Skeptical Inquiry

by Henry on April 19, 2005

Chris Mooney has a great piece of investigative reporting at Mother Jones detailing Exxon’s funding of anti-global warming groups ranging from Steven Milloy’s one-man disinformation campaign at to the American Enterprise Institute. Bottom line: there’s now an overwhelming scientific consensus that human caused greenhouse gases are causing the world’s temperature to rise. Many previous skeptics (e.g. BP and Shell) have now been convinced on the basic facts of global warming. Yet Exxon and the American Petroleum Institute, an organization with which Exxon has close links, have sought to cast doubt on this consensus through funding spurious “reports” and other publications that don’t meet the minimal standards to get published in peer-reviewed journals.[1]

In 1998, the New York Times exposed an API memo outlining a strategy to invest millions to “maximize the impact of scientific views consistent with ours with Congress, the media and other key audiences.” The document stated: “Victory will be achieved when…recognition of uncertainty becomes part of the ‘conventional wisdom.’” It’s hard to resist a comparison with a famous Brown and Williamson tobacco company memo from the late 1960s, which observed: “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.”

Lobbying-shops masquerading as opinion journals, such as the infamous Whale Central Station, play a key role in generating this confusion. But so do purportedly serious think tanks, such as the AEI (which recently hosted famous climate scientist, Michael Crichton) and the Competitive Enterprise Institute. Now there’s a grey area here – when does legitimate argument over policy stop, and egregious behavior like attempting to deny science or (if the barely-veiled allegations in this Washington Post article are correct) pimping for anti-semitic quasi-dictatorships begin? I may not agree with a lot of the arguments coming from the AEI, Heritage etc, but a lot of their policy output is perfectly legitimate stuff – debates about matters that are genuinely up for debate. There’s a range of activities here, ranging from the perfectly acceptable through venial offenses to mortal sins.

It seems to me that when organizations like the AEI are engaged in the defence of general normative principles about how policy should be made, they’re engaged in entirely legitimate activity. A certain degree of selectivity in the marshalling of facts to select these principles is broadly acceptable, as long as the facts aren’t egregiously mis-stated. We all tend, consciously or unconsciously, to emphasize facts that support our normative priors and to de-emphasize those that don’t – and we can be called on this in fair debate. These organizations should of course provide full disclosure about their funding sources (as should their equivalents on the left), so that outsiders can evaluate their credibility. When they respond to potential funding sources by deciding to emphasize policy area x (where there is grant or donor support) as opposed to y or z (where there is no such support), that’s fine too, as long as they fairly represent who is funding them, and as long as the policy area is roughly consonant with their stated goal and purpose. As Chris says, all policy groups steer towards policy areas where the grant money is. However, when institutions adopt policy positions that are at odds with their stated normative goals, but that further the interests of their sponsors, it tells us a lot about the reliability of the organization. As Nick Confessore says, the smoking gun showing that Glassman’s Tech Central Station is a flack outfit is that Glassman is perfectly happy to make anti-free market arguments when this advances the interests of TCS’ corporate funders. Even worse, of course, is when this inconsistency is the result of personal payola, as in the Post’s implicit theory of Heritage’s about-turn on Malaysia (note, however, that the Post only has circumstantial evidence to support its allegations).

But worst of all is when think tanks deliberately propagate inaccuracies, misinformation and downright lies in order to muddy policy debates, and create the appearance of doubt where there isn’t real grounds for it, not only engaging in suppressio veri but suggestio falsi. It’s this that Mooney identifies as having happened thanks to Exxon’s funding of global warming ‘skeptics.’ There are grounds for debating the appropriate policy response to human-caused global warming, but not for debating whether it’s a real phenomenon. Exxon’s funding of think tanks and astroturf groups has had the (presumably intended) effect of creating an appearance of debate, through whistling an opposition into existence out of thin air. However, there isn’t any serious scientific debate about whether human-caused global warming exists and is important – quite simply, these organizations are being funded by Exxon to cloud the public debate, and block political action. Not to further the real debate, but to prevent it from starting.

fn1. Mooney documents one case where climate change skeptics did get an article published in a peer-reviewed journal. However, the editor-in-chief of the journal resigned in short order to protest deficiencies in the peer review process that had led to the article’s publication, stating that climate science skeptics “had identified Climate Research as a journal where some editors were not as rigorous in the review process as is otherwise common.”



dsquared 04.19.05 at 12:24 pm

pimping for anti-semitic quasi-dictatorships

To be honest, my own view on that Mahathir speech was similar to the one that the AEI put out – I wrote a post but I can’t be bothered looking for it. Just goes to show that you can get decent common sense out of a thinktank if you’re prepared to pay for it.


Functional 04.19.05 at 12:49 pm

an overwhelming scientific consensus that human caused greenhouse gases are causing the world’s temperature to rise.

So what? The really difficult questions are: (1) By how much? (I.e., how much warming is anthropogenically-forced, and how much is really due to natural fluctuations?); (2) Can we do anything about it without bankrupting ourselves?, and (3) Ought we to do anything about it? There’s a good argument that global warming might be stopping the Earth from slipping into a long-overdue ice age. (See also here and here). Or the opposite could be the case.

It takes an certain amount of arrogance to think that these questions (particularly the latter) have any easy answers.


nofundy 04.19.05 at 1:35 pm

Exxon denies climate change while the Alaska pipeline sinks into the thawing permafrost. And while I’m on Alaska and oil, anyone noticed how there’s hardly ANY news coverage of 2 recent oil spills in the land of the midnight sun?


bi 04.19.05 at 3:25 pm

_Can we do anything about it without bankrupting ourselves?_

Wow, I didn’t know that’s such an important question.


Mill 04.19.05 at 7:31 pm

Semantic note — “anti-global warming groups” sounds like it means “groups that fight global warming” (like Greenpeace) rather than “groups that fight the idea that global warming exists”.

The context makes it pretty clear in this case what you mean, but it still makes me a bit uneasy to see the phrase “global warming” used as shorthand for the idea that global warming might exist, rather than the phenomenon itself. (We can still argue about whether the phenomenon exists, sure, but let’s keep the terminology non-meta.) Maybe I just absorbed too much of that Lakoff hoo-hah last year.

(I know that “anti-evolution groups” is commonly used, but (a) that irritates me too, for the same reasons — it demotes “evolution” to the status of an idea that can be argued against — and (b) anyway, every educated person knows that literally fighting evolution is a nonsensical idea, unless you’re referring to some weird luddite posthumanism or something.)


Harald Korneliussen 04.20.05 at 3:02 am

Seconded, mill. I say we should do as Tim Lambert and call them global warming denialists. Because sceptics has positive connotations these people don’t deserve.


Dave F 04.20.05 at 3:40 am

A consensus is not necessarily correct, as scientific pioneers have sought to demonstrate — often painfully — for centuries. Models to essay long-term trend predictions are contentious in the extreme.


MFB 04.20.05 at 4:31 am

No, a consensus is not necessarily correct. However, dissent ought to be based on a thorough understanding of the consensus and on an analysis of solid researched information which serves to challenge the consensus.

Not on the fact that someone slipped you some dollars to tell the public what they want the public to hear.



Tim Worstall 04.20.05 at 10:13 am

“There are grounds for debating the appropriate policy response to human-caused global warming, but not for debating whether it’s a real phenomenon.”

So the Lomborg (and my, but that’s of little importance) that it is happening, we humans are causing it and now can we talk about what we should do about it is respectable then?


Tim Worstall 04.20.05 at 10:16 am

Damn. Should a “view” after the )


jet 04.20.05 at 3:12 pm

“There are grounds for debating the appropriate policy response to human-caused global warming, but not for debating whether [human-caused global warming] is a real phenomenon”

The American Association of State Climatologists doesn’t agree there is a “consensus”.

In fact, the IPCC admits in the nitty gritty details (not in their final conclusion) that the jury is still WAY out on what could be the largest forcing behind climate change (last paragraph):


jet 04.20.05 at 3:20 pm

“There are some indications that solar irradiance fluctuations have indirect effects in addition to direct radiative heating, for example due to the substantially stronger variation in the UV band and its effect on ozone, or hypothesised changes in cloud cover (see Chapter 6). These mechanisms remain particularly uncertain[my emphasis] and currently are not incorporated[again my emphasis] in most efforts to simulate the climate effect of solar irradiance variations, as no quantitative estimates of their magnitude are currently available[again].”


jet 04.20.05 at 3:31 pm

All those who believe without question that anthropogenic forcings are the main cause of global warming have been pwned. Those dickhead anti-globalists and their money-slave puppets are sitting back laughing “All your bases are belong to us.” Shit, has no one actually read the IPCC report?


bi 04.21.05 at 1:20 am

jet: I wanted to read it, but after your last comment, I don’t feel like reading it any more.

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