Has Progressivism Ruined Environmental Science?

In my thirty years of work in the science arena, as a government scientist, an industry consultant, and an academician, I have witnessed an increasingly adverse influence of progressivism on the practice of science.  This influence has been especially visible in my specialty, environmental science (with a focus on air-pollution meteorology).

From the start of the modern environmental movement with the publication of Silent Spring by Rachel Carson in 1962 followed by The Population Bomb by Paul Ehrlich in 1968, the science of the environment became overly contentious.  Certainly, diversity of opinion and positions in the scientific community is desirable and largely advantageous to the advancement of the discipline.  But, what quickly developed was a progressive environmentalism that elevated nature back to the Gaian status of the ancients and established one viewpoint as dogma.  Soon, conformance to this one holy vision (as opposed to the usual ad nauseam progressive mantra to "celebrate diversity") became the mandate.  Anyone opposed the lofty goal imposed by progressive theology of protecting the Earth, at nearly any cost, was increasingly targeted in very unscientific ways with ad hominem attacks, public ridicule, eventual limitation of government funding, and even eco-terrorism.

In addition, regardless of the extreme actions taken by progressives to defend their sacred environmental tenets, media outlets and the scientific community were rather tolerant.

Climate-science practice is surely a good example of the current progressive-influenced "consensus" toward challengers of the humans-are-heating-the-planet storyline.  And, the "Climategate" tempest is a specific instance.

Normally, much ado would have been made by the mainstream media and mainstream science with the release of the Climategate e-mails.  Instead, both seemed to work overtime to minimize the damage from those exposed files.  The mainstream media often seemed to downplay the importance of the e-mail content and referred to the files as "stolen," implying that the leaker was a criminal.  Indeed, the act may have been criminal; however, such indictment is typically not the tack taken by the same news organizations when damaging information is similarly aired which targets business or industry concerns or conservative leaders.  In those cases, these "whistleblowers" are portrayed in a somewhat more heroic fashion -- even applauded for doing society a favor.

Similarly, the scientific establishment "circled the wagons" and has generally responded to Climategate by vilifying anyone who wants a serious independent or judicial investigation of the matter.  Yes, investigations were launched, including a tangentially related one concluded by the InterAcademy Panel.  Unfortunately, having university and governmental potential beneficiaries of the "correct" conclusions conduct the probes does not inspire much confidence in the thoroughness or objectivity of the inquiries.  By analogy, if, say, a group of investigators with ties to the oil industry were tasked to examine the causes of and responses to the Gulf oil spill, it would not be unreasonable for the media and general scientific community to be quite suspicious of any conclusions that essentially exonerated British Petroleum.

To be sure, progressivism as an ideology is not bad for science.  A variety of perspectives is beneficial, even rejuvenating.  Progressivism is bad if it is the only accepted philosophy from which to propose and evaluate concepts.  Yet, in the environmental field, that is arguably the case.

Regardless, thirty years from now, who's to say what environmental-science practice will look like?  Let's just hope that the time-tested basic "scientific method" consisting of observation, hypothesis, and experimentation coupled with a healthy dose of challenge-to-orthodoxy will not include as much of today's unhealthy slug of conformance-to-progressivism.

Anthony J. Sadar is a Certified Consulting Meteorologist and primary author of Environmental Risk Communication: Principles and Practices for Industry (CRC Press/Lewis Publishers 2000). 

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