Commentary

The Politicization of Science Is Undermining the Credibility of Academia

In a recent and wonderful New York Times essay, John Tierney documented the pervasive left-leaning bias of the social sciences in particular and academia in general, which he persuasively painted as the home of tired ideological groupthink. No doubt his essay was an eye-opener for anyone without much experience in the ivy morass, even as it came up short in its search for causation.

There is a dangerous synergy between the academy’s attitudes and what is permitted or proscribed in our scientific journals. An interesting example is in the February 4th issue of Science, the nation’s most prestigious technical magazine and the flagship of scientists’ Washington lobby, the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

The mixing of politics and science, particularly with respect to climate change, has been spilling onto Science’s pages for decades now, but no more blatantly than in the recent paper by Ulf Büntgen of the Swiss Federal Research Institute and 11 coauthors.

The conflation of political agendas with science is destroying the credibility of academia, with the complicity of the editors of our major scientific journals.”

This paper is one of many reviving the grizzled ghost of climatic determinism, an idea that originated in the 19th century, which attempts to explain complex social phenomena with simple phenomena like average temperature. For example, proponents of this theory argued that mean annual temperature is why colder regions were industrialized democracies, while the tropics were torpid and despotic. The story went (I am not making this up) that people at low latitudes can just laze around in hammocks and don’t have to go very far to find fruit, while people closer to the poles have to develop economies that coax food from the ground. This is only slightly racist, and climatic determinism went into hibernation as people realized that crank scientific theories have a way of developing into mass murder.

In the Büntgen et al. article, climatic determinism is the cause of good times, bad times, and wars. The core of the paper is a graphic showing tree-ring reconstructed summer temperature and spring precipitation in central Europe for the last 2,500 years. Superimposed upon the figures are what the authors feel are salubrious times, given as the Late Iron age, the Roman Empire and the Medieval period, as well as bad ones. These include the “migration period” from 1,700 to 1,400 years ago, and the “modern migration” of the 19th century. Apparently people came to the U.S. because temperatures in Europe were a degree lower than average, rather than in search of economic and political freedom.

Looking at Figure 4 in the paper, it’s pretty clear that when it was warm in central Europe, times were peachy (literally), and when it was chilly there were wars, pestilences and other bad things.

This didn’t stop the authors from making a blatant political plea — completely unsupported by the results — nor did it prevent the editors from writing it out. Remember that this is a paper in which warm periods are good times. That notwithstanding, we read:

The historical association of precipitation and temperature variation with population migration and settlement desertion in Europe may provide a basis for questioning the recent political and fiscal reluctance to mitigate projected climate change.

Imagine if they had concluded, “Such historical data may provide a basis for the support of the recent political and financial reluctance to mitigate projected climate change,” which in fact is what it does! Tierney’s analysis predicts that would have been severely criticized as a bad example of using science for political purposes.

The process is synergistic and self-fulfilling. Periodicals like Science are what academia uses to define the current truth. But the monolithic leftward inclination of the reviewing community clearly permits one interpretation (even if not supported by the results) and not another. This type of blatant politicized science is becoming the norm in the environmental arena, and probably has infiltrated most every other discipline, too.

The conflation of political agendas with science is destroying the credibility of academia, with the complicity of the editors of our major scientific journals.

Patrick J. Michaels is Senior Fellow in Environmental Studies at the Cato Institute and editor of Climate Coup: Global Warming’s Invasion of Our Government and Our Lives, forthcoming in April.