The Assault on Science and the American Public by the Corporate Propaganda Machine
PART I: The "Landmining" of the Web: The Internet Misinformation Campaign
Not long ago, I experienced a major shock when I did a web search to see what the National Science Foundation had to offer students and educators on the topic of global warming. In a dogpile.com search (which pulls up results for multiple search engines at once), under Goto.com, I found a 100% result: National Science Foundation, K-12 education. I went into the site, which was called "Planet Education." The bar above the site said "Science and Technology, National Science Foundation." A note to the side reported that 800,000 teachers and students used the site every month.
Encouraged, I did a keyword "global warming" site search. What came up was a list of several recommended web sites. A site called "The Global Warming Skeptics Page," rated with three stars, topped the list - ahead of the EPA global warming site (which received no stars at all). When I entered the "skeptics" site, what I found appalled me beyond words!
There, in a "science site" for educators and students, was a collection of the most blatant corporate propaganda I have ever seen - and as an environmental journalist and science abstractor, I have seen plenty! Here are some sample statements: "Most scientists do no believe human activities threaten to disrupt the Earth's climate," "A modest amount of global warming, if it should occur, would be beneficial". There is a whole lurid section devoted to outlining the collapse of the world economy if Kyoto were ratified, while other headlines of scathing stories proclaim: "U.S. sends EU's "emergency mission" on Kyoto packing, still whining," and "ABC and Al Gore: A Global Warming Love Story?"
Scientific articles are interspersed sparely throughout - but all are only vaguely pertinent and none are later than 1998 (as any climatologist knows, it was after 1998 when the most compelling evidence of warming came pouring in hard and fast). Credentials are even scantier, if not comical. For example, Kenneth Green of the Cato Institute follows his name with the letters D.Env. to imply "doctor of environmental science" no doubt. However, he is merely director of Environmental Studies, no real credentials at all! The primary suppliers of the "science" on the site came not from the NSF, or even anything as respectable as Ranger Rick! It was supplied by ultraright-wing front foundations such as the Heartland Institute and the Cato Institute, and World Climate Watch, a bogus outfit operating supposedly under the auspices of the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. Pathetic! But this s what is being fed to our children.
Then, came the second shock! Upon examining the site, I found that the link was bogus - "Planet Education" has nothing to do with NSF - it's a "wannabe link" - sort of like a designer drug. I thought name theft was highly illegal! I'd without doubt get sued if I signed my articles "Cheryl Seal and Walter Cronkite." I e-mailed the site webmaster and complained. They responded that they would probably remove the "skeptics" site because of the multitude of complaints. Keep that in mind - complaining can be an effective tool in some cases, so complain whenever you see this stuff!
This proved to be just the most glaring tip of a very large iceberg. In doing more dogpile.com searches of various environmental topics of intense interest to corporate lobbyists, I discovered that there are far more links to bogus sites than to valid ones. Someone has been very, very busy. For example, do a dogpile.com search of the keyword "global warming" and you will pull up a list of scientific, even environmental-sounding sites: Global Climate Foundation, Environment News, CO2 Institute, etc. Enter those sites, and you will immediately be barraged by corporate propaganda, much of it originating from the same sources as that stuffed into the Planet Education site.
Do a search using keyword "Arctic National Wildlife Refuge" and you will be hard-pressed to turn up sites that are NOT oil company propaganda. Combine the slick, professional look of these sites with their solid-sounding names and the average person - the very ones targeted by this campaign - are quickly confused and made very suspicious of bonafide science reports.
Another insidious practice, which should be illegal, and if already illegal, should now be prosecuted vigorously, is link manipulation. For example, the "ANWR.org" address leads the surfer to assume the link corresponds to the "official" ANWR site (it is instead a propaganda fest). Worse, bonafide sites related to global warming and other environmental issues are now being sabotaged in an effort to discredit them. For example, look under Union of Concerned Scientists (whose members include Nobel laureates), and you will find the name linked in various ways to "space alien" sites, ultra-left wind sites, a site entitled "Union of Confused Scientists" and to anti-global warming sites.
When I called UCS, they were shocked and dismayed by my finding - they had no idea such a calculated assault on their image was being made. When I called the American Association for the Advancement of Science (which publishes the internationally-respected journal "Science"), they also did not realize the scope of bogus science propaganda, especially on the web. No organized watchdog office exists at present - though probably soon will. To give these science organizations credit, I think their naivety springs from having a bit too much faith in the discrimination of the average person - they assume the foolishness can be readily spotted.
They couldn't be more wrong! And it isn't just the average person who is fooled. Recently, I read a lead story in the LA Times that suggested that the global warming theory was riddled by inconsistencies and conflicting data. The problem was, most of the "conflicts" presented were based on data harped on by some of the more sophisticated anti-global warming theory propagandists. For example - the "problem" of the difference between the microwave sounding unit readings of tropospheric temperature and ground-level temperature readings (an argument resting heavily on the work and aggressive assertions of just one researcher, John Christy of the University of Alabama at Huntsville), has long since been successfully addressed by results of subsequent studies by scores of researchers around the world. But today's busy legislators, newspeople, and educators, alas, too often take the easy way out and use the "background material" so conveniently supplied to them by the "corporate experts." In this way, the misinformation, like a virus, is spread.
The anti-science propaganda campaign is dangerously divisive, creating suspicions and doubts where none need be. And it may be only the beginning: Bush wants to pump $90 million in new funds into a new "Math and Science Partnerships Initiative" (who are the partners?), aimed at "improving" science education in K-12. He also wants to divert another $110 million from existing NSF education activities (bona fide science programs, perhaps?) Is this the start of a mass science "re-education" plan? A statement by the Hoover Institute think tank - the outfit where Bush gets many of his ideas on education - suggests that less time ought to be spent on teaching children how to think critically. Scary priority!
As the self-acclaimed protectors of the "common man," we Democrats should make it a primary goal of the party to insure that misinformation campaigns and any re-education schemes are exposed to the light of day - and truth - and that measures are taken to stem their proliferation. The same legislation that made it illegal for corporations and other special interests to present "public information ads" on TV without including a "paid for by..." notice should also apply to corporate-funded public information web materials. I also believe that search engine companies should be made more accountable. For example, Goto.com has a policy of giving the best placement in its links to the highest bidder. That does not translate into truly free speech.
Meanwhile, the science community could do much to deflect the impact of bogus science. Here are a few recommendations:
- FIRST AND FOREMOST: Create a watchdog unit that monitors the web and other outlets for bogus science and identify and report cases of link manipulation and "link slander." A database of information could be established.
- Establish a publication certification system that will track and review publications in print, video, or on the net, and rate them. All would be held up to the traditional criteria for quality of scientific material: Does the publication have a sufficient number of editorial reviewers (when dealing with a subject with as broad in scope as global warming, two or three reviewers are not enough, while a paper focused on the habits of chipmunks in Yellowstone might only need one)? Do the reviewers have an appropriate science background? (For example, a degree in astrophysics does not make you an expert in climatology). What is the funding source of the publication and how does the content appear to relate to this source? (For example, a publication about CO2 that is funded by the Coal Institute, and presents research suggesting more CO2 is a very good thing, should be instantly suspect). Is the material presented objectively? Research reports must be free of all of opinion or even subtle slant. Commentary pieces in a publication are, of course, a different issue.
Material that passes muster should be placed on a recommended list, just as material that fails the criteria should be placed on a "to be avoided" or even red-hot alert list. This list should be made available to schools, legislators, news editors, and book publishers (who might unwittingly give contracts to "researchers" based on a deceptively extensive publishing record). The system might also include a "star rating" - four stars for the best, and so forth. The rating could be lost, just the way colleges can lose theirs, for a departure from quality (this would prevent corporations from beginning publications that initially meet the criteria, then using them later as propaganda organs).
Is this violating anyone's first amendment right? Hardly! Anyone is free to publish whatever they want - they simply will be held accountable for the content. This was the original concept of unlimited free speech - every American has the right to publication but this right does not include freedom from reasonable consequences, which can range from bad reviews to lawsuits.
In the case of information being presented to students, legislators, and news editors on extremely vital issues such as global warming, it is imperative that the information comes from reliable sources. Would you go to a lawyer that could not pass a bar exam or to a doctor who failed his medical board review? Or, for that matter, would you want to be represented by lawyer who is being paid on the side by the same corporation you are trying to sue, or be treated for cancer by a doctor who is being paid by a corporation to prove that cancer is a myth? No? Well, then why should we base legislation on information that is neither derived from real science nor free from the taint of corporate interests?
STAY TUNED FOR PART II: A Frightening Guided Tour of the Nightmarish World of Corporate Science Misinformation