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Terence Corcoran: If we unquestioningly ‘follow the science,’ it could lead us nowhere – ‘Facts distorted’; Risk exaggerated & science warped to serve an agenda’

Welcome to Junk Science Week, where we expose when scientific facts are distorted, risk is exaggerated and science warped to serve an agenda

Calls to follow the science are heard almost daily from politicians and activists — and many scientists. But what are they advocating?, asks Terence Corcoran.Postmedia

Surely one of the more embarrassing moments in Anderson Cooper’s career as host of his CNN nightly show was the night back in May when he brought in 17-year-old Greta Thunberg as a star interview for a CNN Town Hall — not on the climate crisis, for which Thunberg has been famously treated as an expert of sorts, but on the COVID-19 crisis.

The link between COVID-19 and climate change is a little unclear, so presumably Cooper and Town Hall co-host Dr. Sanjay Gupta, CNN’s medical expert, thought Thunberg would bring some special wisdom and insight to the virus crisis.

The only advice from Thunberg, however, was to urge everyone to “follow the science” as suggested by Cooper, who seemed to be appealing to the 17-year-old for confirmation of his views: “This is a time, it seems, that the global scientific community is so critically important and we’re really seeing how important it is to follow science.”

Thunberg took that soft hand off from Cooper as one might expect — as confirmation of her claim that we should also be following the science on climate change. “People are starting to realize that we are actually depending on science and that we need to listen to scientists and experts. And I really hope that stays,” she said, adding that she also hoped it will apply to other crises “such as the climate crisis and the environmental crisis.”

When it comes to COVID-19, however, Thunberg seemed to have missed some of the science she said we should all be following. She suggested it was misinformation to believe initial reports that COVID-19 affected only the elderly. “During any crisis it is always the most vulnerable people who are hit the hardest, and that is children,” she proclaimed.

“Yes, this does affect elderly people a lot, but we also have to remember that this is also a children’s rights crisis because children are the most vulnerable in societies. Children do get the virus and they also spread it.”

The actual science shows, as we all now know, that children are not the hardest hit, nor are they the most vulnerable. Children are in “extremely low risk” of getting the disease and when they do get it they are more likely to be asymptomatic. Few have died.

Welcome to FP Comment’s 22nd annual Junk Science Week, guided by our standard definition: Junk science occurs when scientific facts are distorted, risk is exaggerated and the science adapted and warped by politics and ideology to serve another agenda. Both CNN and Thunberg are manifestations thereof.

Whether the politicization of science is more widespread today is unanswerable, but it seems fair to conclude that there have been few signs of retreat. As we shall explore later this week, peer review regimes continue to fail, correlations are propelled into causation, health risks converted into draconian legislation.

Calls to follow the science are heard almost daily from politicians and activists — and many scientists. But what are they advocating?

When a politician who declares “I believe in the science” (as per U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren), it’s akin to admitting lack of knowledge about the science behind whatever policy is being promulgated. And what if, as is too often the case, the science politicians are following is tainted and falls into the great science world where deliberate distortions and exaggerations — even fabrications — are common?

Lest anyone believe that doesn’t happen, it’s worth recalling the famous words of Stephen Schneider, the late Stanford University climate scientist who — along with many others over the years — saw fudging and fakery as the proper role of scientists.

“On the one hand,” said Schneider, “as scientists we are ethically bound to the scientific method. On the other hand, we are not just scientists but human beings as well. To do that we need to get some broad-based support, to capture the public’s imagination. That, of course, means 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. Each of us has to decide what the right balance is between being effective and being honest.”

There is one area of science where a small blow — or maybe it will prove to be large — has been dealt to the “scary scenarios” that have driven climate policy over much of the past two decades.

That scenario is the work of the UN climate agency — the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) — which produced a so-called “business-as-usual” scenario implying that without drastic action to curb carbon emissions the world would plunge into economic and environmental hell. Guelph University’s Ross McKitrick outlines on this page today that the official UN climate scenario known as RCP8.5 — cited by media and others to describe climate change risk — is a form of junk science based on assorted wrong-headed assumptions, including impossible projections of carbon emissions increases.

McKitrick concludes: “If we want to avoid the RCP8.5 future scenario all we have to do is stop feeding it into climate models, because that’s the only place it exists.”

If we just unquestioningly “follow the science,” that’s where it seems to be leading, to places that don’t exist, to nowhere.