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I Don’t Trust You

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During a town meeting, Senator Claire McCaskill (D-MO) asked her constituents, “You don’t trust me?” They did not. Not about health care, not about the economy, not about global warming and not about the Cap and Trade bill.

Let’s take a closer look at the big environmental issue. As of June this year, less than half of voters (42%) believe humans are the cause of global warming, and only one in five (19%) believe the climate change bill passed by the House will help the economy. In the same month, another survey replicated these findings, but also asked scientists themselves what they think.  Not quite 6 out of 7 (84%) of scientists say the earth is getting warmer because of human activity. The public doesn’t buy it.

It isn’t just the public’s trust that has failed. Consider the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) scientist/economist, Dr. Alan Carlin, a MIT-trained economist, with a degree in physics from the California Institute of Technology. In March, he co-wrote a 98-page paper that noted, “We do not believe that science is writing a description of the world or the opinions of world authorities on a particular subject … The question in our view is not what someone believes, but how what he or she believes corresponds with real world data.”

The public sense is that money and political power have corrupted science, and some scientists agree. Unhappily, we have a recent example in Virginia.
On July 31, 2009, scientists published a report on a five-year study of oyster-restoration techniques in Chesapeake Bay. The Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS) conducted the study and worked in conjunction with the U.S. Corp of Engineers. The big finding:  The VIMS and Corps effort was producing 100 to 500 times as many oysters as normal Chesapeake Bay reefs – productivity equal to reefs of centuries past.

Two weeks later, on August 16th, the Virginia Marine Resources Commission (VMRC) and local oystermen stuck a pin in the VIMS/Corps balloon. “State regulators and seafood industry leaders are attacking a new report that touts a breakthrough in Chesapeake Bay oyster restoration. They say the report’s authors, three local scientists, published misleading data in an attempt to secure millions of dollars in public money to advance their research.”

Money, really the source of the money and the competition for money – it may not skew the actual scientific process, but it can result in skewed reporting of results, especially media reports.  Fundamentally, the competition for grants or political power destroys trust in scientists.

As for oysters, I don’t know who to trust on this story because I haven’t read the science in detail. Keep in mind, the VMRC (the Commission) and the VIMS/Corps team (the Institute) compete for a shrinking pool of federal money for oyster restoration, hence an unwillingness to trust either one.
This isn’t the only instance where money and politics has had too much sway.

There was a time when State Climatologists were revered as neutral scientists and they were to be listened to, not lectured. Then climate change politics arrived, replacing science with faith-based pronouncements of gloom and doom. In the summer of 2007, Professor Patrick J. Michaels, the longtime state climatologist for Virginia, finally threw in the towel. Michaels retired after saying the position had become too politicized for him to function.

More recently, the Governor’s Climate Change Commission refused to examine the status of the underlying climate science, depending instead on politically acceptable out of date international reports. The Commission even refused to allow a letter from the minority within the Commission that wished to at least draw attention to questions about the science and the economics upon which the Commission had to rely in order to make reliable recommendations. In so doing, the Commission destroyed the public’s trust.

So, what do we do?

It’s time to establish a science court – a real one that is paid to be neutral and is staffed by scientists and analysts that have absolutely no connection to a political party, sources of scientific funding, institutions that receive these grants, activists of any persuasion or any other source of influence. If you ever worked for, or been funded by one of these sources of influence, you don’t get to be on the court. We need an independent body headed by a professional director with a long term, and not subject to the whims of a politician. Professionals who can’t be fired without just cause, people who stand apart from the politics and the competition for money.

A Governor that wants to gain the public trust, that wants the public to trust his scientific agencies, that wants the public to trust his decisions on public budget decisions involving energy, the environment and other scientific and analysis-based investments – that Governor would appoint a science court and would make them entirely independent of political influence.

It’s time again for someone to gain the confidence to say “I trust you.”

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