‘Political’ Science: The Rise of Junk Science and the Fall of Reason

Democracy depends on information and good science. And in a democracy that faces a dizzying array of threats and challenges, the need for sound knowledge has never been more important. Our national security, environmental well-being, and personal health rest on a true understanding of critical issues, like climate change, water shortages, and industrial pollution.

In theory, science is non-partisan. The Earth is goes around the Sun, gravity is a constant, smoking causes cancer, whether you are a Republican, Democrat, conservative, or liberal. In practice, however, as Galileo and many others discovered, science is not always pure or certain, our knowledge is not always complete or correct, and politics sometimes trumps rationality. Many important public policy questions rely on uncertain or complex scientific questions and on the interpretation of knowledge, as we understand it at any point in time

Unfortunately, in recent years, the creation of deceptive science and false information has become a thriving industry at a time when independent government research budgets are being threatened and cut. And this economy of lies is being supported by major corporations, laundered through seemingly independent organizations, and served to the American public as truth.

One of the most important examples of this kind of scientific abuse can be seen in the arguments over climate change. Climate scientists have, for decades, understood the fundamental relationship between the composition of the atmosphere and what we put into it, and what will happen as a result. There are plenty of scientific uncertainties around climate change, as all good climate scientists readily acknowledge (sometimes to the frustration of media, the public, and policymakers). The climate, as one of the most complex geophysical features of our planet should and will engender legitimate scientific debate and research for decades to come. But this ongoing dispute about the details of impacts, the costs and benefits of mitigation and adaptation policies, and appropriate national and international policy should not be used to obfuscate the overwhelming consensus that exists among climate scientists. Climate change caused by human activities is real, is already well underway, and poses an unprecedented threat to human health and well-being.

Despite this historic consensus, bolstered by thousands of studies and decades of research, a tiny group of well-funded climate “contrarians” has managed to stall decisions about climate policy action in the United States with reams of junk “science,” misleading arguments, and outright obfuscation funded, almost entirely, by corporations and political interests.

Although the challenge of climate change is complex, the agenda of these contrarians is easy to understand: Taking action could cost their backers serious money. Thus certain corporations, whose economic interests are tied directly into the production of carbon dioxide and other climate-changing gases, have poured millions of dollars into organizations dedicated to cranking out pseudo-science and opinion articles to try to counter the real science of academic and government scientists and delay policy decisions. While most contrarian organizations and spokespeople refuse to identify their funding sources, one of the most influential anti-climate funders is Exxon-Mobil, which publicly reports nearly $5 million in funding (from 2001 to 2003) to groups committed to obfuscating the truth about climate science.

As a result of this strategy, a proper and difficult debate about values and policy is being delayed and sidetracked. It is time to move on. Rapid climate change is a real problem. Humans are causing it. It will get worse as we continue to produce greenhouse gases. The vital and difficult questions of what we should do about climate change, what it will cost, and in what time frame must be answered through a public debate on values, priorities, and policy. That debate must be full, fair, transparent, and it must happen now.


Dr. Peter H. Gleick is a 2003 MacArthur Fellow, member of the US National Academy of Sciences Water Science and Technology Board, a lifetime member of the International Water Academy in Oslo, Norway, and President of the Pacific Institute, Oakland. www.pacinst.org

Based in Oakland, California, the Pacific Institute is an independent, nonpartisan think-tank studying issues at the intersection of development, environment, and security. Information on The Pacific Institute’s funders is posted on its website.

This commentary was initially posted on www.enn.com and is reposted here with permission.

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1 thought on “‘Political’ Science: The Rise of Junk Science and the Fall of Reason”

  1. Thank you for your essay. Your views seem to fit with Chris Mooney’s The Republican War on Science but without the partisan label.

    Right now, the Republican party is much guiltier of abuse of science than the Democrats. Part of it is because their agenda is threatened by scientific findings, and part of it is because they happen to be in power.

    I’d be interested in your thoughts about that book or about the parties themselves.

    Fred Bortz — Science and technology books for young readers (http://www.fredbortz.com) and Science book reviews (http://www.scienceshelf.com)

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