Is Anthropogenic Global Warming the New Intelligent Design?

[Update: See below in the comments for a reply from William A Dembski.]

Perching as I do close to the fulcrum of American politics and culture (those political-spectrum tests place me slightly to the left of center; my mostly liberal family thinks I’m well to the right), I’m fascinated by symmetries between the two ends of the seesaw.

Pointing these out -- observing, for instance, that Barack Obama and Sarah Palin play near-identical roles for the left and the right -- is not a good way to make friends. It is a good way to elicit incredulous -- and symmetrical! -- protests that the two terms cannot be compared at all, that they are night and day, truth and lie, freedom and fascism, reason and voodoo.

Indeed, on the level of content there is no comparison. The philosophical differences between left and right are profound, from their roots in the life experience of different social classes to their fruits in momentously different political and economic systems. But philosophical agreement and emotional identification with the content on one side or the other can obscure strong similarities in form and function, such as the left’s dogmatic insistence on the truth of anthropogenic global warming and the way it makes climate “science” mirror the pseudoscience of the right, intelligent design.

(Pause for outrage from both sides)

The proponents of ID will protest that they never manipulated data. The champions of AGW will retort that IDers never had any data. Okay, I take back “mirror.” Make that “resemble.” The symmetry between these two is not perfect. The theory of AGW arose from a tainted sea-foam of data; the theory of ID sprang from the brow of Jehovah. Until fairly recently (the first cracks in the famous “hockey stick” temperature graph actually appeared in 2004), data from multiple sources seemed to show that global average surface temperatures had indeed trended steeply upward starting in the 1980s, keeping pace with spiking atmospheric-CO2 concentrations. Even climate-change skeptics didn’t dispute that the Earth was warming in the years around the millennium, only how much of that was due to human activities and how much to natural cycles that are still poorly understood. Since they could easily be portrayed as agenda- rather than data-driven (with oil companies such as Exxon among their major funding sources and with the peer-review process, as we now know, being managed backstage), it was easy to argue that real, sober science was on the side of human-caused climate change.

It couldn’t have hurt this case that the other major “scientific” argument being promoted by the right, intelligent design, was so nakedly agenda-driven. One of its leading lights, William A. Dembski, a mathematician and philosopher at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary wrote in 2005 (in a respectful rejoinder to criticism from young-earth creationists) that “ID is part of God's general revelation”:

Just about anyone who is not wedded to a pure materialism agrees that some sort of design or purpose underlies nature. Intelligent design not only gives a voice to these people, but also gives them the tools to dismantle materialism.

Dismantling materialism is a good thing. Not only does intelligent design rid us of this ideology, which suffocates the human spirit, but, in my personal experience, I've found that it opens the path for people to come to Christ. Indeed, once materialism is no longer an option, Christianity again becomes an option. ... Thus, in its relation to Christianity, intelligent design should be viewed as a ground-clearing operation that gets rid of the intellectual rubbish that for generations has kept Christianity from receiving serious consideration.

Whether you agree or disagree with the content of this statement, the form of it is not science because it puts the cart before the horse, the predetermined answer before the merely rhetorical question. This isn’t scientific inquiry. It’s religious apologetics and evangelism, gotten up in a new guise for an age when authority wears a white lab coat instead of a chasuble. (Too bad, because as we learn more about the nanotechnology inside living cells, the nagging question rears its head again: can random variation and blind trial and error account for all this?  A “no” wouldn’t automatically default to the supernatural. But most mainstream scientists won’t even entertain the question, and for most IDers it isn’t a real question. More on this when Stephen C. Meyer’s Signature in the Cell, reputed to be the most scientifically sound of the ID books, comes out in paperback.)

Cart before horse, answer before question, “nakedly agenda-driven”-- when did these phrases begin to fit climate science (thenceforth, “science”) as well as ID?  When “global warming” stopped for a decade, but scientists kept going, up a now faked slope. And perhaps much earlier. Around the turn of the millennium, we now know, the temperature curve flattened, then dipped, even as CO2 continued to rise, suggesting that endogenous cycles were more powerful than any human effect. Time will tell whether or not this is the start of another two- or three-decade cool spell like the one the world experienced most recently from the 1940s to ‘70s (which, some of us old ’uns may recall, touched off fears of a new ice age), but at the very least the arrest in warming threw the catastrophists’ consensus into doubt.  Or should have.

But for them, doubt was a catastrophe. So they committed the cardinal sin of science: they stopped following the data and started forcing it to follow them.  In the words of CRU’s Phil Jones, from perhaps the most famous Climategate e-mail, “Hide the decline.” (Joseph D’Aleo of the Science and Public Policy Institute [disclaimer:  its predecessor got funding from Exxon!] wrote recently on PJM and documented at length in a report coauthored with Anthony Watts, that the warming of the ‘90s was also exaggerated by the knockout of data from cooler surface stations.)

Why did climate scientists get so attached to AGW that, like IDers’ God, it decreed what they must find? I’m too close to the political fulcrum to buy into black-helicopter theories of a conspiracy to impose a socialist world government (although I’ll bet academic and government scientists do have a disdain for the “drill, baby, drill” school of American entrepreneurship; I used to share it.  Still do, a bit). If I had to make a one-word guess at the prime motive, it would be “grants.” But the zeal and solemnity with which the peril to the planet is insisted upon suggests something more.

We need to make sense of the world, scientists no less than the rest of us. A coherent cosmology seems to be, not an option, but the foundation we stand on -- “turtles all the way down.” In the absence of religion, human-caused climate change provides a grand narrative that stealthily smuggles back in many of the satisfying, mortifying archetypes of religious narratives: sin (extractive industries and carbon emissions), hell (an overcrowded, overheated planet), apocalypse, sacrifice, redemption and restoration.

This drama, whose passion play is Avatar, may turn out to be every bit as made-up as secularists insist the Christ story is, yet, “skeptics” that they pride themselves on being, for this fable they can spare little or none.

Ah, symmetry.