A Senator Who Makes Sense!

Today’s blog consists entirely of excerpts from a remarkable speech by Rhode Island Senator Sheldon Whitehouse delivered recently on the floor of the U.S. Senate. One might even call the speech “courageous.” I have left out many of the specifics the Senator draws on to make his point. If you want to read the entire speech go here. In the meantime, enjoy.

Mr. President, last week I spoke about our nation’s military and intelligence leaders acknowledging, along with our nation’s scientific leaders, the clear evidence that carbon pollution is changing our climate.

Unfortunately, there is confusion among many Americans regarding this scientific consensus, confusion caused by deliberate and coordinated attempts to mislead the American people.

For more than two decades the climate denial movement has been well organized and funded by the fossil fuel industry and conservative ideologues and foundations. The mission of these paid-for deniers is to “manufacture uncertainty,” to manufacture doubt, so the polluters can keep polluting.

This isn’t new. We’ve seen self-serving strategies like this one before: they questioned the merits of requiring seat belts; they questioned CFCs causing the deterioration of the ozone layer; they questioned the toxic effects of lead exposure; and they questioned whether tobacco was bad for you—same strategy to manufacture doubt; often the same cast of characters.

While the Congress of the United State has been distracted and deceived by these ploys, climate change marches on. Precious time is wasting. In the balance hang lives and jobs. This nonsense has gone on long enough.

The public is being misled. Special interest dollars pull the strings of sophisticated campaigns to give the public the impression that there is a real scientific debate regarding whether or not climate change is happening. There isn’t. The scientific debate is about how bad the changes will be.

To manufacture the doubt, skeptics with little training in climate science are promoted as “experts.” Front groups such as the Global Climate Coalition, Information Council for the Environment, Heartland Institute, Annapolis Center, and Cooler Heads Coalition are created or enlisted to propagate the message of doubt. They question the motives and engage in harassment of the real, credentialed climate scientists.

For the record, there has been scientific debate regarding climate change. Ideas have been tested, theories have been ventured, and the evidence keeps coming back to the same conclusion: increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere from human-related sources is strengthening the greenhouse effect, adding to recent warming, and acidifying the oceans. Actually, the evidence coming in tends to confirm the worst and most dangerous projections.

Claims that solar activity is causing recent global warming, and about whether the atmosphere is really warming, have been settled.

When the scientific research doesn’t work out for the skeptics, they turn to straw man arguments. One straw man is that extreme weather events, such as hurricanes and droughts, aren’t proof of climate change. Let’s be clear. No credible source is arguing that extreme events are proof that our climate is changing. But they are associated with what has been staring us in the face for years: the average global temperature is increasing; average sea level is rising; and average ocean acidity is increasing. When averages change extremes usually change with them; the warming climate “loads the dice” for extreme weather. . . .

The Minority Leader has also spoken about what appears to be the health care bill, and worried about it “creating a more precarious future for our children.”

He’s said about the stimulus effort to get our economy back on its feet: “This needs to stop for the future of our country and for our children and for our grandchildren.”

When it’s the deficit, he’s urged us “to make sure that we have the same kind of country for our children and our grandchildren that our parents left for us.” He’s even talked about, and I quote, “the Europeanization of America,” and as a result of that Europeanization of America “our children and grandchildren could no longer expect to have the same opportunities that we’ve had.”

On virtually every traditional anti-Obama Republican Tea Party bugbear – Medicare, Obamacare, the stimulus, the deficit – even this Europeanization of America – out come the children and grandchildren. Let’s assume they are sincere; let’s assume they have a sincere concern for what is left for our children and grandchildren.

So, when it comes to big corporate polluters of today leaving our children and grandchildren a damaged and more dangerous world, where then is the concern for those children and grandchildren? To have children and grandchildren pay for the care of their grandparents through Medicare and Social Security is a sin and an outrage. To force on them the untold costs and consequences of the harms done by today’s corporate polluters? For that, the future generations’ interests receive nothing from the Republicans but stony silence, or phony and calculated denial.

But the cost will be on them; and the shame will be on us.

“The Big Bang,” Science, and Ethics

I have blogged before about our need to make distinctions to be clear about what we say and there is a key distinction that we frequently fail to make. That’s where I am going now with the help of a popular sit-com.

Science is not technology. Sheldon Cooper — of “The Big Bang Theory” — is a theoretical physicist. He is a pure scientist (or the character is). Like Einstein, he doesn’t care a whit for applied science (note in the show Sheldon’s low opinion of Leonard because the latter is an experimental physicist. The suggestion that he needs to conduct experiments to prove his theories makes Sheldon laugh….or snicker.) As a general rule, however, scientists do not eschew experimentation. Indeed, there is an episode of “Big Bang” where Sheldon and Leonard collaborate and are asked to deliver a paper together. In any event, experiments are routinely conducted to verify theories in science, though at the highest levels of theoretical physics mathematics sometimes can suffice. Einstein didn’t need to conduct experiments to establish his theory of relativity, for example.

But there are other sciences, of course, both exact (like physics and chemistry) and inexact (like geology and biology) which rely on mathematics to a greater or lesser degree. And there are social sciences that mimic the exact sciences by using mathematics in the form of statistics — though their experiments and even their calculations are notoriously inexact, dealing in probabilities rather than certainties. But all of these sciences, exact or not, rely on the empirical method — looking and recording — and some sort of calculation. And all are desirous of knowing why things happen as they do. Why do objects tend toward the center of the earth?  Why do blond parents have red-headed children? Why did the dinosaurs become extinct? Scientists want to know. That’s what they do: they look and they record, and they draw tentative conclusions that lead to theories that are in turn verified — or falsified — by experiments or new empirical data.

Technology, on the  other hand, is not science for a number of reasons. Technology is all about “How?” and not “Why?” On “The Big Bang Theory,” Howard Wolowitz is the designated technologist. Because Howard has “only” a Master’s Degree from M.I.T. in engineering — which involves considerable math and physics — he is relegated on this show to designing toilets and telescopes for NASA –merely technical tasks. In a word, he figures out how to do things and he does them without asking why. In the case of toilets for the space station, the “why” is fairly obvious, but what about the “why” question as it regards the entire NASA endeavor? Few of us question that at all. In any event, the difference between science and technology was made clear in an episode of “Big Bang” when Penny’s car engine failed but the scientists could not fix it even though they knew all about how internal combustion engines work — in theory.

As Jacques Ellul said many years ago, ours is a technological age: we tend to denigrate theory. We laugh at Sheldon, not just because Jim Parsons is a superb comic actor and the writers have given him some juicy lines, but because he is a theoretician in a world in which, strange to say, Howard Wolowitz is much more at home, much more like the rest of us. Like Howard, we don’t seem to care about why things happen as they do, we just keep doing what we are doing and worry about the consequences later on when they become another problem to be solved. And we are convinced someone can solve it regardless of how complicated it might be — a dangerous assumption indeed.

Interestingly, what neither the scientist nor the technologist ventures into are the ethical implications of what they do. Thus, we have theoretical physicists who work together to develop the Atom bomb. Or we have medical technologists who conduct experiments to determine whether certain cosmetics will blind rabbits without asking whether or not this is the right thing to do. We have medical researchers who give placebos to cancer patients as part of an experiment. There’s a wonderful scene in one of the “Big Bang” episodes where Penny asks the guys why they rigged their computer so it could turn on the light by sending signals around the world; they respond in unison: “because we can.” Note that even Sheldon chimes in. Indeed. That is our society’s answer, and we are content with it — until a crisis arises that we simply cannot fix because we failed to look deep enough or far enough — or ask “why?” As Ellul suggests, it is precisely the failure to inquire into the moral and theoretical implications of what we do that gets us in trouble. And some of it is deep trouble indeed.