I used to be a huge fan of a podcast called The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe. As a bit of a science nerd, I appreciated how Dr. Stephen Novella and the gang would present often complicated topics in easily understandable ways, and their professed goal to talk about science in a non-partisan manner.

They didn’t always meet that goal, however, and I stopped listening because the political attacks were consistent and in one direction: toward the right. A while back they had a guess-the-stupid-George-W.-Bush-quote game. No word on whether they’ve done a similar Joe Biden or Barack Obama game in the time since, there’s no dearth of material there.
The show constantly derided conservatives as "anti-science" and most curiously, considering the name of the podcast, branded anyone who doesn’t completely toe the progressive line on climate change not a "skeptic" but a "denier." More on that below.
Even though I don’t listen anymore, I do click over now and again to Novella’s blog. Despite our political differences, I have a lot of respect for him and almost always find his posts to be thoughtful and well-reasoned.
Then I came across a post called "How to be a Science Denier." In it, Novella eschews his non-partisan facade and tears into Governor Bobby Jindal for some comments he made during a breakfast hosted by the Christian Science Monitor. Before I go into what’s wrong with Novella’s post, a little background is in order.
Mischa Fisher, writing in the Atlantic almost a year ago, talked about the progressive tactic Novella uses:
I’m the first to admit that there are elected Republicans with a terrible understanding of science…But Republicans, conservatives, and the religious are no more uniquely "anti-science" than any other demographic or political group. It’s just that "anti-science" has been defined using a limited set of issues that make the right wing and religious look relatively worse….evolution and global warming.


Novella follows the playbook, criticizing only Jindal’s responses on these two issues. According to Novella, political ignorance of science is a uniquely Republican problem. A search for "democrat" on his blog turns up only one instance – from six years ago – of him criticizing a liberal politician in a similar fashion. It appears he and I agree on the kookiness of Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.
But is the rejection of evolution solely a Republican issue? Here is Fisher again:

Numerically speaking, according to Gallup, only a marginally higher percentage of Republicans reject evolution completely than do Democrats. Yes, an embarrassing half of Republicans believe the earth is only 10,000 years old [comment: the linked table appears to ask a slightly different question] but so do more than a third of Democrats. And a slightly higher percentage of Democrats believe God was the guiding factor in evolution than Republicans.

Jindal didn’t directly answer the question about whether or not he personally believes evolution is responsible for life on earth. Novella has a problem with this. "This is a clear dodge," he writes, "[Jindal] is applying a very common political tactic to these issues – when asked a specific question, answer the question you want to answer, rather than the one you were actually asked."

Novella’s right, but what Jindal also did is turn a question with little national political relevance into an answer with some relevance to his political agenda. Should Washington be making decisions about what is taught at the middle school down the street from my house? In Jindal’s view – and mine – the answer is no.
Novella and I agree on evolution, just not the political significance of the debate. But on the topic of climate change he goes completely around the bend. Here is the question and what I can only assume is most of Jindal’s response (the clip cuts him off in mid-sentence at the end). Jindal acknowledges that climate change is real, that humans have an effect on climate, and then steers the discussion back to public policy. Sounds pretty reasonable, right?
(If that link isn’t working, here is a link to the full Q&A, note that Jindal addresses climate change more than once, see the question starting at 20:18)
It’s not reasonable to Novella, who thinks that Jindal’s response "is the ultimate denialist position." Novella is confident that "the scientists…have decided – it is clear that human activity is increasing greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and warming the climate."
I’m unclear, based on this logic, what climate change position Novella would not characterize as denial. Perhaps he can answer a few questions.
The climate has always changed and will continue to change. Humans are adding carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, and carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases have a warming effect on the climate. However there is enduring uncertainty beyond these basic issues, and the most consequential aspects of climate science are the subject of vigorous scientific debate: whether the warming since 1950 has been dominated by human causes, and how the climate will evolve in the 21st century due to both natural and human causes.

This sounds awful close to what Governor Jindal said, and is written by a "Professor and former Chair of the School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences at the Georgia Institute of Technology and President (co-owner) of Climate Forecast Applications Network."

How about Dr. Steve Koonin, Undersecretary for Science in the Energy Department during Obama’s first term? He writes:
Any serious discussion of the changing climate must begin by acknowledging not only the scientific certainties but also the uncertainties, especially in projecting the future. Recognizing those limits, rather than ignoring them, will lead to a more sober and ultimately more productive discussion of climate change and climate policies. To do otherwise is a great disservice to climate science itself.
Denier? (Splitter?)
What about the disparity between climate models and observed temperatures? That post was authored by a former "Senior Scientist for Climate Studies at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center."
What about climate sensitivity? The IPCC revised their estimate downward in their latest report, and a collection of recent peer-reviewed papers suggest that it is even lower.
Are all of these scientists engaged in climate change denial?
What about nuclear power? If climate change is indeed a dangerous threat to the earth, progressives should be championing this near zero emission alternative. Yet Novella has written no posts deriding the Obama Administration’s "anti-science" decision to terminate the Yucca Mountain repository program, which was based on "policy reasons, not technical or safety reasons."
What about Bjorn Lomborg? He’s an environmentalist who "argues that we should first focus our resources on more immediate concerns, such as fighting malaria and HIV/AIDS and assuring and maintaining a safe, fresh water supply – which can be addressed at a fraction of the cost and save millions of lives within our lifetime. He asks why the debate over climate change has stifled rational dialogue and killed meaningful dissent."
I’d ask Novella a similar question – why affix a pejorative label to a politician – and a political party – with whom you don’t agree instead of engaging him on the issues? Jindal mentioned his energy plan in his response to the climate change question, and I quickly found a copy of it here. There’s a section on climate change, does Novella have any issues with it? I don’t know, he appears content to just throw around the word "denier" and assume he’s made an argument.
As I’ve noted, I respect Dr. Novella but I’m fairly certain he’s letting his political views blind him here.
As we round the corner into the 2016 Presidential political season, expect more of these "anti-science" attacks from progressives. But understand they are almost all political attacks that have little to do with science.
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