By Gene Lyons
Recently a friend posted a video on Facebook that he asserted would demolish the Godless theory of evolution. On it, a fellow sitting in a pickup and wearing a backward baseball cap smugly explained that Darwinian evolution contradicts the Second Law of Thermodynamics, a fundamental principle of physics.
This hoary chestnut has long been a favorite of Creationist apologists -- appearing to use scientific evidence to support a theological conclusion. Never mind that the fellow's science was as backward as his baseball cap. The Second Law states almost the opposite of his description. Indeed, if it said what creationists claim, not only evolution, but life itself would be impossible.
But what struck me as equally significant was the implied attitude toward scientists. Because if what the fellow claimed was even halfway right, it could only mean that every physics professor in every university in the world was part of a vast conspiracy of silence against God.
And why would they do that? I suppose for the same reason that climate scientists worldwide all but unanimously warn that increased levels of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere are contributing to a potentially catastrophic warming of the planet.
No less an authority than Sarah Palin once characterized them as employing "doomsday scare tactics pushed by an environmental priesthood that capitalizes on the public's worry and makes them feel that owning an SUV is a 'sin' against the planet."
The ex-governor's use of religious metaphor is no accident. To millions of Americans calling themselves "conservatives," at lease for partisan purposes, science is religion, and religion science. Hardly anybody acts on this stuff in real life. People don't quiz their veterinarian about Darwin.
However, when it comes to climate science, people who wouldn't dream of diagnosing the family cat feel comfortable hearing the entire worldwide scientific community described as engaged in a gigantic hoax. Supposedly for the sake of one-world government or some similar absurdity.
Clearly, such people simply don't know what scientific inquiry consists of, how hypotheses are tested, theories arrived at, and consensus achieved -- all the things about science that make large-scale conspiracies impossible.
Individual scientists are certainly as prone to temptation as anybody else. However, a single instance of serious fraud -- misrepresenting experiments, faking data -- is fatal to a career. The higher the profile, the more dramatic the fall.
So what happens when ideologically motivated pundits single out scientists for abuse? We may be about to learn from the lawsuit filed by renowned climatologist Michael Mann against the National Review. Do defamation laws protect even famous scientists from politically motivated smears against their professional integrity and private character?
Is calling an internationally known scientist "intellectually bogus," a "fraud" and "the Jerry Sandusky of climate science" -- as National Review blogger Mark Steyn and various cohorts did -- a First Amendment-protected opinion? Or is it libelous, a provably false allegation published with reckless disregard for the truth and the malicious purpose of harming Mann's reputation?
"(I)nstead of molesting children," Steyn's post explained, quoting Rand Simberg, Mann "has molested and tortured data in the service of politicized science." Does it need to be added that the National Review provided no evidence of same? Mann asked for a retraction and apology. Receiving none, he sued.
The director of Penn State's climatology program -- hence the Sandusky reference -- Mann drew the ire of climate change deniers as the inventor of the "hockey stick graph." First published in Nature, it combined so-called "proxy records" -- tree ring studies, ice core and corals -- of temperatures in the Northern Hemisphere over the past 1,000 years with contemporary thermometer records.
It showed the climate trending irregularly cooler until the Industrial Revolution, when temperatures trended sharply upward -- the blade of the metaphorical hockey stick. Since then, numerous studies based on different data have drawn the same conclusion: Earth's climate is warming rapidly, with potentially catastrophic consequences.
Mann's misfortune, however, was getting caught up in the largely phony "Climategate" controversy. Admiring emails referencing "Mike's trick" of sophisticated statistical analysis were made to appear sinister. Eight investigations by everybody from Penn State's science faculty to the British parliament have vindicated Mann's work in every respect.
However, Mann's not a shy fellow. His book "The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars" constitutes not only a lucid explanation of his own work, but a vigorous defense of climate science against industry-funded denialists. In a recent pleading filed in the D.C. Court of Appeals, the National Review argues that this makes him a public figure and fair game for abuse.
In a separate article, editor Rich Lowry alibied that "in common polemical usage, 'fraudulent' doesn't mean honest-to-goodness criminal fraud. It means intellectually bogus and wrong."
In short, accusing a respected scientist of faking data and comparing him to a child molester was just a colorful way of saying they disagree with his conclusions.
Welcome to Washington, professor.