Leading candidate for Trump’s science advisor calls climate change a cult

John Timmer

Both picks support science, doubt its conclusions.

In January, the Trump transition team arranged for two scientists to meet with Trump. Since then, both have been considered frontrunners to become the new presidential science advisor, a position that typically heads the Office of Science and Technology Policy. While the two—Princeton's William Happer and Yale's David Gelernter—have radically different backgrounds, they have a couple of things in common: strong support for science in general and extreme skepticism of climate science in particular.
There's no indication that Trump will name a science advisor in the near future, especially as his national security team is in turmoil. But Happer, a retired physicist, has put himself in the news by granting interviews in which he calls climate science a cult. So it seems like an appropriate time to take a good look at both of the candidates.

William Happer

Happer's biggest research achievement came in the development of technology that provided Earth-based telescopes with adaptive optics that allow them to compensate for the distortions introduced by the atmosphere. He also has a long history of involvement with the government, having served on a panel of physicists that advised the US on military issues and serving in the Department of Energy.
In recent years, he has made climate change his primary cause, staking out a position that's in stark disagreement with the conclusions of those who actually study the climate. He has held positions at think tanks opposed to climate action, like the Global Warming Policy Foundation and the George C. Marshall Institute, and is a regular at the meetings of the Heartland Institute. In an exposé, Greenpeace found that he was willing to write material on the benefits of carbon dioxide for foreign fossil fuel companies in return for donations to a climate lobby group he helps to direct, the CO2 Coalition (he has also taken money from a coal company for testimony to state legislators).
All of which would seem to make Happer a potential disaster as science advisor. But the interviews make it clear that, in general, he'll be a strong advocate. For one thing, he clearly sees the value of long-term investments in science. "In the case of fusion, it doesn’t even work—not yet," he told Pro Publica. "Nobody’s going to fund things like that in the private sector. It’s very long-range research, and if the government isn’t willing to do it, nobody will do it."
William Happer.
In fact, he even supports long-term climate monitoring. "One of our problems in climate is that you need long-term good science—for example long-term temperature records, long-term records of CO2, and it’s very hard for the government to support that kind of stuff," he said in the same interview. But he went on to argue that the monitoring networks needed to be protected from governments' tendency to pump funding into flashier projects. But when it comes to the conclusions that scientists have drawn from that monitoring, Happer maintained his implacable opposition. He suggested we could double the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere and not see the temperature budge much and that the planet's history supports this conclusion (it doesn't). He continued to say that warmth and carbon dioxide would give agriculture a big boost (field studies suggest otherwise): "I see the CO2 as good, you know," he said. "Let me be clear: I don’t think it’s a problem at all, I think it’s a good thing."
And he punctuated those contentions with a combination of conspiracy theorizing and trolling. We only hear about negative impacts, he told Pro Publica, because "[alarmists] hijacked all the major scientific societies." The Scientist was told that funding would be cut for anyone who produced a contrary result: "If you were to come up with your computer modeling, with results that indicated that increasing CO2 really doesn’t have very much effect on the climate, you would not be renewed. It’s very clear you would not be renewed." Speaking with The Guardian, Happer echoed tabloid-worthy suggestions that scientists were manipulating climate data.
"They were fiddling with the temperature records to make the [warming] hiatus go away,” he said.
And then there's the trolling. Happer called climate science a "cult" during The Scientist's interview, but he was only warming up. By his next interview, he was ready to elaborate. “There’s a whole area of climate so-called science that is really more like a cult,” Happer told the Guardian. “It’s like Hare Krishna or something like that. They’re glassy-eyed and they chant. It will potentially harm the image of all science.”
So while Happer's support for long-term investments in science is commendable, it's also clear that he's willing to selectively reject certain conclusions for apparently nonscientific reasons. When those disagreements take place, he's happy to resort to personal insults rather than keep the dispute intellectual. As such, he seems like a questionable candidate to represent the full scientific community.

David Gelernter

If Happer has a long history of getting involved in science policy, David Gelernter's record on scientific matters is more sparse. But his history in the public eye is equally long. Gelernter was one of the victims of the Unabomber (Ted Kaczynski), being severely injured in a bomb blast during Kaczynski's anti-intellectual campaign. Oddly, Gelernter later wrote a book that was also anti-intellectual, with the subtitle How Imperial Academia Dismantled Our Culture. The Washington Post said that in the book, Gelernter "blamed intellectualism for the disintegration of patriotism and traditional family values." He also blamed the presence of Jews in higher education.
David Gelernter.
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(Notably, Gelernter is Jewish and has a faculty position at Yale.)
The book also highlights an issue Gelernter shares with Happer: climate change. In it, he echoes a common charge: that scientists only started using the term "climate change" once the science stopped supporting their claims. "[Obama] believes that manmade climate change is a fact, and he reared crushing new tax proposals on this rock solid belief, oblivious to the gathering scientific doubts that have forced ecofundamentalists to stop talking about 'global warming' and switch to 'climate change.'" Even a cursory check, however, would show that the two have been used interchangeably for decades.
In an interview with The Scientist, Gelernter elaborated a bit on climate science. He cautioned that he only had a layman's understanding of it, and he then went on to make arguments consistent with that assessment. Climate change is unlikely, he posited, because the Earth is very big and humanity isn't. He also seemed unaware that the idea of climate change stretches back over a century, as he stated, "The idea that human beings are changing the climate is a radical hypothesis." As far as he's concerned, the evidence for climate change simply isn't there.
But again, his issue isn't with science in general. In government, he'd likely be a strong advocate for research, saying, "I’d love to see more federal funding for science. I don’t think there are any dollars the country has ever spent that it’s gotten more out of than the dollars it spent on research." He's also aware of the importance of the international community of scientists. "It’s a matter of public record that without both immigrants and foreigners in the system we couldn’t keep the science world together in the United States," he said in response to a question about Trump's border policies. "We need these people. I don’t think there’s the slightest doubt that we’ll continue to get them."
So while a computer scientist doesn't engage in "research" as a biologist or physicist would understand it, it's clear that Gelernter values the scientific endeavor as a whole. And he has indicated he's willing to put in the work to rise above his layman's understanding of climate change should he be put in a position that requires it, something that appears to differentiate him from Happer. But he also seems to share Happer's willingness to engage in some flamboyant rhetoric when it comes to his intellectual opponents, which might make it difficult for him to represent the scientific community as a whole.
Listing image by Gage Skidmore
Leading candidate for Trump’s science advisor calls climate change a cult Reviewed by Bizpodia on 15:43 Rating: 5

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