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Originally published September 14, 2013 at 5:10 PM | Page modified September 14, 2013 at 7:16 PM

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Uncivil scientists thwart Cliff Mass’ climate-change debate

Cliff Mass tried to organize a seminar to stop scientists from warring about climate change. But so much name-calling broke out he had to cancel it.


Seattle Times staff columnist

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Can we even talk anymore? Maybe not, discovered Cliff Mass.

Mass is an atmospheric sciences professor at the University of Washington. He has been troubled for years by the way the subject of global warming can turn typically even-headed scientists into politicized, tribal warriors.

As he sees it, there are the vast majority of scientists, including himself, who think human-caused global warming is a reality. But some in this group, frustrated at political inaction, have begun hyping the effects of climate change beyond what the science supports.

“It has taken on some of the traits of orthodoxy, in that it can’t be questioned,” Mass says.

On the other, much smaller side are the skeptics. They feel denigrated by their field and have become increasingly shrill and bombastic.

It bugs Mass that a vital scientific and technical issue has morphed into such a political and social battle, with rigid, competing camps — even within science. So one day he thought: “Can’t we talk this out?”

He proposed a seminar, in which scientists would discuss the science of global warming only with other scientists. It was going to be at the UW this fall. Mass, who believes the science is on the side of global warming, figured the so-called “alarmists” would defeat the so-called “deniers” on most of the merits, but not all. The point, though, was to show that civilized, informed debate is what science is all about.

He invited some of the 12 skeptics who recently wrote an anti-global-warming brief to the U.S. Supreme Court, and suggested they hash it out with some experts at the UW’s atmospheric sciences department.

That’s when the name-calling started.

“It all went to hell,” Mass said.

Some scientists are wary of these debates because they say they foster a false perception that there is a real “pro or con” debate. But their reluctance prompted one skeptic, in caustic emails, to brand all the University of Washington scientists as “dishonest” or “blind fanatics” who are peddling “political nonsense” in the guise of science.

“Are there any true intellectuals left at UW?” taunted retired astrophysicist Gordon Fulks, in an email to much of the atmospheric sciences faculty. “Or have you ALL morphed into climate automatons?”

There was so much smack-talk, most of it from Fulks, that Mass canceled the seminar.

“It was inimical to everything a scientific discussion is supposed to be about,” Mass said, “and the scientific discussion hadn’t even started yet.”

So a meeting to clear the air of tribal antagonism was called off due to tribal antagonism.

“It’s ironic, but it’s where we are,” Mass said. “There’s a very interesting conversation to be had about global warming, about the limits of the science and what we know. But we aren’t going to have it.”

I have two thoughts about this. One, the politics surrounding global warming have truly become stultifying when scientists can’t even agree to hold a meeting to talk without a slap-fight breaking out.

But two, as reporter Craig Welch is documenting in this week’s Seattle Times: The global warming debate has become a sideshow anyway. Ocean acidification, global warming’s evil twin, is caused by the same culprit, is easily measurable and is already a crisis.

There’s not much to debate so far: We’re poisoning the oceans with acid. So will we do anything about this one?

Mass, who is jaded after watching up-close the pervasive politicization of global warming, said the ocean issue may fall down the same rabbit hole.

“My guess is no, we won’t end up doing anything about it,” he said. “Other than divide into polarized camps, just as we did on climate change.”

I doubt nature’s going to care much about that petty human drama, either.

Danny Westneat’s column appears Wednesday and Sunday. Reach him at 206-464-2086 or dwestneat@seattletimes.com



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About Danny Westneat

Danny Westneat takes an opinionated look at the Puget Sound region's news, people and politics. Send tips or comments to dwestneat@seattletimes.com. His column runs Wednesday and Sunday.
dwestneat@seattletimes.com | 206-464-2086

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