War on Science: Science Strikes Back

The war on science driven by a combination of Republican* ideology and corporate cash has been ably documented by Chris Mooney (see the Crooked Timber seminar here). Now, finally, science is striking back at one of the worst corporate enemies of science, ExxonMobil. As evidence of human-caused global warming has accumulated, leading energy companies like BP have seen the need to respond, with the result that industry groups like the Global Climate Coalition have broken down, leaving ExxonMobil to carry on a rearguard action through a network of shills and front groups. Now the company is finally being exposed by a major scientific organisation.

In an apparently unprecedented move, the British Royal Society has written to Exxon, stating that of the organization listed in Exxon’s 2005 WorldWide Giving Report for ‘public information and policy research‘, 39 feature

information on their websites that misrepresented the science on climate change, either by outright denial of the evidence that greenhouse gases are driving climate change, or by overstating the amount and significance of uncertainty in knowledge, or by conveying misleading impression of the potential impacts of climate change

(full copy of the letter here)

I haven’t found the list of organizations noted as engaging in misrepresentation yet, but from reports I’ve read they include the International Policy Network, the George C Marshall Institute, and the Competitive Enterprise Institute. Reading the Exxon list, it’s easy to identify other consistently dishonest groups like the American Enterprise Institute, the National Centre for Policy Analysis, the Pacific Research Institute and so on.

n the letter, Bob Ward of the Royal Society writes:

At our meeting in July … you indicated that ExxonMobil would not be providing any further funding to these organisations. I would be grateful if you could let me know when ExxonMobil plans to carry out this pledge.

With rumors swirling about that Rupert Murdoch has also seen the light on this issue, some professional denialists could find themselves out of work before long.

The unequivocal tone of the letter leaves no room for ambiguity here. Either the Royal Society (along with the dozens of scientific organisations cited in the letter) is lying about Exxon, or Exxon and its front groups are lying about science. It’s hard to imagine that Exxon can win this fight, now that its activities are out in the open.

More from Think Progress

* this kind of destructive irrationalism is specifically associated with the US Republican Party and its partisans in other countries, and should not be dignified with a philosophical label such as “conservative”

64 thoughts on “War on Science: Science Strikes Back

  1. I try to avoid personal abuse. More from a point of civilised behaviour, fear of antagonising the other, and a waste of time.

    I feel uncomfortable with laws restricting verbal abuse because sooner or later they are abused.

    Likewise the freedom to abuse can be abused.

    I hope I have not abused your patience with this answer, but in one post I did describe myself as an ancient, middling sort of fellow.

  2. Are the only valid grounds for dissent those derived from science?

    Would you really allow the suppression of dissent if the dissenters’ views had not gained the approval of some august scientific body?

    Would you support the tracking down of the money trial to a dissenting body and attempt to cut the money off, not just if they met a definition of terrorist, but just because their view were unscientific?

    I suppose that civilised people can apparently debate the validity of being uncomfortable about such suppression of dissent is just a sign of how progressive our society has become under the twin threats of terrorism and the voices of the climate change nay sayers.

  3. Taust: your summary of the evolution of “received opinion� on the connection between CO2 and AGW appears to me to be somewhat dubious. I commend Spencer Weart’s excellent collection of articles at the American Institute of Physics website to you.

    (1) Arrhenius himself doubted that CO2 levels would rise fast enough to cause a doubling within a few thousand years. Also, his estimate of the temperature change corresponding to a doubling of the atmospheric CO2 was about 5-6 C, which is much higher than today’s best estimates. Apparently, the reason is that he neglected saturation of the CO2 bands. (This was quite reasonable, as almost nothing was known on CO2 absorption at the time.)

    (2) Engineer Callender arrived on the scene somewhat less than half a century after Arrhenius. His ideas ran up against objections from physical scientists who were forced to do more experiments to clarify CO2 absorption, the increase of atmospheric CO2, and the role of the oceans in soaking up CO2. The “sea changeâ€? (pardon the pun) in opinion on AGW probably dates from the work of Suess and Revelle in the late 1950s to early ’60s, so you’re not far wrong there.

    (3) In the 1960s & early ’70s, the idea of “greenhouse warmingâ€? co-existed with that of “global coolingâ€?, or “winterâ€?, the reason being that CO2 gave the greenhouse warming while aerosols, also on the rise, gave the cooling. These ideas were in competition and scientists did not know which process would dominate. (As we now know, aerosols did not rise so fast, partly as a result of pollution-abatement measures.)
    The suggestion by certain “contrarians� that predictions of AGW cannot be believed because the people (e.g., Schneider) who now champion AGW were predicting cooling in the 1970s is misguided (to put it mildly).
    I will quote a few lines from the popular “Population, Resources and Environmentâ€?, written by the Ehrlichs (Paul & Anne), 1972 edition. (This was one of my texts when I did Environmental Studies 201, as part of an undergraduate science degree. I’ve just dusted off the cobwebs.) “Since the 1940s there appears to have been a slight decline in the average temperature of the earth, in spite of a continued increase in the CO2 content of the atmosphere. The consensus among meteorologists seems to be that this is a result of increases in the albedo caused by volcanic ash, dust, other particulate pollution, and also increased cloud cover produced by the contrails of high-flying jet aircraft. This increase in reflectivity may have more than counterbalanced the increased greenhouse effect from the CO2.â€? (p.239)
    I wanted to quote this when the “Willis Eschenbach affair� was going down in these pages earlier this year, but missed the chance.

  4. I agree with you about the highly useful Weart’ site.

    I also find the RealClimate site reliable.

    I’m sorry you found my rough guide to Climate change history dubiuos but we seem to agree on the major facts. Although I think Callender’s work was an excellent analysis of very difficult data.

    The history of climate change is a fascinating history well worth taking an interest in and probably got some way to run yet.

  5. Taust science the only grounds when debating science?


    The some of soft sciences you may have a better lay stance; nor do I ignore the possibility of institutional bias but I just find it less likely in the ‘hard’ natural sciences.

    I would rather think this comes under a kick up the backside rather than suppression, after that, its only the biased hardcore loons that take any notice now

    BTW watch the news for the latest on AGW& 2C increase by 2050 locked in?

    You might even get the scientist raising the point that Bush had Michael Crihton at the Whitehouse for an hour -a fiction writer- but couldn’t do the same for the real scientists. I suppose there wouldn’t be much point inviting them and at the same time censoring their work.

    Where was the free speech then Taust?

    I suppose since you are also the champion of rational debates you will strongly condemn this outrage!

    As far as helping your ‘green’ education try reading the CSIRO’s Ecos mag and the work of Lovins at the Rocky Moutain Institute. That would be a good start.

    While you at it listen to the head of Shell on http://www.sciam.com/podcast/
    you may get past the Libertarian mindset that business and eco/sustainable concepts are mutally exclusive.

  6. Simonjm,

    back in 1963 when I was reading Silent Spring I learnt to view the world through green tinted glasses. I occasionally read Ecos. The high spot of CSIRO scientific publishing for me was CSIRO’s report of their scientific investigation into the Nullarbor Plain for world heritage listing. A publication that really demonstrates the difference between good science and rubbish.

    Your intellectual development would be helped giving Popper a go. Ideas do not destroy you.

    The difference between the environmental performance of the centrally planned economies and the capitalist economies demonstrates that overall business is better protectors of the environment than any other group with the resources to make a difference.

    Simonjm why do you have to keep on pigeon holing me? Just read the arguments I put forward and dispute them. I rather enjoy developing my own points.

  7. Taust talking about pigeon holing, so you wish to pigeon hole environmentalism based on just Silent Spring?

    Hmm so, deserts aren’t worth of world heritage listing? That unique plants and animals of this particular ecosystem isn’t worthy of such a listing just because of your uniformed opinion? Another tick against your ecological ignorance.

    It appears because they dare look into it, that undermines their credibility or any other work by the CSIRO? Cannot beat that logic can we!

    You wouldn’t know good science if you fell over it.

    Oh but I forgot to you guys science is only right when it agrees with your position otherwise it is biased. So you can ignore it, censor it and defend those who seek to undermine it.

    You invite pigeon holing as you are indeed the stereotypical ant-environmental libertarian ignoring mainstream environmental science because of your bias.

    In other words a fair weather rationalist.

    BTW are you saying these scientists across a multitude of disciplines aren’t adhering to the scientific method?

    Why don’t you summarize Popper for me, something new other than falsification and anything to do with institutional bias?

    Also is telling you not to dump your litter in my yard or not to pump toxic emissions into the environment lead to your centrally planned economy?

    You must be pissed at most OH&S and all those silly regulations concerning safety around ‘toxic’ chemicals. This must be another scheme to adopt a centrally planned economy, just like the environmental regulations.

    I can see how you put so much faith in how unrestrained capitalist economies can protect the environment, the decline of the worlds fisheries shows that perfectly.

  8. Taust says

    “The difference between the environmental performance of the centrally planned economies and the capitalist economies demonstrates that overall business is better protectors of the environment than any other group with the resources to make a difference.”

    Err no, all this demonstrates is that democracies are better protectors of the environment. The environmental records of noncommunist dictatorships are not exactly shining examples of prudent ecological management.

    Perhaps you might be justified in stating that businesses operating within democratic frameworks are better protectors of the the environment. However, if you had a list of businesses that are improving environmental outcomes and businesses that weren’t. I would guess the second list is longer than the first.

    But I would be happy for you to prove me wrong.


  9. Doug;

    dictatorship vs democracy is an interesting point. I would probably agree with your point, with reservations that non-communist dictatorships sometimes run crony capitalism that may ‘muddy the waters’ somewhat (never let a pun go unused).

    I think that numbers of entries on either side of a balance sheet are of less importance than the bottom line ie the environment is on balance better looked after by a democratic/capitalist system than by alternative systems.

  10. well China’s basically capitalist now, as is India. What wonderful times they’re having with their environmental protection!

  11. wiful;

    from material put out by environmental organisations both have improved their performance quite a lot in recent times.

    I’m not sure the same can really be said about China’s human rights record.

    China’s ability to ignore human rights may be a comparative advantage when China decides to enforce the mitigators ukase

  12. SImonjm;

    First Popper

    I will not attempt a summary of Popper. In a significant way the reading of Popper with the brain switched on is more important than the ‘message you might finish with.

    The messages as I remember them that have been influenced by my reading of the Open Society and Its Enemies.

    • Do no harm (I know this is not especially unique to Popper) but in the sense there are always unintended consequences of any action or in manager speak do a risk analysis or in economic analysts speak what is the downside?

    • Only take action steps where you identify the unintended consequences in time to take appropriate action to correct for the unintended consequences.

    • Be wary of utopias.

    • The important question is not how do you choose wise leaders but how do you ensure that as far as practical you can get rid of a leader.

    • The ability to dissent is essential for the effective and efficient development of human potential.

    Now see the monstering I will get from the Popper experts, from which I will learn.

    Second Silent Springs

    Still a good example of an ‘investigative reporting’ popular environmental book. I’ve read a good number of books on the environment the last was the Flannery The Weather Makers which was a great disappointment compared to his the Future Eaters. I also have read Lomberg’s book and Does the Weather Really Matter. I am a fan of Lovelock. etc etc etc

    I have spent some time in the arid regions of Australia and unlike the vast majority of the visitors to that region ‘Done that will not go back’ I appreciate the landscape and the sheer survivability of the plants and animals of the region.

    You have not read the CSIRO report on the Nullarbor Plain World Heritage. So you are drawing the wrong conclusions as to my attitude to the Nullarbor Plains.

    Third Regulation

    Most regulation is to a large extent ineffective. That is the reason why it has to be renewed every ten years.

    In regulating we are trying to change human behaviour. A moments thought will show that without changing peoples attitudes first ,regulation is largely a waste of time. If you have changed peoples’ minds do you need the regulation?

    Your litter and fishing examples are solvable by assigning enforceable rights. Our invaluable host may even have written a paper or two on analogous issues.

    Have a go at Popper he is much more complex than my memory does justice to. In fact you have probably talked me into re reading him.

  13. Taust good advice if you can do it objectively.

    So does Lomborg come up to standards when the scientists themselves say he basically cheery picks and draws the wrong conclusions from their work.

    Who do you then believe those qualified and a consensus view within the discipline or a lone individual not qualified?

    Regulation ineffectual? Pretty big claim hmm so I suppose that the regulations say on CFC had no relation to improvements on the Ozone Hole, but I suppose that was another eco myth. Or improvements in some aspects of air quality through emission reductions or scrubbing?

    So what was the problem with the Nullarbor piece? That still also a big call dismissing the CSIRO on just that one piece let alone that they like all mainstream environmental science see global degradation, yet you choose to ignore it.

    Now we get to the bottom of things.

    The poster boy Moore has spoken therefore it must be so.

    Ex Greenpeace Pres Spews Spin Over Science

    Again you talk the talk Taust but cannot walk the walk and I don’t have any more time to try to break your cognitive dissonance. After all the environment is only changing.

    You can have the last word.

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