. It can’t do anything right! Nom, nom, nom privatize everything in my bank account!”

        • Pigs prefer swimming pools because they get to impress the babes with the size of their snouts. I mean, duh.

          Also, since you have a serious point, look at any attack on a group for imagined or stereotypical characteristics. Let’s spend centuries telling upper- and middle-class women to stay indoors wearing clothing that makes it difficult to move and then talk about how men are naturally more athletic. (Lower-class women, by definition, do not count in such a discussion.)

        • joel hanes

          Given range with mixed woodland, scrub, grass, and a good watercourse, pigs live pretty clean. They’re flourishing in the Diablo Range east of San Francisco and Monterey bays, and I’ve often seen droves out in the pastures and glades.

          The’re also terribly fecund, moderately intelligent, dangerous in a pinch, and horribly destructive to the biomes they invade. I’ve seen long hillsides at Coe State Park where rooting pigs have completely torn up tens of acres to get at the bulbs of certain native wildflowers.

          Their overpopulation cries out for a top predator. I think that’s why God made them delicious.

  • mxyzptlk

    The difficulty here is it seems as if Lowry starts with an ideologically-shaped position, and then picks and chooses what data to look at as long as it fits the predetermined claim. And it’s difficult to call someone on that, because inevitably they accuse progressives of doing the same thing — which may be the case at times, but in general the whole scientific method and process of logical argumentation, that determines a claim after considering evidence rather than before, emerged out of the same institutions and cultural apparatuses that results in more liberal and progressive thinking.

    It’s not about the way things always have been; it’s about looking at the problems you’re faced with (climate change, background checks for guns, student plagiarism, the causes and cures for multiple sclerosis, how to make a caulkier caulk, an archaeological find, why isn’t my pizza crust crispier, etc.) and determining the most useful plan of action based on what the evidence tells you. I know plenty of people would have an argument with this, but it seems one side allows ideology to shape how facts and evidence are considered, and the other side allows facts and evidence to shape how ideology is considered.

    But I know from experience that conservatives say the same thing about progressives (just had one of those stupid Crossfire-style debates about one of Chris Mooney’s books). Conservatives may not actually believe it, but they’ve convinced themselves that they’ve convinced themselves that that’s the case.

    • cpinva

      “The difficulty here is it seems as if Lowry starts with an ideologically-shaped position, and then picks and chooses what data to look at as long as it fits the predetermined claim.”

      yes. this is frequently on display, on FOX, when it snows anywhere. inevitably, one of them will say the local snow disproves global warming. part ideological, part ignorance. mix the two for a heady brew of stupid.

    • Hogan

      And it’s difficult to call someone on that, because inevitably they accuse progressives of doing the same thing

      Or rather, they accuse anyone who arrives at a different conclusion of being a “progressive” and doing the same thing.

  • Brendan

    Thx for shortering Lowry so adroitly.

  • Brendan

    Shortering the echo chamber so adroitly, also too

  • Carbon Man

    I enjoy carnal knowledge of goats.

  • Joey Maloney

    Stupid person with agenda furthers agenda stupidly. Starbursts Film at 11.

  • Shakezula

    Question. Is it more annoying when NeoCon hacks take scientific findings and fuck them up (I would say deliberately) to prove they are right,


    NeoCon hacks pull things out of their ass and call it science to prove they are right. Here I’m thinking of birth control pills making your tits explode and all gay men being drug addicts.

    • Shakezula

      Although on further thought I think birth control – cancer goes under column A. It is hard to keep track.

    • DocAmazing

      I would think that, with the popularity of birth control pills, the epidemic of exploding tits would have been more obvious at this point. I suppose we can credit Maidenform with making a product sufficiently tough to shield passer-by from harm from the explosions.

  • Anonymous

    I hate having the last name as Rich Lowry. Not only is it embarrassing, but I feel incongruously hurt when I read a thread about how Lowry is an utter moron, etc.

    I can be grateful not to be a Limbaugh, I guess.

    • Shakezula

      Or a Coulter, Krauthammer, Erickson, Goldberg, Malkin …

  • From the papers I’ve read it seems likely that the heat not showing up in the atmosphere is going into the deep oceans. That could come back to bite us hard.

    • Davis

      Indeed, the oceans have been getting steadily warmer over the last 50 years. This is not good.

  • Davis

    I take some comfort in that article (The Economist, not NR!) since I had believed that it was already too late, especially given the melting of the permafrost that will release huge amounts of methane. Perhaps we have a little more time after all.

  • owlbear1

    Conservatives are gonna get their promised Armageddon come hell or high water

  • arghous

    In the beginning, the conservative took some conventional conservative wisdom, rearranged a few things, and barfed it back out.

    On the second day, he rested.

    On the third day, he rested.

    On the forth day, he rested.

    On the fifth day, he rested.

    On the sixth day, he looked at the evolving splatter, and lo, it was good.

    On the seventh day, he needed a really good rest after all that.

  • After 10 years of slandering Hansen they are now going to start quoting him. Flatworms are more ethical in their behaviour.

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  • Bob

    6 days? Anything these guys say ‘is’ a scientific fact by default.

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