September 7, 2011

Was Richard Nixon anti-science?

By Was Richard Nixon anti-science?

Author:  Damien M. Schiff

Dr. Peter Gleick of the National Academy of Sciences has this interesting piece in Forbes Magazine lamenting the growing anti-science culture in America and using the political debate over climate change as a case-in-point. Dr. Gleick has many good points, but two of his assertions and assumptions bear a closer look.

First, he cites President Nixon's (unsuccessful) veto of the 1972 Clean Water Act as an example of anti-science behavior. This strikes me as a stretch, especially given that Nixon signed into law the National Environmental Policy Act, the Endangered Species Act, and the Environmental Protection Agency's organic act. It seems unlikely that Nixon would have acquiesced to this trifecta of environmental regulation but would have balked at the Clean Water Act. I suspect that Nixon vetoed the Act because of states’ rights concerns, not because he believed that clean water was unimportant or that many of the nation’s waters were not polluted. 

Next, Dr. Gleick focuses on the climate change debate and quotes from an open letter signed by several hundred members of the National Academy of Sciences. The letter underscores the near unanimity in the climate science community that global warming is happening. To me, Dr. Gleick’s reliance on the political debate over climate change as an example of anti-science attitudes is inapt, for at least two reasons. First, there is a significant difference between denying that climate change is occurring altogether, and denying that climate change is man-made or that climate change will be sudden and catastrophic. Whatever the varying evidence for any of these positions, it’s important to keep their proponents separate for purposes of discussion, and Dr. Gleick doesn’t do that. Second, Dr. Gleick fails to acknowledge that much of the political debate over climate change is not science-based but rather, appropriately, policy-based. In other words, there are many politicians who may agree that climate change is occurring, and that the change is in part due to man-made causes, but who nevertheless believe that there are more cost-effective ways of dealing with climate change’s adverse effects than by, for example, reducing greenhouse gas emissions through Clean Air Act regulation, or by establishing a byzantine cap-and-trade system.

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