Michael Slate Interviews Scientist Peter Gleick

“When you take bad science or you ignore science all together to push an ideological point of view, we’re in deep trouble.”

March 27, 2017 | Revolution Newspaper | revcom.us


Michael Slate: We’re going to be talking with Peter Gleick, the leading scientist on global, water and climate issues and co-founder of the Pacific Institute in Oakland. He recently wrote about why scientists should be in the streets protesting the policies of the Trump regime both in the Climate March on April 29, 2017 and the March for Science on April 22, Earth Day. I’m really pleased to welcome Peter to the show. Peter, welcome back, man.

Peter Gleick: Hey, Michael. Thanks for having me on.

Michael Slate: Sure. Well, let’s jump into this, man. You wrote an article in Wired and you talked about the uninhibited use of lies, false statements, blatant and intentional misrepresentations of facts and bad science. You gave as one of the examples Scott Pruitt’s denial of the role of greenhouse gases in climate change and you had examples of all kinds of things that are wrong with that and why this question is so important. What are you seeing and why is it alarming?

Peter Gleick: Well, oh-boy, there’s so much there we could talk about. I’m a scientist by training. I work on global water issues. I work on climate change and have for 30+ years. Science is sort of at my heart. I think without good science, you don’t get good policy. And without a doubt, we’re witnessing a war on science at the federal level. It’s sort of unprecedented, the kinds of things that we’re seeing. The denial of science, the promotion of and I don’t even want to call them alternative facts because facts don’t have anything to do with it, with the promotion of lies on the state of the world, attacks on the budgets of fundamental science activities at the federal level—it just goes on and on. I think your listeners probably know about all of this. And so I wrote this column. I’m a scientist but I’m also a citizen. As your listeners may know, there are a couple of marches planned. There’s a science march coming up on Earth Day, April 22. There’s a climate march coming up a week later on the 29th and I just felt—look, as a citizen, as someone who cares about facts and science and the creation of public policy, I just felt that I ought to be on the streets protesting what we see around us.

Michael Slate: There’s this whole point of facts and alternative facts—and it is a big thing epistemologically, the promotion of the very wrong idea that nothing can ever be known with any certainty. To me, that’s an extremely dangerous position that’s being pushed out on people and that people actually take up spontaneously.

Peter Gleick: Yeah. So first of all, I don’t like the term, “alternative facts." Let’s just call them “lies.” You know, they’re not facts. Either it’s a fact or it isn’t. About this issue of certainty, you know, science is a funny thing. We all use science every day. We use the products of science. We use the facts to go by science. Scientists talk about uncertainty. That’s part of what we do, because part of science is understanding what we know, how well we know it and what the role of what we call “uncertainty” is, but that’s a funny term. When a scientist says something is “uncertain,” the scientist means there’s range of possibilities. But when the public hears the word, “uncertain,” they think, “Oh look; you guys don’t really know what you’re talking about.” So, we have to be careful as scientists in how we communicate what we know and what we don’t know. Let’s take climate change as an example. There’s uncertainty about how fast climate is changing and what the specifics of some of the impacts will be, but we, the scientific community, know the climate’s changing. We know humans are responsible. So the deniers of climate change say, “Well, look, you don’t know everything with perfect certainty, so we shouldn’t be doing anything.” That’s a different message and it’s one that—you know, scientists take a little bit of blame for not being great communicators. But let me communicate. We know the climate’s changing. We know that humans are responsible. And we know the consequences are going to be bad. What we choose to do about climate change is a policy question and our politicians ought to address it. But they’re not addressing it because they’re pretending. They’re hiding behind this “uncertainty” about the precision about what’s going to happen and when.

Michael Slate: There’s another question I know you’ve spoken to before— this whole idea, or this whole occurrence in these days of ideology trumping science, of people looking for some way to fit things into their ideological view and not looking at the world and reality and what needs to be done.

Peter Gleick: Yeah, that’s exactly right. So, when I said earlier that you can’t have good policy without good science, look, there’s plenty of times where good science is presented to policy makers and they consider it and they choose to make a policy that’s different than what a scientist might prefer. That you know, that’s ok. That’s the way politics works. But when you take bad science or you ignore science all together to push an ideological point of view, then we’re in deep trouble. And again, let’s go back to climate change for a minute. Look, if Congress and our politicians were to say, “Ok. I understand that the climate’s changing. I understand that there’s a critical human role here, but I don’t think we ought to have a tax on carbon. I don’t think we ought to have a cap and trade policy to deal with it”—that’s ok. That’s a political decision. As a scientist I would respect that debate. I might not agree with it, but I would respect it. But that’s not the debate we’re having. We’re avoiding at the political level the debate about climate change, because politicians are hiding behind the ideology of, “I don’t want government involved in this. I don’t want to pay for the scientific research that’s going to [get a] win for my decision-making”. That’s a very, very dangerous place to be.

Michael Slate: A big part of it is actually also the creation of, you know, supposed science that actually would support this ideological position and threatening scientists who challenge any of that. And I know you wrote about McCarthyism and science—this whole idea that’s there an element of McCarthyism and the witch hunts against scientists who don’t go along with the program. Let’s talk about that a little.

Peter Gleick: Well, that’s right. So, it’s bad enough if we don’t fund research that’s critical to our well-being. It’s bad enough if Congress doesn’t even look at the science behind some of the things they have to deal with. But it gets worse than that when you have, for example, the House Committee on Science and Technology, which is run by very anti-science ideologues at the moment, in my opinion, who are launching personal attacks on scientists and demanding emails and criticizing the individuals themselves rather than the science. That harkens back to McCarthyism. That harkens back to when Congress attacked people for ideological reasons rather than for factual reasons. Again, I think this is a throwback to days that we hoped were long gone, but that this administration has brought back to the fore.

One of the things that makes America great, frankly, is our unbelievably fantastic science— the university system, the federal labs, the research organizations that get some federal support. And frankly, I work for a non-profit research institute. We get almost zero federal monies, so that gives me a little bit of flexibility for me to speak my mind here, without worrying about retribution. But that’s not true for a lot of scientists that are very vulnerable to funding, that don’t get credit if they weigh in on policy issues. That’s a real problem. But let me give you some examples. You know, the federal research budget was just released a couple of days ago, and here are some numbers. So, NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) research office is facing more than a 50 percent cut in their budget. The EPA’s (Environmental Protection Agency) R & D [Research and Development] office is facing a 50 percent cut in their budget. The Department of Energy, energy programs are facing a 45 percent cut in their budget. The National Institutes of Health is facing a 20 percent―$6 billion cut in their budget. They’re talking about completely eliminating some of the satellite programs that provide weather forecasting. I mean it. I could go on and on. The research budgets are proposed to be eviscerated  at the federal level. Now, there are state budgets that support research. California is very fortunate in providing research money. There are non-profit organizations that get money from foundations, so there’s plenty of research that will continue to go on. But if we’re going to cut our federal research budgets this badly, we’re going to lose standing, we’re going to lose information. We’re going to close our eyes to threats that face us. You know, I don’t know what Congress will ultimately do with this budget. Hopefully, some of these budget cuts will be restored. But I think we’re going to have to fight for research at the federal level.

There’s plenty of science that’s not done in the public interest, but federal funding for science is often done in the public interest. And if we lose that there will still be corporate research, and not all corporate research is bad. Some of it has produced some incredibly great things. But that had better not be the only research that is funded in the United States or we’re heading down a rabbit hole that we don’t want to go down, in my opinion.

Let me tell you something else about the way science works. When someone publishes bad science, which happens. You know, science goes through peer review but there’s a sort of an explosion of crappy journals now that will publish anything. But when somebody publishes bad science, there’s another scientist out there that will figure that out and will publish something that will look at it. “That doesn’t make sense. That’s not true”. And bad science doesn’t survive for long. You know, this stuff about vaccinations, for example. There was one paper published in England in a journal about vaccinations were linked to autism and that paper turned out to be bad science. And it was retracted by the journal eventually, when other scientists stepped up and said, “No, no, this doesn’t make sense. All of the data show the opposite”. That’s what happens to science over time. You do get bad science, but other scientists ultimately will step up and say, “Wait. Our results don’t show that” and it doesn’t survive for long.

Michael Slate: Just one last thing. The bad news on the climate just keeps coming faster and faster. 2016 was the hottest year on record. The Arctic Ice Sheet is melting really fast. The coral reefs are all dying. Damn.... Give the listeners a brief update if you could.

Peter Gleick: Ok, it’s bad news. The climate is changing and your listeners probably get this, mostly. The climate is changing. It is undeniable—not that it’s not denied by someone out there. But it’s undeniable that the climate is changing. It is undeniable that humans are responsible. The science is very clear. And it’s undeniable that the impacts are going to be very severe. This is agreed on by every national academy of science on the planet. It’s disputed by climate deniers who have their own agendas. But look around us. Look at the temperature records. Look at what’s happening in the Arctic. Look at the rising oceans. Look at the horrible coral death that’s happening in the Great Barrier Reef in Australia and elsewhere. We see it in Florida. Look at the changes in extreme events, the floods and droughts around the world. The evidence is pretty clear. Now, we can ignore that evidence. We can do nothing about it. But what’s happening on the planet is going to happen whether we deny it or not. The longer we deny it and the longer we don’t take action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the worse it’s going to be for us and for our children and our grandchildren.

Michael Slate: Now, we’re going to end with this, Peter. There’s a quote from you—It says: “But when the time comes to speak, to stand up those of us who can must do so. That time has come.” And I’d say, in triple.

Peter Gleick: Read the First Amendment of the Constitution and that’s why I’m gonna be on the streets on the 22nd of April and the 29th of April.

Michael Slate: Alright, Peter Gleick. Thank you very much today for joining us, man.

Peter Gleick: Alright. Thanks for having me.






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