Galileo faces the Roman Inquisition who, without evidence, demand he recant his statements on heliocentrism.
by John Atcheson
James Lawrence Powell’s The Inquisition of Climate Science is a straightforward, thorough and well-researched account of the assault on climate science.
The book is scholarly, yet entertaining, as a quick review of the titles in the Table of Contents reveals. Among the best are: “Toxic Tanks” (think tanks), “An Industry to Trust” (in which he contrasts the oil and gas companies’ and Insurance companies’ positions on global warming), “Climategate: Much Ado About Nothing” (in which he drives yet another wooden stake in the heart of this travesty and dispatches other “gates”).
Powell’s account is – pardon the pun – intelligently designed to thoroughly debunk the baseless dogma and diatribes coming out of the denier community.
The structure of the book is iterative, much like science itself. Just as a scientific observation proceeds from an initial hypothesis to a theory supported by empirical evidence and a body of replicable research, Powell’s organization educates his reader on how science works, even as he increases the specificity and sophistication of his discussion.
He first establishes the difference between skeptics and deniers, explaining that skepticism is at the core of science, but noting that when mounting evidence causes so-called “skeptics” to cling ever more desperately to their pre-ordained positions, they forfeit the title and move into the camp of deniers.
He provides a careful explanation of what science is and how it works. He summarizes his initial exploration of this topic in another of his aptly titled Chapters, “Science and Potemkin Science,” with the following quote:
Most professions can be no better than their individual practitioners, but Science is far better than scientists. It is the best system we have for getting beyond human frailty and folly to the truth.
He follows that up with a quick summary of “Adventures in Denierland” which introduces us to the chicanery, lies, deceits and tactics of the denier community, and some of their leading practitioners, both individuals and organizations. We meet many of the same characters Oreskes and Conway wrote about in Merchants of Doubt. Powell comes back to debunk these and other deniers often throughout the book.
He also documents how early and how strongly the scientific consensus on global warming emerged. He states, “Thus, by 1960 the greenhouse effect had evolved from theory to observational fact to dimly perceived threat.”
It is also interesting – and instructive — to see the true role of skepticism in science. Early investigators looking at the greenhouse effect such as Tyndall, Arrhenius, and Callendar presumed it would be a good thing. It was only later when true skeptics began to question this presumption that the potential for negative outcomes was explored, and these were only taken seriously after a great deal of evidence was amassed, evaluated and tested.
Nevertheless, Powell demonstrates that the scientific community had accepted the theory of global warming and its potential for devastating consequences before1970. Most of the political and lay community had too. In February of 1965, President Johnson said in a special address to Congress:
This generation has altered the composition of the atmosphere on a global scale through … a steady increase in carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels.
He then shows how this societal consensus unraveled even as the scientific evidence supporting the theory expanded. He sheds light how the IPCC was used as a means for governments to gain a measure of control over scientists and their message, revealing its essential conservatism – contrary to the claims of deniers that it is a run amok collection of radicals.
He chronicles how industry-funded think tanks adopted the trappings of science in an effort to create doubt and controversy, using tactics straight from the tobacco campaign. Sewing doubt; teaching the controversy; repeating discredited lies; holding faux conferences — these Toxic Tanks and the press began to roll back the emerging consensus in the public. But worse, they put the discipline of science on trial.
In one chapter Powell sets up the ten most often cited denier talking points and sends them toppling like so many dominoes in an earthquake. Talk about shooting fish in a barrel, he does it so effortlessly that it is more akin to shooting the barrels.
Powell traces the link between cold warriors, free market ideologues and climate denial with care and detail. As Oreskes noted – and Romm did in Hell and High Water before them – the reason deniers rail against the science is because they hate the solution: government intervention in the marketplace. For them, green is red: Environmentalism is a commie plot designed to weaken the US. For many, freedom and a brand of uber-capitalism are inextricably linked; thus anything that might compromise unfettered capitalism must also be an assault on freedom.
The press has been guilty of aiding and abetting deniers, giving credence to their stale arguments long after they’ve been thoroughly debunked. Indeed, debunked denier talking points have more staying power than even the most persistent zombie in a grade B movie, and the press bears a great deal of the responsibility for that. Powell skewers them. He documents in delicious detail the full extent of their perfidy. He points out a little known change in the Code of Ethics of the Society of Professional Journalists that essentially downgrades “accuracy,” and it is evident by the time he’s through that the press has been lazy, intentionally selling controversy instead of telling the truth or grinding an ideological axe — often all three.
If there is a criticism of this book, it is that Powell lets the profession of Economics off the hook. The main architects of the notion that capitalism and freedom are inexorably linked – an idea that fuels much of the denier movement — are Milton Friedman and the neoclassical economists. The rational was expressed in Friedman’s collection of essays, Capitalism and Freedom, and it has served as a bible for many uber free-marketeers and conservatives.
But the field’s contribution to deniers goes beyond Freidman’s influence. Even after the Stern Review showed how much climate change could cost us – and certainly before – many mainstream economists have been using abstractions and inappropriate assumptions that have overstated the costs of mitigating climate change, and grossly understated the costs of not acting to prevent it. Cost and economic pain show up prominently in denier arguments, and economists have contributed a great deal of ammo to their arguments, most of which doesn’t pass the straight face test, even if it is couched in calculus.
Reading The Inquisition of Climate Science leaves one with the feeling that the US is in the process of overthrowing the Enlightenment and ripping Francis Bacon’s Novum Organum Scientiarum (the New Instrument of Science) to shreds.
If we don’t reassert the primacy of the scientific method and the knowledge that it creates, we will soon be a country with the best 15th Century alchemists and “healers” – and the kind of economy that implies.
Books like The Inquisition offer a clear antidote to this evolving national viral infection of anti-science. Get it. Read it. Tell others about it.
– John Atcheson has more than 30 years in energy and the environment with government, private industry, and the nation’s leading think tanks (see “Utility decoupling on steroids.”) He is working on his own novel about climate change.