The Political Economy of Antiscience

When it became clear that CFCs, a class of halocarbon refrigerant, were degrading the layer of ozone which protects us from ultraviolet radiation, the industries manufacturing the halocarbons began to turn their gears:

'Launch a public relations campaign disputing the evidence ... Find and pay a respected scientist to argue persuasively against the threat ... Trumpet discredited scientific studies and myths supporting your point of view as scientific fact ... Point to the substantial scientific uncertainty, and the certainty of economic loss if immediate action is taken ... Use data from a local area to support your views, and ignore the global evidence ... Disparage scientists, saying they are playing up uncertain predictions of doom in order to get research funding ... Disparage environmentalists, claiming they are hyping environmental problems in order to further their ideological goals ... Dr. Fred Singer... Claim that more research is needed before action should be taken.'

Does this sound familiar? It should - it follows the template of all sorts of campaigns to discredit economically inconvenient science. The same gears turned when we learned that industrial pollution was causing acid rain. And the tobacco industry spun them again, with a cynical PR campaign to sell 'doubt' about the health effects of smoking as a 'product' in its own right.

And then of course there's climate change.

Antiscience is the opposite of science. It's negative science. It complains about the things we don't know as though they invalidate the things we do know - but it makes no attempt to answer these 'unanswered questions'. While antiscientists whine about the deficiencies in climate models, scientists work to improve those models.

It's easy to see the appeal of antiscience, when a captain of industry, or the politicians they support, are faced with evidence that their actions are degrading the environment. There's profit motive to be sure, but on top of that there are all manner of psychological effects, from cognitive dissonance to outright denial.

And then of course there's the Dunning-Krueger effect.

There are, certainly, plenty of different flavors of antiscience, tangentially or unrelated to environmental issues- creation 'science' is the most obvious example- but these may themselves carry political capital because they align the politician with their constituents, to the detriment of educational standards. And there is plenty of overlap between antisciences. Phillip Johnson, architect of the cryptocreationist Santorum Amendment, also denies the connection between HIV and AIDS, claiming that "the chance of ending up as an AIDS case if you avoid homosexual and drug behavior is less than the chance of being struck by lightning." Jonathan Wells, author of a number of creation 'science' books, is also an HIV denier. And Guillermo Gonzalez, posterchild of the Intelligent Design movement, is also a climate change 'skeptic'.

The radiative properties of carbon dioxide are fairly straightforward, and yet a cottage industry has developed around their dismissal. The same crew is now turning its sights on ocean acidification. In addition to absorbing and re-radiating infrared, CO2 is acidic, and is altering the chemistry of the world's oceans, to the detriment of aquatic ecosystems - and yet, policymakers have been hearing that ocean acidification is no problem. ArkFab scientists have been analyzing one such piece of testimony - the final report will be issued soon [UPDATE: This report can be found here]. Unsurprisingly, ocean acidification 'skepticism' is as scientifically vacuous as its climatological counterpart.

A recent modeling study found that the outlook would have been bleak had we not banned CFC usage. The Montreal Protocols were a rare happy ending in the environmental arena: industry threw their PR weight, but at the end of the day our need for a livable world overrode their profit interest. We are now faced with threats at least as pressing - and we are losing precious time.

So what can you do?

  • Put the 'democracy' in representative democracy - call your representatives! Tell them you're concerned about environmental issues and the quality of the scientific advice they are getting.
  • Get informed! Check out the resources below.
  • Evaluate your lifestyle - what sort of environmental impact does it have? How much oil must be burned to transport your food? How much toxicity does the manufacture of your computer create? How can you act to eliminate those impacts?


Resources for politicised science:

If you have suggestions for more, please comment :)