Denialist Demagogues and the Threat to Science

by Donald R. Prothero

Shortly after Texas Governor Rick Perry announced his candidacy for President of the United States, he made additional news by not only topping the field of GOP Presidential candidates in denying climate change, but upping the ante by claiming it was all made up by a conspiracy of greedy scientists. The same position has been articulated by all the GOP candidates except Jon Huntsman. That one of these people could very well win the presidency in 2012 should worry us with not only their ignorance of science, but the even more alarming tactic of using ad hominem and “shoot the messenger” tactics to try to discredit the overwhelming consensus of climate scientists around the world.

That consensus is well represented in James Powell’s new book, The Inquisition of Climate Science , a masterful compilation of nearly all the evidence, not only for the reality of anthropogenic global warming, but especially answering point-by-point the ridiculous attempts by climate deniers to cloud and distort the issues by raising one bogus charge after another. As many people have noted, the global warming deniers use many of the same tactics that creationists use to attack evolutionary science. These tactics include quote-mining statements out of context (the entire “climategate” email kerfuffle, which Powell shows was nothing more than careless use of language); and cherry-picking data and repeating discredited statements even though they’ve been debunked (such as the false meme about “it’s been cooling since 1998,” perpetuated by right-wing media again and again). There are many other similarities between the tactics of evolution-deniers and climate change-deniers, many of which are documented in Powell’s book in great detail.

As Powell points out, the idea that climate scientists are a global left-wing conspiracy to get rich and enforce a liberal agenda is laughable on the face of it. In my own career, I have come to know hundreds of natural scientists (geologists, biologists, chemists, and physicists in many subspecialties), and if there’s one thing they almost all share, it’s a lack of interest in politics and economics, let alone a unified socialist-communist agenda. Many got into science specifically because they weren’t interested in economics and politics, and had a gift or love for doing science instead. What they are committed to is a sincere love of the truth, and a willingness to make sacrifices of their time, money, and even comfort and personal safety to find out what is really true about nature, no matter whose agenda it might support. Only rarely do most of us think about possible political or economic implications of our research. Typically scientists try to downplay those aspects because they don’t want to attract attention or controversy! If you doubt this, just look at all the negative comments that scientists heaped on Carl Sagan or Stephen Jay Gould because they were willing to be public figures and occasionally step into the political spotlight!

As Powell argues persuasively, the very idea that a scientific community, which is built upon the foundation of peer review and challenging accepted ideas and always double-checking each other’s work (especially if you disagree), would be able to put together a giant conspiracy about the data and cover it up—and that normally conservative organizations, from the insurance companies and big corporations such as General Electric and the U.S. military (all of whom have acknowledged the reality of global warming and are planning their futures around the projections of climate scientists) would all be in on the conspiracy—is ridiculous in the extreme. This shows a complete lack of understanding of science and how the scientific community really works.

This is a classic case of the pot calling the kettle black, because global warming denialism is entirely a PR campaign and a right-wing/energy company conspiracy, not a legitimate movement that arose from dissenting climate scientists. As Oreskes and Conway documented from memos leaked to the press and published in their book Merchants of Doubt, in April 1998 the right-wing Marshall Institute, SEPP (Fred Seitz’s lobby that aids tobacco companies and polluters), and ExxonMobil, met in secret at the American Petroleum Institute’s headquarters in Washington, D.C. There they planned a $20 million campaign to get “respected scientists” to cast doubt on climate change, get major PR effort going, and lobby Congress that global warming wasn’t real and was not a threat. Then there was the famously cynical 2002 memo from GOP pollster and spinmeister Frank Luntz to the Bush White House:

The scientific debate is closing [against us] but not yet closed. There is still a window of opportunity to challenge the science… Voters believe that there is no consensus about global warming within the scientific community. Should the public come to believe that the scientific issues are settled, their views about global warming will change accordingly. Therefore, you need to continue to make the lack of scientific certainty a primary issue in the debate, and defer to scientists and other experts in the field.

Powell also documents that the climate science community is not “leftist” or “pursuing a socialist agenda.” In my own career, I have known both conservative and liberal scientists (but no outright communists or socialists), despite the claim that we’re all left-wingers. Some of the leading figures in climate research, such as Kerry Emanuel at MIT, are staunch Republicans. Again, global warming cannot be a left-wing ideology if it is accepted and acted upon by such major conservative organizations as insurance companies, major corporations, and the U.S. military. There are scientists who do have strong political opinions, but as scientists we try our best to prevent our political biases from influencing our scientific results. We’re human, of course, so occasionally research with a political agenda does get published—but then the rest of the scientific community will jump in and criticize it, so we don’t get away with our biases for very long. Finally, the idea that scientists do this to get rich is the most absurd charge of all. Most scientists must endure a grueling 5–7 years in graduate school on miserably small stipends to earn their Ph.D. Then we must live on paltry teachers’ salaries or even more tenuous “soft-money” grant funds to eke out a living. Most of the scientists in faculty posts don’t make six-figure incomes until they are near retirement, if ever. Meanwhile, people who spend much less time in grad school, such as lawyers and MBAs and politicians, make the really big bucks.

As Powell puts it (p. 189):

Scientists…show no evidence of being more interested in politics or ideology than the average American. Does it make sense to believe that tens of thousands of scientists would be so deeply and secretly committed to bringing down capitalism and the American way of life that they would spend years beyond their undergraduate degrees working to receive master’s and PhD degrees, then go to work in a government laboratory or university, plying the deep oceans, forbidding deserts, icy poles, and torrid jungles, all for far less money than they could have made in industry, all the while biding their time like a Russian sleeper agent in an old spy novel? Scientists tend to be independent and resist authority. That is why you are apt to find them in the laboratory or in the field, as far as possible from the prying eyes of a supervisor. Anyone who believes he could organize thousands of scientists into a conspiracy has never attended a single faculty meeting.

Powell’s main point is that the current right-wing attack on climate science is very similar to how the Inquisition threatened Galileo because he spoke truth to power. Ironically, Rick Perry even managed to further emphasize his ignorance of science when in a recent debate that he said1 he admired Galileo and how he “was outvoted for a while.” Bad analogy, Rick! If Perry actually knew any science, he would realize that Galileo was championing an unpopular scientific idea (heliocentric solar system) that was “outvoted” by the conservative power of that time, the Catholic Church and the Inquisition. Eventually, scientific truth won out, not the political delusions of the conservatives.

As Powell documents, the right-wing fringe has gone to extreme lengths in their hostile attitude toward legitimate science. The FBI has reported2 a sharp increase in death threats and hate mail and intimidation against prominent climate scientists such as Michael Mann, James Hansen, and others. Australian climate scientists have also received death threats.3 The transition from conservative climate denialist to a dangerous anti-Semitic hate group is not difficult. One white supremacist website posted Michael Mann’s picture and those of other climate scientists and labeled it “Jew”. (In fact, most climate scientists are not Jewish, but the facts don’t matter to racists and anti-Semites). Another climate scientist told ABC News that he found a dead animal placed on his doorstep, and now he must travel with a bodyguard.4 As Mann said, “Human-caused climate change is a reality. There are clearly some who find that message inconvenient, and unfortunately they appear willing to turn to just about any tactics to try to suppress that message.”

Human-caused climate change is a reality. There are clearly some who find that message inconvenient, and unfortunately they appear willing to turn to just about any tactics to try to suppress that message.

—Michael Mann

Even more frightening are the right-wing politicians and pundits who actually target prominent scientists for intimidation. Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma is one of the most brazen. He listed the name of 17 prominent climate scientists5 and claimed that they engaged in “potentially criminal behavior” for violating the Federal False Statements Act. This is the classic tactic of McCarthy-style witch hunting, or analogous to how conservative authorities (such as the Inquisition) threatened Galileo with torture when he dared speak scientific truth to power. It has a tremendously chilling effect on science, not to mention what it does to the personal lives of hardworking scientists and their families. Of course, it is an entirely baseless charge, since the truth lies with the scientists, and it is Inhofe who is distorting reality. Nevertheless, an anti-scientific troglodyte like Inhofe is capable of wasting a lot of scientists’ time and money fighting and defending charges in court or in Congress, not to mention the fact that all these scientists could now be targets of gun-toting crazy right-wingers.

Scariest of all is Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli. As Powell explains in detail, even before his election in 2008, he was known to be an extreme right-winger, and now he is abusing the powers of his office to push his agenda. He is suing6 to release all the raw data and emails collected by Michael Mann when he worked at the University of Virginia. (Mann is now at Penn State, so Cuccinelli cannot touch him there). Cuccinelli hopes to find some sort of “smoking gun” of conspiracy along the lines of the East Anglia “Climategate” scandal. This is despite the fact (as six independent commissions showed), there was nothing amiss in the emails, and no conspiracy was discovered, just careless and colloquial language quoted out of context. Given the right wing’s scientific incompetence and misinterpretation of the East Anglia data, there’s no reason to think that they will have any better ability to interpret Mann’s data, should they release it. Instead, we can expect that they will find things that fit their preconceptions without any scientific expertise to judge the data in the first place. Cuccinelli is trying to claim that Mann committed fraud and should return all the research money he received, along with legal fees and triple damages. Cuccinelli’s actions are part of a right-wing witch-hunt by an extremist politician who is using his relatively obscure position as state attorney general to further his political career. It is consistent with all the other ways he is using his office for political gain and street cred in the right-wing fringe. His crusades have ranged from the silly (trying to cover the naked breast of the crude sketch of the goddess on the Virginia state seal) to the serious. The latter include directing public universities to remove sexual orientation from their anti-discrimination policies, attacking the Environmental Protection Agency, filing a lawsuit challenging federal health care reform, and trying to reverse George Mason University’s policy about concealed weapons on campus. Polls7 show that the voters of Virginia are tired of his antics and want him to work on the job that most state attorney generals are paid to do: prosecuting criminals and corporations on the behalf of the state and enforcing state laws, not tilting at right-wing windmills.

One of the more measured and non-partisan analyses came from Nobel Prize-wining economist Paul Krugman:8

Jon Huntsman Jr., a former Utah governor and ambassador to China, isn’t a serious contender for the Republican presidential nomination. And that’s too bad, because Mr. Hunstman has been willing to say the unsayable about the G.O.P.—namely, that it is becoming the “anti-science party.” This is an enormously important development. And it should terrify us. I could point out that Mr. Perry is buying into a truly crazy conspiracy theory, which asserts that thousands of scientists all around the world are on the take, with not one willing to break the code of silence. I could also point out that multiple investigations into charges of intellectual malpractice on the part of climate scientists have ended up exonerating the accused researchers of all accusations. But never mind: Mr. Perry and those who think like him know what they want to believe, and their response to anyone who contradicts them is to start a witch hunt. So how has Mr. Romney, the other leading contender for the G.O.P. nomination, responded to Mr. Perry’s challenge? In trademark fashion: By running away. In the past, Mr. Romney, a former governor of Massachusetts, has strongly endorsed the notion that man-made climate change is a real concern. But, last week, he softened that to a statement that he thinks the world is getting hotter, but “I don’t know that” and “I don’t know if it’s mostly caused by humans.” Moral courage! Of course, we know what’s motivating Mr. Romney’s sudden lack of conviction. According to Public Policy Polling, only 21 percent of Republican voters in Iowa believe in global warming (and only 35 percent believe in evolution). Within the G.O.P., willful ignorance has become a litmus test for candidates, one that Mr. Romney is determined to pass at all costs. So it’s now highly likely that the presidential candidate of one of our two major political parties will either be a man who believes what he wants to believe, even in the teeth of scientific evidence, or a man who pretends to believe whatever he thinks the party’s base wants him to believe. And the deepening anti-intellectualism of the political right, both within and beyond the G.O.P., extends far beyond the issue of climate change. Now, we don’t know who will win next year’s presidential election. But the odds are that one of these years the world’s greatest nation will find itself ruled by a party that is aggressively anti-science, indeed anti-knowledge. And, in a time of severe challenges — environmental, economic, and more — that’s a terrifying prospect.

As a counter to the GOP’s inquisition of climate scientists, let us remember that in the last year or so, UC Berkeley physicist Richard Muller re-examined all the temperature data from the NOAA, East Anglia Hadley Climate Research Unit, and the Goddard Institute of Space Science sources. Even though Muller started out as a skeptic of the temperature data, and he was funded by the Koch brothers and other oil company sources, he carefully checked and re-checked the research himself. When the GOP leaders called him to testify before the House Science and Technology Committee last spring, they were expecting him to discredit the temperature data showed real change. Instead, Muller shocked his GOP sponsors by demonstrating his scientific integrity and telling truth to power: the temperature increase was real, and the scientists who had demonstrated climate was changing were right.9

This is the essence of the scientific method at its best. There may be biases in our perceptions, and we may want to find data that fits our preconceptions about the world, but if science is done properly, we get a real answer, often one we did not expect. That’s the true test of when science is giving us a reality check: when it tells us something we do not want to hear, but is inescapable if one follows the scientific method and analyzes the data honestly.

Thomas Henry Huxley said it best over 150 years ago: “Sit down before fact as a little child, be prepared to give up every preconceived notion, follow humbly wherever and to whatever abysses nature leads, or you shall learn nothing.”

About the Author

DR. DONALD R. PROTHERO is Professor of Geology at Occidental College in Los Angeles, and Lecturer in Geobiology at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. He earned M.A., M.Phil., and Ph.D. degrees in geological sciences from Columbia University in 1982, and a B.A. in geology and biology (highest honors, Phi Beta Kappa) from the University of California, Riverside. He is currently the author, co-author, editor, or co-editor of 25 books and over 250 scientific papers, including five leading geology textbooks and three trade books as well as edited symposium volumes and other technical works. He is on the editorial board of Skeptic magazine, and in the past has served as an associate or technical editor for GeologyPaleobiology and Journal of Paleontology. He is a Fellow of the Geological Society of America, the Paleontological Society, and the Linnaean Society of London, and has also received fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Science Foundation. He has served as the Vice President of the Pacific Section of SEPM(Society of Sedimentary Geology), and five years as the Program Chair for the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology. In 1991, he received the Schuchert Award of the Paleontological Society for the outstanding paleontologist under the age of 40. He has also been featured on several television documentaries, including episodes of Paleoworld (BBC), Prehistoric Monsters Revealed (History Channel), Entelodon and Hyaenodon (National Geographic Channel) and Walking with Prehistoric Beasts (BBC). Check out Donald Prothero’s page at Shop Skeptic.


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  7. general-ken-cuccinelli�s-decision-issue-lapel-pins-state-seal-cover

About this week’s feature article

In this week’s eSkeptic, Donald R. Prothero reviews James L. Powell’s book, The Inquisition of Climate Science, a masterful compilation of nearly all the evidence for the reality of anthropogenic global warming (AGW). The book skillfully articulates the consensus of climate scientists around the world and answers, point-by-point, the ridiculous attempts by AGW deniers to cloud and distort the evidence.

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“Faced with the choice between changing one’s mind and proving there is no need to do so, almost everyone gets busy on the proof.”

 John Kenneth Galbraith 


About Alan

Alone in a sea of spinifex.
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