When science and special interests collide

Below, my column, as it appears on TheJournal.ie...

Do you reckon GPS is a hoax? How about x-rays? Or satellite communications. Or perhaps the Internet, smartphones or germ theory. Or how about evolution? What these seemingly unrelated themes have in common is that they are just some of the rich fruits of a century and more of astonishing advances in real scientific understanding.

Humanity has achieved more progress, in everything from healthcare and life expectancy to transport and communications, since the mid-19th century than in all of previous recorded history. The reason for this bloom of extraordinary breakthroughs has been the primacy of what’s known as the scientific method.

Until the last century or so, much of what passed for knowledge was in reality little more than old wives’ tales. Dodgy dogma, whether promoted by Popes or princes was, until well into the modern age, more highly valued than knowledge acquired through the meticulous, evidence-based method of measurement, experimentation and systematic enquiry.

What makes the scientific method so uniquely effective in advancing knowledge is its dogged pursuit of provable truths and the ruthlessness with which ideas without evidence are cast aside. Rigorous science is the reason why jet aircraft rarely fall from the sky, and for that matter, why someone can click a button on a computer anywhere in the world and instantly access this article. This isn’t magic, it’s science.

Scientific truths frequently collide with vested interests. In the 17th century, Galileo Galilei famously fell foul of the Roman Catholic Inquisition for his heresy in observing that the Earth was not, after all, the centre point of the universe.

Science once again clashed with powerful interests in the 1960s, following the discovery of strong links between cigarette smoking and lung cancer. This triggered a pitched battle between medical science and the tobacco industry.

Adopting what became known as the ‘Tobacco Strategy’, the industry spent millions spreading doubt and disinformation in a bid to discredit medical science and befuddle the public about the risks of smoking. A favourite tactic was recruiting ‘reliable’ researchers to carry out pseudo-science with the sole aim of at creating a phoney ‘debate’ about cigarette safety. The tactic was enormously effective, and it delayed regulation of tobacco products by decades.

During this time, millions died of smoking-related illnesses, unwitting victims of this industry triumph in undermining the medical evidence. “Doubt is our product,” a tobacco executive cheerfully remarked at the time.

While the tobacco wars have largely ended, a far greater conflict between scientific evidence and powerful corporate interests has erupted. The new battleground is carbon dioxide (CO2), the chief by-product of the burning of fossil fuels.

A massive international scientific effort has focused in recent decades on establishing why the Earth is warming at an unprecedented rate. The findings are unambiguous: the heating is driven by the ‘greenhouse effect’ as tens of billions of tonnes of CO2 from human activities accumulate every year in the atmosphere.

The science is extremely robust. For instance, NASA calculated that around two thousand billion tonnes of ice has melted in Greenland and Antarctica in the last five years. That’s the staggering rate of 45 million tonnes of ice melting every hour, during that period.

The message from science is clear: humanity needs to drastically and permanently reduce the amount of CO2 we emit, or face a climate Armageddon this century. These basic facts are perceived as a real threat by the trillion-dollar fossil fuel industries.

Like the tobacco companies before them, Big Energy is now fighting tooth and nail to convince the public not to trust the hard evidence, and to instead place our faith and our future in the word of paid liars and PR shills.

Big Energy is once more resorting to the favourite route of promoting junk science and phoney controversy, while attacking the integrity of real scientists. Industry-funded neoliberal lobby groups like the Heartland Institute do the dirty work of muddying the water, conning the media and convincing the public that the looming climate catastrophe is just some left-wing alarmism.

The Heartland Institute recently suffered a highly embarrassing leak of internal documents (a disgruntled climate scientist tricked them into emailing him the information). The documents reveal the eye-watering cynicism of these lobby groups and their absolute contempt for science. Apart from funding systematic attacks on science, the Institute is also investing heavily in campaigns to get bogus climate science taught on the public school curriculum in the US.

Nina Fedoroff, president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) said last week she was “scared to death” by the success of the anti-science zealots. “We are sliding back into a dark era,” she warned.

Junk climate science attracts a faithful following from people who feel threatened by the message that there are real, immovable limits in the path of irresistible economic growth. Climate deniers come in many guises. RTÉ’s Pat Kenny for instance is Ireland’s best-known advocate of bogus science, offering a friendly ear to crackpot theorists and routinely attacking mainstream science as though it were some vast green conspiracy. “We are all born mad”, wrote Samuel Beckett, “some remain so”.

ThinkOrSwim is a blog by journalist John Gibbons focusing on the inter-related crises involving climate change, sustainability, resource depletion, energy and biodiversity loss
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3 Responses to When science and special interests collide

  1. Coilin MacLochlainn says:

    Yale economist William Nordhaus recently wrote that “Tobacco sales in the United States today are under $100 billion. By contrast, expenditures on all Energy goods and services are close to $1,000 billion.” Restricting average global temperature to a maximum rise of 2 or 3 degrees Celsius would have large economic effects on many businesses. Therefore, he warned, we would “need to be extremely vigilant to prevent pollution of the scientific process by the merchants of doubt.”

  2. Sarah Daniel says:

    There was a spoof thriller years ago called The President’s Analyst, in which the phone company turned out to be the bad guy.  If we rewrote it now, the advertising industry would have my vote.  You might have them stimulating liberals and conservatives, USA Democrats and Republicans and Tea Partiers, for instance, to spend more and more and more and more on attack ads.  Just a fantasy, of course.

  3. John Gibbons says:

    Coilin, yes, I had read Nordhaus’ surprising contribution recently, and he was bang on the money – unexpectedly – about the methodology of denialism (you may have spotted that I segued some of his observations into yesterday’s IT piece – I always prefer where possible to quote ‘conservative’ figures to support an environmental point, it helps to de-politicise people’s response.

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