Thursday, September 2, 2010

Political science

We grow some strange politicians here in the Commonwealth of Virginia, none stranger than our chief law enforcement officer, Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli II. He swept into office last January and within days had begun a crime-fighting crusade against Federal health care legislation and university policies barring discrimination based on sexual orientation.

This of course is the routine buffoonery of a Republican politician with aspirations to national office. Much less amusing was Cuccinelli's foray into the world of the Thought Police, in the form of a fraud investigation he opened in April of a former University of Virginia scientist — who had committed the crime of concluding that the climate is getting warmer.

This week a state judge threw out Cuccinelli's subpoena of the professor's e-mails; the court ruled that while the attorney general had the authority to investigate fraudulent use of research funds, he had failed to offer even a conjecture as to what was "false or fraudulent in obtaining the funds from the Commonwealth" in this case.

It was a small rebuff to a truly appalling act of scientific McCarthyism. But Cuccinelli's attempt to turn a scientific dispute into a crime is unfortunately the logical outcome of the whole wretched politicization of the global warming issue over the last couple of decades. And the environmentally activist scientists who have worked assiduously to stifle normal scientific give and take — and even assassinate the characters and destroy the careers of those who raise legitimate questions about the supposed "scientific consensus" on global warming — bear their share of the blame. A milestone on this road to hell was the reprehensibly thuggish vendetta in 2001 against the Danish researcher Bjørn Lomborg, who dared to suggest in his now-famous book The Skeptical Environmentalist that polluted drinking water, indoor air pollution from open fires, and malaria were far more serious environmental threats to the well-being of most people in the world than theoretical projections of future climate change or other exaggerated and alarmist claims routinely given currency by the environmental movement.

Environmental scientists responded with a determination to stamp out this heresy that would have done Torquemada or Khomeini proud. A dozen scientists served Cambridge University Press with a demand that it cease printing the book, fire the editor who oversaw it,  and "convene a tribunal" to investigate the book's "errors." Nature ran a truly egregious review by the scientists Stuart Pimm and Jeffrey Harvey attributing to Lomborg ridiculous statements that he never even remotely made in the book or anywhere else. And Pimm and Harvey along with other members of the environmental goon squad lodged a complaint with the Danish Committee on Scientific Dishonesty — a legal body of the state — alleging that Lomborg had committed "scientific misconduct" for having reached conclusions that Pimm and Harvey did not like.

This attempt to criminalize intellectual disagreement ought to have chilled the hearts of all scientists. It also ought to have chilled the hearts of all liberals, because this is exactly the kind of totalitarian and authoritarian mindset that liberals have always proudly stood up to. My friend and colleague Matt Ridley provocatively raises this point in his excellent new book The Rational Optimist and in a recent blog post. While I disagree with some of his arguments — I think he too easily ignores the essential role of government action in the vast improvements in air and water quality we have seen, for example — he is dead-on in asking why liberals, who after all once stood for both progress and resistance to authoritarianism, so readily embrace pessimism and censorship when it comes to environmental issues.