At a time when the grand old dame of the Supreme Court recently died and the Congress lines up to make sure that this president gets to name a new Justice, I divert my attention away from the recently unpleasant and return to another example of the gross stupidity and the sad way that politics have of dictating this country’s course. I refer, of course to our collective tendency to abandon our critical faculties and look everywhere but where we should be looking. I have updated this post.
In his remarkable book, Idiot America: How Stupidity Became a Virtue in the Land of the Free, Charles Pierce quotes Norman Myers of the Climate Institute who estimated that in 1995 [over twenty-five years ago!] there were already “25 to 35 million environmental refugees, and that number could rise to two hundred million before the middle of the next century.” The 600 residents of the town of Shishmaref in Alaska are already making plans and attempting to raise money to relocate their town because the permafrost is thawing and the town itself is slowly disappearing into the ocean. They may eventually follow many of the refugees that Myers mentions who have left their disappearing homes in the South Pacific for the same reasons and are flocking to already overcrowded cities where they must learn entirely new (and alien) urban ways.
And yet 64% of our population — and an alarming percentage of those in Congress, not to mention our president — still doubts that climate change is a reality and/or that humans are largely responsible. Folks look out the window and see the snow falling and the temperatures dropping and forget that we are talking about global warming. We might note that the term “climate change” is part of the reason there are still doubters. It is a euphemism that was invented by special interest groups as a substitute for “global warming,” which they regard as unduly alarming. They are intent upon calming fears and directing attention away from serious problems. And they have been very successful.
How can they do this? They do it because people tend to believe what they want to believe and because they generally have lost any critical acumen they might have once had because of poor schooling and the barrage of bullshit they are being fed daily by the media, 91 % of which are in the pocket of the corporate interests — along with most of those in Congress, funded and elected by those very corporations.
According to Pierce, it all started in the 1950s with the tobacco companies. They realized that people were getting nervous about the reports emerging from scientific researchers about the dangers of smoking cigarettes. The CEOs of all the major tobacco companies met in New York in December 1953. Allan Brandt, in The Cigarette Century, describes the strategy:
‘Its goal was to produce and sustain scientific skepticism and controversy in order to disrupt the emerging consensus on the harms of cigarette smoking. This strategy required intrusions into scientific process and procedure. . . . The industry worked to assure that vigorous debate would be prominently trumpeted in the public media. So long as there appeared to be doubt, so long as the industry could assert “not proven,” smokers would have a rationale to continue, and new smokers would have a rationale to begin.'”
In a word, they would cloud the air with half-truths and blatant falsehoods posing as hard science in order to confuse the general public (which doesn’t know science from Shinola) and be assured of continued profits. If this sounds familiar it is. In fact it is precisely the strategy the vested interests have adopted in the debate about the dangers to our planet. As Pierce goes onto point out, in 2002
“a Republican consultant named Frank Luntz sent out a memo describing how Luntz believed the crisis of global warming should be handled within a political context. ‘The most important principle in any discussion of global warming is sound science,’ wrote Luntz. ‘The scientific debate is closing [against the skeptics] but not yet closed. There is still a window of opportunity to challenge the science.'”
In a word, get your PR folks to cloud the air with half-truths and blatant falsehoods masquerading as science and keep the uncertainty alive in the minds of as many as possible for as long as possible in order to assure that lackeys remain in political office and that corporate profits continue to rise.
What is remarkable about this entire scenario is that there is healthy skepticism in this country about the nonsense politicians spew forth — politicians are right down there with used-car salesmen as the ones we are least likely to trust. Yet so many of us are willing to believe what they say when it allows us to go on with our lives as usual and not have to bother about such disturbing truths. In fact, what many of us do is reject as false those claims we find uncomfortable and embrace those claims (true or not) that are most reassuring. Indeed, the word “truth” no longer has any fixed meaning, since it simply refers to those claims that we choose to believe, even though our basis for believing those claims is nothing more than a gut feeling or the word of an inveterate liar.
Because of this, I have devised a new law. “Only those scientific claims are to be believed that are made by those who have no vested interest whatever in the public response to those claims.” In a word, don’t believe anything that is put out there by a company that stands to increase its profits by having you believe those claims. We may not understand the scientific claims (they can be complex); what’s important is who is putting them forth. Real science is engaged in by those disinterested folks who have nothing to gain or lose by the certainties they uncover. The rest of it is a shell game.
Hugh – a very important piece of advice: check your sources. It stands true in so many situations. Thanks for the post – Susan
Hugh, thanks. I am glad you referenced the replacement of climate change for global warming. Four added comments:
– Exxon Mobil and Royal Dutch Shell scientists have papers and speeches where they used to forewarn people of climate change. Shell even did an educational video on the subject in the 1990s.
– The fossil fuel industry hired the same PR firm the tobacco companies used in the late 1990s when they decided to taint the global warming message. This is the same group that helped craft a lie that nicotine is not addictive. It was discovered the tobacco companies knew it was since 1964.
– Exxon Mobil was just removed from the Dow Jones Industrial Average as its capitalization fell, in part do to the pandemic and less travel.
– In 2020, renewable energy passed coal energy as the largest producer of electricity in the United States.
As we discussed, the reason the fossil fuel industry has put so much money behind this is wind and solar energy need not be huge developments. With better battery storage, new housing developments can be fully powered by solar energy and forego the power grid. In fact, in southern Australia, a French company designed a solar energy system complete with Tesla’s battery storage to power that region. And, Iowa gets 42% of its electricity from wind, with Kansas and Oklahoma close behind.
The cost of renewables (wind and solar) have declined through improvements and actually are better than coal. The train has left the station – we just need to keep driving forward, in spite of what nay-sayers keep chirping. Plus, the risks are fewer than drilling in the arctic or offshore for oil or natural gas and coal ash need not be maintained for decades. The Dan River and TVA coal ash spills were from used ash from old coal plants.
“Only those scientific claims are to be believed that are made by those who have no vested interest whatever in the public response to those claims.” I love this thought….However scientists have a vested interest in their research (consciously or subconsciously), because they are funded by corporations, the government, or private organizations. Publish or perish puts a lot of pressure on scientists and their funding. It’s human nature to want to achieve certain results when researching. I was just talking about this topic with my high school science students. How does a scientist consciously separate herself from the desire to achieve a certain result when she may lose funding if that result doesn’t support the goal of the corporation in charge of her funding. I find it would be difficult to be an impartial scientist in the research field. So, I’ll continue to teach critical thinking to arrive at objective truth knowing this goal is a challenge, too.
This whole issue relates to modern day politics, too. The failure of both parties to even dialogue in a courteous way because compromise is against their own personal best interests is unconscionable.
Well said. But I would prefer the claims of a scientist to those of a lobbyist or politician.
Having just returned from a month-long camping trip in the West. I enjoy catching up on your recent posts.
I particularly like your formulation, “Only those scientific claims are to be believed that are made by those who have no vested interest whatever in the public response to those claims.”
This is akin to an adage I often mentioned to my students: “Never ask a barber if you need a haircut,” because questions of principle are closely related to questions of interest.
Thank you once again.
Regards, respects, and best wishes,