Berkeley Scholar Doesn’t Admit He Is A Corporate Shill

Climatology denialist Steven F. Hayward had a propaganda piece published in the The Wall Street Journal: Climate Change Has Run Its Course (see archived version). Immediately after it was published, the typical right-wing think tanks, astroturf websites, and corporatist media outlets began pushing the article. A common title in the web results was: Berkeley Scholar Admits “Climate Change Has Run Its Course”. In two days, a Google search showed “about 2,550 results” for the exact wording of that title alone.

It is a highly coordinated and well-funded operation. A single article like that might cost thousands of dollars to promote, which is nothing for plutocrats like the Koch and Mercer families who have so much money they don’t know what to do with it all. Numerous pieces like that are put out and promoted every year, as large numbers of hacks, pundits, trolls, etc are paid to write such pieces or bring the pieces up in their shows and blogs and websites, not to mention public relations and perception management companies that do their magic with bots, fake social media accounts, etc. Hayward himself plays multiple roles within this propaganda machine, not only a writer but also a major figure within multiple key organizations. For example, he is a director of Donors Capital Fund“a group that works with DonorsTrust to give hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations to numerous groups questioning mainstream climate science”, from one year alone.

The entire anti-climatology network costs at least millions of dollars a year (as for what could be documented with two specific funding sources, precisely $125 million went to US groups over a particular three year period during the Obama administration; one of the two funding sources was Hayward’s abovementioned Donors Capital Fund; and other research by Drexel University environmental sociologist Robert Brulle found that “In all, 140 foundations funneled $558 million to almost 100 climate denial organizations from 2003 to 2010.”). Most of it is dark money and, as Senator Sheldon Whitehouse said in a speech, “the story of dark money and the story of climate change denial are the same story: two sides of the same coin” — see Whitehouse’s book on the topic and see the investigative work of Jane Mayer, Naomi Oreskes, and Erik Conway. That doesn’t even count the general operational funding for all the organizations and individuals involved with related and overlapping agendas: staffing, lobbying efforts, political campaigns, legal forms of indirect bribery (e.g., donations to politicians’ favored groups), lucrative jobs for retired politicians, astroturf, corporate-friendly research, etc.

About overlapping agendas, Hayward has promoted many other issues besides climatology denialism. An example is his promoting anti-immigrant ideology and in rather extreme forms. In one piece at Power Line, he cited the popular right-wing novel Camp of Saints, a novel that portrays genocidal racism — and that inspired Steve Bannon along with many others on the alt-right. What Hayward predictably doesn’t note is that the refugee crisis is largely being caused by climate change, specifically droughts that turned one of civilization’s bread baskets into a desert. By the way, Power Line was made famous for the defense of Bush against attacks on his military record. And more interestingly, as Power Line is funded by Koch money, one of the Power Line bloggers is a lawyer whose law firm represents Koch Industries. It’s a tangled web of wealth and power. And as Hayward demonstrates, that tangled web is increasingly encroaching within academia as the Kochs have specifically targeted universities with donations tied to demands — “According to IRS tax filing data compiled by Greenpeace, Charles Koch has given over $68 million to over 300 universities from 2005 to 2013.[2] The Center for Public Integrity calculated that the Kochs spent $19.3 million on 163 colleges and universities in 2013 alone” (SourceWatch).

But such costs of millions of dollars are a fraction of a fraction of big energy profits, especially considering the public is giving big energy corporations billions of dollars a year in subsidies. The money spent is a wise investment, at least for the short-term profits of plutocrats. Meanwhile, these big energy corporations see the writing on the wall, as their own scientists had proven the existence and threat of man-made climate change going back to the 1970s. Even so, they will wring every last dollar out of old energy, until they are forced to change. It’s of no concern to their quarterly earnings what devastating catastrophes might happen in the decades to come. Many individuals within the system know the situation is dire, but the system itself doesn’t allow for this to be translated into action. It’s entirely outside of the dominant ideological worldview and its in-built system of incentives and disincentives, the carrot and stick that keeps everyone in line.

The point of all this isn’t public debate about science. Articles like this rarely escape the targeted audience within the echo chamber (the only reason I knew about it was because my conservative father, a regular WSJ reader, shared it with me). The political left has grown weary of the bullshit and rarely bothers to acknowledge the latest propaganda pieces, as it is an endless and thankless and ultimately impossible task to keep up with it all (but some take notice). As for mainstream liberals, they tend to take it all at face value and typically don’t question the immense corruption behind it all because only wacko conspiracy theorists think that way, which leaves the naive liberal class vulnerable to obfuscation and manipulation. And it goes without saying that the comments section below the WSJ article and elsewhere on the web is filled with right-wingers repeating the talking points they learned from previous propaganda pieces — this staged and coordinated groupthink is a big circle jerk, but one supported by immense wealth and power. Meanwhile, Steven Hayward continues to play the role of respectable public intellectual, and there are thousands more right-wing hacks, corporate shills, etc similar to him that pervade the alternative and mainstream media.

This game of rhetoric is subtle and, as with the political parties, it pulls the entire media system far to the right. Even public bastions of supposedly liberal media give more airtime to right-wing sources than left-wing sources (NPR turns to right-wing think tanks between two and four times as often as to liberal think tanks; as for left-wingers, they are either ignored, dismissed, criticized, or attacked). As I often note, the center of the majority opinion of the American public is far to the left of the entire establishment (‘progressivism’ and ‘socialism’ are more popular than the ‘Tea Party’ and, among multiple demographics, more popular than ‘capitalism’), including on many issues to the left of the so-called ‘liberal’ media and the Democratic Party (going by polling data on policy positions, even the average ‘conservative’ is often to the left of the average Democratic politician — let that sink in for a moment). The word ‘mainstream’, as with the word ‘centrist’, becomes rather meaningless; other than as a designation of the site of institutionalized power where plutocratic values are expressed and plutocratic interests represented, where gatekeepers operate and talking heads push their agendas, where the propaganda model is implemented and the public is indoctrinated.

This is a powerful ideological system. It extends into the government itself through placing plutocrats and corporatists into official positions, from stacking the courts to regulatory capture. What pathetic excuse we have for democratic process is so hobbled as to be helpless against this big money onslaught. As an example, Carly Cassella at Science Alert notes that “Lamar Smith, one of the most notorious climate deniers in Congress, is the current chairman of the” House Science, Space and Technology Committee. The official Twitter account tweeted Hayward’s recent WSJ opinion piece. Besides regularly tweeting other denialist propaganda: “All in all, the committee has shared approximately 36 WSJ articles on Twitter since September 2017. Over half of these articles spout climate denial in some form or other.” Talk about ideological religion (it’s similar to the tactics used by fundies in taking over local school boards to push their Creationist and anti-choice beliefs through educational curriculum and textbooks in order to indoctrinate children; and, of course, there has long been overlap between fundamentalism and anti-science ideology as found within numerous organizations and increasingly within government).

To return to the article itself, Hayward writes that: “Scientists who are genuinely worried about the potential for catastrophic climate change ought to be the most outraged at how the left politicized the issue and how the international policy community narrowed the range of acceptable responses. Treating climate change as a planet-scale problem that could be solved only by an international regulatory scheme transformed the issue into a political creed for committed believers. Causes that live by politics, die by politics.”

As one commenter (Susan Marano) responded, “Perhaps the left wouldn’t have “politicized” the issue, if the right, as apologists for, and funded by, the fossil-fuel industry, hadn’t politicized it in the first place – because it implied an existential threat to their businesses.” Of course, Hayward already knows that.

By definition, climate change is a planet-scale problem that requires a planet-scale response, if we are to avoid even worse catastrophes as weather patterns shift with flooding and desertification in new areas and as the number and intensity of severe weather worsens. The fact of the matter is that scientists who are genuinely worried aren’t corporate shills who use rhetoric to dismiss reality. Is this guy stupid or does he simply play a stupid person on right-wing media? Either way, he is insulting the intelligence of his readers, but then again maybe he knows all too well his target audience of Wall Street Journal readers — they apparently take having their intelligence insulted as a badge of honor in the fight against the intellectual elite. This puts the WSJ in an odd position, as it never before aspired to be an anti-elitist or anti-intellectual rag, but much changed when Rupert Murdoch bought the WSJ.

Who does Hayward think he is fooling with this bullshit? Is it merely preaching to the choir? I doubt many of the regular readers are fooled either, even as they enjoy the ideological signalling that confirms their identity politics. Such right-wing pieces are shameless propaganda. And it is well documented that the author is a paid propagandist of big biz. But I just don’t get it. What does anyone have to gain by pushing the biosphere and human civilization toward mass catastrophe? Even big biz will be harmed in the end. What kind of person is willing to destroy a planet and ensure the eventual harm and suffering of their own children and grandchildren in order to gain some temporary wealth for themselves? A sociopath, that is the simplest and scariest answer. In the end, we all live and die by politics, specifically in terms of vast environmental problems, even if externalized costs are not evenly spread across all populations (“About 40 percent of deaths worldwide are caused by water, air and soil pollution” which impacts “3.7 billion people”).

Explain to me how scientific experts who support scientific consensus are ‘cultists’ because “I’m rubber and you’re glue, what bounces off of me sticks to you”. Besides being inanely stupid, that is false equivalency between the two sides. Why shouldn’t we label as science denialists those who deny science? And how does that justify declaring that respectable climatologists are cultists for simply stating scientific facts? Calling a spade a spade in calling a denialist a denialist isn’t unfair name-calling, since it is a objective description. It reminds me of racists who complain about being called racists and demand they be treated as respectable equals. Why should we play their game?

Conservatives seeing everything in terms of religion is nothing new. To their mind, everything on the political left is a cult, as every other religion is a cult. Their complaint isn’t about religion but that there can only be one true religion to rule them all (religiosity as authoritarian dogmatism by way of Social Darwinism) and all else is cultism. It’s similar to how conservatives deny having an ideology for only people they disagree with have ideologies. The labels of ‘cult’ and ‘ideology’ mean the same thing in the conservative mind. It seems like a whole lot of projection considering how hard conservatives push their political and religious ideologies onto others, including their own preferred versions of political correctness. That is what this comes down to, political correctness in defense of right-wing ideology. The right-wing snowflakes have their feelings hurt by words. And since they can’t win on the facts, they will try to make it a fight over language policing.

All of this is in service of denial. And denial is simply the first stage of the grieving process. They deny global warming and climate change is real, although denial has been weakening such that they’ve shifted their position from “it’s not real” to “it’s not that bad”. The next stage is anger when they attack supporters of climatology for blaming humanity in pointing out that the evidence indicates it is anthropogenic. As the scientific evidence grows and the denialist position weakens, they have been moving into this second stage for a while.

Now we are entering the third stage, bargaining. They are increasingly admitting that the climatologists were right in that there is climate change and it is anthropogenic (“I guess we’re adding a new step to the old dance? “The planet isn’t getting warmer, the warming is natural and not man-made, it’ll be easier to adapt than address the human causes…..and if you liberals weren’t so annoying we’d be willing to work on it.” “). But as they continue to quibble and obfuscate the actual science in seeking to blame environmentalists and scientists as cultists, now they want to to negotiate about not being called mean names anymore so that they can save face in their sense of shame at having pushed harmful lies for so many decades. The fourth stage will be depression, followed by the fifth and final stage of acceptance.

We are getting closer to being able to have rational and moral public debate about climatology. The problem is that, even as a few ideological hacks and useful idiots and corporatist cucks for big energy have moved past outright denial, most of them are still peddling more slippery forms of denialism and big energy is still funding propaganda. It’s slow progress, considering big energy companies hid their own climatology research for almost a half century. At this rate, we might not get to full acceptance until later in this century or else until the issue becomes moot once it becomes obvious that we are beyond the point of no return.

In conclusion, here is a fun little disccusion at /r/Politics in response to Hayward’s WSJ propaganda piece:

10390: “They characterize climate change as a movement rather than a threat. They are not listening to the Department of Defense.”

GhostBearBestClanForeign: “What does the DOD know? It’s not like they invented satellite imaging or anything…”

the_geotus: “And it’s not like DOD has any interest to protect Americans …”

puroloco: “Can’t keep the military complex going if we are all dead”

* * *

Further Info:

Steven F. Hayward
DeSmogBlog

Hayward has ties to many conservative think tanks. He has been a senior fellow in environmental studies at at the Pacific Research Institute (PRI), and Weyerhaeuser Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI). He is also a director of the Donors Capital Fund (DCF), a group that works with DonorsTrust to give hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations to numerous groups questioning mainstream climate science. Hayward is a board member of the Institute for Energy Research (IER). [2][3], [20]

The American Enterprise Institute and Pacific Research Institute are both heavily funded by oil billionaires Koch Industries, and Richard Mellon Scaife.

Steven F. Hayward
Source Watch

Steven F. Hayward is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute (www.aei.org) in Washington, D.C., and a senior fellow at the Pacific Research Institute (www.pacific-research.org) in San Francisco.

Hayward writes frequently on a wide range of issues, including environmentalism, law, economics, and public policy, and has published dozens of articles in scholarly and popular journals. His work has appeared in National ReviewNew York TimesWall Street Journal, Reason, The Weekly StandardPolicy Review, and Chicago Tribune. He is a Weyerhauser Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, an adjunct fellow of the John Ashbrook Center and a former Bradley Fellow at the Heritage FoundationWeaver Fellow of the Intercollegiate Studies InstituteEarhart Fellow, and Olive Garvey Fellow of the Mont Pelerin Society.” — Pacific Research Institute

The American Enterprise Institute and Pacific Research Institute are both heavily funded by oil billionaires Koch Industries, and Richard Mellon Scaife (Gulf Oil).

Koch Bros Tribune Co? Climate change denial in Koch-friendly media
by Connor Gibson, Greenpeace

Steven Hayward, who is affiliated with numerous groups financed by the Kochs as well serving as treasurer and board member to Donors Capital Fund. DCF and sister group Donors Trust hide money from the Kochs and other corporate interests to groups like the Heartland Institute, the Franklin Center, CFACT, Americans for Prosperity, and many other groups connected to Haywardread more on Steven Hayward and the Donors Trust network. Steven Hayward frequently dismisses global warming in the Weekly Standard, the National Review, and Powerline Blog, run by attorney John Hinderaker, whose firm has represented Koch Industries.

Who are these guys? Yet more polluter-funded front groups hit the climate scene
by Pete Altman, NRDC

Just how far out there does the IER get in touting the energy industry line on climate change denial?  In recent weeks, the energy-financed IER has helped tell the, well, dirty lie that “clean energy is a ‘dirty lie.”

IER also did its part to spread around the lies contained in a widely debunked Spanish “study” that falsely suggests green jobs are somehow a bad thing.

Speaking of being out there on denial issues, one of IER’s directors is Steven Hayward with the American Enterprise InstituteHayward was exposed two years ago for offering to pay scientists with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change $10,000 for written critiques of the IPCC’s newest findings.

Factsheet: Steven F. Hayward
Exxon Secrets

5 July, 2006
Co-author of a July 2006 letter sent by AEI to an unknown number of scientists, looking for someone – at a rate of $10,000 for 10,000 words – whose review “thoughtfully explores the limitations of climate model outputs as they pertain to the development of climate policy.”
Source: DeSmogBlog.com (2006)

Meet The Climate Denial Machine
by Jill Fitzsimmons, Media Matters

In 2007, The Guardian reported that the conservative American Enterprise Institute (AEI) was offering scientists and economists $10,000 each to write articles critical of the IPCC Fourth Assessment Report on climate change. The Guardian noted that AEI has received substantial funding from ExxonMobil and that former Exxon CEO Lee Raymond — a vocal climate change skeptic — served as AEI’s Vice Chair. AEI criticized the story, saying they merely sought to subject the IPCC report to “serious scrutiny and criticism” but were not doubting the “existence of global warming.”

Nevertheless, AEI scholars have repeatedly downplayed the threat of climate change. Steven Hayward, who writes for National Review, has said that climate concerns are based on “propaganda” and that efforts to reduce emissions are “based on exaggerations and conjecture rather than science.” Former AEI president Christopher DeMuth acknowledged in 2001 that the earth has warmed but claimed “it’s not clear why this happened.” But some other AEI scholars have endorsed a carbon tax to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

15 Most Absurd Comments Right-Wing Media Said About Climate Change in 2015
by Kevin Kalhoefer, Eco Watch

National Review tweeted that a misleading temperature chart published by Powerline’s Steven Hayward was “[t]he only #climatechange chart you need to see.” Hayward wrote that his chart displayed average annual global temperature “with the axis starting not just from zero, but from the lower bound of the actual experienced temperature range of the earth,” and claimed, “[i]f this chart were published on the front page of newspapers the climate change crusaders would be out of business instantly.”

National Review’s tweet was roundly criticized for the chart’s obviously misleading scale (with an appropriately scaled y-axis, the chart shows a demonstrable increase in global temperatures), with Kevin Drum of Mother Jones writing that Hayward’s re-scaled chart was “so phenomenally stupid that I figured it had to be a joke of some kind.” Several Twitter users responded to National Review by jokingly posting examples of similarly misleading charts, including one that the Union of Concerned Scientists described as showing “comfort in the idea that nobody really reads the National Review online.”

ANALYSIS: How The Wall Street Journal Opinion Section Presents Climate Change
Climate Nexus

An analysis of 20 years of the Wall Street Journal’s opinion pages on climate shows a consistent pattern that overwhelmingly ignores the science, champions doubt and denial of both the science and effectiveness of action, and leaves readers misinformed about the consensus of science and of the risks of the threat. […]

Similarly, when the opinion page publishes op-eds by Steve Hayward of the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), they failed to disclose his AEI affiliation in three of four op-eds. AEI is funded by the fossil fuel industry (and the tobacco industry) with major donations from the Kochs and ExxonMobil. Also undisclosed is the fact that Hayward is Treasurer for the Donors Capital Fund, one of a pair of groups described by The Guardian as “a secretive funding route to channel nearly $120m (£77m) to more than 100 groups casting doubt about the science behind climate change.” According to researcher Robert Brulle, Donors Capital Fund and its sister group Donors Trust are responsible for “about one-quarter of the funding of the climate countermovement.”

Remarkable Editorial Bias on Climate Science at the Wall Street Journal
by Peter Gleick, Forbes

The Wall Street Journal’s editorial board has long been understood to be not only antagonistic to the facts of climate science, but hostile. But in a remarkable example of their unabashed bias, on Friday they published an opinion piece that not only repeats many of the flawed and misleading arguments about climate science, but purports to be of special significance because it was signed by 16 “scientists.” […]

The National Academy of Sciences is the nation’s pre-eminent independent scientific organizations. Its members are among the most respected in the world in their fields. Yet the Journal wouldn’t publish this letter, from more than 15 times as many top scientists. Instead they chose to publish an error-filled and misleading piece on climate because some so-called experts aligned with their bias signed it. This may be good politics for them, but it is bad science and it is bad for the nation.

Science magazine – perhaps the nation’s most important journal on scientific issues – published the letter from the NAS members after the Journal turned it down.

Do you have an open mind? Read both, side by side. And understand that every national academy of sciences on the planet agrees with the reality and seriousness of human caused climate change.

The letter signed by 255 National Academy of Sciences members, from Science magazine.

The letter signed by 16 “scientists” in the Wall Street Journal.

How The Wall Street Journal’s Climate Coverage Fails Businesses
by Alexander C. Kaufman. Huffington Post

The Wall Street Journal may want to consider some editorial input from its advertisers.

Such a thing would be journalistic sacrilege. But the full-page that ran last week in the country’s biggest newspaper by circulation — a call from nearly 70 big-name companies for a strong deal to curb greenhouse gas emissions — seems more in touch with scientific reason than much of anything found on the editorial and opinion pages.

Economist Jeffrey Sachs wrote in a blog post that appeared in The Huffington Post on Monday that the job of business leaders is to look ahead and around corners, to see what is coming next.

“Taking The Wall Street Journal editorials as fact would cost the U.S. its global leadership in the era of the high-tech, low-carbon world economy,” he wrote. […]

Major corporate players from an array of sectors have pledged to convert their operations to use 100 percent renewable energy within the next two decades.

Therein lies the most significant change here — big business is behind the deal. That’s what made the 21st Conference of the Parties, or COP21, so different from similar global gatherings in Kyoto in 2001 or Copenhagen in 2009. Corporations realized that the extreme and increasingly unpredictable weather and climate changes that come of global warming were bad for business.

“Serious businesses need serious help with analysis because these are complicated issues,” Sachs, who teaches at Columbia University, told HuffPost by phone on Tuesday. “It has really done a disservice to businesses.” […]

The editorial board’s view sets it apart from just about every major intellectual institution with the exception of one: the Grand Old Party — the only major political party in the world that denies climate change outright or that it’s a problem that should be addressed, according to Eric Roston, the sustainability editor at Bloomberg.

The Science of Politics

Many have noted the odd relationship American conservatives have to science. It isn’t just anti-intellectualism. Nor is it even necessarily a broad attack against all science. It is highly selective and not consistent whatsoever. It is a reactionary attitude and so must be understood in that light.

I regularly interact with a number of conservatives. It gives me a personal sense of what it might mean.

There is a sense behind it that scientists are mere technocrats, puppets of political power. This mindset doesn’t separate science from politics. There is no appreciation that most scientists probably think little about politics while they are focused on the practical issues of doing research and writing papers. Most scientists aren’t trying to make a political argument or to change anything within or through politics. Scientists just have their small corner of expertise that they obsess over.

There is a paranoia in this mindset, typically unacknowledged. There is a suspicion that scientists somehow are an organized political elite conspiring to force their will on the public. In reality, scientists are constantly arguing and fighting with one another. The main politics most scientists are worried about is most often the politics of academia, nothing so grand as control of the government. Science involves more disagreement than anything else.

Getting all scientists to cooperate on some grand conspiracy isn’t likely to ever happen, especially as scientists work within diverse institutions and organizations, public and private, across many countries. They don’t even share a single funding source. Scientists get funding from various government agencies, from various non-profit organizations, and increasingly from corporations. All these different funding sources have different agendas and create different incentives. For example, a lot of climatology research gets funded by big oil because climatology predictions are important in working with big oil rigs out in the ocean.

There is also another even stranger aspect. I get this feeling that some conservatives consider science to almost be unAmerican. I had a conservative tell me that science should have no influence over politics whatsoever. That politics should be about a competition of ideas. a marketplace of ideas if you will, and may the best idea win or profit, as the case may be. That reality is too complex for scientists too understand and so we shouldn’t try to understand that complexity. So, trying to understand is more dangerous than simply embracing our ignorance.

This goes so far as to create its own vision of history. Many conservatives believe that the founders were a wise elite who simply knew the answers. They may have taken up science as a hobby, but it had absolutely nothing to do with their politics. The founders were smart, unlike today’s intellectual liberal elite and scientific technocrats. The founders understood that science had nothing to offer other than the development of technology for the marketplace. That is the only use science has, as a tool of capitalism.

This is a bizarre mentality. It is also historically ungrounded. The founders didn’t separate their interest in science from their interest in politics. They saw both science and politics as the sphere of ideas and experimentation. They didn’t just take someone’s word for something. If they had a question or a debate, it wasn’t unusual for them to test it out and find what would happen. They were very hands-on people. For many of them, politics was just another scientific experiment. The new American system was a hypothesis to be tested, not simply a belief system to be declared and enforced.

This view of science is widespread. This isn’t just an issue of cynical reactionaries, ignorant right-wingers, and scientifically clueless fundies. This worldview also includes middle and upper class conservatives with college education, some even in academia itself. Many of these people are intelligent and informed. Very few of them are overt conspiracy theorists and denialists. Much of what I’ve said here they would dismiss as an outlandish caricature. They are rational and they know they are rational. Their skepticism of science is perfectly sound and based on valid concerns.

When these people on the right speak of science, they are speaking of it as symbolizing something greater in their worldview. It isn’t just science they are speaking of. They fear something that is represented by science. They fear the change and uncertainty that science offers. They distrust scientists challenging their cherished views of present reality in the same way they distrust academic historians revising established historical myths about America. These intellectual elites are undermining the entire world they grew up in, everything they consider great and worthy about this country.

Conservatives aren’t wrong to fear and distrust. Indeed, their world is being threatened. Change is inevitable and no one has a clue about what the end results might be. But they should stop attacking the messenger. Scientists are simply telling us to face reality, to face the future with our eyes wide open.

* * * *

Gentlemen Scientists and Revolutionaries:
The Founding Fathers in the Age of Enlightenment
by Tom Shachtman

Science and the Founding Fathers:
Science in the Political Thought of Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and James Madison
by I. Bernard Cohen

The Invention of Air:
A Story Of Science, Faith, Revolution, And The Birth Of America
by Steven Johnson

 

 

Paranoid Denialism, a Strange Brew

I was interacting with some people who don’t believe in anthropogenic global warming (AGW). They are typical specimens. I know I’m wasting my time with them, but I can’t help being fascinated by such strange thinking patterns. When I confront the strange, my response is to analyze.

There are numerous problems with the anti-scientific denialist worldview:

1) In the end, it is an empty rationalization.

The structure of the rationalization is not unique to any particular argument and so could be used to defend any belief system equally as well or rather equally as badly. There either is no substance or what little substance included is inconsequential.

2) It presents no falsifiable hypotheses and won’t accept anyone treating their hypothesis as falsifiable.

Their argument can’t be disproven; then again neither can it be proven. The scientific process with peer review is dismissed out of hand and so no objective standard remains. The argument denies the very evidence that disproves it, but it doesn’t disprove the evidence on a case by case analysis. All peer reviewed research is treated as suspect, unless it fits into the preconceived conclusions.

It is standard confirmation bias, sometimes combined with the smart idiot effect as some of these denialists can spout off a lot of carefully selected factoids. It takes a certain kind of intelligence to defend such a difficult position, especially those who dedicate their lives to it. This is similar to how some apologists can be immensely well educated, sometimes even being academics in biblical studies.

3) The denialist’s worldview forms a self-enclosed and self-reinforcing reality tunnel.

The denialist becomes isolated from any new information being able to challenge what he thinks he already knows. It forms a groupthink where denialists help support eachother’s delusions, giving the appearance of credence by closing the ranks. The denialist groupthink is further assisted by particular well funded organizations and think tanks that hire the ‘experts’ to produce the ‘data’ and arguments to create a semblance of coherence.

4) The essence of the argument is a conspiracy theory.

It’s a paranoid worldview where no one can be trusted, unless they affirm the exact same beliefs. This paranoia plays into their entrapment in a reality tunnel of their own construction. The conspiracy theory, however, only makes sense within the belief system itself. If the person was able to see outside their paranoia, they probably wouldn’t be so paranoid and so the conspiracy theory would no longer be compelling.

The conspiracy theory necessitates a conspiracy larger than anything before in history. The conspiracy would have to include every government in the world and every government agency, every scientific institution both publicly and privately funded, nearly all the scientists in the world, and most of the mainstream media. This would be a conspiracy with millions of participants all colluding together in a massive cooperative effort and doing so almost completely hidden from the view of the public. Considering the vast majority of climatologists and other scientists support AGW, this would include at least hundreds of thousands of scientists alone, many of whom work in the private sector.

Interestingly, research has shown that paranoia is an aspect of a Dark Triad which includes three personality traits: narcissism, Machiavellianism and psychopathy. In the research, perceiving Machiavellianism in others (paranoia and conspiracy theorizing) positively and strongly correlates with admitting to a willingness to act with Machiavellian intentions if given the opportunity. To put it simply, such a person is paranoid because they believe other people are just like them, that other people are equally as untrustworthy and immoral/amoral.

By the way, paranoia shows no correlation with low IQ and so it isn’t an issue of intelligence. Some conspiracy theories are so intricate and complex as to be creations of a genius mind. Conspiracy theorizing is pattern-seeking on steroids.

5) Denialists are holding a double standard.

First, they have a double standard for the assessment and acceptance of evidence. The evidence they accept supports their beliefs and they only accept evidence according to their beliefs. But they wouldn’t accept this being used by others who hold views opposing their own. For example, one of the denialists I was interacting with told me to present a peer reviewed paper proving some particular issue, but simultaneously he was denying the validity of the entire peer review process.

Second, they have a double standard of the rationalization behind what evidence is accepted or excluded. One of the criticisms that denialists often make is that they believe AGW supporters are rationalizing according to a self-enclosed reality tunnel and according to a conspiracy theory about big energy. So, they refuse to allow what they perceive in others what they do themselves. This is, of course, projection for on some level most denialists probably realize their position is weak.

The double standard can be demonstrated by returning to the facet of their rationalization not being unique. The denialist’s arguments could be just as easily turned against them.

Once freed from the constraints of objective evidence and standards, almost any argument could be put forth that couldn’t be disproven (or proven). Also, once we enter the convoluted territory of conspiracy theory, Occam’s Razor can be dismissed as well and we can go to any length to seek a coherent worldview. Many have pointed out that the conspiracy theorist can end up with a worldview that is more coherent than any scientific theory for the conspiracy theorist feels no desire to include conflicting data and interpretations.

I hold out some hope that denialists can be reached, that some of them aren’t beyond all redemption.

That does seem to be the case. Not all denialists are overtly anti-scientific. A few simply are being overly cautious in vetting the consensus of the scientific community, but this doesn’t mean they dismiss it out of hand. In recent years, I’ve heard of several cases of scientists who held strong skepticism toward AGW and were publicly vocal in their skepticism, and yet over time the evidence finally convinced them.

I don’t criticize to make myself feel better. It certainly doesn’t make me feel better to think about the weaknesses and failures of the human mind. I like to think that there is value in trying to understand what makes people tick.

Anti-Science in Academia?

There is a phenomena I came across again: anti-science.

I wouldn’t feel compelled to write about it again, though, if it didn’t frustrate me so much. The reason I feel frustrated in this moment is because of three different interactions I’ve had this past week or so. What stood out to me is that these interactions weren’t entirely typical in that it demonstrated how widely spread this problem is.

I should first explain that the issue frustrating me isn’t precisely an anti-scientific attitude, but something that nearly approximates it in specific contexts.

Several interactions I had were all well-educated people who have spent much time in academia. I know at least some of them have worked in the capacity of teaching. All of them are typical intellectual types who are well informed about the world and are certainly way above average in IQ. Also, they also seem like people who are more than capable of independent thinking and rational analysis. Basically, they aren’t anti-intellectual and, of course, wouldn’t think of themselves that way. Nonetheless, the doubts they express about certain scientific issues is so strong that it comes close to the doubts expressed by people who are more obviously anti-intellectual.

One commonality is that all of them have spent time outside of the country of their birth, at least one of them having lived significant part of his life in another country. A couple of them even speak another language besides English. So, these are relatively worldly people.

Besides the commonalities, my attention was caught by the fact that they are ideologically and academically quite diverse. Between them all: They run the entire ideological spectrum from left to right. And they include a diversity of academic knowledge and experience. They are even diverse in their religious proclivities or lack thereof.

I should point out that all of these people are intellectually respectable. In fact, I personally respect them for their intellects. It’s because of their general knowledgeablity and rationality that I enjoy discussing issues with them on occasion, although only one of them did I meet directly through such a discussion.

It is for this reason I felt so disheartened by my feeling the need to defend science against people who should know better… or maybe that isn’t quite the right way of saying it. It’s not that I think all of them are wrong in their views per se, except for one of them who I think is obviously wrong about the data. More basically, it’s just frustration at trying to communicate. Science is one of those topics that brings up a lot of ideological baggage which gets in the way, myself included. It seems odd to me that science is so often one of the most polarizing of issues. It makes me aware of how much views on science can diverge when even well educated people can disagree so widely. On top of that, it has become clear to me how much we are divided simply because of the powerful role of media.

These interactions involved a variety of scientific issues, all related to research: psychology of ideologies, IQ testing, global warming, etc. Fundamentally, all of these people felt some variation of mistrust about potential bias in various aspects: the researchers themselves, the limitations of research, the agendas of scientific institutions, how data was being interpreted or reported, etc.

The specifics aren’t all that important. In some cases, the doubts they shared were to some degree within reason. What didn’t seem reasonable to me was how strongly they held onto those doubts, how resistant they were to treat as trustworthy the scientific method and scientific community. Of course, my own biased opinions about science played into my own sense of conflict and frustration. It’s hard to discuss neutrally many of these kinds of issues, especially when they seem very important in how they touch upon many other issues (global warming being a particularly clear example of this).

It seemed to me that they didn’t want give scientists their due. Despite their being well educated, they were all speaking about science as laypeople. As a layperson myself, I tend to want to put more trust in scientific experts until I discover very good reasons to doubt; for certain, I feel annoyed when an entire scientific field is dismissed or devalued without any seeming good reason besides the consensus of that field not fitting the person’s worldview.

More specifically, it seemed that they didn’t want to acknowledge the fact that scientists are more aware of and careful about such potential problems than anyone outside of the scientific fields. I would point out some of these scientific researchers (specifically the soccial scientists) are experts in bias and in some cases experts in the biases of science itself. If you want to know what are the reasonable doubts to have about science, you just need to ask scientists. Science works by trial and error. If there is bias or limitiation to some type of testing, scientists will be the first to point it out and fix the problem. The scientific method is a self-correcting system.

Doubt within the scientific method is essential and necessary. But doubt about the scientific method itself is a direct attack on the very ideal that puts knowledge above belief or opinion. That said, I’m sure none of these people meant to attack such an ideal and probably would see themselves defending it in their own way. It’s  just that it felt like their criticisms weren’t all that helpful coming from the sidelines of science.

Here is my response to all of this:

If we can’t trust that the best experts on bias can deal with potential problems of bias, then we lesser mortals are beyond any hope of non-scientifically dealing with biases. Attempting to dismiss or discredit a particular field of science is the opposite of helpful. As long as even well-educated intellecuals end up undermining science and the scientific method, whether intentionally anti-scientific or not, we are going to have a hard time advancing as a society. Considering the possibility of losing our collective faith in the ideal of knowledge, do most people realize what we would be giving up?

These interactions demonstrate the apparent failure of the non-scientific fields of academia… or maybe just failure of science education in general (I know the science education I received from the public school system was probably a bit lacking). I would imagine that even many of those working in higher education need to be better educated about science. Our entire society needs to be better educated all around, and I have no doubt that the people I speak of would agree with me on that.

My emotional response to these interactions might have less to do with the interactions themselves. Instead, it might just be that these interactions helped clarify my sense of the problem we face. My perception of science being undermined not only saddens me, it makes me fear for our future. This isn’t about any individual person or any individual doubt. We could argue about the specifics endlessly. What I’m pointing out is much more insidious, the undermining of scientific authority itself where any doubt almost automatically trumps even the vast knowledge accumulated by decades of experts, where scientific peer-review and consensus becomes a reason for doubt of expertise instead of a reason for trust… worst still, where the science itself and the scientists who do it seem to get lost in the cloud of conflict and the whole media charade, where we no longer even have a shared set of facts to work from, much less a shared set of values.

The line between questioning doubt and nihilistic denialism may be thinner than many realize. It’s a line that might be easy to cross. As individuals ocassionally going a little too far over the line isn’t necessarily problematic, but if such a crossing is done on a society-wide scale it may not be easily undone. Nothing good can come of this. We seem to be livng in a an era ruled by mistrust that dangerously verges on collective cynicism. We should tread very carefully.