“Open Science,” “Climate Change,” “Transparency,” “Trust,” and the “Internet Age”

Anyone about to cheer The Wall Street Journal‘s giving Evgeny Morozov a platform to speak will revert to their usual outrage at Rupert Murdoch’s flagship publication in today’s remarkable op-ed by “media and information industry advisor and executive” and former WSJ publisher L. Gordon Crovitz published under the heading: “Climate Change and Open Science: In the Internet Age, Transparency Is the Foundation of Trust.”

I’m not going to talk about climate change here (mostly), but want to point out the clear instances of computationalist rhetoric for neoliberal purposes in the op-ed, evidenced in that amazing subtitle.

Crovitz concludes his screed with this fuller articulation of what comes about as close to true newspeak as one can imagine:

The lesson of the chill of the global-warming consensus is this: Those who want to persuade others of the truth as they see it need to make their case as transparently as possible. Technology enables access to information and leads us to expect open debates, conducted honestly and in full view.

Sounds great, right? But in what godforsaken sense has the climate change debate been about transparency, honesty, or openness? The “Climate Change Debate,” in my rough estimation, consists of tens of thousands of university scientists, on the one hand, doing direct climate research on their own very limited research dollars and publishing their work, for the most part in peer-reviewed journals; and on the other hand a much larger group of people who devote their full time to debunking the work of the first group, who are funded at a rate of at least 10x that of the scientists, and who for the most part do no primary research but simply try to poke holes in the research of the other group–and this effort is so non-scientific that instead of explaining how and in what way the theories they don’t like are wrong, based not just on reviews of literature but competing research results, the goal is to dismiss all the work of the scientists by finding minor errors in the published work.

For example: if someone publishes an errant claim that the Himalayas will be free of snow in 50 years, a scientific critique would include direct examination of the primary claim and an adjustment to the facts, so that we would say: “no, only 80% of the snow will be lost in 50 years” and/or, “all the snow will be gone in 100 years,” or “the snow isn’t melting at all,” or whatever. you don’t get to say the whole thing is not even worth considering just because you find a minor flaw in some of the sourcing for the original claim; that isn’t science, it’s something much more like cultural criticism, of which I’m a big fan, but i don’t use it to argue about sea level.

Now about openness and computers, two vital points: in fact, many of the absolutely most critical issues in the world today that impact this issue are absolutely closed: we have for decades been fighting a largely losing battle to extract accurate data from public corporations about their damaging environmental practices; information about what china is doing to its environment is virtually non-existent; the practices of the AGW crowd itself are highly secretive, unlike the scientists (who have to publish in peer-review journals to get tenure & funding, etc.). So Crovitz’s claim that the debate has been “conducted honestly and in full view” is just a lie–among the most critical parts of the debate, namely the strategic development of propaganda campaigns meant to destroy climate change theory whether it is right or not; the practices of these groups include, for example, deliberately targeted rewriting of over 5000 Wikipedia articles by an industry shill.

Second, many of the other most critical issues in the world are almost entirely closed, including those most prized by WSJ-types themselves. Corporate knowledge is totally owned; the WSJ view is that corporations should be able to operate completely without restrictions, up to and including fraudulent practices. One of the most obvious areas of concern is the development of pharmaceuticals and petrochemicals, about which the wsj position is no regulation whatsoever. in fact, it is kind of startling for WSJ to be arguing for “openness” at all here, since its basic economic position is that the central actors in society (which for them is the market) have the right to be absolutely closed with regard to almost all their practices. and one needs look at no example more striking than the financial industry itself, in which huge amounts of data about the recent crisis are kept far beyond our reach, and even that of regulators.

So what’s the openness rhetoric doing here? I think it’s doing what it usually does: providing cover.

Trust? Who’s zooming who?

Appendix: the article itself was so infuriating that i made a comment under my own Real Name, reproduced below:

I want to back up and put this very simply.

Thesis: The climate change argument is that we are making changes to our environment drastic enough to cause large-scale catastrophes, and that we should try to minimize these changes to reduce the chance of catastrophe.

Each side is arguing that the other side is about to make a huge mistake (believing a theory that turns out to be wrong–climate change, or AGW). These can be described in two scenarios.

Scenario 1: The thesis is (mostly) wrong, but we act as if it’s right; suppose that 50 years from now, we have made significant changes to our world involving shifts to green energy, less deforestation, less pollution in general, and scientists reach a “reliable conclusion” that climate change would never have happened.

Scenario 2: The thesis is (mostly) right, but we act as if it’s wrong: in the next 50 years, we experience an accelerating series of catastrophes, and the science builds up more and more that we could have done something about it.

I find Scenario 2 much more frightening, and I do not see the terrible problems with Scenario 1. Furthermore, since one way of understanding the advice given is to REDUCE POLLUTION, something that I am very happy for wherever it’s happened (can we even use the word “pollution” any more?), I do not see the direct harm of taking the risk.

Furthermore, from my reading, many insurance companies, among the purest forms of market-based knowledge there is (which I would expect WSJ readers to rely on even above science), appear to also be finding that the risk of Scenario 2 outweighs the risk of Scenario 1. You can argue that they’ve been brainwashed by climate science, but it seems to me that is second-guessing a source of knowledge which free marketeers rarely question.

And frankly, I will be much happier to be alive 50 years from now with egg on my face, in a world with less pollution than we have today, rather than seeing what Scenario 2 looks like.

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