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Sunday, 21 March 2010

Fool me twice

As the cacophony of voices attacking climate science grows, I have to wonder: where are the journalists? Have they forgotten their job description? In any other field, if such an obvious, misinformed lobby arose, would they rate any attention?

Well, maybe.

During organized tobacco’s war on science, many newspapers reported propaganda created by paid tobacco lobbyists as a legitimate alternative to mainstream science. Other industries took up the same strategy: producers of CFCs who paid ozone hole deniers, and asbestos vendors who refused to acknowledge guilt in killing their own workers in the most horrific way in the cause of making a quick buck. In South Africa, according to a Harvard study, over 300,000 people died unnecessarily because the Mbeki government chose to believe pseudo-science when reality did not suit the president’s politics.

Fit to the Pattern

In all these cases, the tactics were remarkably similar. A small group, mostly with no scientific credentials in the area, supported by an even smaller group with some relevant scientific background, claimed that they represented an alternative viewpoint that had to be aired, and increasingly stridently portrayed the mainstream as dishonest, excluding alternative theories and even a religion. In each case, if you scratched below the surface, the strident accusations had no merit.

Is climate science any different? Not in principle, but in degree. The number of actual paid lobbyists is quite small, and the tactics have been narrow (as ably documented by John Mashey): discredit a small number of key scientists, tarring the rest as in on the plot, and cause general doubt among the public who are unaccustomed to evaluating scientific evidence. From there, rely on the gullibility of journalists and a ready constituency of conspiracy theorists and absolutist free marketeers who abhor any form of government intervention, and then rely on the viral properties of the Internet to spread the message far and wide. All this is a clever refinement on previous business-sponsored anti-science campaigns that didn’t have the Internet as a tool to spread disinformation on the cheap (AIDS denial was the first anti-science campaign I know of that did this, and it went pretty far without the benefit of an industrial sponsor). The biggest difference though is that mishandling climate change has the potential to cause disaster on an unprecedented scale. The ozone hole has made it inconvenient to live in countries like Australia, where sun-lovers court cancer if they don’t apply enough sun screen. Asbestos kills in horrible ways, but the number of victims is limited to those who are directly exposed. Tobacco too kills in horrible ways, if in much larger numbers than asbestos. AIDS is a terrible affliction to treat as a political problem that can be wished away. But climate change is a threat that carries risks for the entire biosphere. Not only that, if we wait too long before switching to an alternative energy economy, the economic effects of a sudden worldwide shift to new forms of energy could be devastating.

The Risks

Clearly, the lowest-risk approach to climate change is gradual emissions reduction, and a slow transition to a new energy economy, a process that has enough benefits to be worth exploring long before we were sure of the science. Had we started this in the late 1980s when the evidence started to become clear, we would be well on the way today towards a clean energy economy. So why the massive resistance? As with CFCs, tobacco, asbestos and HIV, there are political and economic constituencies who are threatened by change.

The big risk to humanity is not just from the dangers in failing to slow climate change and to re-gear economies for low emissions. It is also from discrediting science. Science is not a matter of opinion: a theory stands or falls by how well it fits the evidence, including how well its predictions stand up to measurement. By attempting to turn climate science, and indeed any science that offends a particular special interest, into a matter for debate where the evidence counts for less than personal preference, we risk reverting from a society of reason to a society of superstition. So there are big issues at stake, and the fact that so much of the discourse on this subject has swung away from reason to personal attack, and insisting that the facts bend to opinion rather than that the science be evaluated for what it is, is cause for serious concern.

The Real Failure

Why have they been allowed to get away with it? George Monbiot, in his book Heat, exposed the link between the anti-science of tobacco and climate change (more links in my discussion of his book). It does not take brilliant investigative journalism, following on from that, to realise that the attack on climate science is a massive con designed to buy the fossil fuel industry time, at the expense of the rest of humanity, who stand to pay a huge price if action is taken too late.

This is not the first time this tactic has been used, yet the anti-science movement gets away with it again and again. Tobacco. HIV. Asbestos. CFCs. And now climate science. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. Fool me five times, I’m a journalist.

Call to Action

So what can you do? Join my campaign or any other that you feel comfortable supporting to oppose demonizing science. Write letters to the media, making it clear you do not support turning science into a matter of opinion. Sign my pro-science petition, and consider joining my LinkedIn pro-science group to share ideas.