Scientists and Their Political Passions

By Robert L. Park
Copyright 1998 The New York Times
May 2, 1998

WASHINGTON -- I received a note a few weeks ago, urging me to sign a petition card opposing the global climate change accord. So, it seems, did just about every scientist in the United States. The note was signed by Frederick Seitz, a physicist who once served as president of the National Academy of Sciences.

An accompanying article that looked like a reprint from the academy's journal explained what we can all do to make this a better world: burn more hydrocarbons.

This was a new concept for me. Maybe I should crank up the thermostat and trade my fuel-efficient car for a sports-utility gas guzzler? I wanted to learn more, but there was no letterhead, and the only return address was a post office box in La Jolla, Calif.

The National Academy of Sciences disavowed any connection with the petition. The article had not been published in the academy's journal -- or anywhere else. Moreover, a study conducted by the academy had reached the opposite conclusion.

If scientists all have access to the same data, why, you might wonder, is there such passionate disagreement? What separates the two sides may not be so much an argument over the scientific facts, scientific laws or even the scientific method, but profoundly different political and religious views.

Most climatologists agree that as a result of increased burning of fossil fuels, the temperature of the earth has gone up perhaps 0.7 degrees Fahrenheit since the start of the masses, including many of the world's great cities, may be flooded in the next century by rising sea levels as the polar caps melt.

Drastic changes in rainfall patterns could wreak havoc on food production.

"Nonsense!" insists a highly vocal minority. The increase in carbon dioxide is actually "a wonderful and unexpected gift from the Industrial Revolution," to quote an opinion article published a few months ago in The Wall Street Journal. These optimists say that carbon dioxide stimulates plant growth, making the world more lush and productive, and that our unrationed burning of hydrocarbons allows the world to support a larger population -- fulfilling the biblical injunction to "be fruitful and multiply."

The great war over global warming, then, is more about values than it is about science. It sounds like a scientific debate, with numbers and equations tossed back and forth. The antagonists themselves may even believe they are engaged in such a debate. But the average scientist is exposed to religious and political views at his mother's knee, long before he is exposed to science.

Such views have a way of occupying whatever gaps are present in scientific understanding. And there are gaps aplenty in the climate debate. There are holes in the data and uncertainties in the computer models, and small changes in the assumptions could result in very different projections. Both sides acknowledge these limitations. But to allow unlimited growth in greenhouse emissions is a reckless acceleration of a global experiment the industrialized world is already engaged in -- the consequences of which are potentially catastrophic. Until the numbers are in, however, it's easy to be misled.

hat brings us back to the petition. The source turned out to be the tiny Oregon Institute of Science and Medicine, based in Cave Junction. I don't know how many petition cards were sent out, but I can guess who paid for the mailing. There is a well-financed campaign by the petroleum industry to recruit scientists who are skeptical about global warming to help convert journalists, politicians and the public to their views. Few of the scientists who received the petition are climate experts -- and there aren't any in Cave Junction either.

But when uncertainty abounds, scientific judgment has a way of conforming to the religious and political views of the scientist. As for me, global warming or not, my mother taught me to keep the thermostat down.

Robert L. Park, a physics professor at the University of Maryland, is author of the forthcoming "Voodoo Science."


May 2, 1998

Dr. Robert L. Park American Physical Society Washington DC

Dear Dr. Park:

I read with some concern your OP-ED piece, "Scientists and Their Political Passions" which appeared in the May 2, 1998 edition of the New York Times. First, you trivialized one of our country's outstanding scientists, Frederick Seitz, and then you state that "most climatologists agree that as a result of increased burning of fossil fuels, the temperature of the earth has gone up perhaps 0.7 degrees." Yes, in the past 100 years the temperature has gone up perhaps that much but a great part of it was a rebound from the end of the little ice age. Even the most dedicated global warmer does not believe that all or even most of this temperature change was caused by human activity. But perhaps you would prefer to live in those much colder times. You also infer, most incorrectly, that the Petition Project was financed by the petroleum industry. It certainly was was not; it was funded by individuals like me, a few dollars here - a few dollars there. Over two thirds of the signers have advanced degrees in science or technology. There was no corporate funding or funding by any tax exempt organization. I think you owe an apology to Dr. Robinson and his co-workers for inferring that they are somehow in the pay of industry. I also think you should examine the professional credentials of the scientists at the Oregon Institute of Science and Medicine and their research program, then perhaps you be a little less abusive of that organization.

At the end of your OP-ED article, it is mention that you are the author of a forthcoming book "Voodoo Science." Perhaps you should include in this book your New York Times article as an example of voodoo commentary.


Malcolm, Ph.D. Scientist Emeritus U.S. Geological Survey, MS 954 Reston, VA 20192 (703) 648-6760 E-mail:

Copy to: Arthur B. Robinson, Frederick Seitz

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