By Stephen Goode
From Insight Magazine
Fred Singer established the Science & Environmental Policy Project (SEPP) in 1990 after becoming fed up with what he calls “the distorted science” surrounding the question of atmospheric ozone depletion. Singer is a scientist. His undergraduate degree is in electrical engineering and he has a doctorate in physics from Princeton University. He has spent a lifetime in scientific research and development. So it is not surprising that bad science gets Singer excited and arouses his concern.
The ozone debate has receded and no longer is in the headlines. “It may come back, who knows?” Singer tells Insight. His chief interest now, when it comes to distorted science, is global warming.
Two things concern Singer about global warming. First is the questionable science that says global warming is taking place and it’s a bad thing. The second is that the global-warming people argue government and society must now greatly expand the government’s authority to enforce policies that will put an end to global warming or at least hold it in check.
“There are, of course, many areas in science that are disputed, but because they have no policy significance, they don’t really make the papers,” Singer says. “As far as policy significance goes, global warming is still the top one.” That’s because the policies the global-warming folks advocate are often draconian, even though there’s no solid evidence, according to Singer, that global warming is taking place or that it will be a disaster for mankind.
Singer has held prestigious scientific positions, such as director of the Center for Atmospheric and Space Physics at the University of Maryland and distinguished research professor at the Institute for Space Science and Technology in Gainesville, Fla. He’s also published widely both in scientific journals and in the popular press. And Singer’s list of scientific accomplishments is impressive.
In 1956, for example, he designed the sensing instruments for the MOUSE (Minimal Orbital Unmanned Satellite), including the first instrument for measuring stratospheric ozone.
Among Singer’s other achievements are the design of the high-altitude FARSIDE rocket to search for geomagnetically trapped radiation. Currently, in addition to being SEPP’s president, he is a distinguished research professor at George Mason University and professor emeritus of environmental science at the University of Virginia.
Insight: When did you first get interested in the question of global warming as an example of bad science?
Fred Singer: My interest in the global-warming scare began about 1988 with the testimony of Jim Hansen (then head of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies) before Sen. Al Gore in a Senate hearing. I looked at his testimony and discovered some holes in it. I published a piece in the Wall Street Journal pointing out the weak points in the argument.
Q: What are some of the weak points about the global-warming argument?
A: The fact that they don’t properly take into account the effects of clouds in the atmosphere. Clouds will cool the climate rather than warm the climate. When you try to warm the ocean, I argued – and the argument is still sound – you evaporate more water and create more clouds and this reduces the amount of solar radiation. What you have is a kind of negative feedback which keeps the temperature from rising very much.
Q: Why is the disagreement so wide between those who see global warming happening right now and those who don’t? What is a nonscientist to make of such a disagreement?
A: Let me explain the origin of this scientific disagreement. There are two kinds of scientists. Let’s assume for the moment that both of them are honest. In the first group there are quite a few who argue as follows:
They say “Carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is increasing.” It is. Second, they say, “Carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas.” It is. They then say, “Because carbon dioxide is on the increase and it is a greenhouse gas, therefore the climate must be warming. The [mathematical] models support this assumption,” they say, “and the models show the climate is warming; therefore evidence that goes contrary to this we will ignore. We will only look at supporting evidence.”
That’s how they are. The other group, of which I am one, says, “This is all true, but as far as we can tell, the climate is not warming as it should be if the greenhouse theory is correct. In fact, the warming is a great deal less than what the models predict. Therefore, something is wrong with the models.”
I belong to the latter school, as I say, and what we do is analyze the data. Just now we have a new result. It’s been known for a long time that the weather satellites do not show any warming, but the first group tends to neglect this information. They argue that the weather satellites have only been around for 25 years and that’s too short a time to tell. It’s a specious argument. Or they say there’s something wrong with the weather satellites, though they haven’t been able to show that there’s anything at all wrong with them.
So now we find that not only the weather satellites but also weather balloons, which measure temperature in a completely different way than the satellites, give the same results as the satellites.
Q: The data collected by weather balloons also say there is no global warming?
A: Yes. So now we have a situation in which most of the evidence is showing there is essentially no warming. The first group of scientists is aware of this information, but they tend to ignore it. They say, “Something’s wrong with it because it doesn’t support our hypothesis, so we will push it aside.”
The second group of scientists, of which I am one, says, “There must be something wrong with the first group’s models because they don’t agree with what we observe and measure.” So what you have is one group of people who believe in models or theory and the other group who believe in what they are measuring in the atmosphere! That’s the major science issue in a nutshell.
Q: These two groups of scientists also have vast differences when it comes to policies that should be developed to deal with the increase of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, don’t they?
A: Well, yes. As far as policy goes, the first group of scientists says, “Even if we don’t see any warming, nonetheless, assuming the theory is right, there should be a warming given the increase in carbon dioxide. And we had better do something about it!” It’s called the precautionary principle. As the culture puts it, “Better safe than sorry.”
But the first group of scientists does not ask, “How much does it cost to be safe?” They don’t ask – and this is very important – “What does safety mean?”
Put another way, when you buy an insurance policy you look at the cost of the premium and you look at the risk. You don’t buy insurance policies against being hit by a meteorite. The risk is very small.
Q: Won’t one of the arguments the first group of scientists put forth be that we should slow our use of energy, conserve it, and in the process save the environment?
A: If the policy were cost-free, I would say, “Sure, why not?” So, for example, if people say, “Well, we should conserve energy,” I would say, “Yes, of course. It’s cost-free and conservation not only saves you energy, it even saves you money, and for that reason you should be doing it irrespective of a warming.”
But I would add, “When you say, ‘We have to do away with fossil fuels and use wind energy exclusively or solar energy,’ well … I would then say, ‘That’s very expensive and it doesn’t even work very well.’” So there is a basic policy difference between the two groups of scientists. The first group believes in the precautionary principle. And the second group, to use another slogan from the culture, believes, “Look before you leap!”
Q: “Look before you leap” means let’s not adopt large government programs to deal with a problem that the evidence says isn’t taking place but which theory and mathematical models say must take place?
A: If we don’t see anything happening despite the fact that carbon dioxide is increasing, then maybe something else is happening and the effect of the increase will be minimal. I won’t say an effect won’t be there, but that maybe it is minimal – or not even enough to be detectable. If it’s not detectable, it means it probably can’t do you any harm.
There’s an additional argument, which is this: Supposing it did warm up, is that good or bad? You cannot automatically assume it is bad, because we’ve had warming in the past and coolings. Climate is always changing. Every time the climate has been warm, it’s been good for mankind, and every time it has been cold it has been bad.
Q: How is a nonscientist to deal with these questions? How can a layperson look at the science and decide for himself or herself which side to be convinced by?
A: I think that the overall way of handling it is to look at the indices of human well-being. One is longevity. If people are now living longer and healthier lives than they used to – and this is certainly true – then things must be improving. So you have to conclude that air pollution, climate change, radiation, chemicals and whatever else you want to think about within the environment are not doing us in to a greater degree than before.
That’s one way of looking at it. The other, more detailed, is to look at the individual items that are being held up as dangerous. Again, for example, air pollution. Air pollution assuredly can be unhealthy. In present-day China it is horrible, truly awful. But according to the EPA [Environmental Protection Agency], air pollution virtually has disappeared from the United States. Today we have fewer particulates, less sulphur, fewer ozone events and so on. The air is cleaner and better, according to the EPA. I don’t question that. It’s EPA’s data, and, when you think about it, it would be in EPA’s interest to show that this is not so. It would be in the EPA’s interest to show that air pollution is a serious problem and maybe even getting worse. But in fact, the outdoor air has become so clean that probably the greater health hazard is indoor air. Most of us spend 80 percent or so of our lives indoors, so in a sense outdoor air pollution is almost irrelevant.
Q: Do we politicize science now more than we used to?
A: I think yes. I remember when Earth Day first was proclaimed in 1970; that’s when the heavy politicizing started.
Q: What’s your impression of science education in this country?
A: It goes up and down. It peaked after Sputnik in science and engineering, and it’s been slowly going down. We’re lagging behind, as I read it, many other countries. We’re well down in the middle, lagging behind India and Japan.
Q: Does good science education help make people immune to being convinced by bad science, and isn’t solid science training essential?
A: That’s true. In fact, when I speak out about climate change and global warming, the greatest amount of support I get is from people who know something about the subject. They don’t have to be specialists, but they have to be able to read and absorb data when I show them a graph – to understand what it means.
Q: What about the Bush administration’s space program? Should we be getting back to, and deeper into, space exploration?
A: Should we be spending money at all on science? On astronomy and other scientific fields that have no practical payoff in the short term? Black holes are interesting. Discovering new planets is interesting. But where’s the practical payoff for those from whom the money is taken to pay for such programs?
Even so, let us assume that space exploration is important. Then the question is, how best to do it. I have always pointed out that some things are more important than others, which means some things are of less importance.
Among the things that are less important is putting a base on the moon. I don’t see any good reason to put a permanent base on the moon. It’s not just the expense involved, but the fact that a moon base would delay or make impossible other things we should be doing.
Supposing you get a half-dozen people to sit in an enclosure on the moon, so what? To me, a base on the moon is just another space station, and we’ve already proved that people can survive in space. We’ve known that for a long time, so we’re not learning anything new.
Q: What could we be doing that would be more beneficial to science?
A: We should be going to Mars. Not with a base, but a short exploratory visit. Not to the surface of Mars, because that’s difficult and costly and would take forever. But to Demos, a moon of Mars, and from that moon conduct an unmanned exploration of the planet.
Q: What do you think of the Bush administration’s attitude toward science in general?
A: The administration is conducting continually a climate-research program to the tune of about $2 billion a year. If I were doing it, I would spend a lot less and try to focus on what the really important issues are. But it’s turned out to be a great support project for scientists, not only for physical scientists but also for the social scientists who study the social, philosophical and theological implications of climate change. Everyone is getting in on this because they can get money from the program.
Q: Any other problems with the administration when it comes to science?
A: The Bush administration has quite properly said we’re not going to go along with the Kyoto Protocol. They’re not going to do all those crazy things demanded by the protocol, such as rationing energy and making energy even more expensive and causing ourselves economic harm. But, on the other hand, the administration is acting like this is a real problem, as though the problems the protocol was supposed to address are real. So they have a great big research program on hydrogen cars and so on, or sequestering carbon dioxide.
It makes no sense. It tells people, “This is a problem after all.” Why would you want to sequester carbon dioxide? To do so implies carbon dioxide is bad – when it’s not bad, it’s good. We should have more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. It’s good for plants. It makes them grow faster.
Q: What are your views on energy?
A: The best we have now are coal, oil, and gas – and these will be with us a long time, long enough until they become too expensive, meaning scarce. But we have other sources of energy. We have nuclear energy, for example, nuclear energy which works. One of the real curious things about this whole debate is that the people who are concerned about global climate change are also the people who are opposed to advancing nuclear energy. The very same people.
Never mind that nuclear energy would do the job that needs to be done. It would produce energy without any carbon dioxide, so it’s the obvious answer. But they don’t want anything to do with it, so you see they can’t be serious. It shows how ideological they are.
Currently: President, the Science & Environmental Policy Project, and distinguished research professor, George Mason University.
Born: Sept. 27, 1924, in Vienna, Austria. Married to Candace Carolyn Crandall.
Education: B.E.E. in electrical engineering, Ohio State University; A.M. and Ph.D. in physics, Princeton University.
Career highlights: Research physicist, Upper Atmosphere Rocket Program, Johns Hopkins University; director, Center for Atmospheric and Space Physics and professor of physics, University of Maryland; (first) director, National Weather Satellite Center, U.S. Department of Commerce.
Selected books: Is There an Optimum Level of Population?; Free Market Energy; Global Climate Change; and Hot Talk, Cold Science: Global Warming’s Unfinished Debate. Essays and articles in the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, the New Republic and the Washington Times.
Selected honors: One of “Ten Outstanding Young Men of the Nation,” U.S. Junior Chamber of Commerce, 1959; honorary doctorate of science, Ohio State University; elected fellow, American Association for the Advancement of Science.
Stephen Goode is a senior writer for Insight. firstname.lastname@example.org
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