Friday, September 13, 2013

Dealing in doubt

Debating is often a useful way to arrive at something very close to the truth.  In many things such as politics, aesthetics, and theology, it is almost the only way to arrive at some sort of consensus.  And with some subjects like aesthetics, the debate is often left at the stage of "there's no accounting for taste."

Fine! I understand this.  What I do NOT understand is why folks stay in this sort of debate mode when the subject is math or science.  I mean, you CAN debate whether or not 2+2=4, I suppose, but anyone who actually does is usually looked at with contempt.  Why debate subjects that are so clearly beyond any reasonable debate?

Which brings up the climate change "debate."  Actually, it isn't a debate at all.  The evidence is so completely overwhelming and all one must do to confirm the science is look out the window.  And it's not especially complicated science.  The fact that CO2 is a greenhouse gas and that CO2 is produced every time we burn carbon is something we should be able to explain to any reasonably sentient 12-year-old.  And yet, there is a whole little business of discrediting something as obvious as climate change.

Why would anyone want to discredit something so obvious?  There is a large body of evidence that seems to indicate it's the producers of carbon-based fuels who don't want to change their business models who are funding the denialism.  If you believe that you are in the oil business and not the energy business, this actually makes some little sense for it postpones the day of reckoning.  But what is really interesting are the methods used to sow doubt.

In politics or religion, a common debate tactic is to try to discredit the other side.  If you can show the leaders of another sect or party are prone to pedophilia, for example, you can pretty much discredit their claims to moral or social leadership.  It doesn't really matter if the other side is championing new methods of combating substance abuse, if you can prove they are a bunch of goat-fuckers, you can pretty much destroy their influence.  But science and math are not suppose to work that way—it should be possible to convince even the goat-fuckers that 2+2=4 or that if they step off a cliff, they will go straight down.

The fact that non-scientific debating tactics can be used to muddy scientific arguments is proof that there are a LOT of folks who never learned the basic rules of scientific thought.  They live in a world where they believe everyone is entitled to their opinion—no matter how well-informed.  And when the subject is something like, Does football or country music suck? everyone's opinion is more or less as valid as another's.  But when the question is, Does 2+2=4? or Will increasing CO2 levels trap more energy in the atmosphere? all opinions are NOT equal.

As a practical matter, it doesn't matter one little bit whether anyone believes climate change is real.  It is happening and will continue to happen no matter how the question polls.  But also as a practical matter, if the doubt-spreaders can convince the politicians, who live and die by polling, that climate science is just another social question to be decided by polling, they can prevent them from funding the technologies that could make a meaningful dent in the problems caused by rising atmospheric energy.  This outcome is possible because politicians rarely understand the difference between political and scientific truth—they seem as a group to have slept through 7th-grade science class.  This is a serious matter because the catastrophe of climate change is so clearly a scientific problem.  Sometimes our very existence is threatened because our political abilities do not match our ability to effect scientific and technological change.  This is clearly one of those times.

REPORT: Tobacco-style Climate Denial – Greenpeace’s “Dealing in Doubt”

By: cgibson  September 10, 2013
Written by Cindy Baxter, crossposted from Greenpeace: Dealing in Doubt.

Who likes being lied to by people paid by the oil industry who pose as “experts” on climate change?

Did you know it’s been going on for 25 years?

In a couple of weeks, the UN’s official advisors on climate change science, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) will update its global assessment on the issue. Yet in the background, more attacks on the climate science are underway.

For the last quarter century, the climate science denial machine, its cogs oiled by fossil fuel money, has been attacking climate science, climate scientists and every official US report on climate change, along with State and local efforts – with the aim of undermining action on climate change.

Our new report, Dealing in Doubt, sets out the history of these attacks going back to the early 90s. These are attacks based on anti-regulatory, so called “free market” ideology, not legitimate scientific debate, using a wide range of dirty tricks: from faked science, attacks on scientists, fake credentials, cherry-picking scientific conclusions: a campaign based on the old tobacco industry mantra: “doubt is our product”.

We give special attention to perhaps today’s poster child of the climate denial machine’s free market think tanks, the Heartland Institute, which is about to launch a new version of its “NIPCC” or “climate change reconsidered” report next week in Chicago.

Unlike the real IPCC, with thousands of scientists involved from around the world, the Heartland Institute’s handful of authors is paid. Several of them claim fake scientific credentials. They start with a premise of proving the overwhelming consensus on climate science wrong, whereas the real IPCC simply summarizes the best science to date on climate change.

This multi-million dollar campaign has been funded by anti-government ideologues like the Koch brothers, companies like ExxonMobil and trade associations like the American Petroleum Institute.

More recently, less visible channels of funding have been revealed such as the Donors Capital Fund and Donors Trust, organization that that has been called the “ATM of the conservative movement”, distributing funds from those who don’t want to be publicly associated with the anti-environmental work product of organizations like the Heartland Institute.

In the last week we’ve seen new peer-reviewed science published, linking at least half of 2012’s extreme weather events to a human carbon footprint in the atmosphere and on the weather and climate.

As the scientific consensus strengthens by the day that climate change is happening now, that carbon pollution is causing it and must be regulated, the denial machine is getting increasingly shrill. But today, while they are being increasingly ignored by a majority of the public, their mouthpieces in the US House of Representatives, for instance, have increased in number.

They’re still fighting the science – and they’re still being funded, to the tune of millions of dollars each year, to do it.

Dealing in Doubt sets out a history of these attacks. We show how the tactics of the tobacco industry’s campaign for “sound science” led to the formation of front groups who, as they lost the battle to deny smoking’s health hazards and keep warning labels off of cigarettes, turned their argumentative skills to the denial of climate change science in order to slow government action.

What we don’t cover is the fact that these organizations and deniers are also working on another front, attacking solutions to climate change. They go after any form of government incentive to promote renewable energy, while cheering for coal, fracking and the Keystone pipeline.

They attack any piece of legislation the US EPA puts forward to curb pollution. Decrying President Obama’s “war on coal” is a common drumbeat of these anti-regulation groups. One key member of the denial machine, astrophysicist Willie Soon from the Smithsonian Institute for Astrophysics, has portrayed himself as an “expert” on mercury and public health in order to attack legislation curbing mercury emissions from coal plants.

This recent history, as well as the prior history of denial by the tobacco companies and chemical, asbestos and other manufacturing industries, is important to remember because the fossil fuel industry has never admitted that it was misguided or wrong in its early efforts to delay the policy reaction to the climate crisis. To this day, it continues to obstruct solutions.

The individuals, organizations and corporate interests who comprise the ‘climate denial machine’ have caused harm and have slowed our response time. As a result, we will all ultimately pay a much higher cost as we deal with the impacts, both economic and ecological.

Eventually, these interests will be held accountable for their actions. more

1 comment:

  1. Jonathan,

    Fascinating post as usual. On this issue of Debate in science, I'd like to recommend you read a book I just finished "Laboratory Life: the Social Construction of Scientific Facts." by Bruno Latour and Steve Woolgar. I think you'd find it a very useful perspective, and there is a clear tie in to Institutional Analysis with a focus on fact generation in science as a producer activity, and a discussion of the role that creditability plays in that process.

    While the book focuses on the micro-social environment of a reserach lab, it also has very interesting things to say about the broader macro-social environment thatmakes scientific fact so contentious in society.