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The Truth is not an option – part 4

Part 4.  Denial, doubt, and fear

“Uncertainty is commonly misunderstood to mean that scientists are not certain of their results, but the term specifies the degree to which scientists are confident in their data.”

— Anthony Carpi and Anne E. Egger, Data: Uncertainty, Error, and Confidence

Science is a cooperative endeavor dedicated to produce the most accurate possible image of how

things are now, or once were, or will be. No clique can rig an inaccurate image of truth and perpetuate it. Science is about our understanding of the Cosmos and everything included within.   Competition among peers is relentless, and valid hypotheses that turn out to be wrong are identified, and those on the right track are reinforced. Science is never a one-track path of advance, but rather it is a web of thought. Scientists must simplify the web for the public so they may derive some tangible meaning from the complexity; however, scientists must not be so simplistic as to present science as a singular linear train of thought, as from ignorance to knowledge, from false to true, from evil to good.  It is rather a dispassionate construction of an image of reality that is never perfect but can be ignored or inverted only to one’s peril.

Being wrong is not the issue. Reality is always there and rather insistently will tend to correct any falsehoods and incorrect conceptions. A few activists among the climate skeptics appear to have sincere motives to get to the bottom of matters, which can be confusing and complicated (because the Earth is complicated). The climate-change science community has no worries about well-intending skeptics; we thrive on serious questions and rise to the challenge of developing better explanations, filling logical or observational gaps, and doing a better job at communicating the science.  Where we are weak, we need and thrive on criticism; identifying weaknesses in one another’s work, and our own, and then remedying the weaknesses, is what we do for a living.  The history of science is replete with examples of how nonscientists have contributed critical analysis that has strengthened or altered scientific ideas.  In climate change science, deep probing by some of the more able skeptics led to an improved attention to uncertainties by many climatologists.  This has improved the science (actually lending greater credence to the high side of climate sensitivities).  Likewise, scientists who have models that may be on an extreme low or high side of climate sensitivity to greenhouse gases, or glaciologists who have nonstandard models of glacier responses, have nothing to fear; they may be wrong, or they may be right. Ideas that rail against the status quo of general understanding can and do meet with some resistance, but ultimately those ideas are given a hearing.



Absolute truth eludes the feeble powers of human language and perception.  The only truth is the Universe itself and its elusive essence. Approximations of reality can be derived by measurement and logic and can be recognized and tested as something verging toward the truth. It’s not a matter of freedom for one person to speak with obedience to accuracy and another to subvert it, and call it equal. If an approximation is close enough and uncertainties low enough, you can get to the Moon and back, safely; if not, you crash.  That can be a metaphor for scientific ideas and explains why cases of scientific fraud are rare.  All-out grotesque misrepresentations (whether accidental or an intended fabrication) are definable and identifiable by gross departure from objective measurements and logic. On the other side of exaggeration of climate change and its impacts is trivialization (or denial) or willful obfuscation of climate change or its causes and impacts.

It is evident that some movers and shakers in the climate-change denialist camp are taking a page, literally, right out of the tobacco industry's covert and overt campaign in the 1960s-70s to misinform and especially to confuse the public about tobacco16.  The vilification of climate-change science, and the threats it poses for our science- and technology-dependent world, was recently summarized by Sherwood17, who drew parallels with earlier anti-science campaigns, where much of the resistance to knowledge involved simple refusal to examine scientific data.

The tobacco lobby concluded that a mass public information campaign—which we now know to have been massive, pre-meditated, deadly, systematic disinformation and misinformation—was needed.   Where marketing and public information goes stridently against the public interest, and involves demonstrable, willful falsehoods directed against public health and wellbeing, such campaigns verge deep into civil and criminal conspiracy. This has been recognized in the judicial system, with heavy costs to the tobacco industry. Though being wrong about scientific facts is no crime, an organized conspiracy to delude the public on issues of global public and individual health and well-being certainly would be criminal.  

And so it is with considerable dismay that we read in the papers about organizations whose stated goals are thinly veiled campaigns to misinform children (to convey incorrect information to them) in K-12, to create a public conception that climate change is a poorly founded and controversial theory and that carbon dioxide is nothing more than a nutrient.  These groups, starting with children, seek to generate confusion in the public even about the distinction between climate and weather.  It is all obviously for the narrow ends of achieving an energy future that suits their immediate material goals.  It is a replay of the ‘60’s tobacco lobby and the industry of manufactured doubt, and the 17th century persecution of Galileo.  Do we never learn?  All we as a society need is the truth, neither exaggerated nor obfuscated.

Public doubt about scientific results and confusion about scientific consensus and scientific methodologies is magnified or reinforced by mistakes such as that of the Atlas.  The doubt can accumulate and propagate and then paralyze any proposed action for improvement of activities as diverse and far-reaching as childhood education, university research, scientific advice to national governments and international panels, and planning for climate change adaptation and mitigation.  Of course, accidental exaggerations play exactly into the hands of the manufacturers of doubt and confusion.  And so it was of huge importance that HC owned up to their mistake, and corrected it in spectacular fashion.

The anti-science campaign of late has gone farther than vilification of science.  It has included a campaign of vilification and attempted intimidation of scientists.  This ominous extension of tactics beyond Big Tobacco’s campaign of manufactured doubt and confusion was described in an editorial by Nature in 2010 about the Climate of Fear18, where it was suggested that “Scientists must now emphasize the science, while acknowledging that they are in a street fight.Nature wrote that scientists must recognize that their relationship to the media matters.  Nature went on to note that the IPCC’s Himalaya error was corrected by climate/glacier scientists, not by skeptics.  However, Nature was probably correct in pointing out that “had it [the mistake] been promptly corrected and openly explained to the media, in full context with the underlying science, the story would have lasted days, not weeks.”

It is in the context of Nature’s editorial where many of us quickly realized that the mistake by HC, though not of scientific origin, had to be corrected immediately and the real situation with melting ice explained and the record corrected with patient resolve. 


16. It is worth repeating and reminding about one confidential tobacco industry memorandum, because it says so much about the climate-change denial campaign. Dated August 21, 1969, J.W. Burgard (Exec VP Sales, PR Director, Brown & Williamson Tobacco Co.) wrote to Mr. R. A. Pittman (VP, B&W), stating pointedly, Doubt is our product since it is the best means of competing with the "body of fact" that exists in the mind of the general public. It is also the means of establishing a controversy.” The memo further stated: The Congress and federal agencies are already being dealt with — and perhaps as effectively as possible — by the Tobacco Institute.”

17. Sherwood, S., 2011, Science controversies past and present, Physics Today, Oct. 2011, 39-44.

18. Nature, 2010, Editorial, Climate of fear, Nature 464, 141, doi:10.1038/464141a.    Send article as PDF   

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