Strangely, the political position that accepts science is favored by scientists

Robert Tracinski writes for The Federalist, so you know where this is going to go — that site is a wretched hive of right-wing woo. He has a weird way of praising Carl Sagan, saying that he liked the guy but he ruined science because he poisoned it with liberalism. Unfortunately for his thesis, he can’t even get the science right.

“Cosmos” is an interesting intellectual time capsule, because it was broadcast just at the point when predictions of global environmental catastrophe were tipping between global cooling and global warming. So he presented the two as equally likely scenarios that required further study (and, of course, massive government funding).

Incorrect. Completely missing the point. Also a common talking point among ignoramuses that scientists were predicting global cooling in the 1970s. They weren’t. The denialists are often confused (probably intentionally so) because Sagan also wrote about the “nuclear winter” scenario, the idea that a nuclear war would throw so many particulates into the atmosphere that it would reduce solar warming, or that industrial pollution would do likewise. You can read Sagan’s original essay on climate change from Cosmos. He’s pretty clear on the problem.

Like Venus, the Earth also has a greenhouse effect due to its carbon dioxide and water vapor. The global temperature of the Earth would be below the freezing point of water if not for the greenhouse effect. It keeps the oceans liquid and life possible. A little greenhouse is a good thing. Like Venus, the Earth also has about 90 atmospheres of carbon dioxide; but it resides in the crust as limestone and other carbonates, not in the atmosphere. If the Earth were moved only a little closer to the Sun, the temperature would increase slightly. This would drive some of the CO2 out of the surface rocks, generating a stronger greenhouse effect, which would in turn incrementally heat the surface further. A hotter surface would vaporize still more carbonates into CO2, and there would be the possibility of a runaway greenhouse effect to very high temperatures. This is just what we think happened in the early history of Venus, because of Venus’ proximity to the Sun. The surface environment of Venus is a warning: something disastrous can happen to a planet rather like our own.

The principal energy sources of our present industrial civilization are the so-called fossil fuels. We burn wood and oil, coal and natural gas, and, in the process, release waste gases, principally CO2, into the air. Consequently, the carbon dioxide content of the Earth’s atmosphere is increasing dramatically. The possibility of a runaway greenhouse effect suggests that we have to be careful: Even a one- or two- degree rise in the global temperature can have catastrophic consequences. In the burning of coal and oil and gasoline, we are also putting sulfuric acid into the atmosphere. Like Venus, our stratosphere even now has a substantial mist of tiny sulfuric acid droplets. Our major cities are polluted with noxious molecules. We do not understand the long- term effects of our course of action.

He also discusses the possibility that changes in human land use would change the planet’s albedo, reflecting more light into space, leading to cooling. That scenario is not winning out, obviously. But critically, what you should take away from the essay is that human activities are changing the global climate — he’s making a case for anthropogenic climate change. I don’t see a demand for “massive government funding” in the essay, by the way.

Tracinski is only complaining about Sagan because he wants to complain about the March for Science, though. It’s political — shock, horror — but worse, it doesn’t support his politics.

All you really need to know about the “March for Science” is that it is scheduled for Earth Day. The organizers may say the march is nonpartisan and has a variety of goals, but it’s mostly just about global warming. It’s not just about whether global warming is actually happening, or whether it is caused by human activity, but about a specific political program for dealing with global warming.

To be sure, there are other goals involved in the march and some contention, even among the organizers, about the extent to which the march should embrace causes like “diversity.” So the goals run the gamut from the left to the far-left. And that’s the problem. The “March for Science” is an attempt to equate the Left’s political goals with Science Itself, claiming the intellectual and moral authority of science for the Left’s agenda.

Let us consider some simple logic here.

Science is a process for learning from empirical evidence. The evidence was weaker in 1980, so citing a 37 year old book to cast doubt on modern evidence is dishonest and denies the progressive accumulation of knowledge.

Climate change is happening. It’s real. It’s now an inescapable conclusion from the evidence.

These changes will require a response, because they will have economic, political, and social consequences. That is, reality has effects, science can measure and predict those effects, so science is necessarily intertwined with politics.

Conservatives deny the science. This will have political ramifications. Ignoring a problem rarely has good outcomes.

Liberals accept the science (at least in this case: there are others where it doesn’t). This is the only reason science currently has a liberal bias — because the right-wing is opposing the facts. The Left has aligned itself with reality, while the Right is rejecting it.

Which will bend, the way your politics works, or the way the laws of nature operate? In that battle, politics is the one that will break, and I wouldn’t mind seeing wingnuts butt heads with reality, except that they’re going to drag the rest of us down with them in their futile efforts to distort the truth to conform to their biases.

I’ll also mention that the way Tracinski put “diversity” in quotes is also telling — he’s one of those who resents the growth of science beyond the domain of only white men, so diversity is nothing he wants to celebrate. Too bad. Reality is also going to smack that attitude around. Charles Pierce has a few words on the March for Science.

There was a great deal of infighting—”Some very ugly meetings,” said one person familiar with them—about how specifically political the march should be. The older and more conventional scientists—most of them white males, for all that means in every public issue these days—tried to make the march and the events surrounding it as generic as possible.

The younger scientists, a more diverse groups in every way that a group can be, pushed back hard. The available evidence on Saturday was that their side had carried the day. Given the fact that, for example, Scott Pruitt, who took dictation from oil companies when he was Attorney General of Oklahoma, is now running the EPA, they could hardly have lost. More than a few signs reminded the current president* that, without science, he would be as bald as a billiard ball.

Generally, though, there was more than a little sadness on all sides that it ever had come to this, that a country born out of experimentation had lost its faith in its own true creation story, that a country founded by curious, courageous people would become so timid about trusting the risks and rewards of science.

To no one’s surprise, Robert Tracinski is an older white male, one who touts his appearances on Limbaugh and the O’Reilly shows. Why does my demographic have to be so heavily populated with entitled assnuggets?


  1. jambonpomplemouse says

    Conservatives in America are so used to having their ideas and beliefs pandered to. Even most left-leaning politicians will bend over backwards to promise them that their indefensible opinions are just as valid as facts. When science fails to do this, of course they believe it’s a vast conspiracy to attack them.

  2. cartomancer says

    There are actually sound right-wing arguments for acknowledging the reality of anthropogenic climate change and doing something about it. Principally the economic argument that the effects of it are going to cause untold billions of pounds of damage and developing measures to prevent it will make economies more stable and productive. It’s not right-wing politics per se that clashes with this acknowledgment – it’s the most short-termist, lazy, slash-and-burn economic philosophy that values immediate profits from existing industries over long-term stability and growth. Sadly the American right seems to have drunk deep from that particular poisoned well.

  3. vole says

    “Reality must take precedence […] for Nature cannot be fooled” – Richard Feynman

  4. Nerd of Redhead, Dances OM Trolls says

    The right simply do not like the consequences of AGW. It does require change to help alleviate what is happening. Change is an anathema to the right. Putting their head in the sand and pretending AGW doesn’t exist is the only way they see to prevent change.

  5. KG says

    It’s not right-wing politics per se that clashes with this acknowledgment – cartomancer@2

    Oh yes, it is. True, the American right goes further than most in other countries* in its outright denial of the reality of anthropogenic climate change, but an adequate response would require – at the least – government intervention in the economy on a huge scale – including the direction of investment into specific areas regardless of how profitable they are, unprecedented international cooperation placing limits on “national sovereignty”, and the systematic transfer of technology and wealth to poorer countries. These things are utterly unacceptable to all parts of the right, and indeed, to the self-styled “centre-left”. Indeed the Green Left is the only part of the political scene where they are broadly accepted.

    *There are however increasing elements of the European and Anglosphere right that go the whole way with climate denialism.

  6. cartomancer says


    The right is certainly not above any of those things. Massive government intervention in the economy, including into unprofitable areas? They bailed out the failed banks in 2007. Limits on national sovereignty? All those military actions in the Middle East show scant regard for Afghan or Iraqi or Syrian national sovereignty. Wealth and technology transfer to poorer countries? The Chinese are doing it right now throughout Africa – they just call it investment in overseas businesses, and it can be very profitable.

    Don’t get me wrong, I think right-wing politics is harmful and misguided at best. It is essentially a politics that favours corporate interests, established elites and the wealthy over everyone else. But even corporate interests, established elites and the wealthy are going to be affected by climate change – on a long-term view they are massive destabilising forces that simply cannot be ignored if you want the stacked capitalist system to persist. If all you are interested in is corporate wealth then you still cannot ignore it.

  7. jrkrideau says

    @ 6 cartomancer
    government intervention in the economy on a huge scale

    This was not government intervention for the public good. This was to support or bail out themselves, their friends and their paymasters.

    It “really” is not “government intervention in the economy” just prudent fiscal policy or sound political decision-making.

  8. jennyjfwlucy says

    CBS Radio Mystery Theater in the 1970s did an episode about how global cooling was destroying the planet and humans had to escape. The theory was (IIRC) that carbon dioxide clouds increased albedo so not enough sun was reaching earth. Can’t find the episode right this second …

  9. jrkrideau says

    # 8 jennyjfwlucy

    Well if one cannot trust CBC who can you trust?

    Wait, unless it was Bob McDonald on Q & Q I am suspicious.

  10. jrkrideau says

    # 8 jennyjfwlucy
    I am old enough to vaguely remember the “70s” article or articles in New Scientist about global cooling so the CBC premise had some basis.

    Which also was about the time I discovered As It Happens and listened to the incredible interview with Soviet dissidents as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was getting kicked out of the country. This has to be classified as the greatest radio scoop in history.

  11. birgerjohansson says

    In the seventies, there was some concern that Earth might be due for another glaciation. Today, we know the changed land use during the iron age probably released enough CO2 to postpone the next glaciation indefinitely, And then the industrial era started…

  12. cartomancer says

    jrkrideau, #7

    I never said that the 2007 bailouts were for the public good. But they most certainly were governent intervention in the economy – intervention to protect the interests of the capitalist class to which most of those in government belong. Right wing politicians have never shied away from intervening in the economy, however much they claim to worship at the altar of market forces, as long as the beneficiaries of their intervention are the wealthy.

    My point is that doing something about anthropogenic climate change will also benefit the wealthy. It will benefit everyone of course, but if one does view the world solely through the lens of making a profit (as most right-wingers seem to) then it does not necessarily follow that ignoring the problem is the wisest strategy. It’s not a choice between economic loss and societal loss – the economic damage to the interests of the wealthy caused by ignoring climate change will be vast. They cannot simply ignore it and continue to enjoy the profit and prosperity they currently do.

  13. Azkyroth, B*Cos[F(u)]==Y says

    Global cooling wasn’t a completely irrational worry earlier in the 70s, prior to regulations limiting soot, particulates, and the like from industrial and mobile sources. In fact, all the soot probably delayed the warming we’re seeing now by a fair amount.

  14. rietpluim says

    The Left has aligned itself with reality, while the Right is rejecting it.

    Other than in the most extreme examples (totalitarian communist regimes in particular) I have found this statement to be true for at least half a century.
    Probably longer, but I haven’t lived that many years yet.

  15. birgerjohansson says

    BTW, I think the scientific method is to make a prediction based on your interpretation of how things work, and then see if the prediction is correct:
    Prediction:”Arrogant, sexist assholes that are used to get everything they point at can be expected to indulge in sexual harassment”

    Later: “Sean Hannity Accused Of Sexual Harassment”

  16. johnhodges says

    Prominent Republicans (e.g. John McCain) and the Republican Party platform acknowledged the reality of AGW during the George W. Bush administration, and the wisdom of taking action to reduce CO2 emissions. I suspect that when Bill McKibben calculated that 4/5ths of the world’s proven oil reserves would have to be left in the ground, Rex Tillerson and his colleagues decided “NO WAY! Those reserves mean TRILLIONS of dollars of future revenue for our companies! We’re not going to leave them in the ground! We’re going to dig up and sell every ounce of fossil fuel this planet HAS!” They issued marching orders to their bought-and-paid-for politicians (and preachers), who all dutifully became climate-change deniers overnight.

  17. KG says


    Apologies for the delayed response.

    I concede that the right does intervene in the economy – but only, as in your example, at the behest and in the interests of the capitalist class or core elements of it – never to direct investment in ways that would limit corporate action or profits. And of course the American right is quite happy to limit other countries’ sovereignty, but is quite clear that the USA is not actually bound by any treaties it finds it convenient to ratify.

    However, I agree with your main point, that even the wealthy have an objective interest in radical action to mitigate anthropogenic climate change (provided they expect to live at least a few decades, or have anyone they care about who they expect to do so). As I’ve sometimes expressed it, even the fattest capitalist fat cat does not wish to fry in his own lard. Indeed, this is my main ground for hope for the future: change of a revolutionary order is needed if we are to avoid catastrophe, and such change (whether violent or not) is practically impossible without a split in the ruling elite. But for this to happen, a large part of that elite has to abandon the neoliberal shibboleths of “free markets”, minimal government and international competition with which the right have dominated political discourse for decades – without turning to fascism, which would ensure rapid disaster.