James Lawrence Powell
Author, The Inquisition of Climate Science

Science or Spam?

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James Lawrence Powell weighs in on the question of public trust in science.

James Lawrence Powell

James Lawrence Powell, author of The Inquisition of Climate Science, was born and raised in Kentucky and graduated from Berea College. He received his Ph.D. in Geochemistry from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and has had a distinguished career as a college teacher, college president, museum director, and author of books on earth science for general audiences. He serves as executive director of the National Physical Science Consortium, a partnership among government agencies and laboratories, industry, and higher education dedicated to increasing the number of American citizens with graduate degrees in the physical sciences and related engineering fields, emphasizing recruitment of a diverse applicant pool that includes women and minorities. He has taught at Oberlin College and has served as its acting president. He has also been president of Franklin and Marshall College, Reed College, the Franklin Institute Science Museum in Philadelphia, and the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History. Both Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush appointed Powell to the National Science Board.



James Lawrence Powell: Science should be one of the most trustworthy enterprises humans have conducted since we have a built-in spam sieve, you might say, a built-in spam-eliminator.  No one can simply publish an article in a scientific journal.  If I wanted to publish an article, let’s say in Science Magazine, I would have to do the research, write the article, send it to the magazine.  They would send it to a group of experts, and the group of experts would have to say, basically, “We don’t see anything really wrong with this.  It looks good and it’s important, and people should know about it.”  But probably they would find something wrong and send it back, ask me to edit it, and so on and so forth.  So by the time it got into Science Magazine, it would be trustworthy.

Of course, when someone is standing up in front of you talking, brought to you by such and such a group, you have to ask yourself what that group’s agenda is. And if you look at the groups who are sponsoring the Viscount Monckton of Brenchley, they are avowed global warming denial groups.  The American Association for the Advancement of Science does not invite Viscount Monckton to speak.  Senator Inhofe from Oklahoma invites Monckton to speak before his committee when he’s the chair of the committee because he’s one of the most prominent global warming deniers in Congress.

So ask yourself: who is sponsoring this person?  And ask yourself: when the person shows me a chart, is this a chart from the scientific literature or is this a chart the person made on their home computer?  The Viscount Monckton shows on each of his charts a little, a logo or an emblem, a seal, and it turns out that it’s a dead ringer for the seal of the British House of Lords.  It looks just like it but just a little bit different so maybe you can’t accuse him of a copyright violation.  And the British House of Lords has denied Viscount Monckton and said this man is not, nor has he ever been, a member of the House of Lords.  But his slides have this seeming British stamp of approval.  So it’s not easy to tell who to trust.

Another way to do it is to look at what the person is saying in terms of the broad view, comprehensive view, of the world scientific community.  If the world scientific community is virtually unanimous on something, as they are about global warming, and someone with no credentials stands up and tells you that they’re all wrong, it really defies belief, and you should have your own spam filter and say, “Wait a minute, how can that be true?  How can this guy be—a woman, gal—be right and all these other people—the scientists, the National Academy of Sciences, and so forth, the Royal Society in Britain—how can they all be wrong and this person be right?  It doesn’t really compute.”

Directed / Produced by
Jonathan Fowler & Elizabeth Rodd