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The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed

I commend this review to Webdiarists. How can one do anything other than despair at the immorality, arrogance and cupidity of these people, and the media and politicians who unquestioningly swallow their pernicious lies– especially when in two weeks, in all likelihood ….

Merchants of Doubt by Naomi Oreskes and Erik M Conway
reviewed by Robin McKie of The Observer

Rachel Carson is generally viewed as an environmental heroine, a courageous campaigner whose book, Silent Spring, alerted the world to the dangers of the indiscriminate use of pesticides. Hers was a success story, the tale of a woman who highlighted a serious problem – that the anti-mosquito agent DDT was building up in the food chain where it was killing millions of birds and animals – and who helped introduce a global ban on use of the chemical.

At least that is the common appreciation of Carson. However, a brief search of her name on the internet today produces an unexpected response. According to many websites, Carson – by all accounts a pleasant, amiable woman – was a mass murderer who killed more people than the Nazis. This dramatic claim is based on her campaign against DDT, which, it is alleged, has led to the deaths of countless Africans from malaria.

"Millions of people around the world suffer the painful and often deadly effects of malaria because one person sounded a false alarm," states one site set up by the Competitive Enterprise Institute. "That person is Rachel Carson." Another site goes further: "Fifty million dead," while a third claims: "More deaths likely." Others compare Carson to Hitler or Stalin.

As an appraisal of Carson's achievements, this is a fairly shocking piece of revisionism and, as the authors of Merchants of Doubt make clear, it also is a false one. DDT was banned not just because it was accumulating in the food chain but because mosquitoes were developing resistance to it. The pesticide was losing its usefulness long before it was taken out of commercial production.

So why this hysterical vilification? Why these sudden denunciations of Carson? The answer – provided by Oreskes and Conway in this painstakingly assembled but nevertheless riveting piece of investigative reporting – is simple. The far right in America, in its quest to ensure the perpetuation of the free market, is now hell-bent on destroying the cause of environmentalism.

According to this distorted view of life, environmentalists are watermelons – green on the outside, red on the inside – who want to impose regulation, "the slippery slope to socialism", on the use of tobacco, ozone-destroying chemicals and greenhouse gases. "And in the demonising of Rachel Carson, free marketeers realised that if you could convince people that an example of successful government regulation wasn't, in fact, successful – that it was actually a mistake – you could strengthen the argument against regulation in general," state Oreskes and Conway.

Hence the monstering of Carson's reputation, an act of deliberate misinformation, say Oreskes and Conway, that has become the hallmark of a group of far-right institutions that are funded by businesses and conservative foundations and supported by a coterie of rightwing scientists who believe ecological threats are made up by lefty researchers as part of a grand plan to expand government control over our lives. These are the villains of Merchants of Doubt, and the same names pop up throughout its pages: scientists such as Fred Seitz, Robert Jastrow and Bill Nierenberg, along with the institutes through which they, and their kind, have lent their services to a range of rightwing, free-market foundations and institutions including the Competitive Enterprise Institute, the source of that anti-Carson diatribe that I quoted earlier. When not funded by the tobacco industry, many of these outfits often receive backing from fossil-fuel companies such as Exxon.

In these campaigns, a common strategy is evident: discredit the science, spread confusion and promote doubt, tactics that were introduced in the 70s to combat plans to limit smoking – whose links to cancer were by then becoming unambiguous – and which have been refined and used in battles to combat acid rain, ozone-layer depletion and greenhouse gas emissions.

Real science is dismissed as "junk" while misrepresentations are offered in its place. Thus cancer is triggered by many different causes, not just smoke, it was argued – even though the tobacco industry was, by this time, admitting in private that there was indeed a definite link between smoking and serious disease. Similarly acid rain was blamed not on its real cause, the by-products of burning fossil fuels, but on volcanic eruptions, which were also said to be the cause of the depletion of the ozone layer.

In each case, experts offered briefings to journalists and politicians and their claims were accepted, with little qualification, by an acquiescent media happy to establish the idea that there were real divisions among mainstream scientists where none actually existed. In short, we have been led by the nose and have meekly accepted the outpourings of a small, dedicated group of rightwing propagandists who have found themselves pushing, all too easily, at open doors. As Oreskes and Conway point out: "Who among us wouldn't prefer a world where acid rain was no big deal, the ozone hole didn't exist and global warming didn't matter? Such a world would be far more comforting than the one we actually live in. We may even prefer comforting lies to sobering facts. And the facts denied by our protagonists were more than sobering. They were downright dreadful."

Thus the tactics – the spreading of doubt and confusion – of a small group of cold war ideologues have worked their way across America and have now crossed the Atlantic so that the public in both the US and the UK are more confused than ever about the truth on a series of key scientific issues, in particular global warming, even though scientists have become more certain about the accuracy of their efforts.

In many ways, it is a tough message to stomach, though there is no doubt that Oreskes and Conway deserve considerable praise for this outstanding book and for exposing the influence of these dark ideologues. Merchants of Doubt – which includes detailed notes on all sources – is clearly and cleanly outlined, carefully paced and is my runaway contender for best science book of the year.


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A mess of contradictions

When the iPhone app first came out, some sceptics wistfully wished for their own iPhone app. I was curious to see such a thing myself. The cherrypicking nature of climate scepticism leads to an interesting phenomenon – sceptic arguments frequently contradict each other. One week, we're told El Nino is the cause. Next week, it's cosmic rays. No wait, we're cooling... Hold on, it's warming again, but this time, it's because of CFCs. Could anyone compile the many sceptic arguments into a single app without a mess of contradictions?

Climate change skeptics are becoming a laughing stock. This piece in the Guardian by John Cook (skeptical science blogger).


The classic example is creation science, the debunking of science and the pretence that what is found in documents created before science arose in Greece, and created by primitive tribesmen, prehistoric bumpkins in some remote corner of this or that prehistoric empire, transparently fraudulent histories of the tribe written to pretend its known atrocities and genocides were commanded by its god, is science and is more authentic than modern science.

The far right of the United States discredits the United States concept of a government.  Reasonably, such a far right can't exist, as they don't in Australia. The country plainly needs a king or a dictator. A ruthless one who would know what to do with the far right. The idea of democracy has been discredited by the example of the United States democracy.

The fact that newspapers are show biz, that news is show biz, demonstrates that it should not have any special rights and what is printed should be regulated.  'Twas not always so.

But that can't affect the Web. I give up.

The forces of darkness

The 2009 State of the Climate report released today draws on data for 10 key climate indicators that all point to the same finding: the scientific evidence that our world is warming is unmistakable. More than 300 scientists from 160 research groups in 48 countries contributed to the report, which confirms that the past decade was the warmest on record and that the Earth has been growing warmer over the last 50 years.

The forces of darkness seem to be winning the battle. They continue to ignore the science and pamper to the ignorance of the general public.

While some prosper from these delaying tactics, the truth will always win in the end. The problem is, how many people will die before we are willing to change?


Remember "Climategate"? This was the furore whipped up over the emails - thousands of them published via a Russian website - from scientists of the Climate Research Unit at the University of East Anglia that then derailed Copenhagen last November. This was purported to clearly demonstrate the nefarious and sinister machinations of the many scientists involved designed to foist a scientific fraud upon a credulous world.

Typically the usual red-faced spruikers and urgers of the commentariat of the right launched into feverish denunciation of the science and, more so, the scientists involved. Professional professorial reputations mattered little to this coterie. As Emeritus Professor Rodney Tiffen writes in the SMH:

The echo chamber of columnists reverberated with angry and accusatory claims. In Australia, Piers Akerman said: ''The tsunami of leaked emails ... reveal a culture of fraud, manipulation, deceit and personal vindictiveness to rival anything in a John le Carre or John Grisham thriller.'' Later he wrote: ''The crowd that gathered in Copenhagen were there pushing a fraud.”

Andrew Bolt thought that ''what they reveal is perhaps the greatest scientific scandal'' of our time. ''Emails leaked on the weekend show there is indeed a conspiracy to deceive the world - and Mr Rudd has fallen for it.''

Miranda Devine wrote: ''We see clearly the rotten heart of the propaganda machine that has driven the world to the brink of insanity.''

It transpires that three inquiries were set up to investigate the supposed fraud perpetrated by the scientists: a British House of Commons select committee, a science assessment panel within the Royal Society and one by the University itself. The first reported that the unit's scientific reputation and that of its head, Professor Phil Jones, remained intact. The second, as Tiffen notes, found ''absolutely no evidence of any impropriety whatsoever'' and that ''whatever was said in the emails, the basic science seems to have been done fairly and properly''. The third: ''we find that the rigour and honesty [of the scientists] as scientists are not in doubt''. Importantly, it concluded: ''We did not find any evidence of behaviour that might undermine the conclusions of the IPCC assessments.''

Tiffen muses that "you might imagine the media would be keen to report on authoritative conclusions about allegations it had found so newsworthy in December". Not on your nelly. That would necessitate that the Bolts, Ackermans and Devines of this world possessed the journalistic rigour to acknowledge exaggeration and hyperbole in the pursuit of a political point if not a politician. Never mind the reputations of those traduced.

It matters little what one thinks of the merits of the climate change debate on one side or the other. As Tiffen notes:

Rarely has such an edifice of sweeping accusation and extravagant invective been constructed on such a slender factual basis. Rarely does it do such damage.

It appears Emeritus Professor Tiffen is only recently acquainted with the "style" of these so called "journalists" where balance is more likely to be found in the wine served with their lunch.

Father Park


But, but, but ... dearest Father Park ... everyone but everyone knows that gotcha journalism is the reel deel. It and only it gives the plebs the reel trooth.

And isn't that what sells?

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