Smoke and mirrors in the attack on science

The BBC gets lots wrong. Its coverage of environmental and climate issues has wavered in the last year and more, in response not to new scientific evidence, but instead to growing pressure from the denialist lobby to turn climate science into a political hot potato that the Corporation seemed keen to drop as quickly as possible.

The rot stopped earlier this evening, with the broadcast on BBC 2 of a Horizon special, Science Under Attack, fronted by Nobel laureate Prof Paul Nurse, president of the UK’s Royal Society. At 350, the Society is the world’s oldest scientific body, and numbers many of the all-time giants of science, from Newton to Darwin, among its distinguished Fellows.

These folks are the heaviest of heavy hitters, though Nurse wears his history lightly. His one-hour presentation was a tour de force in science communication, taking his audience through highly technical arguments without either dumbing down or blinding us with a blizzard of science. He tackled squarely the canard that was ‘Climategate’, including an interview with a clearly still traumatised Dr Phil Jones of CRU.

His interview with Daily Telegraph columnist/blogger, James Delingpole was instructive. The depth of Delingpole’s non-understanding (wilful or otherwise) of even the rudiments of how science is done is a truly frightening indictment of the ‘profession’ of journalism. “It’s not my job to sit down and read, ah, ah, ah, peer reviewed papers, because I simply haven’t go the time or the scientific expertise. What I rely on is people who have got the time and the expertise to do it…I am an interpreter of interpretations”. Fair enough, up to a point. So where do those weird ideas of his actually come from?

According to Delingpole, “the peer-reviewed process has been irredeemably corrupted; what I believe in now, and I think we are seeing a shift in the way science is conducted, or at least transmitted to the outside world, is a process called peer-to-peer review. The internet is changing everything”. Etc. Etc. Etc. This peer-to-peer review is otherwise known as web-based rumour, innuendo and spin.

I assume the same colourful variant of pseudo-scientific counter-knowledge allows, say, Jim Corr the confidence to be able to publicly second-guess all the peer-reviewed evidence from branches of engineering, ballistics, chemistry and related fields in single-handedly figuring out the 9/11 “conspiracy”. Like Delingpole, it’s easy to diss what you don’t understand. Or, as they say in science circles, these folks are “not even wrong”.

Well holy god, as Miley used to say. For the uninitiated, here’s how this sludge is disseminated. Once a PhD working for the Heartland or Cato Institutes has filleted the meaning out of a couple of actual papers, and distorted a chart or two, a pre-masticated précis is then forwarded to ‘reliable’ stooges like Delingpole, Christopher Booker, Melanie Phillips, Kevin Myers for them to copy-and-paste it as their ‘insights’ into a field they are too lazy or ideologically blinkered to actually understand. Insert coin, pull the lever, and around the corner pops another chocolate journalism cake…

Meanwhile, and serendipitously in light of this evening’s broadcast, my in-depth look at the parallel universe of science denialism was printed in yesterday’s Sunday Tribune:

DOES SMOKING cause lung cancer? Around 90% of the 1.6 million new lung cancers diagnosed worldwide every year are directly linked to smoking. The scientific research evidence linking tobacco smoke to a range of diseases over the last half century is extremely robust.

On the other hand, the fact that not everyone who smokes develops lung cancer simply proves that tobacco is not fatal to all smokers. But how do we know that all these cancers can really be linked to smoking? After all, there are lots of other environmental toxins around.

Almost six decades ago US researchers first published their unexpected finding that tobacco was strongly implicated as a carcinogen. At the time, more than half of all adults smoked, and smoking was considered little more than a pleasant vice, so this was genuinely surprising news.

It was a PR disaster for the tobacco industry. Unwittingly killing millions of people who buy your product is hardly good for business. However, deliberately misleading the public about the dangers of smoking would be immoral, if not actually criminal.

The industry had a clear choice: accept the strong scientific evidence linking tobacco smoke to a range of serious health problems – which meant accepting taxes and close regulation – or fight the science itself. It chose to fight, and brought in PR experts to draw up a smoke-and-mirrors plan to convince the public that there was “no sound scientific basis” for the “sensationalist accusations” being levelled against tobacco by what they smeared as publicity-hungry scientists trying to get public funding for their research. This became known as the Tobacco Strategy.

A major battle for the hearts and minds of the American public was underway. The key PR advice to the tobacco industry was that “scientific doubts must remain” about research linking tobacco to smoking. The massive, well-funded disinformation campaign included funding ‘friendly’ researchers to conduct research linking just about anything other than cigarettes with lung cancer. As the scientific evidence against tobacco piled up, so too did tobacco industry spending – and ingenuity.

It set up scientific-sounding front organisations such as the ‘Council for Tobacco Research’ and pumped over $100 million into biomedical research in an ever more desperate effort to maintain the impression that since there were very many causes of lung cancer, and it was therefore unfair to single out tobacco.

The tactic was enormously successful. Regulation of tobacco was delayed for decades as a false debate played out in the media, with ever more colourful ‘alternate’ theories being spun to distract from the central fact that tobacco is a potent carcinogen.

In response to evidence from several thousand scientific papers showing an unequivocal link between tobacco and fatal diseases, US tobacco giant Brown & Williamson in 1967 coolly stated: “There is no scientific evidence that cigarette smoking causes lung cancer and other diseases”.

Looking back from 2011, it seems almost absurd that blatant, persistent lies and propaganda could possibly compete against the huge body of medical and scientific evidence, but it did – and it’s happening again. Why? Because doubt is part of the normal scientific process, a process that sceptically examines all evidence and discards that which cannot be substantiated.

However, few among the public or the media are familiar with how science works, and this makes it highly vulnerable to misrepresentation. By taking genuine scientific uncertainties out of context and exaggerating them, the tobacco industry’s PR operatives were able to portray the false impression, amplified via the media that the “science isn’t settled.” A tobacco industry memo from 1969 sets it out plainly: “Doubt is our product, since it is the best means of competing with the ‘body of facts’ that exists in the minds of the general public”.

S.J. Green, former director of British American Tobacco owned up to this duplicity when he later stated: “A demand for scientific proof is always a formula for inaction and delay, and usually the first reaction of the guilty. The proper basis for such decisions is quite simply that which is reasonable in the circumstances”.

Key figures in the tobacco industry’s successful disinformation campaign were a handful of once-respected senior scientists, including retired physicist Frederick Seitz, who went to work for tobacco giant RJ Reynolds and argued vehemently on their behalf against regulating second-hand smoke. Seitz’s expertise was in physics, not cancer or epidemiology, and he was simply not qualified to challenge the science, but his reputation meant that his (non-expert) views were mistaken by the press and public as having scientific weight.

Seitz was also chairman of the George C Marshall Institute, a neo-liberal think tank with an agenda of aggressively promoting ‘free market’ solutions, and a visceral contempt for ‘pinko’ environmentalism. Seitz and others ran similar campaigns to falsely dismiss the scientific evidence linking CFCs and ozone depletion, as well as acid rain and industrial emissions.

As the Cold War ended, by the mid-1990s the think tanks turned their anti-regulation zeal against the science of global warming and climate change, correctly identifying environmental science as a growing threat to the ‘freedom’ of corporations to maximise profits by being able to continue polluting with impunity.

Backed by billionaire energy industry benefactors from ExxonMobil and the shadowy Koch brothers to high profile politicians such as Sarah Palin and the Tea Party movement, today’s denialists have dusted off the Tobacco Strategy and proven once again that doubt, mixed with disinformation and backed with a big budget can trump the entire output of the scientific establishment.

Today’s trillion-dollar fossil fuel industries, like the tobacco companies before them, are determined to prevent any form of regulation that could affect their bottom lines. This same ‘light touch’ regulatory mindset allowed Ireland’s rogue bankers, builders and their political allies to engineer our current financial fiasco.

Quite simply, the science of climate change, which warns of the catastrophic consequences of the untrammelled burning of fossil fuels, is seen as a threat to corporate profits. And since scientific facts are facts, the name of the game is once again to create doubt about these facts, and doubt indeed about the motives, credibility and personal integrity of scientists and of the scientific process itself.

“They want to continue a 20-year assault on climate research, questioning basic science and promoting doubt where there is none,” according to Michael Mann, a top US climate scientist. Penn State University Ethics Professor, Donald Brown recently wrote: “the international community should find a way of classifying extraordinarily irresponsible scientific claims that could lead to mass suffering as some type of crime against humanity.”

This view was echoed by former president, Mary Robinson in a recent interview with this newspaper where she sharply criticised: “those lobbies…who are trying to bend the science all the time”.

These are serious allegations. How do we know this ‘debate’ is really deliberately fraudulent? If there were a genuine debate about the science of climate change, this would be reflected in the scientific literature. Prof Naomi Oreskes of the University of San Diego published a major review of 928 peer-reviewed scientific articles. Crucially, not a single paper from this huge study disputed the basic science of global warming and its largely human causes (Oreskes is co-author of ‘Merchants of Doubt‘, a book that powerfully exposes the decades-long systematic campaign of science misrepresentation, and upon whose arguments and research this article draws).

Since the scientific consensus is robust, the ‘contrarian’ scientists have abandoned the scientific journals and instead used the media, especially conservative media outlets to propagate their “dissenting views”.

Anyone familiar with the scientific process would have smelled a rat immediately: if one scientist genuinely believes another’s work is flawed, they submit their evidence to a recognised journal, to be reviewed and challenged by a panel of expert peers prior to publication. This is how and where genuine science is done.

Ironically, the media’s efforts to present a ‘balanced debate’ leads to further distortion, with views representing probably no more than 2% of climate scientists often given equal billing with the views of the overwhelming majority. This is known as “bias in balance”, and shows the profound vulnerability of journalism to being manipulated by its own conventions.

The energy sector hasn’t a shred of science to defend its manifestly improbable claim that continuing to pour billions of tonnes of fossil fuel emissions into our finite atmosphere can do anything other than ratchet up global temperatures and lead to disastrous ocean acidification. The basic physics behind CO2 and atmospheric warming is over a century old, and is as robust as our understanding of evolution, plate tectonics or germ theory.

In fact, the onus must be on climate change deniers to prove scientifically how the laws of physics somehow don’t apply when it comes to CO2 and other man-made emissions. “If one major peer-reviewed piece of scientific research were ever to be published casting doubt on climate change theory, you just know it would have been put up in neon at Piccadilly Circus”, wrote columnist David Aaronovitch. “They are only sceptical about what they don’t want to be true”.

The vice-chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Prof Jean-Pascal van Ypersele recently condemned the “organised” attacks on climate science that did so much to sabotage the December 2009 climate change summit in Copenhagen. “It is a very similar process to what the tobacco industry was doing 30 or 40 years ago, when they wanted to delay legislation”, said van Ypersele.

While we dither and delay, the world burns. As Ireland shivered last winter, Greenland experienced the hottest temperatures ever recorded, with astonishing temperature increases ranging from 3.8 to 8.8 Centigrade above the 1971-2000 average. Since 2006, another 1,200 thousand million tonnes of Greenland’s ice mass has disappeared.

Changes on this scale are well beyond even the worst-case projections in the IPCC’s 2007 report. Destabilisation of the Greenland ice shelf would radically re-draw the map of the world. There is enough water tied up there to raise sea levels globally by 6.5 metres. That puts Ireland’s major cities under water. Once an ice shelf is committed to collapse, no force on Earth can reverse that. The only remaining question is how long it takes.

Ideologically motivated commentators will claim that sea level rise is a tiny, manageable issue. They say the same about ocean acidification, biodiversity collapse and resource depletion. As we have seen in Ireland (and regularly discussed on this blog) most economists struggle even to understand economics; it is foolish to expect them to do better in predicting the impacts of dangerous climate change than they did regarding our property bubble.

Ireland should, in time, recover from our economic trauma, but all the gains human civilisation has made in recent centuries are now on the line, a major new UN report has warned. “Climate change may be the single factor that makes the future very different, impeding the continuing progress that history would lead us to expect…it can derail human development”. There’s no denying it.


Blind trust is foolish, but so too is reflex scepticism. We trust surgeons sufficiently to consent to have them cut open our flesh and repair our internal organs. We trust pilots, engineers and air traffic controllers (and their computer systems) enough to risk flying at 700kph in a thin metal tube seven miles up. Mistakes will still occur, but, on balance, we choose to put our faith in qualified experts every day.

Similarly, we must trust our scientific experts on scientific matters. Why? Because there are simply no workable alternatives. Yes, we should query their credentials, but in the end, if world-famous bodies such as the National Academy of Sciences or The UK Royal Society, give us unequivocal advice and guidance (based on reams of peer-reviewed evidence) that climate change is real, and represents a profound and urgent threat to humanity and the systems upon which we depend for survival, we must take heed.

There is a thin line between healthy cynicism and wilful stupidity. Rational decision making means acting on the best information to hand, even if it is incomplete or imperfect. Modern science is not perfect, but it has a strong track record, and we ignore its warnings at our mortal peril. This argument is expanded upon in ‘Merchants of Doubt‘.

ThinkOrSwim is a blog by journalist John Gibbons focusing on the inter-related crises involving climate change, sustainability, resource depletion, energy and biodiversity loss
This entry was posted in Global Warming, Media, Sceptics. Bookmark the permalink.

18 Responses to Smoke and mirrors in the attack on science

  1. John Mashey says:

    1) John mentioned Naomi’s essay The Scientific Consensus on Climate Change in Science, 2004. Then she started getting hate mail and odd phone calls, among other things, which only encouraged her further to study why the public’s views of climate change were so different from scientists. She also got attacked by Benny Peiser, the anthropologist who runs the UK’s GWPF, and later, the Viscount Monckton, using his endocrinologist as a front. My writeup on this caused the Viscount to claim I was under investigation and “interfering in an unlawful manner on the blogosphere,” whatever that means.

    2) All the attacks led to her book with Erik Conway, Merchants of Doubt, about the scientists who started the George C. Marshall Institute (a mis-use of the name of someone who had nothing to do with this), including Seitz and co. (Id guess John has read MoD). Sad to say, GMI has been amazingly influential for an entity most people have never heard of.

    I strongly recommend MoD (but disclosure: I’m Ack’d in it, so may not be completely unbiased), and if Naomi is ever speaking nearby, go hear her.

    3) For a somewhat orthogonal look at the last 20 years’ climate anti-science activities of GMI and other thinktanks, including funders, funding flows, organizations, activitites and spokespeople, see Crescendo to Climategate Cacophony. Most of the relevant thinktanks are located within a block of Washington, DC’s K-Street (lobbyist central), see map. Sad to say, their influence actually has worldwide effects. These include SPPI, a one-man show that also serves as Monckton’s home-away-from home in Washington.

    I don’t know if Ireland has anything like these, and GWPF is a pale shadow of the ones like GMI, CATO, Heartland or the Competitive Enterprise Institute, which I’m sorry to say the US has inflicted on the world.

  2. John Gibbons says:

    Thanks for dropping by, and for your very informative posting. Yes, I’m a big fan of Naomi Oreskes. Apart from reading MoD (twice), I’ve also sent a couple of copies of same to a number of very senior folk in this whole debate, in the hope of furthering their understanding of just exactly what kind of disinformation machine science is up against here.

    I also met Prof Oreskes when she lectured in Dublin in mid-2008, and got to interview her for a column I wrote at that time in the Irish Times for an article entitled: ‘Science in thrall to ideology keeps bogus debate alive’. While there isn’t as toxic an atmosphere of hostility to science in Ireland as sadly prevails in Tea Party America, we have plenty of snakes in the grass here too, especially among our once-feted economist class (yes, the ones who assured us our massive property bubble was a ‘new paradigm’ where almost everyone can get rich without effort)

    The London-based ‘Global Warming Policy Foundation’ is a carbon copy of the US denialist think tank models, featuring charlatans like Ian Plimer. Interestingly, the director of this GWPF circus is a certain Benny Peiser! Being dead wrong about Oreskes and having to retract in public has done little to dissuade him from his anti-climate crusade.

    But as we both know, this has absolutely nothing to do with science, and everything to do with “free market” ideology and a desperate attempt to keep the world safe for billionaires to plunder without being hindered by such trivia as regulation of our shared environment or caring a jot for the billions of our children and grandchildren who must inherit a world which has been permanently pauperised and polluted just so a handful of super-rich can get even richer.

    It takes a powerful ideology to shield such manifestly lunatic behaviour from public view and scrutiny.

  3. John Gibbons says:

    One of James Delingpole’s, ahem, admirers, penned this almost romantic Ode to the great climate science-slayer, heretofore known as the Interpreter Of Interpretations (IOI). This verse really speaks volumes about the kind of people who find Delingpole convincing (and no, I didn’t just make it up. Shame on you).

    Ode to James Delingpole

    Delingpole, Delingpole,

    he is so clever, he is no fool

    All the lies of the eco-fascists,
He knocks them down with both his fists.
And if they try to make a trick,
Delingpole will give’em a kick.
His fingers are fast and his pen is sharp,
Makes Monbiot look like a panting carp.
He writes as well as Christopher Booker,

    The ladies think he is a looker!

    For Delingpole I lift my hat,

    He is lean and Gore is fat.

  4. Paddy Morris says:

    The full interview is available on Youtube:

    James Delingpole:- ‘interpreter of interpretations’

    Says it all really

  5. John Mashey says:

    John: glad to hear you’d met Naomi. Unlike climate scientists, who are paid to do climate science and are at a disadvantage when facing harassment, Naomi was a very bad choice to bother, since geoscientist/science historians get interested in studying the attackers and writing about them.

  6. John Gibbons says:

    John: good point about Naomi. Peiser et al. messed with the wrong gal! Too bad more scientists aren’t able to demolish the Plimer/Lomborg/Delingpole/Monckton conspiracy of dunces more effectively. Probably because they’re too busy doing the actual science, I suspect!

    On a lighter note, the Odes just keep on coming. Here’s the latest:

    The Interpreter of Interpretations
    — by Horatio Algeranon

    “I am an interpreter of interpretations”
    A translator for the United Nations,
    The “Telephone Game” is my vocation.
    For peer-reviewed papers I’ve little patience.
    I’m not an expert on surface stations.
    My job’s to comment on “personal relations”,
    “Skeptic exclusion” and other temptations,
    “Climategate” and like sensations,
    To garner reader adoration,
    Adulation and congratulations.

  7. Lenny B says:

    Priceless John! Keep those Odes coming. Maybe your website can launch a competition to get the best Limerick starting with: ‘There was an odd fellow called Monckton…”

  8. John Mashey says:

    Meanwhile, have you followed this mess with Fred Pearce and New Scientist?
    He fabricated (or repeated a comment without bothering to check).
    Other credible folks had the same reaction to the invite as did Gavin Schmidt.

  9. John Gibbons says:


    Unfortunate, to say the least. I shared a platform with Pearse at an EU-organised conference in Dublin last year. His post-Climategate tone did seem markedly skeptical towards the bona fides of climate scientists; surprising, given his useful books on this topic in the past. Pearse, intentionally or otherwise, was influential in hardening the media tone post-Climategate. I’d suspect even Monbiot, who called for Phil Jones’s head, may have taken his cue from Pearse. We’re all for healthy skepticism, but whether Pearse has gone beyond this is clearly now in question. Too bad, he’s a decent writer.

  10. cormac says:

    Great post, John.
    I too caught that Oreskes lecture in Trinity, it was excellent. In fact, it’s one of the main things that got me interested in writing about climate science. Can’t believe it’s only a few years ago

  11. EWI says:

    Anyone seen Tol recently? (apart from the usual “misquotes” by the likes of Lomborg et al).

    Seems to have disappeared off the Internet entirely after people started looking sceptically at his FUND.

  12. John Gibbons says:

    Good to hear from you. I keep an eye on your excellent blog, so can see you’ve been busy in Harvard (and on the slopes!). Well done too on your blog traffic ratings. That invite for you to become a casual ToSser still stands!

    Yes, great curiosity all round as to the mystery disappearance of Bjorn Lomborg’s favourite economist from the web. Last posting was Jan 17, though I do get postings on Twitter from a certain ‘LoachraLaidir’ which I gather is our friend in one of his Baldrick-like “cunning disguises”.

    His FUND “work” been thoroughly busted all over the web, from Climateprogress to Desmogblog and many more besides. He’s more a figure of fun at this stage than a topic of serious discussion – unless perhaps the discussion is taking place in a neocon ‘think tank’ full of like-minded individuals (Delingpole, Monckton, Lomborg, Singer, Plimer, etc. etc. etc). Guess you can’t fool everyone all the time, after all.

  13. Coilin MacLochlainn says:


    Good to hear Tol’s been found out, but could you give a few urls where his work is being dismissed; I can’t find any reference at all to him on Climateprogress or on Desmogblog. Thanks

  14. John Gibbons says:

    @ Coilin

    Here’s a few samples:
    And if you prefer to read lunacy in his own words, try:
    This features such comedy classics as:
    “Note that impacts (of climate change) do not exceed 1.3 per cent of GDP in the 21st century”
    “Just because something is new and different does not make it wrong. Climate change will take us into uncharted territory, but so do many other things”. (Seriously.)
    And from an interview with Tolborg:
    “In the case of climate change, economists have shown that climate change is not the biggest environmental problem in the world, denying people the catastrophe that they crave…”
    And here’s a reply to an earlier posting on this blog following Paddy Morris’s excellent deconstruction of the sleights of hand used by ideologically motivated economists to systematically understate the risks (and costs) associated with accelerating climate change and grossly overstate the costs (and benefits) of aggressively de-carbonising. When you do this, you can then write something as bone-headedly stupid as the below:

    “My research shows that climate change is a problem. Epidemiologists have shown that climate change is likely to kill hunderds (sic) of thousands of people per year. Urban air pollution kills millions if not tens of millions. Climate policy is therefore important, but not a priority.”

    I could go on, and on and on, but the above should give you a reasonable flavour of the quality of advice the Irish Govt. has been getting from its “expert economists” over in the ESRI (some of whom, it should be noted, do a very good job, but they tend not to be ideologues).

  15. Coilin MacLochlainn says:

    Thanks, but I had already seen the filleting of Tol on ThinkorSwim some time back (which was a good piece of investigative work, well done). What I meant was the most recent (i.e. January 2011) exposé of FUND, mentioned by EWI. I looked this up, but then I couldn’t find it again, I thought maybe you might have the urls (other than the Deltoid one). For example, I think he estimates that 96% of the world’s biodiversity will become extinct due to climate change, leaving only 4% of the Earth’s species and that somehow he thinks this is ok and not something that should worry us. Could someone please find this reference, thanks.

  16. John Gibbons says:

    Thanks Adam for riding to the rescue with some relevant links. Coilin, think you’ll find the economist’s blasé efforts to set a dollar value on each species we exterminate (250 dollars) somewhere between hilarious and terrifying. What it does reveal is the dangerous folly of having mathematically gifted idiots savant pontificating on physical sciences, about which they are manifestly and abundantly ignorant, not to mention ideologically blinkered.

  17. Coilin MacLochlainn says:

    @John, Adam,
    Many thanks for providing those urls. Yes, it is utterly ludicruous isn’t it.

  18. EWI says:

    I have actually refrained from mocking Tol too mercilessly.

    For example, his preoccupation with ‘modeling’ the value of an economist by using citations exhibits certain, ah, flaws reminiscent of his FUND reasoning. In particular, Tol’s fondness for citing himself demonstrates a way (for someone less scrupulous than Richard, of course) to game this system.

    Very surprised that this hasn’t made it into The Phoenix yet, particularly given the Royal Irish Academy, ESRI and English Tory-boy (the GWPF) connections.

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