The Assault On Science And The Environment By Corporate Propagandists: Part III
Cheryl Seal (CherylSeal@hotmail.com)
It's a jungle out there - an information jungle with predatory hucksters hiding behind every tree, or - in the case of bogus environmental scientists - disguised as trees! How do you separate well-supported fact from manipulated fiction? Or, more to the point, how do you separate sound science from "sounds like science?" In fact, it ain't all that hard - it's just a matter of logic, alert observation, and common sense (the real enchilada - not the Bush version).
The concept of common sense has been batted around by the conservatives to the point it now resembles some shapeless old baseball (or T-ball??) with all the innards coming unraveled. From what I can figure, common sense to conservatives basically means accepting without question every "truism" concocted by right-wing propagandists to further the corporate agenda: "Environmentalists are crazy radicals," "Can't have progress without pollution," "Regulations mean job loss." Common sense to right-wingers thus is synonymous with not thinking for yourself.
Real common sense, however, can be found at the other end of the horse - the end with the brain in it! It is, in essence, the intersection between logic and experience. For example, logic tells you alcohol impairs your reflexes and that reflexes are critical to safe driving. Experience tells you car accidents and being arrested for any reason is unpleasant, even deadly. The result: a common sense decision not to get behind the wheel when you've been drinking.
Logic also tells us a President [sic] who puts corporate interests first cannot also put citizens' interests first. Experience tells us that when citizens' interests are not placed first, the quality of life declines. Our common sense conclusion: this President [sic] will reduce the quality of life in America.
Apply the same process to global warming. Logic tell us that if humans have introduced millions of tons of gases into the air known to enhance the heat-retaining properties of the atmosphere (some for up to hundreds of years), have removed shade-providing, moisture-trapping trees from billions of acres of land, have paved over billions of linear miles of land with heat-absorbing asphalt and cement (over which hundreds of millions of greenhouse-gas and heat- emitting cars roar on a daily basis), then it is very likely we have increased the temperature of the planet.
Experience tells us polluted air stinks, is ugly and dirty, and in summer can become downright unhealthy (how many code orange or red days did you have last year?). Clean air and shade in summer, on the other hand, are a thousandfold more pleasant and are definitely more healthy. Common sense result: we've probably screwed up the climate, and at the very least we should clean up the air and start planting and preserving more trees. Funny - that was the whole point of Kyoto!
Now what's up with Bush? His "common sense" conclusion is that carbon dioxide is OK, global warming needs "more science" and we need to generate more and more greenhouse gas-emitting fossil fuel. The only way this can work out as being a common sense conclusion is to apply a warped form of logic based entirely on self-interest and greed. To wit (well, that's half-right!), Bush logic says "The fossil fuel industry has a huge amount of money and power." Bush experience says "The fossil fuel industry richly rewards those who help it gets what it wants." Bush common sense result: "If I help the fossil fuel industry get what it wants, I will be rewarded with power and money." Take this a step further. Bush logic says: "Right now the industry cannot have what it wants because of environmental rules and rules of global responsibility. How do I help the industry gets what it wants?" Common sense answer: "I will change the rules."
Armed with a less cynical form of common sense, it isn't hard to tell the good guys from the bad guys in the environmental "game."
RULE NUMBER ONE: Question motivation! Why would a company spend thousands - even millions - on literature and media slots about environmental issues? Certainly not to help the environment - their message is aimed entirely at debunking environmental protection efforts. Certainly not concern for the public - if so, they would instead be spending money to reduce their pollution levels. The companies will argue that their PR campaign IS in the public interest because it will ultimately save jobs and keep fuel costs down. History debunks this myth: the economy improved throughout the 80s and most of the 90s, even as the most stringent EPA regulations ever formulated were being imposed. As to jobs, opening up opportunities for new alternative energy companies will create new jobs - good clean jobs.
Another threat used by Bush is that fuel costs will soar if we don't produce more petroleum. At the same time, he plans to shower the oil industry with billions in corporate welfare and tax breaks. Who do you think ultimately pays for this? It ain't comin' out of Bush or Cheney's pockets, I promise you! In fact, the "tax break" Bush just conferred is merely a reshuffling of the national wealth - one that will result in a loss of services to Joe Public and an orgy of back-scratching for the energy industry. So, even if the price of gas goes down 3 or 4 cents at the pump thanks (supposedly!) to new production, we'll be paying through the nose for this "savings" elsewhere - like when we retire and find there's no social security waiting for us because the $ was all spent on a tax break that benefited the oil barons.
Ultimately, fossil fuel costs will never really go down again because the resource has been so overexploited that the cost of finding and tapping into new sources is getting progressively higher. And because these new sources are usually in environmentally sensitive areas, the cost of special technology, and then the inevitable cost of cleaning up messes (there have already been two costly incidents in Alaska in less than a year) drives the cost up even more. As it is, Bush has already proposed passing the cost of environmental cleanup onto the taxpayer. We can also expect state and property taxes to go up to offset services cut through the federal tax cut. We will pay, I guarantee you, one way or the other. And what do we get in exchange? Dirtier water, dirtier air, and a more volatile climate, with more storm disasters (the results of which Bush also doesn't want the Fed to pay for anymore). Doesn't sound like such a deal to me.
Yet despite this grim underlying reality, corporations hope to use their massive propaganda campaigns to recruit uninformed and unquestioning citizens to their cause. In short, the Fat Cat wants Americans to help it steal from themselves.
So back to motivation: If the message peddled by the corporations is so true and purely motivated, then why do they need to use deceit, intentional misinformation, and predatory tactics to spread it? Because the public inevitably recognizes the naked truth when they finally see it. So the corporations make sure that their message is never naked - it is always dressed to the teeth in a clever disguise, then presented as truth by accomplice news producers and sellout journalists such as industry toady John Stossel, GOP mouthpiece Tom Brokaw or that ultimate joke of "science writing," Fox's Steven Milloy.
Bottom line: Ask just one question- "What's in it for them?" and true common sense will give you the answer.
NUMBER TWO: Evidence! Evidence! Evidence! In any court of law (except perhaps our own Supreme Court) decisions are based on evidence. This evidence must show beyond a reasonable doubt that something is true. If you are on a jury and are presented with eyewitness accounts by 1,000 reliable people who have no financial interest in the results of the case, who all say that "A" is true, then you are presented with just five or six statements from people of dubious character who are being paid by the plaintiff to say that "B" is true, who are you going to believe?
Yet we are continually asked to believe scenario "B" by corporations and to discount the eyewitness testimony of reliable, financially disinterested scientists. Alas, just like Johnny Cochran, the propagandists make a persuasive, emotionally-appealing case to the uninformed. Their materials are full of "happy pill" statements -the environment is just fine, no one will ever be hurt by greenhouse gases or toxic pollutants, don't worry - relax and enjoy your SUV! These materials remind me of the religious pamphlets passed out by door-to-door evangelists - the kind with pictures that show heaven as a place filled with smiling, mostly white people with conservative haircuts and tailored clothing having picnics under a clear blue sky (the kind we soon will never see again here on Earth!).
The scientists, on the other hand, present a much less emotionally-appealing case. That is not because they don't believe in the environmental cause - the overwhelming majority do! But the honest ones take their "vows of objectivity" very seriously. When I was in college, I took a three-semester course designed to train students how to conduct solid publishable research. The first part was devoted to the mysteries of statistics, the second, to the interpretation and application of statistics (experimental methodology), and the third, to the effective design and execution of a research project. The ultimate goal, which was hammered home repeatedly, is the removal of all possible bias from your research design and from the interpretation of your results. Why? Because it is through objectivity that you are most likely to hit at the truth.
Yet this same noble objectivity is what puts science at a disadvantage when it is under attack by propagandists who know how to manipulate emotional issues. I have no doubt that most propaganda departments at large corporations have social psychologists on the payroll. Their job - to come up with strategies that can mold public opinion to the desired form without tipping anyone off to the fact that they are being manipulated. My statistics professor told me how a well-known candy company recruited a social psychologist friend of his to conduct a secretive in-company study to determine how much real chocolate could be removed from a chocolate bar before the average person would figure out that something was missing and have a "negative subjective response." But, this is, incredibly, the sort of thing corporations spend their money on in preference to actually making things BETTER.
So, if you want a good litmus test of whether a piece of research is sound science or merely sounds like science, look at its tone - how objective is it? Most corporate propaganda pieces are blatantly slanted, full of opinion and spin. Scientists, on the other hand, shun adjectives and definitive statements as if these things were cooties. Any researcher worth his salt will tell you that no matter how sure he is of any of his findings, or how excited he is by the implications of his research, he will restrain himself and write (though perhaps with trembling pen!) "The results appear to confirm our hypothesis." He may even go so far (on a daring day) to suggest that his findings may have certain useful applications in the future.
But objectivity will never be sacrificed to emotion or opinion. As a result, many scientists appear cold and unfeeling to "civilians" - worse yet, wimpy. But that is the price that must be paid to uphold objectivity, because objectivity is what upholds science itself. Scientific knowledge is an open-ended process - there must always be room to accommodate new data and new insights, as long as these additions are stringently supported by evidence. Each new research result contributes a new thread - first warp, then woof, then warp again - to the fabric of truth, which thus constructed, is rich, full of complexity, and unlikely to unravel.
In my journal readings this month, I encountered a perfect example of climate change "warp and woof." In "Science," a research team reported the results of a 13-year study of a species of songbird (blue tits) in the Mediterranean region. These birds have evolved with their habitats so that they enter their breeding cycle when a certain type of tree buds, because this budding coincides with the peak abundance of a certain type of caterpillar required by the breeding birds. The slightest change in seasonal temperature averages can cause the trees to bud either earlier or later. When this happens, the natural synchrony between birds, buds, and caterpillars is broken. The result, many birds fail to breed and/or survive. Another, completely unrelated (in terms of researchers and facilities) report in the Journal of Climate revealed that the arrival of spring in New England has been pushed back a total of 4-6 days in just 20 years. The two studies instantly interweave and a new question emerges: What happens now to New England songbirds depending on breeding synchrony for survival?
Yet some corporate "scientists" would have us believe it is all so simple- that higher temperatures and more CO2 will just lead to a wonderful, greening world of lovely early springs. Meanwhile, real scientists slog day after day to carefully peel away the many interdependent layers that make up the truth. And the truth, as scientists know, will be the same, no matter what anyone thinks or says about it. The amount of glacial ice that melts this year will be the same amount regardless of how we measure the loss or what reasons are proposed to explain it. The best science can do at any given time is to identify trends and relationships and attempt formulate constructive responses based on the evidence. That is why the vast majority of scientists are so adamant that steps be taken to mitigate the human contribution to global warming NOW. In the big picture, it doesn't matter why the planet is warming, or if it did 29 times before now in the past 2 million years. A trend has been detected and a constructive course of action identified that will, at the very least, significantly reduce the consequences of warming.
To put it another way, if you have discovered on a July day during a heat wave that your air conditioner is not working right and the temperature in your 15th-floor apartment is steadily rising, while the air is growing progressively stuffier, do you: (A) throw open a window, avoid cooking, and turn on a fan; (B) Sit with the windows shut and call everyone you know to tell them the AC isn't really broken, it's just fine, as the sweat trickles down your nose, or (C) Keep the window closed, turn on the heat, bake a turkey and - most likely - die of heat stroke?
By reducing greenhouses gases and developing alternative energy sources, scientists are trying to "open a window and turn on a fan." Meanwhile corporate propagandists are opting for (B) - spending millions to convince us all that if we all clap our hands, Tinkerbelle will come back to life into a beautiful greenhouse world of lush plants. Meanwhile, the fossil fuel industry, which is pushing for more conventional power plants while actually discouraging conservation, wants to bake a great big turkey - or should I say the planet's goose?
CLOSEUP AND UGLY: Here's an example of the type of deception used by corporate interests to present an appearance of "scientific credibility":
HOW IT LOOKS ON THE SURFACE:
A petition calling for the U.S. not to sign the Kyoto Protocol because it is not based on sound science and would wreak economic havoc was created by Dr. Frederick Seitz, head of the Oregon Institute of Science and Medicine, who is the former head of the National Federation of Scientists. The petition was signed by over 17,000 scientists across the country.
First take by Joe and Jill Public: Wow! Maybe there's something to this anti-Kyoto stance!
Now let's look more closely. The Oregon Institute of Science and Medicine - that sounds pretty impressive, like it must be a big research facility in, say, Portland, right? Actually, it is a tiny outfit with a primary staff of six located a few miles outside a place called Cave Junction. The staff includes two chemists, an electrical engineer, and a specialist in internal medicine, almost all of whom, like Rumsfeld, Cheney, and Baker, had their heyday several decades ago.
But, one might say, Dr. Seitz - former head of the National Federation of Scientists - he must know what he's talking about, right? Well, considering Seitz is not a climatologist, meteorologist, economist, atmospheric scientist nor even a medical doctor, I wouldn't bet the ranch on it. Seitz is a materials scientist - a field devoted to studying the brittleness or melting temperatures of plastics or metal, determining which compounds make good superconductors, etc. It has absolutely nothing directly to do with climate, medicine, or economics!
And, a search of Seitz's background shows he was president of the NFS almost 40 years ago, at which time his primary contribution to the cause of science was raising enough money to build a wing on the NFS's auditorium. His list of publishing credits in the past years consists almost entirely of a variety of letters to the editors of science mags (thus enabling him to deceitfully claim he is published -implying research articles- in a several science journals).
However, Seitz's name does show up on nearly every bogus, industry-funded anti-Kyoto front site and as a glowing reviewer of assorted environment-bashing books. Incredibly, Seitz has won a slot as a professor emeritus at the well-respected (and rightfully so) Rockefeller University (are they out of their ever-loving minds?), no doubt based on his past and distant glories. Seitz best pal appears to be Fred. S. Singer, who is paid handsomely by Shell, Exxon, Arco and other energy industry moguls to say whatever is needed to trash pro-environmental initiatives that threaten corporate profits. Together, the two maintain a frighteningly bizarre rightwing site (see sample page linked from comment section of Democrats.com) the kind someone might produce after having their Thorazine withdrawn too quickly.
As to the 17,000 "scientists" on the petition, a closer look by Seitz's critics has revealed that a substantial number of the names are fictitious and that the definition of "scientist" (as applied to signers) encompasses anyone who progressed past high school (one year's worth of cooking or accounting classes would probably have won you a spot on the petition!).
But this case study is only one of dozens and dozens similar to it - corporations using every trick in the book to look legit and influence policy. It seems incredible that they are actually taken seriously by anyone, let alone many Senators and Representatives (I don't even count the Bush administration - it is simply the "new D.C. branch of the energy industry" and not a true government, as the word "government" usually implies at least a passing interest in the citizenry).
On the flip side of the coin, some of the most sincere, purely-motivated groups out there may surprise you. When I ran across the "Evangelical Environmental Network", for example, I thought "Oh boy! This must be some right-wing, anti-environmental bunch of bible thumpers!" Wrong! This group (find them at creationcare.org) is really and truly dedicated to the conservation, protection, and restoration of the environment and - refreshingly! - have taken the concept of "stewardship" of nature to heart. EEN has a practical, action-oriented approach, is well-informed, and outspoken. Their sponsors are not hidden - they are listed proudly at the site and represent a potpourri of groups, from Habitat for Humanity to Young Christian Hikers. So much for the Bush-Delay-corporate model of the " good Christian" as someone selfish, materialistic and anti-nature. Go EEN!
These groups of private citizens - some of whom must bake brownies and have raffles to raise money - are fighting the good fight to defend the natural world from a well-organized assault by big-money bloated, "official-sounding" outfits like the National Center for Public Policy Research or the Hoover Institute. It is truly a David vs. Goliath scenario. But the way to tip the battle to the "Davids" is to keep ripping off the mask that hides Goliath's ugly face.
College students can boycott the classes of on-the-take researchers if these "experts" are teaching at their school, complain to the administration and/or publish an expose in the college newspaper. Don't let them hide out in a legitimate school scooping up credentials-by-association that they don't deserve! If you see their name on a letter to an editor or article, call or write to the publisher of the piece to complain. Whenever you see any of these bogus foundations' names being cited as a source of information anywhere, do the same - complain and expose!
Most importantly, ask to see what kind of science materials are being used in your younger children's classrooms (especially supplemental booklets, videos, etc.) As commentator John Borowski pointed out last week, teachers are being inundated with stacks of corporate "environmental/science materials." Demand that these materials be removed whenever you find them, even if it means calling a special parents' meeting.
Last but not least, show your support for the legitimate environmental groups out there, through donations, joining, or even just a letter of appreciation. Right now the odds are stacked against the good guys. But, we can win this fight....in fact, we MUST.