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Obama’s lesson for climate scientists

February 20, 2010

[I wrote this short post a while ago for a different venue, but then it didn’t come together. Obama’s “lion’s den” moment seems a distant memory by now, but the lesson for climate scientists remains apt]

President Obama has been applauded for his recent trip “into the lion’s den” to address republicans and take their questions two days after his State of the Union address. I enjoyed listening to the hour-long debate, which was respectful, intelligent, and engaging. As Maureen Dowd put it, “our government did not look quite so lame.” This particular comment (at about 50:45 in the video) caught my attention:

We’ve gotta be careful about what we say about each other sometimes. Because it boxes us in in ways that make it difficult for us to work together, because our constituents start believing us…. A tone of civility, instead of slash and burn, would be helpful.

This simple observation has some very useful lessons for climate scientists. If you represent your detractors as uniformly and completely evil, then you can never work with them. You can never even admit that they’re right on minor points.

The mentality Obama describes is what led to CRU scientists withholding data from people they branded as skeptics. There was too much of a risk that these individuals would come up with some legitimate claims. In the slash-and-burn world, the legitimacy of the other side is unthinkable.

It also helps to explain why the IPCC’s chairman, Rajendra Pachauri, reacted so arrogantly to the assertions of flaws in its statements on Himalayan glaciers. In the slash-and-burn mentality, you can never give an inch. There is no give and take.

And what’s more, this mindset means that when legitimate concerns arise, such as errors in the reporting of glacier melt, disaster losses, amazon rainfall, and mountain ice, your only recourse is to vilify the messengers.

How can science proceed in this toxic environment?

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