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.
HOW DO WE KNOW WHAT – OR WHO – TO BELIEVE?
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‘.