Thursday, July 17, 2008

Science, the inconvenient truth

OK, I understand that Jonah Goldberg is one of the more reliable conservative voices and, as must happen these days with people coming from either side of the spectrum, he must demonize the "other side." He writes well enough, if more than a bit incautiously at times. But, if one is to grasp where conservatism is these days, Goldberg is definitely one to whom you must pay attention.

That said, his column of today (reprinted in the Chicago Tribune) is an example of how partisanship is so often the enemy of truth, leading both sides to a willful disregard of reality. He begins by criticizing both sides for their demonization of oil speculators, a fair point undermined by a gratuitous compliment for Newt Gingrich (a man I've heard speak enough to know that he'll say about four things which are insightful and even brilliant, then will come out with a fifth that is so remarkably loopy that you question his sanity; even without that, there is an element of worship in Goldberg's throwing him into this discussion, as his current relevance is close to nil).

Goldberg spins the discussion into a generalized rant about how the U.S. government is acting in a way that keeps prices high. Predictably, he sees massive drilling as an answer, the maintenance of a Strategic Petroleum Reserve as a political tool, and taxes and regulations as some kind of strategy to "drive up pump prices."

That there are huge potential costs and questionable benefits in the expansion of drilling is not something the "drillheads" like to consider. That there might be good reasons for the government to maintain a supply of oil doesn't fit into this worldview. That taxes and regulations are imposed to do things like maintain the roads and protect the environment isn't taken into account.

But all this is within the realm of proper commentary, if addled in my view, and Goldberg doesn't offend truth with any of it. It's this statement:
Liberals in particular have insisted for years that the world is approaching — or has passed — the point of “peak oil.” This is the idea that we’ve hit the maximum rate of global oil extraction, so the supply will steadily diminish, causing prices to rise.
Why must Goldberg and his fellows tie "liberals" to the concept of "peak oil"? How does that enhance the conversation? The supply of oil is a fact, one that is almost certainly impossible to ascertain, but a fact. It could well be true, and many non-partisan scientists believe, that we have gone beyond the point at which we can pull more oil out of the ground. Even if we can, it will be at a price point that will alter the way of life of virtually everyone in the world. This is not a liberal issue, or a conservative issue - it's not political at all. (How we respond to it will almost certainly be political, and appropriately so, but the actual oil that can be extracted with techniques of a certain cost falls into the realm of fact and engineering.)

We've seen the same thing with global warming, I mean, climate change. There are two fundamental questions about climate change, is it happening? and does the activity of man contribute to it? Those are questions of fact, perhaps hard-to-determine fact, not political questions.

In my lifetime, I have seen this partisanship infect more of the public dialogue, and I know that all it does is prevent us from dealing with real issues and real problems. One wonders if, had this style been in place in the '60s, Richard Nixon would have cancelled the Apollo project, claiming that the moon was a figment of the Democratic Party's imagination.

If you don't believe that we've reached a state of "peak oil," say so, and offer some facts to back that up. Tell us why we should believe that there are barrels and barrels out there ripe for the picking, and we can happily maintain our current lives. Goldberg goes on to say we should drill more, and is sneers at the current (small) efforts at changing citizen behavior ("liberals should be rejoicing").

To the extent that conservatives are linked to a non-scientific, unreal view of the world, they will increasingly be seen as out of touch. Goldberg may feel he's bravely raising the torch of light, but he's raising it into a storm of truth, and it will eventually go out, leaving him and his ilk with nothing but a wet stick of wood.

(Not so by the way, I am not excusing liberals from this opinion, I just don't have a current example of it. There are far too many liberals as well who disregard facts in their attempts to cast aspersions on those across the aisle. It is equally repugnant and time-wasting from either side.)

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