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Politics and 'An Inconvenient Truth' 630

Frogbeater writes "The producer of 'An Inconvenient Truth' is accusing the National Science Teachers Association of being in the pocket of Big Oil because she can't get preferential treatment for her film. The entire situation is turning into a 'if you're not with us, you're against us' yelling match. Regardless of the viewpoint, is it even possible that science can remain apolitical? Has it ever been?" The Washington Post makes things out to be less than above board: "In the past year alone, according to its Web site, Exxon Mobil's foundation gave $42 million to key organizations that influence the way children learn about science, from kindergarten until they graduate from high school ... NSTA's list of corporate donors also includes Shell Oil and the American Petroleum Institute (API), which funds NSTA's Web site on the science of energy. There, students can find a section called 'Running on Oil' and read a page that touts the industry's environmental track record -- citing improvements mostly attributable to laws that the companies fought tooth and nail, by the way -- but makes only vague references to spills or pollution. NSTA has distributed a video produced by API called 'You Can't Be Cool Without Fuel,' a shameless pitch for oil dependence."
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Politics and 'An Inconvenient Truth'

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  • by UbuntuDupe ( 970646 ) * on Tuesday November 28, 2006 @11:02AM (#17016362) Journal
    -Hypothetical: Let's say you run a business, and people start making what you believe to be baseless accusations about the environmental impact of your business. What do you do? NO, WAIT: You can't fund anyone who tries to scientifically demonstrate the invalidity of the accusations, because that taints the research, right?

    -I remember seeing in science class a movie produced by Exxon about the Valdez oil spill. While it was propaganda, I also remember the teacher pointing out all the flaws and telling everyone that it was Exxon's propaganda. "Oh, look at this part, where they act like everything's all peachy now."

    -Oh, so *now* you care about teachers' associations getting political. Just not when they oppose any whiff of school choice.

    -Should no research into oil be funded by oil companies? Even basic research into hydrocarbon chemistry? That seems to be the implication.

    -To answer the question: yes, science can remain apolitical, as long as it rigidly adheres to the scientfic principles of reproducibility and transparency. That's what makes science science: Even if someone refuses to believe you, it doesn't matter. Other people can perform their own corroborating experiments. Even if someone believes it to be all voodoo, you can then go out and continue to make valid predictions that result in useful services. And then anyone is free to propose alternate theories that match the data better.

    When the above isn't possible, science can become political. When you can't make a thousand copies of the earth, causally separate them, randomly vary emissions, wait a hundred years, and run a regression, people have all the room the in world to reject your theories since it can't have the repeated empirical validation science relies on. When you can't engineer an entire planet's existence, start a weather system, wait a billion years, and see complex organisms evolve, you again don't have the repeated empirical validation science relies on. BEFORE YOU FLAME ME OR MOD ME DOWN, I'm not trying to dispute global warming or evolution, but rather, just pointing that you can't come up with the plain-as-day prediction and validation you can in other areas.
  • by Billly Gates ( 198444 ) on Tuesday November 28, 2006 @11:13AM (#17016540) Journal
    A decade ago while I was in highschool I saw the film believe it or not but the teacher had the courage to tell us that Exxon had invested in the movie before we watched it. It went on how great the ecosystems were and despite the oil spill Alaska had the best salmon catch in history the following spring. THe teacher mentioned that this was an actually bad thing as those on the top of the food chain were negatively affected. Also we all laughed while the film had a diagram of most of the oil evaporating and doing little harm in Valdez. What was bad was that Exxon was not mentioned in the credits at all. Only the wetlands coalition as a major sponsor.

    For those who do not know, the wetlands coalition is madeup of oil and gas companies despite the decietful name.
  • by UbuntuDupe ( 970646 ) * on Tuesday November 28, 2006 @11:15AM (#17016576) Journal
    That's my point -- you don't need their approval. You make predictions routinely. They are correct routinely. You apply these predictions to perform something useful routinely, that maybe this zealot actually uses routinely! What does it matter if he does or doesn't endorse it? The fact that you are performing a useful service (predicting the fall of objects, building structures, etc.) suffices as evidence that the science is valid enough for those services to be performed (by tautology).

    When you have no service to perform that relies on this science, then you have no real-world check.
  • by defile ( 1059 ) on Tuesday November 28, 2006 @11:18AM (#17016638) Homepage Journal

    This is real inconvenient for left-wing environmentalist nuts (all of them live in cities, obviously, which are the least environmental of surroundings imaginable, but hey, let's just disregard that).

    I guess by "least environmental of surroundings" you could mean that there aren't any lush forests, but while they are soul crushing, living in New York City is a more energy efficient way to live according to _York_City []:

    New York's uniquely high rate of public transit use and its pedestrian-friendly character make it one of the most energy-efficient cities in the country. Gasoline consumption in New York City is at the rate where the national average was in the 1920s.
  • by moheezy ( 1032844 ) on Tuesday November 28, 2006 @11:20AM (#17016666)
    1: As Gore points out in the movie, most of the "scientists" who don't believe in Global Warming are either those who have no right to speak(Non-Ecologists) or are astroturfing. 2: Actually, you might want to look into Fusion and even Solar power. 3: You crying about their crying about Global Warming *also* does nothing for the current situation. 4: I remember reading this somewhere but A disk a couple of miles wide in diameter between the Sun & Earth(LaGrange Point) will produce enough energy to power the world. Just a thought.
  • Re:Hey, dummies! (Score:5, Interesting)

    by SatanicPuppy ( 611928 ) * <.Satanicpuppy. .at.> on Tuesday November 28, 2006 @11:22AM (#17016728) Journal
    Sure, because all science education is beneficial to the oil companies.

    All companies act in their own interests, and while oil companies need geologists, etc, they also stand to make a hell of a lot of money on increased consumption of their product. When oil prices spike, that's the oil companies making more for the exact same quantity sold. At the same time, if they can discredit this or that research that says they should be forced to implement this or that safeguard, that lowers their operating costs. Likewise research about atmospheric carbon; if people take that seriously and start putting an extra tax on gasoline to lower the consumption, that's the oil companies seeing a drop in sales.

    In their ideal world, we'll stay addicted to their product until the last drop is sold. Any science that threatens that, they're going to work like hell to discredit.
  • by bill_mcgonigle ( 4333 ) * on Tuesday November 28, 2006 @11:32AM (#17016894) Homepage Journal
    This is a good read about environmentalism as a religion, a speech by Michael Crichton to the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco in 2005.

    Before the crowd starts jumping up and down, his speech contains errors. So does An Inconvenient Truth. But his theme has merit - science should stand alone whereas Al Gore asks people to pray for environmental change.

    We really need to teach schoolchildren facts, the skills to consider and weigh evidence, and enough wisdom to know when someone is blowing smoke up their dresses. An Inconvenient Truth isn't the right tool for scientific education, though it's a great propaganda piece, artfully assembled, and gets some things right. A proper school curriculum can cover all of the things Gore gets right, and then the things that he's omitted for 'time', e.g. solar activity and global warming on other planets, the effect of water vapor on the greenhouse effect, natural cycles of warming/cooling, etc..

    Let's not assume our children are too dumb to learn about science or think like scientists.

    They can then spend some time teaching the children about ways to conserve resources, get towards carbon-neutral economies, and cut back on their own energy uses. These things will have real environmental and economic benefits but only millions of small impacts, no big splashes which work out nicely for Big-Media political coverage.

    The conspiracy theorists are going to have a heck of a time, though, reconciling the fact that the NEA isn't lapping up the film from a guy who will be a Democratic contender in '08.
  • by fistfullast33l ( 819270 ) on Tuesday November 28, 2006 @11:32AM (#17016896) Homepage Journal

    That's my point -- you don't need their approval. You make predictions routinely. They are correct routinely.

    The problem with this argument is that you assume your predictions come true the majority of the time. In many cases, environmental science especially, this assumption is not true. So what happens when you make your predictions and those predictions are wrong? While I think that his book on environmental theory was a bit of a sham, Michael Crichton definitely had a good idea when he proposed that scientists should be separated from donors - all research grants should either be anonymous or via the government, which as NASA and NOAA [] would attest, is never biased.

  • by Dachannien ( 617929 ) on Tuesday November 28, 2006 @11:34AM (#17016936)
    When I graduated high school years ago, our Chemistry II class used a college-level textbook. The education I got from that class was good enough that I sailed through freshman Chemistry in college.

    The year after I graduated, I went back to visit a few teachers I considered to be friends, including the chemistry teacher. She told me with some disgust that the school board had decided to replace the chemistry textbooks for both Chem I and II, and she handed me one of the books so I could see what the problem was. Instead of college-prep chemistry, most of the textbook was filled with text and pictures (rather than equations and homework problems) about protecting the environment. The quality of the actual chemistry education provided in that book was so low that I suspected that many students would have insufficient background for their freshman-level chemistry classes they'd be taking next year.

    In other words, Big Oil isn't the only lobbying group that attempts to influence high school education.

  • Re:I'm SHOCKED (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Psykosys ( 667390 ) on Tuesday November 28, 2006 @11:37AM (#17016998)
    The difference is that the NSTA would reject the KKK film because it's a KKK film. The NSTA's response to the Inconvenient Truth plan suggests that they seriously considered distributing it, but then bowed to financial pressure.
  • Know-Something Party (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Doc Ruby ( 173196 ) on Tuesday November 28, 2006 @11:56AM (#17017378) Homepage Journal
    "Science" is completely "apolitical". It's a-everything, because it's an abstract systematic behavior, not a person.

    Scientists, on the other hand, can't be apolitical. They're humans, so they're going to be political to some degree, even if negligibly. More than two people in any society means politics. But apathy and disenfranchisement are political conditions, especially useful to those with power who make arbitrary decisions for their own reasons.

    American politics does vast amounts of work according to decisions derived from facts about the way the world works. Especially the way that it works physically, as we know from physics, chemistry, biology, even astronomy. Those facts are supposed to determine the decisions we make, and the facts about those facts, to whatever degree of confidence we know we have.

    Scientists are obligated to participate in politics. Not just like any other people in a democracy. But because they don't have the excuse that they don't know what will happen when the politicians do what they say.

    Certainly scientists are much more appropriate to our Constitutional democratic republic than are, say, religious ministers. The Constitution specifically directs the government to "promote science", and specifically prohibits the government for "respecting an establishment of religion". Our government is crawling with religious establishment professionals. While its scientists increasingly get edited, silenced, ignored, fired, scapegoated. Scientists need to organize better to protect their interests in science. And we need them to do so, to protect our interests in science, and in them.

    That's why I recommend people join [] SEA: Scientists and Engineers for America [], even if you're not a scientist (it's free and open). Or join any more specific technical association in your discipline, then vigorously work to make policy hear your science. If you're a scientist, your work is already surely contributing to some corporate political action / lobbying industry. You should make sure that the facts you produce are being represented at least as much as the money you make for them.

    Think of it as an experiment, in a lab made of people. Think of a political hypothesis to describe the way your country works best, then test it with the equipment. Share the results with the rest of us.
  • by wytcld ( 179112 ) on Tuesday November 28, 2006 @12:02PM (#17017472) Homepage
    I'd like to ask those of us who actually socially know a number of scientists: Are your scientist friends political? Frankly, of the scientists I know (I'm not one, but I attend some pretty hard-core conferences every year), very few concern themselves any more with politics than they do with religion - which is to say, hardly at all. Oh, there may be the "politics" of their standing within their university departments, which they grudgingly pay some attention to, or the "politics" of writing grants that the NSF or DARPA or whoever will actually fund their research; but they really are much less concerned with the circus of party politics and posturing than are most of us out here in the "real" world - a world they by preference have left behind to concentrate within their own disciplines.

    One of my friends conducts research in Antartica each year. His research has been misused by CATO and the like, who like that it shows that more snow is falling in certain regions, and ignore that this is consistent with models of overall global warming, instead making happy talk about "more snow!" But even this misappropriation of research doesn't draw my friend into politics. He just accepts that the daily world most of us live in is tainted by trash propaganda, and takes refuge within the circles of his scientific colleagues, for whom truth matters.

    The notion that scientists are all primarily political, slanting their findings for political advantage, is promoted only by those who are trying to deny the findings of science - for political advantage. It comes from both the deconstructionists on the far left, and the neocons on the far right. They'd each love to reduce scientists to their level, so that facts can no longer inconvenience the absolutist ideologies they promote.

    So why are we entertaining this slander of scientists her on Slashdot. I know there are more engineers than scientists here, but are that many of us, as engineers, that removed from the purer realms of science?
  • by friguron ( 895759 ) on Tuesday November 28, 2006 @12:06PM (#17017540) Homepage
    With all respect, solar energy needs to be the future... []
  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday November 28, 2006 @12:11PM (#17017592)
    Not at all.
    In the context of this article, he's saying that corporations skew research and/or "donate" to sympathetic politicians because that is in the best interest of their stockholders -- to obscure any negative information about the corporation or it's activities.

    That's not illegal, and if you had to make every such case illegal (while fighting the same lobby you're trying to outlaw mind you) the books would overflow with special case laws (not that they don't already).

    I believe the point was that corporations should be held to some moral standard, since outlawing every possible antisocial action a corporation can take is a Sisyphean task.
  • by PopeRatzo ( 965947 ) on Tuesday November 28, 2006 @12:30PM (#17018022) Journal
    The latest dishonest meme is that those who don't believe there is global warming are merely expressing their "valid difference of opinion". We see the same nonsense from the Creationists, as if any crackpot pseudoscience is just a valid in the marketplace of ideas as experimentally validated theory that an overwhelming number of scientists hold in accord.

    Further, I've noticed a troubling trend in the community of self-described "conservatives". It now appears that to be considered a conservative, you must predictably hold certain absolute beliefs. For example, if you believe that say, pollution is a bad thing, you are not a conservative. Or, if you believe the Iraq War was a mistake, you cannot possibly be conservative. If you believe that women should be allowed to decide for themselves whether to carry a fetus to term, you're no conservative, yet to be conservative you must believe that all limitations on public smoking or gun ownership are very bad.

    The thing that makes this a problem is you will notice some clear conflicts within these beliefs. Absolutely no regulation on guns, but lots of regulation on abortion. No limitations on smoking, but absolutely no naked breasts in video games.

    I know liberals who are against abortion, who are extremely religious, who smoke like chimneys and who are against pornography. There are even liberals who are in favor of military action in Afghanistan and the removal of Saddam Hussein. But find me a conservative who wavers from the established dogma established by the National Review (Dems are the "Party of Death"!!!) and I'll show you a person who's being singled out as "not a real conservative".

    When you have to hold such dogma in political thought, it means your arguments are weak.
  • by 99BottlesOfBeerInMyF ( 813746 ) on Tuesday November 28, 2006 @12:41PM (#17018262)

    Allow me for one to say that I am sick of the "Christians are anti-science" bullshit that the left loves to harp on while giving the environmental movement a free pass.

    Well, technically, christians, by definition, ascribe to a non-scientific belief or system of beliefs. Environmentalist, however, are by definition advocating a goal, not ascribing to a belief. There are certainly people in both camps that are more or less disposed to adhere to the scientific method, but christians go in with one strike against them.

    I think it is fair to say, however, that a significant number of influential christians are very anti-science. That is not to say that christians in general are, but where you see fundamental attempts to undermine science or legislate behavior that ignores the facts and theories determined by the scientific method, you're often dealing with one religious lobby or another.

    Bickering over what culture has more extreme anti-science elements, however, is useless. It is just a variation of the "at least we're not as bad as china" argument. I think eliminating unscientific arguments at the onset is prerequisite for reasonable decision making. At that point it becomes clear that while there are plenty of unscientific arguments out there, the scientific method does indicate that global warming is happening, at a faster rate than can be explained by any proposed natural causes. The correlative factors that give the most promise for explaining the phenomenon indicate a human action and carbon dioxide emissions are the most probable candidate of all theories thus far proposed. A person acting rationally, therefore, must act with the knowledge that it is the most probable way to effect change and should be addressed as such.

  • by UbuntuDupe ( 970646 ) * on Tuesday November 28, 2006 @12:49PM (#17018414) Journal
    Well, I guess when all else fails, there's the strawman.

    None of the models can tell you with a high degree of certainty what the temperature in a given city will be on a given day, or the average on a given week,

    I didn't set this standard, an in fact, was careful not to. If you follow the advice in my sig, you'll see that what I actually said was "you could parade an endless list: our model predicted this climate change in this region, and this increase this this kind of weather activity." Note the level of generality I was expecting out of the model.

    Most useful scientific models do NOT match reality 100%.

    Another standard I didn't set.

    Elsewhere you're stating my position while thinking you're disagreeing with it.

    (well, you do have to wait a while to find out if the predicted global average temperature for 2006 matches reality, you know what I mean?)

    Yeah, I do know what you mean. Exactly what you mean. You can't claim a model is valid until it's had some ... validation. Like, put your neck on the line, and THEN see if you're right.

    My point was that there is a lot of data you have to gather to claim validation -- data that doesn't exist yet.

    And even though you're dismissing models that accurately predict past events.. they are very good tests for the simulations.

    No, they're not. They're proof that you curve-fitted to the past 80 years. Whether that curve is *right* ... well, that takes future data.

    Data you don't have.

    If you can just get over the emotional reaction of defending your life's work, you'll see that I'm just pointing out the necessary things you have to do to validate the model. Until the model can consistently predict, there's no reason to endorse it, for the same reason you want to wait to actually see planetary motions before endorsing Kepler's theory. It's great if you have a theory for the past data, but true science requires being able to predict the future.

    It's amazing -- I'm just stating basic scientific principles and you're probably going to accuse me of spreading doubt.
  • by flatulus ( 260854 ) on Tuesday November 28, 2006 @12:49PM (#17018420)
    I am a regular Slashdot reader, so I get to see all the "scares" that fly by on a daily basis. What amuses me most is the juxtaposition of "global warming" and "oil depletion".

    Hey - we are running out of oil in the ground. As demand further outstrips supply, the price of gasoline will climb, and climb, and climb, and... Consumption will naturally fall as supplies fall. How can you consume what you cannot get?

    Global warming freaks try to get us all in a tizzy about how we are destroying our planet with - fossil fuel consumption? (which I believe is the single largest factor contributing to greenhouse gases, right?)

    The global warming freaks can huff and puff about how we're killing ourselves, but:

    a) The world can't just STOP using fossil fuel, without a total collapse of modern civilization


    b) Like it or not, the world cannot continue to consume fossil fuel at increasing rates, and will in fact have no choice but to reduce consumption, eventually reaching zero.

    So does anyone really believe that anything meaningful can be done to curb global warming (with respect to fossil fuel consumption) that isn't already going to happen whether we want it to or not?

    What I think we should be serious about is sequestering a percentage of fossil fuel production and make sure it is set aside for those industries that produce secondary products that are not possible without petroleum - e.g. pharmaceuticals, plastics, various advanced materials.

    You might be able to build a clean-burning coal-fired automobile, given the NECESSITY of doing so (in the not-so-distant future), but can you imagine the difficulty of doing so with no plastics?

  • by rjschwarz ( 945384 ) on Tuesday November 28, 2006 @01:08PM (#17018822)
    I think most people believe global warming is probably real. After all there is evidence that Mars has been warming up as well over the same period of time. There is also evidence that volcanoes spew out some nasty stuff that can warm up the planet. The question is should we screw up our economies when man is probably not even close to the biggest source?
  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday November 28, 2006 @01:14PM (#17018926)
    Governments have long controlled education and altered history to present themselves in a favorable position. The proof is in the pudding: the average teenager living under the rule of organized coercion (i.e. government), even during his most "rebellious" years, not only believes that government is an absolute necessity and that society would self-destruct without it, but views government (i.e. coercion) as the proper and just solution to any concievable problem. Why? Simple -- he has been trained to do so, exactly the way government brought him up.

    If some third-party beneficiary (i.e. business associate) of government intervention manages to convince government to alter the curriculum to favor their own interests, the root of the problem is still government. Government, after all, holds the keys -- they are the ones who posess this special "right" to employ coercion as their means, not "Big Oil" or any other random beneficiary of government policy.

    You didn't think that kids were still raised by parents, did you? This is 2006, and while I don't enjoy pointing this out, freedom (as defined by human nature, not your rulers) is long gone.
  • by kilgortrout ( 674919 ) on Tuesday November 28, 2006 @01:23PM (#17019084)
    I'm glad to see the environmental movement has rethought its position on nuclear power. Thirty years ago the movement opposed nuclear power with the same zeal they now reserve for global warming issues and they were, by and large, successful in stopping the construction of any new nuclear power plants in the US. Of course this ironically led to an increase in the emission of green house gasses from the conventionally powered plants that were built instead of the nuclear plants.

    I wonder were the movement will be in another thiry years.

  • by Darren Hiebert ( 626456 ) on Tuesday November 28, 2006 @01:25PM (#17019130) Homepage

    Most of the fossil fuel consumed is in the form of coal, not oil. Yes, oil is necessary for vehicles, and they do generate a lot of carbon pollution.

    Yet, while oil is starting on the decline, the world has enough coal to last hundreds of years. And most power generation is fueled by coal.

    To get one's arms around the magnitude of coal consumed, let me cite this statistic, relayed to me by someone who works at a power plant near Nebraska City. That plant burns 780,000 lbs. of coal per hour, equivalent to 68 train-car loads per day.

  • by bogjobber ( 880402 ) on Tuesday November 28, 2006 @02:00PM (#17019894)

    I would suggest, if you haven't already, to read the book The Corporation or watch the movie of the same name. It makes some very interesting points. It is definitely "biased" but it provides sound arguments and generally doesn't devolve into Michael Moore like mudslinging. One of the main points I got out of it (and from other places) is that you really can't treat corporations like people.

    Corporations, especially the huge multinationals, are amoral and any individual person is not responsible for the actions of the corporation unless they act illegally. That is where they differ from the rest of society. The entire purpose of the corporation is to create wealth for the stockholders while removing any personal responsibility from either the stockholders or the employees of the company. Most of the time this is in the best interest of society, but when it goes wrong it goes very, very wrong.

    Your claim that corporations should be treated the same as other things in our society is just flat out wrong. When corporations act unethically (which is a huge difference than illegally), more often than not it is because the people involved are just doing their job. Many, many scientific studies have shown that people will put away their personal beliefs and do some very bad things if they believe what they are doing is part of their duty or some authority has authorized it. An obvious example is the experiment where people believed they were torturing a man by shocking him but did so anyway because of the doctor telling them it was ok. This is even more true when the acts aren't as morally repugnant and the decision making is further removed from one person.

    Regulating everything equally throughout society with respect to corporations is just not possible. Corporations are given special exemptions by law, and it follows that they should face special regulations. If we really wanted everything to be "equal" we would create laws disallowing people from forming corporations. That way they would have to take personal responsibility for the way their companies act. That, of course, would be financial suicide. Conducting business should not be an unbearable risk for people. It should, however, benefit society, and that is why extra rules are needed to keep corporations in check.

  • Re:That's not funny. (Score:2, Interesting)

    by letxa2000 ( 215841 ) on Tuesday November 28, 2006 @08:00PM (#17026872)
    True. The comparison will be much more valid in about 70 years when I firmly believe the current chicken-with-its-head-cut-off scaremongering about human-induced climate change is going to look every bit as silly as KKK eugenics does now. The probability is nearly zero that we have a sufficient grasp on the global chaos that is our atmosphere in order to make the policy recommendations that some of these people advocate. I suspect that in 70 years (and probably only 20 or 30), we'll look back and laugh at the current nonsense much like we laugh at the "coming ice age" science of the 70's or eugenics of the 30's or drowning witches of a few centuries ago.

    I'll get flamed, I'm sure, but it's amazing that some people go crazy about the freedoms we have supposedly lost under Bush but aren't even phased by the implications of some of the solutions proposed to deal with the global warming "threat." Absolutely amazing.

"The eleventh commandment was `Thou Shalt Compute' or `Thou Shalt Not Compute' -- I forget which." -- Epigrams in Programming, ACM SIGPLAN Sept. 1982