Commentary: Scientific history lesson

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With a few exceptions, we tend to think that the crises occupying the daily news cycle are of recent origin. That’s partly due to the sheer volume of media coverage to which we’re daily subjected, but it’s also a result of a worrisome detachment from history—and I don’t mean ancient history, I mean events within the last century.

Climate change, the subject of intense debate in this space lately, provides a perfect example. If asked, most people would respond that the climate debate is a relatively new issue, an outgrowth of the environmental movement that started in the 1970s.

They’d be wrong.

In fact, climate change was first proposed more than 120 years ago by a Swedish chemist named Svante Arrhenius, who developed mathematical models predicting that as the level of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere rose—due to the combustion of fossil fuels—the planet’s temperature would increase.

I know: You’re thinking, who the heck is he? He was a highly respected scientist, who received the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1903, which, I grant you, is a bit suspect, seeing as how that award was created by Alfred Nobel, who was—wait for it—himself a Swedish chemist who invented dynamite and created the awards in 1896 as his life’s legacy.

Home court advantage aside, Arrhenius is recognized as one of the first scientists to calculate how changes in atmospheric CO2 could alter surface temperatures through the greenhouse effect. He was definitely the first one to predict that emissions from burning fossil fuels might be large enough to effect global warming.

Granted, his research was heavily influenced by other contemporary scientists—that’s how science works, of course—but remember, we’re talking about the 1890s: When automobiles were truly horseless carriages rarely seen outside of a few big cities. Before most of our major sports became popular, or even existed. Before five of our current states were even admitted to the Union, and when farmers numbered fully one-half of the U.S. population of 62 million.

Heck, the 1890s predated the emergence of democracy altogether—with few exceptions, almost the entirety of the world’s population was ruled by kings, queens, emperors and czars.

It was another era altogether.

Grounded in science

So why is a stroll through late 19th century history relevant to current debates? For one, to remind us that climate science isn’t something conjured up by a bunch of modern-day eco-activists; the research has been ongoing for generations.

More importantly, it’s to underscore that scientists are usually fighting an uphill battle against both powerful commercial interests and skeptical political leadership. I mean, it’s not exactly a stretch to recognize that the captains of industry and the aforementioned monarchies in power a century ago could have cared less about some scientist spouting techno-jargon about CO2 and the potential impact of global warming decades in the future.

Today, after a 20th century notable for its incredible technological progress, we stand upon sound science as the foundation of how animal agriculture conducts its business—as it should be.

Where we encounter problems, however, is when we decide to pick and choose which science we accept, and which we reject. We can debate the policies purporting to address socio-economic issues all day long, but we cannot delegitimize the data generations of scientists have collected and analyzed—not without serious consequences.

Consider three current controversies, and how science is used to support industry’s positioning:

  • Food safety. Critics contend that meat and poultry processors need to slow down their linespeeds, ramp up their testing protocols and, in essence, provide consumers with a guarantee of pathogen-free products. What’s the response? A scientifically solid retort on the nature of microbial organisms, the statistical limits of random sampling and the scientifically certified reality that raw foods contain bacteria that cannot be removed, short of total sterilization.
  • Biotech. Here’s an even better example. Like climate change, there are plenty of voices—some with serious scientific credentials—bitterly opposed to the use of genetic engineering in agriculture. The only valid response is one that patiently explains the rigor and precision behind genetic engineering and the growing urgency of using biotech tools to address the looming threat of worldwide food shortages.
  • Animal antibiotics. Last, an issue closely parallels climate change. On one side are respected scientists, veterinarians and researchers who have created rigorous protocols for these drugs, and who can point to substantive benefits in terms of animal health and productivity as a result of their usage. On the other side are scientists who contend that we face a serious problem with clinically significant pathogen resistance, and that the most important mitigation is the immediate cessation of sub-therapeutic antibiotic use in agriculture.

How can producers and processors respond to such a critique? Only by emphasizing the industry’s track record of prudent use, proper dosage levels and valid withdrawal schedules—all based on scientific research. We insist that media members and policymakers buy into the premise that absent a scientific basis for regulatory interventions, we risk damage to vital industries by imposing wrongheaded rules that make the problems worse, not better.

Why should climate change be any different? Just like projections of global food shortages, even though we can’t predict the exact parameters of the problem, shouldn’t we give credence to the scientific evidence about the potential threat it poses? Just like biotechnology, shouldn’t we invest in energy R&D not just to address global warming but also to advance fundamental priorities, such as energy independence?

When we attempt to discredit scientists—and the legacy of research on which they stand—because we don’t like their politics, it undermines the respect we demand for other initiatives in production agriculture that have been put in place as a result of the exact same scientific scrutiny.

We can’t dismiss climate scientists because we disagree with proposed solutions to the threats they document, then turn around and insist on deference to science when it supports developments with which we do agree.

Science is neutral; science doesn’t take sides. Either conclusions supported by years of research, data collection and analysis and confirmed by one’s peers are accepted as the best blueprint for regulatory measures, or else we’re forced to accept that the loudest, most influential voices get to shape our laws and our regulations.

No matter how crackpot they might be.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.

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April, 16, 2013 at 11:53 AM

Pertinent questions are is the globe warming, if so what is the cause, will it lead to permanent climate change, what should (and feasibly could) be done about it? Aren't more, not all, credible scientists currently modifying their thinking on this subject?

Rapid City  |  April, 17, 2013 at 06:11 PM

Actually those questions are really secondary. First we should ask if the concentrations of radiatively-active trace gases in the earth’s atmosphere are changing. The answer is unquestionably “YES”. Next we have to ask if the changes in the composition of the earth’s atmosphere have ever occurred in the past. For key trace gas species, the answer again is “yes”. Since it is not possible to travel back in time to make measurements, scientists have to rely on proxy data—gases trapped in ice-cores, isotopic fingerprints of plant material trapped in sediments. Again the answer is “yes” for many of the gases that are important in affecting the earth’s radiation balance. However there is a catch. Never in the history of the earth have the changes that we are observing now, occurred at such an accelerated rate. Except for times when a major volcanic eruption or impacts of large asteroids led to particle shrouds over the earth’s surface. When these extreme events occurred, more than 90% of all existing species disappeared! We might next ask if the changes in atmospheric composition correspond to changes in climate. Again the answer is “yes”. But the answer gets murkier. A lot of other factors also influence climate and all of the and unraveling the positive and negative feedbacks of external and internal forces impacting climate is complicated and sometimes controversial. Now we might ask if we understand the physics and chemistry of the gases that compose the earth’s atmosphere and how they interact to impact the Earth’s radiation balance. Still again the answer is “yes” we can argue about the details but every day new research reduces uncertainty.

Rapid City, SD  |  April, 17, 2013 at 06:13 PM

Now for a key question. Did humans cause the unprecedented changes we have observed in the last few decades? There is no doubt about the answer. Again it is “YES”. A huge body of independent work unquestionably proves that the major changes in the chemical composition of the Earth’s atmosphere—leading to changes in the radiation balance of the Earth have been caused, and continue to be caused by HUMANS. The next question is easy. Have the human-caused changes in the composition of the atmosphere impacted the energy-balance of the earth in a major way? Of course! The human-changed atmosphere traps more heat. That part is simple. Again the answer is “YES” However feedbacks among soils, vegetation, rainfall, oceans, clouds, climate and the day-to day regional weather patterns start to get complicated. We are trapping more heat. The forces that drive climate are increasing. One result is more erratic climate. More cold-snaps, record hot weather, and record cold-snaps. None of the preceding is even controversial. But the next question drives to the heart of the so-called climate debate. What should we do about it? Some propose to do nothing. Some propose to learn to adapt. Some propose to slow down the rate of climate-forcing so adaptation can keep up. There is no “correct” answer. There remain questions of politics, economics and human wisdom. History is littered by the fossilized remains of animals and civilizations trapped along the pathway to the future.

VA  |  April, 18, 2013 at 07:46 AM

PZ, Your conjectures are not backed by science. Do you have any idea how much heat per day would have to be generated to raise the average temperature of the earth by a meaningful amount? The earth is not an isolated system.

shaun evertson    
Nebraska  |  April, 18, 2013 at 08:46 AM

"Where we encounter problems, however, is when we decide to pick and choose which science we accept, and which we reject." Jeez, ya think? Stephen Schneider (1945-2010), founder and editor of the journal Climate Change, IPCC lead author, and Professor of Environmental Biology and Global Change at Stanford on cherrypicking data: "On the one hand, as scientists we are ethically bound to the scientific method, in effect promising to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but -- which means that we must include all the doubts, the caveats, the ifs, ands, and buts. On the other hand, we are not just scientists but human beings as well. And like most people we'd like the world to be a better place, which in this context translates into our working to reduce the risk of potentially disastrous climate change. To do that we need to get some broad based support, to capture the public's imagination. That, of course, entails getting loads of media coverage. So we have to offer up scary scenarios, make simplified, dramatic statements, and make little mention of any doubts we might have. This 'double ethical bind' we frequently find ourselves in cannot be solved by any formula. Each of us has to decide what the right balance is between being effective and being honest. I hope that means both." I'm sorry, but didn't he say the politics of the argument has to trump science? Yes he did. It's okay to do and disseminate bad science if you can justify it politically.

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