The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) may soon be required by federal law to base its policies on actual science — and of course environmentalists are livid about it.
Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas) reintroduced a bill known as the Secret Science Reform Act that would prohibit the EPA from “proposing, finalizing, or disseminating regulations or assessments based on science that is not transparent or reproducible.” The bill was originally introduced in 2014 though it did not clear all congressional hurdles. Barack Obama — our most super-sciencey president ever — vowed to veto it if ever reached his desk.
I’ve honestly tried to understand what kind of objection any sane human being could possibly have to this bill and I think I’ve discovered what it is. Are you ready? If the EPA has to be transparent, it can’t operate. That’s it.
Don’t believe me? Here’s the opening sentence from an oppositional op-ed by Dianna Wray of Houston Press:
A lot Republicans hate the Environmental Protection Agency, but have left it to San Antonio Republican Representative Lamar Smith to come up with a bill that, if passed, could actually stop the agency from doing just about anything.
Oh, I see — if it weren’t for secret science, the EPA wouldn’t have any science at all. According to Wray, if they can’t hide their data and refuse to show their calculations they’ll be “crippled.” There’s just one problem with this idea — secret science is a contradiction in terms. Science isn’t science if its results can’t be held up for inspection, judged worthy or unworthy, and accepted, refined, or rejected. If a theory is too delicate to withstand the heat and pressure of scrutiny, it doesn’t deserve anyone’s acceptance.
Legally speaking, the word science was defined in McLean v. Arkansas (1982), a famous court case that exiled creation science from public schools. Judge William Overton found that creation science was not science at all because it failed a five-prong test. According to his decision genuine science must:
1) be guided by natural law;
2) be explanatory by reference to natural law;
3) be testable against the empirical world;
4) have conclusions that are tentative, i.e. are not necessarily the final word; and
5) be falsifiable.
Anything that fails even one of these prongs cannot rightly be called science. That’s a high standard. Some might call it too high, though that would depend on whose theory is being put to the test. Nonetheless, the McLean test has value. Ideas that don’t live up it cannot legitimately be called scientific. Whether they’re true or not is another question entirely.
The McLean test is so valuable in fact that I see no reason why it shouldn’t be applied at all levels of government and to all ideas deemed scientific. After all, if a particular idea is considered junk science in the classroom, what good is it for policy-making?
Requiring the EPA and the rest of the federal government to adhere to the McLean test would yield some interesting results. For example, would the theory of global warming be able to pass the McLean test? Not by a long shot. Global warming fails at least the third, fourth, and fifth prongs. It fails the third because its data sets are closely guarded secrets and it appears to have absolutely no predicative capability. It fails the fourth because “the science is settled” — that is, it is beyond discussion. It fails the fifth because it cannot be proven wrong — everything proves global warming, including cold snaps and blizzards.
And when you get down to it, global warming is what this whole EPA controversy is really about. Though the EPA deals in other realms as well — water pollutants, etc. — global warming is really the environmental movement’s touchstone. Within that movement there seems to be a certain uneasiness that their theory might crumble like a house of cards if it weren’t constantly shielded from scrutiny. Though fanatically dedicated to the idea that man-made carbon emissions are causing the earth to warm, these true believers evince a telltale insecurity that it might not be true after all.
One such true believer is Dr. Phil Jones, formerly of the Climate Research Unit (CRU) in England. He’s an all-around hack who does his work under cover of darkness, then just expects everyone to accept his findings as unvarnished truth. For a period of years Jones was engaged in an ongoing feud with two Canadians named Steve McIntyre and Ross McKitrick, who offered to check the calculations behind the now disgraced “hockey stick” graph that purported to show a rapid spike in global temperatures during the 20th century. Jones did everything in his power to resist McIntyre’s and McKitrick’s requests for data. “[McIntyre and McKitrick] have been after the CRU station data for years,” wrote Jones in a 2005 email to a friend. “If they ever hear there is a Freedom of Information Act now in the UK, I think I’ll delete the file rather than send to anyone.”
That would be a crime of course, but that’s how far Jones was willing to go to keep his data secret. And when I say “his data” I don’t mean to imply that they’re his personal property. Actually, British and American taxpayers paid for them but we aren’t allowed to see them because Jones worries what those evil science-haters might do with them — such as proving him wrong, for example.
This seems to be a pattern with Jones and some of his colleagues. When Jones was asked by science researcher Warwick Hughes to provide his data, Jones refused, claiming that some of the data were deemed confidential by their source, the World Meteorological Organization (WMO). Why temperature data should be locked up like the recipe for Coca-Cola is truly baffling, but apparently that’s just how pervasive secret science has become. Hughes then inquired directly with the WMO and was given the cold shoulder, after which he returned to Jones. Jones curtly replied to Hughes’s request: “Even if WMO agrees, I will still not pass on the data. We have 25 or so years invested in the work. Why should I make the data available to you, when your aim is to try and find something wrong with it[?]” (Emphasis added.)
Hearing those words from the mouth a scientist makes me wonder if science is dead. If all Hughes was trying to do was to “find something wrong” with Jones’s pet theory, he was in fact doing Jones a favor. And it is Jones’s pet theory. His comment about having “25 or so years invested” gives us a clue as to his prejudices. His life’s work is at stake here. Though science demands that he try to disprove his own theory, and invite others to try their hand as well, he just can’t bring himself to do it. He’s “invested” too much to allow that to happen.
Now I’m sure that Jones would say that he doesn’t want to allow people of bad faith to take a whack at his theory. For example, Steve McIntyre is — gasp! — a mining consultant. Surely he has an agenda.
Sure, he probably does. But even if his “agenda” is to debunk the theory, that’s actually an essential part of the scientific process. Dr. Jones doesn’t see it that way of course because his own agenda — protecting the theory at all costs — clouds his judgement. Jones sees McIntyre, McKitrick et al as people who are doing the devil’s work when they try poke holes in his theory. He doesn’t want to allow them the opportunity to do so. In such cases he considers it permissible to operate in secret and treat skeptical review — an essential ingredient of science — like heresy. Isn’t that the way science is supposed to work?
Actually, no. The demands that science makes upon a theory are not waived just because a scientist suspects that those who disagree with him have ill motives. That’s a horrible precedent. It can only lead to a situation in which only people who already subscribe to the theory are allowed to test it. This necessarily corrupts the peer-review process, transforming it into buddy-review — a very poor substitute indeed.
I should stress here there was once a time when I too believed in the theory of global warming, though only because I was not aware of the controversy. Even at this late stage in the game I could still be sold on it, but it will require evidence — plus a satisfactory explanation for why the scientific process was betrayed in the first place. I’m not taking this theory on faith, and that is exactly what defenders of secret science demand.