Book Review: George Melloan’s ‘Bogus Science’

It was fairly early in Barack Obama’s first presidential term. Unemployment was still abnormally high, yet Obama was on the road lobbying for his adopted city of Chicago as host of the 2016 Summer Olympics.

Obama’s critics heaped on him lots of criticism. With so many out of work, what was he doing wasting his time on the Olympics? To understand the thinking of the late George Melloan, longtime deputy editorial page editor at the Wall Street Journal (and full disclosure, someone I considered a friend), Obama did right.

Indeed, we rarely suffer a lack of political action. Oh, but when they act…. As Melloan put it in his very excellent 2016 memoir (my review here) of the Great Depression, When the New Deal Came to Town, “When Washington makes mistakes, even with good intentions, they often are doozies.” So very true.

Melloan’s correct memory of how experts and politicians turned a fairly pedestrian 1929-30 recession into a decade-long U.S. slump via intervention prominently came to mind while reading his latest, Bogus Science: How Scare Politics Robs Voters, Corrupts Research, and Poisons Minds. Published posthumously (Melloan died in September of 2020, a month shy of his 93rd birthday), Bogus Science among other things skewers all the alarmism about global warming. It’s a great read.

Crucial about Melloan’s account is that in many ways it’s not surprising how climate theory has been so thoroughly perverted. In Melloan’s words about halfway through, “Organizational theory holds that an organization must ‘do something’ or it soon will cease to exist.” Up front, the previous truth in many ways speaks to the folly of “limited government.” There’s really no such thing. Once an entity or “organization” is created with taxpayer funds in order to address a certain problem (real or perceived), it’s inevitable that the organization will grow and grow. In other words, “bureaucratic creep” brings new meaning to redundant. Bureaucracies must grow, or die.

Except that it doesn’t end there. Not only must bureaucracies expand, but sometimes their initial mission will be distorted in the process in order to enable an ongoing expansion in terms of people and mission.

Applied to the theory that is “global warming,” or more modernly “climate change” since the earth hasn’t cooperated with the alarmists in the last 20 or so years, it may surprise readers that the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was actually established toward the end of the Reagan administration. Melloan writes that the Reagan administration’s plan “was to bring the findings of the world’s top scientists to bear on the issue of climate change to establish whether there was a scientific basis for the expensive amelioration policies being proposed.” Those expensive policies were a phase out of oil as our primary energy source. It all seems so easy, except that without the long demonized energy companies, Melloan writes that “our lights would go out, the heat would go off, and we would freeze in the dark.”

All of which led to some good news, at least for a time. Lest readers forget, the Reagan administration formed the IPCC to enable a serious, sober look at the supposed threats related to a warming planet. Oh well, it turns out “the initial IPCC assessment didn’t support” the alarmist claim of “man-made (anthropogenic) global warming.” In 1995, the IPCC’s second assessment “based on 130 peer-reviewed studies” subsequently “threw even more cold water on the idea of man-made global warming.” Case closed, and IPCC shuttered? Think again.

And in doing so, please think back to Melloan’s essential truth about organizational theory. Taxpayer-funded bureaucracies develop constituencies, not to mention that those employed within the bureaucracy have mortgages and other bills to pay. As opposed to closing, the IPCC evolved.

So while the 2nd assessment rejected ties between human activity and the warming of the planet, “the policy report issued in 1996 was shorn of their inability to discover a human influence on climate.” Instead, the producers of the assessment asserted something that was not at all part of the initial report; that the studies “point toward a human influence on global climate.”

Many scientists were furious, including Dr. Frederick Seitz, “a former president of the National Academy of Sciences, and a recipient of the National Medal of Science – in other words, one of America’s pre-eminent scientists.” Melloan’s description is important in consideration of the strategy long employed by warming alarmists in which they claim unanimity among “scientists” about man’s role in the warming of the planet. More on that in a bit, but for now it’s worth pointing out that Seitz didn’t go gently into the night. In an opinion piece written for Melloan’s Wall Street Journal, Seitz asserted that,

“…this report is not what it appears to be – it is not the version that was approved by contributing scientists listed on the title page. In my more than sixty years as a member of the American scientific community, including service as president of the NAS and the American Physical Society, I have never witnessed a more disturbing corruption of the peer-review process than the events that lead to this IPCC report.”

About the corruption of the scientific findings, there was an obvious, “follow-the-money” quality to what took place. By the 1990s Bill Clinton was president, and his VP was Al Gore; Gore the author of the laughably apocalyptic 1992 book, Earth In the Balance. All the alarmism about the alleged horrors of oil consumption appealed to the Clinton/Gore crowd, at which point the funding of the “science” from the IPCC reflected this change. Only for things to get worse, more corrupt, or both.

No doubt many readers remember the “hockey stick” narrative promoted by a formerly obscure Penn State professor, Michael Mann. According to Mann, the earth’s temperatures had been largely flat for centuries only to turn sharply upward in the 20th century. Get it? A rapidly industrializing world is the enemy of “our little planet.” Of course, the problem with Mann’s numbers, numbers that Melloan reports Mann has always been defensive about explaining, was that they failed to incorporate rising temperatures in the 1400s. About this, Melloan notes that Greenland didn’t get its name because it was always iced over.

Put another way, actual numbers supporting the alleged “hockey stick” theory weren’t cooperating. Yes, it turns out that “during the medieval period” mentioned above, “the earth was considerably warmer than it is now.” Hmmm. No problem. Just get rid of the uncooperative numbers. Melloan cites leaked e-mails from East Anglia University in which one of the scientists wrote about how “We have to get rid of the Medieval Warm Period” to make a warming case. Oh yes, per Ronald Reagan facts are stubborn things. In Melloan’s brilliant words, “The sharp upturn predicted by the hockey stick theory never happened, not because government warded it off with their massive spending on emissions controls (which had little effect on C02 levels), but most likely because, as later scientific studies have indicated, there was never any important relationship between C02 emissions and climate.”

What about carbon dioxide? This is an important question, and it’s one that Melloan answers well before getting into the corruption of the warming science. In the foreword he asks the essential question: “Is it really possible for politicians to manage the great mass of swirling gases called the atmosphere, with its constantly shifting currents, merely by passing a law?” He then cites MIT professor Richard Lindzen as observing about this conceit that we can control earth as “magical thinking.” Amen to that.

Better yet, while Melloan is clear that “there would be no life on earth” without C02, he crucially notes that it’s a “minuscule (0.04%) component of the air we breathe.” At which point we’re supposed to believe that corralling what’s microscopic relative to other gases, but also essential to life, will have some kind of salutary impact on the earth?

It’s all a reminder that in leading off this review with the corruption of science related to a “warming” planet, we in many ways got ahead of ourselves. We did so properly; as in it’s important to show how organizational theory and the desire to “do something” gave a theory an undeserved life. But having established the latter, it’s certainly useful to pivot to what was known before the IPCC: whether or not man-made activity was warming the earth, the carbon dioxide theory behind the warming was much more than flinty.

That it was shouldn’t surprise anyone, and it certainly didn’t surprise Melloan. The expressed theme of Melloan’s excellent book is: “the effect on human minds of a public discourse in recent decades in which ‘crises’ are often invented and real problems exaggerated in their danger and scope for political reasons.” Basically, much of what is said to threaten us is vastly oversold, and humans as a threat to the earth follows acid rain, ozone holes, DDT and other supposed calamities that were realistically bereft of meaning.

Of course, with the theory that is “global warming” it’s not just that C02 is such a microscopic aspect of the air we breathe, and it’s not just that there’s no historical correlation between rising levels of C02 and warming. Easily forgotten is how challenging it is just to achieve accurate temperature readings. Melloan cites a study by meteorologist Anthony Watts indicating that “almost 90 percent of the 1,221 weather stations in the United States did not meet the National Weather Service’s siting standards, which require that they be at least 100 feet from any artificial heat source or radiating surface.”

Beyond that, Melloan is quite simply blunt. He’s not giving in to all the certitude expressed by the alarmists. Instead, he’s showing his readers that as opposed to seeking debate, warming alarmists are striving to shut off all discussion. In his words, “The word settled itself is suspect because it begs the questions and forecloses argument.” And the closing of argument is plainly anti-science because, as Melloan explains it, “scientists are rarely in agreement on anything.” To pretend they are, to say “Scientists agree….” ‘is the language of politics, not science.’” Thank goodness Melloan clarified the previous truth so well, and so artfully in the time he had left.

Did the book have weaknesses? The bet here is that Melloan’s passing prepublication got in the way of the “smoothing” that he was so famous for as editor of so many great writers, plus some easy corrections (the Spanish Flu outbreak of 1918 at one point is referred to as “2018” is an example) probably got lost in Melloan not being around to scrub the manuscript a few more times. But those are minor, and understandable.

What stood out as weakest for me is something Melloan would likely agree with. A quarter of the way through the book he writes of how “the warming trend has been largely beneficial. Growing seasons have become longer, yielding up more food to feed a growing world population.” Melloan adds that while solar energy, electric cars and other “clean” forms of energy don’t consume oil and its byproducts to operate, the creation of them certainly does. Okay, but the view here is that in each instance Melloan was conceding where he didn’t have to. To say clean energy requires the consumption of carbon byproducts is at least a veiled admission that there’s something wrong with consuming them, when there plainly is not. As for warming aiding food production, even if true, it seems Melloan is again conceding something he doesn’t need to concede.

Which brings us to the memorial service put on for Melloan in late August of this year, and which I attended. This rates mention because in remembering his father, Jim Melloan cited a then recent Wall Street Journal editorial claiming something along the lines of “no serious person really thinks humans aren’t playing a role in the warming of the earth.” Jim observed that perhaps his father was wrong. My own non-scientific view is that Melloan’s father was right, as he so often was about so many things. Leaving statistics and emotion aside, Melloan’s wonderful book reminds readers that the earth has been around for 4.5 billion years, while we humans have been industrializing on planet earth for 200.

No offense people, but we’re so totally irrelevant to the Big Picture of our big planet. The bet here is that in time the consensus view will be that no serious person thinks that we humans can change the course of what’s been around exponentially longer than we have. George Melloan’s Bogus Science should loom large in changing the terms of the “global warming” discussion to far more reasonable ones.

Reprinted from RealClearMarkets

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