BYU scientists cool to idea of face-off

Scientific truth isn't discovered through rhetoric, geologist says.
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The Washington, D.C.-based Science and Public Policy Institute sponsored a climate-change contrarian's appearance at the Legislature's first-ever hearing on climate science last fall to argue that human activity has little to do with global warming.

Now the organization, headed by Utah native Robert Ferguson, wants to revive the debate in a local, public forum. SPPI has proposed a face-off between its own unnamed "scientist counter-presenter" and the Brigham Young University earth scientists who stepped out last fall to publicly urge the governor and legislators to give full weight to mainstream climate scientists rather than "fringe positions."

Whether the forum happens or not is yet to be seen.

But it appears unlikely that the BYU scientists will accept Ferguson's "challenge" as served up in a provocative Jan. 21 letter. At least four of the 18 have said they don't wish to mix the hot-button politics of climate change with the complex science of it -- as they faulted lawmakers for doing last fall.

"When you are talking about a technical issue, what good is an oral debate?" asked Barry Bickmore, an associate professor of environmental chemistry who criticized Utah leaders for taking climate science too lightly.

"It might sway opinion, but it wouldn't serve the interests of people trying to understand."

Ferguson refused this week to provide any more information about his proposal.

A BYU graduate and staff aide to congressional Republicans for 26 years, Ferguson called his invitation "personal" and The Tribune's inquiries "malodorous and alarming" even though the subject line of his e-mail to the BYU scientists was "open letter" and the attached letter --on SPPI letterhead -- opened with: "For the Public Record."

"People with even minimal personal character do not engage in such mean pursuits," he responded to a reporter's questions about the forum proposal.

University of Alabama researcher Roy Spencer said in October that his appearance then before the Legislature's Public Utilities and Technology Committee was sponsored by SPPI. During his testimony, he attacked the integrity of climate science and its practitioners.

Though the BYU scientists never mentioned Spencer by name in their letter to state leaders after the Oct. 21 legislative meeting, they challenged several points of Spencer's testimony. They also noted that a presentation in the same hearing by mainstream climate scientist Jim Steenburgh of the University of Utah devolved into allegations of greed, grandstanding and even communism.

The BYU scientists also urged the lawmakers to give more weight to the findings of an overwhelming majority of climate scientists and to separate climate science from climate policy.

The tone of Ferguson's letter made a few of the BYU scientists wary about his latest proposal.

"If you choose not to respond by Monday, February 1, 2010, " said Ferguson's letter, "we will proceed under the reasonable assumption that you did sign the [BYU scientists' letter] without considering Dr. Spencer's testimony, that you stand by your comments in full, and that you are either unwilling or professionally unqualified to engage in the public forum."

BYU geologist Stephen Nelson declined SPPI's invitation because he said scientific truth isn't discovered through rhetoric but rather the ongoing dialogue in peer-reviewed journals and at professional conferences.

In a forum like the one Ferguson has suggested, someone with keen debating skills can be persuasive even if their science is faulty, he said.

Stephen Downes, professor and chairman of the philosophy department at the University of Utah, agreed that scientific controversies are settled very differently than political ones.

He explained that scientists find truth through research papers that describe in detail the tests, tools and measurements they've used, as well as professional gatherings.

"What's agreed upon," said Downes, a scholar of the philosophy of science, "is how you go about doing these things."

He said the BYU scientists, by agreeing to the SPPI forum, would be stepping into a realm where the rules of engagement are very different because they are so emotionally charged.

"They would know the standard rules of operation in science aren't going to work for them."