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Sometimes Refuting Unscientific Nonsense Reinforces It

Woman in tin foil hat SOURCE: SP By constantly criticizing and responding to anti-science forces, are we only strengthening and propping them up?

Earlier this month, as I canvassed the global warming blogs that I check regularly—Joe Romm’s Climate Progress, DeSmogBlog, and many others—I couldn’t seem to stop reading about what Romm dubbed the “skeptic/denier/disinformer/climate-destroyer conference” that had happened in New York City—a bizarre throwback event put on by the rightwing Chicago-based Heartland Institute.

Not only does it waste our time, but it may play right into their hands.

On one level, I can understand all the chatter. It was more than a little outrageous that at this very late hour, with global warming so well established as a scientific conclusion and with critical policy decisions yet to be made, the skeptics chose to make a last stand. Indeed, it’s particularly offensive to those of us who have spent years battling climate skeptics, refuting them at every turn, trying to preserve the integrity of climate science and, ultimately, to protect the planet. Again and again, when the skeptics have come out in force, we have dutifully strapped on our weapons and returned to battle. We’re soldiers, and that’s just what we do. It’s a familiar mode.

But it’s also one I’ve come to question. First of all, what is the point of fighting and debating climate skeptics any more? This November we are going to elect a president who has a strong stance and wants to deal with global warming–the difference between the Democrats and John McCain on the issue, while hardly insignificant, scarcely compares to the difference between either of them and our current president. And even George W. Bush has been on record for some time accepting the reality of human-induced global warming.

So we’ve reached a point where we may well be wasting our energies if we continue to battle climate skeptics. Indeed, we run the risk of propping them up far more than they deserve.

For that’s the other problem with constantly rebutting anti-science forces—not only does it waste our time, but it may play right into their hands. Consider: Over at his blog Framing Science, Matthew Nisbet makes a very strong case that the rhetorical strategy of the Heartland Institute is exceedingly similar to that of the anti-evolutionist think tank the Discovery Institute. If so, it follows that the defenders of climate science ought to be at least as leery of outright engagement with Heartland as the defenders of evolutionary science are when it comes to engaging with Discovery.

The reason is that if you actually bother to rebut the Heartlands and Discoverys of the world, you instantly enter into a discourse on their own terms. The strategic framing these groups employ to attack mainstream science heavily features the rhetoric of scientific uncertainty—and so if you try to answer their arguments, you’re inevitably committed to conveying more abstruse technical information and, thus, more uncertainty as soon as they wail back at you (which they thoroughly enjoy doing).

If you create a big fuss over what your intellectual opponent is saying, you might well be helping him or her.

And there’s another important dynamic at play here involving the media. Journalists know that global warming is a big deal, that the presidential candidates all want to address it, that Al Gore won the Nobel, and so on. So when most of them see something like the Heartland conference, their broad inclination will be to look askance at it…at least at first.

But now suppose that this oddball conference comes under prominent attack from those on the other side. Suddenly, journalists are looking at a “controversy,” and there’s nothing they more enjoy covering. And off we go.

There’s certainly a longstanding mentality among progressive groups that nonsense must be refuted, often in rapid-fire mode if possible. But that mindset runs up against something else that ought to be obvious: controversy sells. If you create a big fuss over what your intellectual opponent is saying, you might well be helping him or her. Fox News’s highly publicized lawsuit against Al Franken surely helped sell copies of Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them. So why wouldn’t repeated critiques by environmental groups of someone like, say, Bjorn Lomborg or the Heartland Institute do exactly the same thing?

Nevertheless—and to stick with environmental groups for a second–they fall into this trap constantly, refuting at length anti-environmental forces at rightwing think tanks or in the media. The Natural Resources Defense Council and the Environmental Defense Fund (now known simply as Environmental Defense) both published lengthy studies to refute New York Times contrarian John Tierney’s 1997 attack on the efficacy of recycling, to name just one example. Couldn’t all the energy and resources bestowed on rebutting our enemies be better used to help promote our friends—perhaps, say, by devoting resources to getting the word out about individuals who have written pro-environment books? Rather than reacting, couldn’t we be setting the agenda?

Unfortunately, yet another example of scientific defenders enabling anti-scientific forces has recently come to my attention. The rightwing comedian Ben Stein has a new movie out called Expelled, a supposed documentary about how evolutionary forces are suppressing the intelligent design movement’s intellectually valid dissent. Now, this is nonsense, but what better way to help nonsense thrive than to unleash public statements that would seem to confirm it or to be consistent with it?

Sure enough, one of the Expelled trailers features the following quotation from Oxford evolutionary biologist and atheism apostle Richard Dawkins: “If people think God is interesting, the onus is on them to show that there is anything there to talk about. Otherwise they should just shut up about it.” And then in comes Ben Stein to play the rebel, the Galileo, against this oppressive scientific orthodoxy, against “Big Science” that tells the little guy to “shut up.” How’s that for enabling?

We know so much, we scientists, we science defenders. We ought to know better.

Chris Mooney is a contributing editor to Science Progress and the author of two books, The Republican War on Science and Storm World: Hurricanes, Politics, and the Battle Over Global Warming. He blogs on The Intersection with Sheril Kirshenbaum.


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