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Scientists who favor ideology over fact

Guest Blogger

Scientists, it has long been assumed, are merchandisers of cold hard fact derived from careful reasoning and scrupulous inquiry. In “Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming,” Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway reveal that sometimes something else comes into play: politics. Instead of clarifying the physical world for us, a cadre of scientists have worked to confuse the public in order to promote their own ideological beliefs, the authors write. The result is a merchandising of scientific doubt.

By Naomi Oreskes and Erik M Conway

A new article by eight scientists from seven different institutions has announced still more evidence for “robust warming in the global upper ocean.” Published in Nature, the English language’s top scientific journal, their work extends and improves upon research dating back to 2000 that found that anthropogenic greenhouse gases have been forcing the world’s oceans to warm since the 1960s. Yet a variety of polls show that a near-majority of Americans think that either global warming isn’t happening, or that it isn’t man-made. Why is it that so many people don’t believe well-established scientific facts? Why are so many of us confused?

The simple answer is that there has been a deliberate effort to confuse us. Much attention has already been given to the role of oil and coal companies in financing this campaign of confusion. But hardly any has been given to the role played by scientists in constructing this network of doubt, and, crucially, in lending credibility to it.

A handful of highly respected physicists led the way in fighting the facts of global warming. Frederick Seitz, S. Fred Singer, William Nierenberg, and Robert Jastrow. They became involved with global warming denial through a circuitous route. Some of them helped the tobacco industry cast doubt on the linkage between smoking and cancer; in the mid-1980s, they branched out, challenging the science behind acid rain, ozone depletion, and finally global warming.

One way they undermined science was through the creation of a scientific Potemkin Village: the George C. Marshall Institute, which generated and marketed “white papers” that had the trappings of science -- footnotes, graphs, charts, etc. -- but without its substance. Cherry-picked facts, claims made out of context, and physical incoherency are hallmarks of their publications. In turn, a variety of other ideologically committed “think tanks” parroted and promoted this simulacrum of science. The Competitive Enterprise Institute, the American Enterprise Institute, the Heartland Institute, the CATO Institute, and several others have formed a politically potent network.

Most people assume that behind this story must be the driving force of money, but the think-tank network suggests a different driving force: ideology. These think tanks all have one thing in common: a commitment to free markets. The physicists shared that conviction, too. Old Cold warriors, when the Cold War ended, they found a new enemy: environmentalists who they viewed as “watermelons”-- green on the outside, red on the inside.

As Cold warriors, they believed that fighting subversion at home was as important as fighting Reds abroad. And as free market fundamentalists, they opposed all environmental and business regulation, seeing them as the slippery slope to socialism. This view was perhaps most clearly articulated by Fred Singer, in a 1991 article, where he argued that global warming was being manufactured by environmentalists to support a “hidden political agenda” against “business, the free market, and the capitalistic system.”

Global warming was not manufactured by environmentalists; it was made by the diverse set of human activities that have increased CO2 in the atmosphere and decreased the planetary forests that remove CO2 from it. Global warming is also, in the words of Lord Nicholas Stern, the "the greatest and widest-ranging market failure ever seen". It is a market failure because carbon pollution carries no price, and markets can only regulate things by price signals. Fixing it means some form of government intervention, either to impose a price on carbon (by emissions trading or carbon taxes), or via regulation.

The goal of global warming denial is to prevent such government action. It has nothing to do with the quality of the science, or the competence of climate scientists. It is purely politics. Our actors allowed their political views to overwhelm their respect for scientific evidence, scientific results, indeed, respect for the activity to which they had originally dedicated their lives.

By Steven E. Levingston  |  May 28, 2010; 5:30 AM ET
Categories:  Guest Blogger  | Tags: climate change debate, global warming deniers, scientists and global warming  
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Comments

Look at how low the estimate of the oil gusher from the Gulf was sold to the public.

I wonder if the effects of CO2 might be 10 times worse than estimated.

It's the end of the world as we know it, and I've given up trying to point it out.

Now it's in the hands of Mother Nature. I still persist in wondering if nemesis should be our folly...

Posted by: ender3rd | May 28, 2010 10:28 AM | Report abuse

Generally, scientists have judiciously stayed out political controversies, because as logical, rational beings they assume that everyone else is similarly wired and also assume that as the evidence accumulates it will reach the point of being insurmountable and irrefutable. They have failed to understand that there are numerous fellow humans to whom facts are fungible.
If there had been "think tanks" and a political or economic benefit in asserting that the world is flat, we would still have a sizable portion of the population arguing the truth of such an irrational absurdity.
A sizable portion of the population today believes that climate change is not occurring or that humans are not responsible because they hear that falsehood from their politicians, their friends, the "think tanks", their newscasters (and even their weather forecasters). If no one in the scientific community can get the visibility and respect to counter the numerous mistatements and half-truths, the issue is moot.

Posted by: MrsT5 | May 28, 2010 11:18 AM | Report abuse

This article is disappointing in that it does exactly what it criticizes others for. It cherry picks information to support a political agenda while ignoring the recent scientific "research" that exaggerated global warming.

Posted by: Narnian | May 28, 2010 11:58 AM | Report abuse

Hopefully the Oreskes and Conway book takes a look at who funds the "think tanks" pushing the denialist agenda. From what I understand, it's a who's-who of oil and coal barons, just as the tobacco companies funded the smoking-causes-cancer-denialist lobby.

Every time a journalist repairs to Singer et al, or repeats their talking points, it should be understood that it's Big Oil and King Coal who are really doing the talking.

Posted by: 20009matt | May 28, 2010 12:40 PM | Report abuse

What a laughably disingenuous article.
Instances of "cherry picking", misrepresentation and outright misuse of direct and proxy temperatures by global warming alarmists are abundant.

Is the planet warming?
Absolutely, for about the last 15,000 years. And thankfully so, otherwise there would be few humans living in the northern and southern latitudes.

What caused the Medieval Warm Period? The Little Ice Age? The sooper seekrit climate models fail to answer that.

Michael Mann and Al Gore were great instigators of the climate skeptic backlash because of their outlandish claims and proven manipulation of data.
The "climategate" emails were also a real eye-opener that pointed out the efforts of government-funded researchers to silence their critics.

Yes, there is much confusion over Global Warming or Climate Change. Most of it is generated because the type, use, and collection of data can be honestly interpreted differently. We need open, honest debate over the information before we are forced to give away trillions of dollars and return to the horse and buggy days.

Posted by: spamsux1 | May 28, 2010 12:50 PM | Report abuse

Interesting this column portrays the politicization of science as beginning with and exclusive to those who question the popular environmental trends. It ignores the environmental activists that have shut out all alternative views, demonizing legitimate scientists who question much of the data "cherry picked" by the pro-global warming crowd. Are we really expected to believe all those who disagree with the orthodox environmental ideology are corporate hacks or just plain loony? Are we really to believe those of the pro-environmental hysteria crowd aren't driven by their politics, when we've seen them quash opposing papers and reports, while destroying the original data they manipulate to arrive at their "conclusions"?

Posted by: tyree230 | May 28, 2010 1:48 PM | Report abuse

The same established scientist who gave us non addictive nicotine. Now are giving us clean air. Your complaining about this what could be better than smoking with out worrying about disease or driving our hummers without damage to the atmosphere. You should worship at the feet of these all knowing scientist who without any scientific basis whatsoever convinced us that everything is ok. Conventional scientist should study their methods and marketing techniques maybe then the truth could be made to sound acceptable.

Posted by: vwallen@bellatlantic.net | May 28, 2010 2:15 PM | Report abuse

Managing long-term climate risks
Rising greenhouse-gas emissions pose significant risks to society and ecosystems. Since most of these emissions are energy-related, any integrated approach to meeting the world’s growing energy needs over the coming decades must incorporate strategies to address the risk of climate change.

The above from the Exxon Mobile website.

Thinking people who have to make real decisions in the real world can't waste time and energy with drivel from "Tobacco Company" scientists.

Posted by: rwalters1 | May 28, 2010 2:29 PM | Report abuse

Let's see. The East Anglia University emails show beyond any doubt that the so-called "scientists" hawking the Global Warming crisis have falsified their data, and the author of this article says that it is everyone else who puts ideology above the facts? Does anyone else see something wrong with this picture? And while we're at it, can the author at least try to explain where those massive amounts of white stuff came from last winter if the planet is getting warmer?

Posted by: 84rules | May 29, 2010 11:21 AM | Report abuse

Notice that all Global Warming alarmists are WHITE PEOPLE who once used to claim that there is going to be an ICE AGE.

The solution then was to rob the people of nations with a population containing people of "inferior races" (according to the White racists) by forcing them to buy 1000 dollar stoves peddled through the World Bank. It has not changed in 25 years - the solution to combat Global Warming is to force India and China to sign a new treaty agreeing to buy worthless pieces of paper called carbon credits from the White guy Al Gore so that his idiotic investments don't end up as losses.

The WICKED WHITE MAN even flies in a personal jet. When Tipper Gore flies all the way to Paris to buy a pair of panties, she pollutes the atmosphere quite a bit. The author here will support Whites, wouldn't he? I am not surprised that one White comes to the defense of another White.

Posted by: vkurien | May 29, 2010 1:54 PM | Report abuse

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