Thursday, January 13, 2011

The Science Show on Radio National is back into the good books

Let me explain the title - I love the weekly Science Show on the Australian Broadcasting Corporation's (ABC) Radio National. Their web page provides access to the transcripts and audio files of all their programmes. But my estimation of the Science Show dropped in recent months, because they devoted a whole programme to Matt Ridley, a popular science writer and commentator on social, political and environmental issues. Now Ridley went on to promote his latest book, the Rational Optimist. Now there is nothing wrong with that. However, Ridley is a climate-change denier, and providing such a non-scientific viewpoint unchallenged access on the Science Show was a shocking lapse in judgement, in my opinion. The Ridley interview was broadcast in September last year. Well, for a time, I was a bit peeved with the Science Show. But then.....

Earlier this month, the Science Show sprang back into the good books with flying colours. Why? Because it broadcast a talk by Naomi Oreskes, a professor of history and science studies, on the subject of a new book she co-authored, Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming. Professor Oreskes gave a talk, based on her book, at the University of NSW. The main thrust of her talk was that doubt about the veracity of climate science was being systematically promoted by a powerful, well-connected and organised coalition of elite financial interests to undermine community acceptance of human-induced global warming.

Oreskes provided an excellent summary of the history climate science, examining how various scientists independently gathered increasing evidence that anthropomorphic global warming was occurring, and the available evidence gave cause for alarm. While scientists did achieve a consensus about global warming, they initially did not agree on exactly when the tipping points would occur. In fact, the few scientists that did make predictions based on the existing climate trends, like James Hansen, were criticised by their peers as having gone too far. Just as an emerging scientific consensus was taking hold, a well-orchestrated, politically motivated campaign was also beginning to form.

There are attacks on climate science from many quarters, as Oreskes elaborated. But the campaign to promote doubts about the reality of climate change emerged from a quarter that had had vast experience in criticising scientific findings; the tobacco industry, in alliance with scientists who had been working on US military technology during the Cold War. The multinational tobacco giants have had enormous experience in getting scientists to downplay, deny and undermine medical research that nicotine is addictive. If tobacco company executives stood up and denied any connection between their product and its carcinogenic effects, most of the public would not believe them. But if a scientist stands up and says the connection is doubtful, more people like you and me would be inclined to listen to the tobacco company's point of view and dismiss public concerns about the effects of cigarettes and second-hand smoke.

Where does the Cold War fit it? Well, Oreskes documents that a number of scientists that were working on nuclear weapons, in particular Reagan's misnamed Strategic Defence Initiative, were motivated by a political belief - the free market. The United States and its capitalist system, so the logic goes, is the most outstanding example of economic, political and individual liberty. This liberty is guaranteed by the free market, and the reduction of government regulation. You see, government regulation is synonymous with socialism, with a command economy. Now here are climate scientists stating that human-induced global warming is occurring, and it is because of our economic activities. So many environmentalists and global warming advocates propose some kind of economic regulation, which means government intervention in the 'free market'.

Well, this was just heresy according to the rightwing nuclear scientists and physicists who spent their careers developing sophisticated weapons to defend the 'free market'. Environmentalism, it is argued by the cold war warriors, is just the slippery slope to socialism. Oreskes details the intellectual roots of such a commitment to 'free markets' to Milton Friedman and Friedrich Hayek, who wrote their main works at the height of cold war tensions. When environmentalists advocate that government step in and regulate health and environmental issues, that is the beginning of the descent into socialism and over-reaching government tyranny. Well, this philosophy found fertile ground in the area of climate-change denial, another way to attack the 'secret socialists' of the green-environmental movement.

Oreskes looks at how the conservative-oriented scientists, after having cooperated with the tobacco industry in the 1970s and 1980s, turned their attention to climate change denial in the 1990s. There has been a massive expansion of think-tanks and political institutes dedicated to the promotion of climate change denial. Oreskes pointed out that in Australia, we have the Institute for Public Affairs, which is extremely active in promoting climate change denial, reducing government regulation and advocating 'free markets'.

Fred Singer, a cold war physicist has a long and extensive track record of initially defending the tobacco industry, and then going on to provide scientific credibility to the anti-scientific campaign of climate change denial. For instance, Oreskes provides this illuminating item of Singer's history: "In the 1980s, Singer worked with the Reagan administration to cast doubt on the significance and severity of acid rain, arguing that controlling sulphur emissions was a billion dollar solution to a million dollar problem, so implying that environmentalists had exaggerated the significance of acid rain, and it wouldn't be significant enough to justify what it would cost to fix. So this is an argument we hear again today regarding global warming."

Climate science is where politics, society and scientific research all intersect. While it is impossible for everyone to undertake a systematic and exhaustive study of climate research, it is advisable to read books like Merchants of Doubt in order to be aware of the politically-motivated contrived 'debate' about this issue, and which powerful financial and political interests such a debate serves.

Go read (or listen to) Oreskes' talk here.

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