When Eric Shinseki was nominated as the new Secretary of Veterans Affairs, I argued that this was an inspired pick, on its own merits and for its sublime symbolism. (The man whom the Bush administration had ridiculed for being right about Iraq now restored, with honor, to cope with, among other things, the consequences of the Bush policy).
When Steven Chu was nominated as the new Secretary of Energy, I said that this was an even better choice, in both symbolism (no-kidding scientist to head what has become the government's leading science agency) and substance (his post-Nobel prize work has largely involved pushing for fundamental research on energy). Fortunately my friend Steve Corneliussen has done the work of spelling out some of the support for that assertion. Corneliussen, who is a writer rather than a scientist, has worked with the American Institute of Physics and other professional organizations. After the jump, parts of his email reporting reaction among the scientists he has been talking with.
Physicists in particular are elated; at last a genuine scientist will head the agency that funds the majority of physics research in the US.
[In this role, Chu will presumably boost support for (as Science mag put it) "more science, more basic science related to energy, and more high-risk, high reward research." Corneliussen says:]
That seems especially important given that energy, the environment and the economy are said nowadays to be so interconnected as a -- or maybe the -- major global issue. In fact, I suspect many physicists would pronounce Vice President Gore wrong to confine the energy challenge inside a mere ten-year limit with the longer-term research dimension omitted. Physicists like big-picture arithmetic and they like research. Many believe that the arithmetic shows that in the long run we can't meet the energy challenge without new fundamental knowledge -- no matter how innovatively we re-engineer what we already know, and no matter how well we conserve. Chu has focused on all of this at a high level for some time.
So I'm cheering too. And I think I see something else a Secretary Chu could do. He could try to reframe the standoff between climatologists and those nonscientists who genuinely don't understand how science works, and who genuinely believe that climate scientists' consensus stems from politics. I think those people are reachable and need to be reached.
Mind you, I don't mean the unreachable core of anthropogenic-global-warming deniers like the Wall Street Journal opinion editors who have lately escalated AGW denial into the realm of mockery, as with their Nov. 7 headline that sneered "Aliens Cause Global Warming." And I don't mean unreachable deniers who write articles like "Scientists abandon global warming 'lie,'" which a nonscientist friend who's a corporate lawyer and a reachable AGW skeptic forwarded to me the other day. That article confidently declares that a "United Nations climate change conference in Poland is about to get a surprise from 650 leading scientists who scoff at doomsday reports of man-made global warming -- labeling them variously a lie, a hoax and part of a new religion."
But I do think that lots of potentially reachable people like my lawyer friend genuinely don't understand the difference between what happens in a scientific debate and what happens in a political one. And especially when such people are on the political right, they tend to suspect that the climatologists' global-overwarming consensus is not really settled science, but is only a sort of fairly well reasoned technical conjecture.They tend to think it probably has some merit, but that it requires caution because it's distorted by a political desire to multiply the power of federal economic planners who'll limit the natural workings of free markets. They see scientists and government officials as an interrelated elite with a closed outlook and a definite agenda....
That's why one of my own main hopes for Chu is that on behalf of science, and from his new bully pulpit, he can re-start the technocivic discussion concerning the nature of the AGW consensus. It seems to me that lots of reachable AGW skeptics could use some teaching from a scientist with Chu's newly highlighted stature. That teaching can't wisely be the kind of preaching that scoffs at all AGW skepticism, re-asserts the consensus's perfect finality, and redoubles the alarms.
I'll bet Chu, if he takes it up respectfully as a diplomatic mission, could instead get the reachables to recognize science's inherent, dispassionate mechanisms for self-correction. I'll bet he could illuminate scientists' self-interested desire to promote themselves by genuinely, in fact ruthlessly, seeking truths about nature, with a consequent disinterestedness that has nothing to do with their political views because it has everything to do with their professional aspirations...