So it’s hard for me to see skeptics painted so negatively in much of the discussion around climate. “Climate denier” and “climate skeptic” are used almost interchangeably, suggesting that it’s a bad idea to question things. That can’t be true, right? So I wanted to dig into this a bit. When is skepticism okay, and when is it not, and how can you tell the difference? At the end of this blog post I have a real-life example from just a few days ago, and you can ask yourself: Are the questions raised in the article legit?
First, a shout-out: There is a great book (and movie) on this topic called Merchants of Doubt, by Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway. I highly recommend it. It explores the motivations and techniques of the people who seem to be attacking science. (1) If you don’t have time to read the book (about 250 pages) or watch the movie (90 minutes), consider just the first 15 minutes of the movie, and/or the 10-minute segment starting at 59:30 featuring Marc Morano, who is sometimes referred to as “the godfather of climate skepticism” or a “climate realist”, depending on perspective. It is eye opening. (“Scientists are BORING.”)
There is a difference between healthy skepticism, in which the skeptics are open-minded, informed, and constantly re-assessing the evidence, and manufactured skepticism, in which people with an agenda are cultivating doubt in others in order to serve their own ends.
As far back as the 1950’s and 1960’s, cigarette companies knew that smoking caused lung cancer and heart disease, and they knew that nicotine was addictive. But they denied this for decades, even under oath, and it wasn’t until 2006 that they were finally found guilty of deceiving the public. Why did it take so long? Because the tobacco companies engaged in a prolonged, heavily financed campaign to seed doubt about the science in order to protect their business interests. Millions of deaths might have been prevented with faster action.
When science gets in the way of an industry, whether it’s the tobacco industry (cigarettes cause cancer), the drug industry (opioids are addictive), the refrigeration industry (refrigerants destroy the ozone layer), polluting industries (pollutants cause acid rain), the pesticide industry (pesticides have various bad side-effects), or the fossil fuel industry (causing global warming), the industries target science. They do that using a host of techniques, some of which I will summarize here. (2)
Specious questioning. Industries targeting science raise questions about the results that appeal to the public’s common sense. They will do this even when the answers are already known and favorable for the science. It works because many people don’t know or don’t understand the answers, and they may also be biased away from uncomfortable facts. Early on in the tobacco wars, the cigarette industry published a report with many such questions, for example “Why is lung cancer rising faster in men though the rate of smoking is rising fastest in women?” The answer was well understood among scientists -- women had only recently started smoking, so they hadn’t had time to develop cancer. (Unfortunately they would later.) But just posing this question and others like it seeded doubt in people (many of them smokers) that smoking caused cancer. With climate change, a similar question might be “How can two degrees possibly do all that damage?” Again, the answer is well understood, but it is complicated enough that people do not understand it. Since the common-sense question resonates with so many people, doubt about “climate alarmists” takes root.
Simulating science. People fighting science create their own scientific-seeming organizations and institutes that mimic the look and feel of the real thing, yet do not follow standard scientific procedures such as peer review, and lack breadth and depth of expertise in the area. I like the name of this one: the Cooler Heads Coalition. You can read about it at http://globalwarming.org. The Institute for Energy Research is a more substantial such organization. What might appear to be a “scientific debate” will not in fact have a critical mass of credible scientists on both sides, and will take place in an industry-sponsored conference or even the public media, bypassing mainstream science.
Playing the media. When science deniers take their debates direct to the public via the media, they will insist that the media “tell both sides” or “give us our fair share”. The media have fallen for this as they work to avoid the appearance of bias.
Cultivating friendly scientists. There are bona fide scientists who will align with the attacking industries. Merchants of Doubt explores their motivations. They may be natural contrarians, or staunch libertarians, or disgruntled somehow with the establishment, or simply indebted to industries that have funded them and/or their labs with millions of dollars over the years. Even though some of these experts have little expertise in the relevant science, their voice will be heard because of their skills elsewhere.
To maintain a semblance of independence, the scientists’ associations with the attacking industries are often masked through think tanks or policy institutes, charitable institutions, or legal teams. Their statements can be excruciating. Merchants of Doubt describes a well-respected (and well-funded) scientist under oath: “When asked if a three-pack-a-day habit might be a contributory factor to the lung cancer of someone who’d smoked for twenty years, Cline again answered no, you ‘could not say that with certainty … I can envision many scenarios where smoking had nothing to do with it.’” He neglects to mention that other causes are exceedingly rare. Zero doubt is not the standard.
For a more current example, you can read up on Dr. Roy Spencer, a meteorologist and trained climate scientist at the University of Alabama. These people have real credentials, operate well outside mainstream science, and are very well funded for their views.
Attacking other scientists. The best defense is a good offense. In anticipation of attacks on their own claims, industries under pressure will attack the credibility of scientists, accusing them of bias, of seeking publicity, of issuing “political statements” rather than scientific work, of being in the pockets of politicians, or simply of being rigid and close-minded. Industry lawyers may also tie up the scientists’ time and resources with litigation, even going so far as to place gag orders. This has the effect not only of silencing and/or discrediting the involved scientists, but potentially discouraging others from following in their footsteps.
Emphasizing lack of proof. People fighting science will routinely insist that “the science is not settled” or “there is no proof” or make statements like “anything can be harmful”. The general public may fail to understand that science typically works on the preponderance of evidence, it rewards theories that explain many observations, it moves forward based on peer review and continuous research. Over and over we have seen that this approach works and that it makes sense to take action when there is good scientific consensus. But there will always be gaps or alternatives, however tangential or implausible, that opponents can use to raise doubt and slow things down.
Slowing things down. Since it is often the goal of industry to maintain the status quo, their tactics are to slow change and generally create gridlock. They will emphasize the need to “slow down”, avoid a “rush to judgment”, evaluate things “more carefully”, wait for science to answer yet more open questions, and generally encourage paralysis by analysis. They will denigrate those who wish to move faster as “alarmists” or “hysterics” and portray themselves as the thoughtful, rational, unemotional participants. Unfortunately, they may be aided in this by overly simplistic and alarmist statements made on the other side. That is one reason why scientists speak so carefully at times as to be almost unintelligible. And that (you guessed it) slows things down.
Emphasizing the risk to freedom. If it is too difficult to fight the science, the next step is to fight the consequences, such as regulation. “If we ban second-hand smoke, what will come next?” was a common refrain. You have heard this argument in spades when it comes to climate change.
This is an effective playbook, and I don’t want to imply that it is restricted to polluting industries. For example, hundreds of years ago the Church used these techniques to oppose Galileo's theory that the Earth revolves around the sun. And we see extremists using these techniques to fight more conservative science. This blog post focuses on established industry because they generally have much more money and more at stake in the fight against science, and have taken these approaches to a new and very disruptive level.
It’s a mess. Given all the money and time being thrown at this, how are we, the general public, supposed to distinguish the genuine open questions from the manufactured skepticism that is designed to slow change? It’s not easy. But here are some tips. (3)
- Look at the source. Is it a well-respected, independent organization or publication?
- Look at the experts. Are they commenting on their area of expertise, currently working in that field, publishing in reputable journals?
- Look at the detractors. Are there detractors to the ideas and if so, who are they and what do they say?
- Look at the funding. Where do the experts or institutions involved get their funding?
- Look at agendas. Do the experts or institutions involved have an agenda, whether it is financial or political or something else that could affect their scientific judgment.
- Look at the generality. If the experts are making a new scientific claim, does it explain as much or more than the science they are attacking? Or are they poking holes rather than constructing a new theory?
Here is a mini exercise to put this into practice. Every month Stanford’s Precourt Institute for Energy sends out a newsletter about their work. The August issue, sent a few days ago, had about 15 items in it, one of which grabbed my attention: “E&E News with Michael Wara: Can solar increase emissions? A debate erupts”. What? Solar can increase emissions?
Here is the article that Stanford’s email linked to. The original article that inspired the writeup is here. What is happening here? What is the debate? Is it a scientific debate? Who are the experts and what are they saying? Who is on which side? What role are journalists and the media playing? You can find my take here.
And have you figured out what you are -- a skeptic, a dupe, or a paranoid?
Notes and References
1. The content of Merchants of Doubt seems pretty non-partisan. The video ends with a really nice feature of Bob Inglis, a long-serving Republican representative from South Carolina. He exemplifies the “A Brighter Future” personality from the previous post.
2. This list is largely derived from the content in Merchants of Doubt, but the Union of Concerned Scientists also has a short but similar “disinformation playbook” with many examples.
3. These tips are derived from professional skeptic Michael Shermer, who is also incidentally a relatively recent convert to global warming believer.
4. I have heard this haze of doubt around a science or technology referred to in this area as “FUD” or “Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt”. Have any of you encountered this term at work, and in what context?
Current Climate Data (July 2019)
Global impacts, US impacts, CO2 metric, Climate dashboard (updated annually)
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