A Cherry-Picking Accident

Consider a thought experiment.

First, suppose that a prominent U.S. senator had joined a lawsuit over a Clinton administration report on climate change, charging that the document was produced unlawfully and was scientifically flawed, and that its release must therefore be blocked. We're not talking about freely spoken criticism here, mind you. We're talking about going to court and asking that the powers of the state be brought to bear in ensuring that a government report be effectively squelched.

Second, suppose that the hallowed National Academy of Sciences (NAS), in a report on the state of climate science produced less than a year later, relied heavily on the legally attacked Clinton report for a key section on the potential consequences of climate change for the United States. And we're not talking about a passing citation. We're talking about using the Clinton report as the basis for two pages of an NAS report -- a clear stamp of approval from the highest echelon of science.

Third, suppose that same U.S. senator devoted a major speech to praising and agreeing with said NAS report while completely ignoring its reliance on the Clinton-era document that the senator had gone to court to attack. Surely you would admit that, at the very least, this suggests deep confusion -- and possibly much worse.

Meet Senator James Inhofe.

Recently, Inhofe delivered the first of four promised speeches on what he calls the "Four Pillars of Climate Alarmism," aiming to dismantle the case for concern about global warming piece by piece. The first “pillar” identified by Inhofe was a 2001 report by the National Academy of Sciences, requested by the Bush administration and embraced by it. See Exhibit A.

Unlike his presumed approach to the other “pillars,” Inhofe did not attack this rather famous report head-on. Rather, he sought to appropriate it as his own, arguing that it had been massively misinterpreted by the media as cementing the case for human-caused climate change. But contrary to news reports, argued Inhofe, statements in the NAS study "cannot possibly be considered unequivocal affirmations that man-made global warming is a threat, or that man-made emissions are the sole or most important factor driving climate change."

In order to make this argument, Inhofe engaged in a remarkable cherry-picking exercise. The bulk of his speech was dedicated to selective citations of language about scientific uncertainty from the 2001 NAS report, of which there are many (as in any responsible scientific document). Of course, there are also statements in the report about what scientists actually know. Here are a few easily cherry-picked examples:

  • Greenhouse gases are accumulating in the Earth's atmosphere as a result of human activities, causing surface air temperatures and subsurface ocean temperatures to rise.
  • The [United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel On Climate Change's] conclusion that most of the observed warming of the last 50 years is likely to have been due to the increase in greenhouse-gas concentrations accurately reflects the current thinking of the scientific community on this issue.

    These statements Inhofe chose to ignore. Journalists, on the other hand, compelled by honesty and professionalism to give a full description of the document's contents, considered them rather important.

    Inhofe's style of cherry-picking is nothing new in politicized science debates, or other debates for that matter. Almost everybody does it to some extent, even though it's indefensible and wrong. But what's uniquely stunning about the Inhofe example is that the report he chose to cherry-pick contains two pages (out of 26) that are based on a scientific document called the “U.S. National Assessment of the Potential Consequences of Climate Variability and Change” -- the report Inhofe went to court over in 2000. These two pages, which discuss potential climate-change effects on the United States, are described as "based on information provided in the U.S. National Assessment." The NAS report does not provide any cautions about the document or in any way call it into question. Inhofe, in turn, simply passed in silence over this part of the NAS report in his speech.

    For honesty's sake, then, Inhofe should now answer the following question: If the senator believes the "National Assessment" to be "junk science" (as conservatives like to say), but also believes the NAS report to constitute "sound science" (as they also like to say), why does the latter rely so heavily on the former?

    Inhofe faces this predicament because of his, and the right's, cavalier treatment of serious scientific documents. If climate-science reports are deemed too "alarmist," as the "National Assessment" was, they are viciously denounced. If the reports are subtle and contain plenty of language about scientific uncertainty that can be quoted out of context, they are misrepresented as throwing the scientific consensus into question.

    In fact, however, each of these reports represents an important contribution to the scientific understanding of climate change and its effects. Each moves knowledge forward, although each individual document may also have its own flaws and shortcomings.

    In such a situation, political opportunists like Inhofe can attack certain scientific reports while claiming to draw support from others, but they do so at their own peril. Because as anybody who's actually paying attention knows, the reports all cite one another.

    Chris Mooney is a Prospect senior correspondent whose TAP Online column appears each week. His book on the politicization of science will be published later this year by Basic Books. His daily blog and other writings can be found at www.chriscmooney.com.

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