I know that plenty of people feel that Franken has been denied his right to due process, but I want to start by saying that I don't believe this is ultimately about whether Franken is innocent (he's not) or whether he has committed any action that is irredeemably bad or criminal (he hasn’t). The issue to me is whether or not Franken has lost the authority to speak effectively as a statesman on the issues of our time. As this is a blog about global warming, I want to present as a case in point a discussion Franken had on the Senate floor this past June with the United States Secretary of Energy, Rick Perry.
I teach a class on Energy and the Environment at St. Joseph's College in Patchogue, New York. When I saw this clip I had every intention of showing it to my class at the end of the fall semester, when I discuss how to respond to skeptical arguments against the idea that global warming is happening and human activity is responsible for it. The clip demonstrates very well that it's important to understand how the scientific method works, and that you don't need to be a scientist to be able to do that. (Keep in mind that before he became a senator, Al Franken made a living writing jokes for Saturday Night Live.) But as you can probably guess, I couldn't show this to my students. Franken’s behavior in other regards had become too much of a distraction, and presenting him as a champion of good sense no longer seemed prudent. I was angry and disappointed, but it was not the fault of Franken’s political opponents, or his female Democratic colleagues in the Senate who collectively asked him to resign, that this happened. And it was certainly not the fault of the women who have spoken out about Franken’s behavior towards them. Regardless of how well he may have spoken on a variety of different issues, Al Franken lost his voice. He did not have it taken away from him.
But the important detail that I had wanted to emphasize from this exchange was not that Franken possessed any special, irreplaceable gift for speaking about global warming or other issues. In fact, the opposite is true. For a person whose education has lasted at least as far as high school, it takes as much time to understand how the scientific method works as Franken spent explaining it to Secretary Perry. This isn’t difficult. Scientists critically evaluate each other’s work all the time, just as they have been doing for centuries. What holds up to scrutiny is preserved, and what doesn’t is disregarded. The system isn’t necessarily perfect, but Perry recommended in this clip that the best response to research that has survived decades of scientific scrutiny and led to an uncomfortable conclusion is not to act on the uncomfortable conclusion, but to subject it to more scrutiny (and in a highly subjective setting at that). No, Secretary Perry, there is nothing whatsoever that is wrong with being a skeptic. But truly being skeptical requires not only demanding evidence and critically evaluating it, but accepting when the evidence has indeed withstood the scrutiny. The scientific process is based on healthy skepticism, and good science endures because of it. This is something that everybody can understand well enough to defend it.
As the smoke starts to clear from this ordeal, there are things to hope for. I do hope that Al Franken gets the opportunity to redeem himself in the not-too-distant future. I also hope all people can learn to speak as well in defense of the scientific method, and the difficult conclusions it sometimes leads to, as Franken did in his exchange with Rick Perry. It's necessary, and it’s actually not very hard.