Think Again: A Climate of Conspiracy

Superfreakonomics coauthor officially joins the anti-science crowd

Nicholas Stern, chair of the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at the London School of Economics, takes questions from reporters during a news conference in London on December 1, 2009. Stern, in reponse to questions about hackers who leaked emails from scientists at the East Anglia Climate Research Unit in England, said those who doubt the science of global warming are "muddled and confused."

This piece by CAP’s Eric Alterman and Mickey Ehrlich, first published here, looks at how “ClimateGate” fits into the broader set of conspiracy theories pushed by conservatives in the Obama era.  I wrote about this connection here:  “The top 5 ways the ‘birthers’ are like the deniers.”  The fact that Superfreakonomics coauthor Stephen Dubner have joined with the anti-science ideologues, as Alterman and Ehrlich discuss, was, sadly, all-too-predictable (see “Superfreakonomics authors abandon climate science” and “Is Superfreakonomics author Levitt again denying the ‘unequivocal’ scientific evidence for global warming?” and “Dubner ratchets up the rhetoric, claiming his critics have issued a ‘fatwa’!”  If you want to know what the hacked emails really tell us about climate science, read the editorial in Nature: “Nothing in the e-mails undermines the scientific case that global warming is real “” or that human activities are almost certainly the cause.”

On November 19, emails stolen from scientists at the Climatic Research Unit at the University of East Anglia in England were leaked onto the web. Conservatives immediately claimed that these proved global warming to be a hoax and part of a worldwide conspiracy run by mad scientists who have quashed debate in order to institute a socialist, business-killing cap-and-trade policy. Thus was yet another conservative conspiracy theory in the age of Obama launched: “Climategate.” It’s getting hard to keep track of all of them.

We have written in this space about the promotion of baseless beliefs regarding President Obama’s birth and the authorship of his books. And while much of the mainstream media continues to ignore the conspiratorial nature of contemporary conservative politics’ arguments, the true leaders of the conservative movement in America””Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, and the like””have been leading the charge for these conspiracies and many more.

Conservative websites and airwaves abound with conspiracy theories to the point where it becomes nearly a full-time job to merely keep up with the various and secretive forces seeking to undermine our country and turn us into””well, it’s never quite clear. Terrorists? Communists? Socialists? Gays? Whatever.On his TV show on Monday, Glenn Beck, with the help of Andrew Breitbart of the website Big Government, reasserted that the White House had ordered union members to beat up anti-health care protestors at town hall meetings this summer. Joseph Farah, the editor of World Net Daily, asserted on Tuesday that President Obama “publicly supports ethnic cleansing in the Middle East against Jews.” And recent polls indicated that 52 percent of Republicans believe that ACORN stole the 2008 election for Barack Obama, who, by the way, according to nearly half of Republicans recently polled, was born in Kenya. (And hey, did you know ACORN caused the financial crisis? Don’t tell me Lou Dobbs would dare to mislead you about that.)

Of course, it’s no secret that the noted climatologist Rush Limbaugh thinks global warming is a “scam” and “a hoax.” So, too, do many Fox News consumers. An informal online poll at showed that 80 percent of those who voted said that their views on global warming were unchanged and that they do not believe global warming research is accurate.

The leaked East Anglia emails that allegedly provided the “proof” of this view go back 10 years. Conservatives claim that the emails that were leaked undermine all scientific data that suggest global warming is occurring at the rates scientists say it is and that it is caused by humans. They also claim that the emails reveal an organized effort to silence critics of the climate consensus in the scientific community.

In fact, while the scientists in question were undoubtedly overzealous, and went way overboard in the name of debunking dangerous pseudoscience on the issue, as Jeff Masters has pointed out, “Even if every bit of mud slung at these scientists were true, the body of scientific work supporting the theory of human-caused climate change””which spans hundreds of thousands of scientific papers written by tens of thousands of scientists in dozens of different scientific disciplines””is too vast to be budged by the flaws in the works of the three or four scientists.”

Nevertheless, on November 24, Stephen J. Dubner, who wrote about Climategate for the Freakonomics blog at, appeared on Fox Business Network with host David Asman. Asman introduced the segment by evoking efforts by Hitler and Stalin to manipulate science to achieve their evil ends. Asman said, preposterously, “Well, it can’t happen here, as many people have said, but apparently it has.” Asman’s guest completely allowed the comparison of climate scientists to the mass murderers to stand.

Dubner then claimed that the emails showed that scientists were “colluding” with Al Gore in “distorting evidence.” He insisted that “you can’t read these emails and feel that the IPCC’s or the major climate scientists’ findings and predictions about global warming are kosher.” He also claimed, without any evidence, that the hackers who illegally obtained the emails “either wanted to get in there because they knew there was something they should read. Or maybe there’s a whistle blower.” Dubner’s conjecture put him in league with Rush Limbaugh, who, the day before, guessed “maybe there’s a whistle blower inside the organization who is just unhappy about what’s going on.”

No one cites the possibility that the emails were hacked by people fishing for evidence whether it was there or not. The emails are only proof-positive about a global warming conspiracy to people who believed it before the emails were leaked. As Sean Hannity put it on November 24, “Now we find out that this institute is hiding from the people of Great Britain and the world that, in fact, climate change is a hoax, something I’ve been saying for a long time.”

In Great Britain, the blogs at the Telegraph have been awash with outrage over Climategate. On November 20, before the authenticity of the emails had been confirmed, James Delingpole wrote a piece with the hyperbolic title, “Climategate: The Final Nail in the Coffin of ‘Anthropogenic Global Warming?'” Delingpole proceeded to reel off mantras of climate change denial. He wrote, erroneously, that the world is in a period of cooling, and cited scientists who claim that dangerously high concentrations of carbon dioxide provide necessary food for plants.

On “This Week with George Stephanopoulos,” George Will falsely asserted that the emails revealed an effort to “delete” evidence that showed a medieval warming period. Will has used his Washington Post column to undermine the evidence of global warming and the urgency for policies addressing it. Most recently he has written on the abundance of fossil fuels.

An editorial in The Washington Times bore the title, “Hiding Evidence of Global Cooling: Junk science exposed among climate-change believers.” The article referred to the “baloney practices that pass as sound science about climate change.” There is never any reference to evidence in the emails that disputes the broad scientific consensus on climate change.

In fact, as CAP’s Matthew Yglesias points out, the consensus on global warming extends to all governments in the world, including the world’s biggest polluter, China. In the current issue of Time, Lester Brown, president of the Earth Policy Institute, adds, “It is the ice melt from these glaciers [those quickly vanishing in the Himalyas due to global warming], that sustains irrigation. The melting of these glaciers is the most massive threat to food security that we have ever projected.” And, as the magazine’s Byron Walsh continues, “It is also a threat to global security. In developing nations such as China and India, growing prosperity means ever greater demand for””and potential battles over””water.”

Of course, talk like that is just part of the conspiracy. Glenn Beck promises that the upcoming U.N. summit on climate in Copenhagen designed to begin addressing problems like these, even if only in vague and undemanding terms, will mean “the end of U.S. sovereignty.”

Just who is actually running things, well, they never do say.

Eric Alterman is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and a Distinguished Professor of English at Brooklyn College. He is also a Nation columnist and a professor of journalism at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. His seventh book, Why We’re Liberals: A Handbook for Restoring America’s Most Important Ideals, was recently published in paperback. He occasionally blogs at and is a regular contributor to The Daily Beast.

Mickey Ehrlich is a freelance writer in New York.

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14 Responses to Think Again: A Climate of Conspiracy

  1. WAG says:

    Well, Dubner knows how to sell a book: find a politically contentious issue where one side is literally starved for evidence backing their views, and sell them what they want to here.

    What’s ironic about Dubner taking the denialist side here is how it actually proves how every conceivable material incentive should be pushing scientists away from the consensus. The co-author of a book about how humans respond to incentives should know that competition drives down profits and scarcity drives them up; there’s just no money to be made or fame to be had in agreeing with other scientists. With 97% of scientists agreeing that humans are warming the planet, there are vast economic rents to be earned by joining the 3% who do not.

    Getting research grants from oil companies or think tanks, selling books, getting time on talk shows – it’s all easier when people are looking for a viewpoint, and you’re one of the few people who’s got it.

  2. Lou Grinzo says:

    WAG: Bingo!

    Joe: You’re going to have to start including a barf bag graphic for the posts that include so many comments from the deranged right.

    I shudder at the thought of what parts of the US, the UK, and other countries are turning into as we get ever further down this road of hyperpolarization.

  3. Sam says:

    The question I keep asking is:

    How can we beat them at their own game?

    It’s starting to look like it’s just too late to rely on the polite, scientific explanations that have gotten us this far. All of us know, regardless of what a few emails might say, that we have that on our side and we can always fall back on that. Anyways, it’s getting to the point where approaching global warming from a theoretical/statistical point of view is obsolete – the physical manifestations of ACC are so blatantly obvious that they make any objective case for us, without us needing to explain the greenhouse effect is or what carbon sources and sinks are.

    Plus, the name calling – “denialist” “flat-earther” etc. – doesn’t really work either. It sort of makes us look desperate.

    Instead, it’s time to go on the attack in the worst possible way, just like the skeptics and columnists above are doing in the same fantastic, hyperbolic, conspiratorial ways that make them so effective at getting through to the average dumb-ass. Accuse them of betraying future generations in the worst possible way – by denying them the chance to forge a reliable, sustainable livelihood from nature. Accuse them of intellectual terrorism. Rub it in their faces how wrong they are – let them know that ten, twenty, thirty years down the line, every single word they say will be recorded and left for humanity to judge. For christ’s sake, get the media’s attention!

  4. richard pauli says:

    Obviously the next step is to repeal the Laws of Thermodynamics… They are cruel, absolute and nobody wants to obey them anyway…. Come on Congress!!

    Just to fan the only flames that don’t give off heat:
    Senator John McCain was born in the Panama Canal Zone in 1936…..

  5. Mark Shapiro says:

    WAG and Lou Grinzo: Amen, brothers. There’s money in that there friendly, aw-shucks type denialism practiced by Lomborg and the Superfreaks.

    One tool in the PR wars (unused so far) is naming (and shaming) the wealthiest CEOs of the big fossil fuel companies. Keep reiterating their names, how much money they make, and how much money they pour into denialism (laundered through CEI, etc.)

    And George Will on “This Week” was even worse than described above — he flat-out lied about Kevin Trenberth — completely misquoting his “travesty” e-mail.

  6. Dean says:

    I’ve got to say that I don’t like the ____gate habit for scandals at all, and I particularly don’t like this one, since it tends to imply that the scandal affects climate science in general, which it does not. If I absolutely have to use a _____gate label, I might say CRUGate, but mostly I’m going to avoid this label and just call it the CRU email hacking event or something like that. Language matters!

  7. cbp says:

    Surely a few defamation cases would not go astray?

    These people spreading slandering scientists with no evidence need to be dragged through the courts and have their lies exposed and punished.

  8. Area Man says:

    I tried posting the following comment on the Freakonomics blogs, but it did not pass the moderator. Thoughts?

    The leaked climate emails highlight the practice of massaging data to reach desired outcomes.

    One can make the argument that ANYONE who publishes what they claim to be an accurate analysis of data, especially if accompanied by a resulting conclusion that casts aspersions on others, ought to feel compelled to make all his/her RAW data available. This is true whether the publication is an article in an academic journal or a popular book about a “rogue economist”.

    Does Freakonomics plan to make all its RAW data available?

  9. caerbannog says:

    This matter may deserve a ClimateProgress blog post of its own.


    Attempted breaches show larger effort to discredit climate science: researcher


    An alleged series of attempted security breaches at the University of Victoria in the run-up to next week’s Copenhagen summit on climate change is evidence of a larger effort to discredit climate science, says a renowned B.C. researcher.

    Andrew Weaver, a University of Victoria scientist and key contributor to the Nobel prize-winning work of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, says there have been a number of attempted breaches in recent months, including two successful break-ins at his campus office in which a dead computer was stolen and papers were rummaged through.


    University of Victoria spokeswoman Patty Pitts said there have also been attempts to hack into climate scientists’ computers, as well as incidents in which people impersonated network technicians to try to gain access to campus offices and data. However, those incidents took place at the Canadian Centre for Climate Modelling and Analysis, she said — an Environment Canada facility located at the university. As such, Environment Canada would be the investigating agency.

  10. Mark Shapiro says:

    Caerbannog –

    thanks for bringing this chilling news to our attention. From the National Post article you cite:

    ” . . . incidents in which people impersonated network technicians to try to gain access to campus offices and data.”

    Wow. Yes – this deserves a post, and followup.

  11. JMG says:

    I’m with Sam – we know that Fox News, Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, and a sizable chunk of Republicans are outright deniers, are anti-science, and are pretending that Global Warming doesn’t exist for political reasons.

    What can we do about it? What can other opinion leaders, organizations, campaigners do about it?

    Enough of the handwringing – we need some action.

  12. Chris Winter says:

    Indeed, such break-ins, whether at CRU, the University of Victoria, or elsewhere, deserve investigation. Publication of the CRU e-mails is being compared with Daniel Ellsberg’s disclosure of the Pentagon Papers to the New York Times. The difference is, the Pentagon Papers actually proved that a national policy was based on lies. The e-mails leaked or stolen from CRU haven’t met that test, and I don’t think they ever will. (Another difference is that we don’t know the identity of the leaker or thief. Ellsberg admitted his involvement, and surrendered to the authorities in Boston.)

    In my opinion, these recent break-ins much more closely resemble the Watergate burglary.

  13. USpace says:

    This is a most excellent and revealing post about this issue.

    Some people are just insane. In trying to pooh-pooh ClimateGate, all they do is try to demonize their opponents, they never try and convince us over and over how and why the Earth is actually warming, and how precisely humans are causing it, and how the Sun and the oceans have nothing to do with it.

    They just keep screaming that the ‘Science is settled’, and so that is that. Period.

    Of course, the science is hardly settled; especially when over 31,000 scientists, including over 9,000 PHDs, have signed a petition claiming that in their opinions, based on reading the scientific studies on both sides, global warming/change is NOT man-made.

    We all must tell EVERYBODY we know about this! If all they watch is the MSM, they haven’t heard much or anything about the real truth of this.


    God bless the people who released the ‘Scientists’ emails, they are total heroes.

    This will make a great movie someday.
    absurd thought –
    God of the Universe makes
    humans cause global warming

    simply by exhaling
    the Sun has little effect

    absurd thought –
    God of the Universe says
    keep people all worked up

    about global warming
    despite inconvenient facts

    absurd thought –
    God of the Universe says
    demonize scientists

    who can prove climate-change
    is not caused by humans

    absurd thought –
    God of the Universe says
    ignore Sun’s activity

    fire thousands of scientists
    who say warming comes first

    absurd thought –
    God of the Universe says
    create a HUGE industry

    only employ those millions
    who perpetuate its lies


  14. Chris Winter says:

    USpace wrote (in part): “Some people are just insane. In trying to pooh-pooh ClimateGate, all they do is try to demonize their opponents, they never try and convince us over and over how and why the Earth is actually warming, and how precisely humans are causing it, and how the Sun and the oceans have nothing to do with it.”

    That’s right, because we don’t think you need to be convinced “over and over” that climate change is real. Once per person ought to do the trick. (Did I say “trick”?) Yet, if you care to check, you’ll find that people here have explained the facts repeatedly. The problem is that they never seem to sink in. The obvious conclusion is that your side cares nothing for facts because you’ve got an agenda to push.

    How’s that working out?

    “They just keep screaming that the ‘Science is settled’, and so that is that. Period.”

    Rather, you continually choose to misinterpret what that means.

    “Of course, the science is hardly settled; especially when over 31,000 scientists, including over 9,000 PHDs, have signed a petition claiming that in their opinions, based on reading the scientific studies on both sides, global warming/change is NOT man-made.”

    You just proved my point. Anyone still citing the OISM petition has no clue what the real situation is.

    We all must tell EVERYBODY we know about this! If all they watch is the CEI, they haven’t heard much or anything about the real truth of this.

    There — fixed that for you.