The Inquisition of Climate Science
An Interview With Author James Powell About the New Book
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In The Inquisition of Climate Science, former Reed College president and National Science Board member James Powell elucidates the landscape of climate denial; diagrams, analyzes, and debunks the most frequently used denier arguments; and advances a progressive vision for what science communication could become in the 21st century. Prepublication reviewers summed up the book: “A devastating, crushing blow against the deniers. I would not want to meet Powell in a dark alley.”
At once a quick read and an informational reference guide, The Inquisition of Climate Science is a must for climate science advocates as well as casual readers. Powell’s meticulous research makes the book a useful all-in-one guide to the science, politics, messages, and media coverage of climate change. At the same time, his engaging narrative style grabs the reader and makes the pages seem to fly by.
From the very first chapter, The Inquisition makes crystal clear the distinction between science and pseudoscience, and arms the reader with the tools to dispel common misconceptions. Powell opens the book with accounts of two dichotomous climate change conferences that exemplify the difference between legitimate, fact-based debate, and political demagoguery. The first, held by the American Geophysical Union, consisted of presentations by scientists about new data and findings about climate change.
In contrast, the second conference, organized by the Heartland Institute, a free-market think tank, had a very different goal. Rather than bringing together scientists to discuss science using scientific evidence, the Heartland conference brought together “scientists, economists, legislators, policy activists, and media representatives” to repeat a set of talking points about the dangers of “climate alarmism.” Not only were no peer-reviewed scientific findings presented at the conference, but almost none of the speakers were published climate scientists. Instead, the Heartland Institute invited such figures as a former astronaut, the president of the Czech Republic, and an MIT meteorologist, almost the sole speaker to be a practicing scientist.
What Powell shows with such clarity is that the so-called climate “debate” is not a scientific one. In example after example he illustrates the lopsided nature of the climate discourse: with scientists using scientific evidence on one side, and political activists using knee-jerk imagery and philosophical misdirection on the other. In his analysis, Powell breaks down some of the most common hallmarks of the denier movement. “They:
- Engage in publicity stunts designed to gain media attention and that promulgate disinformation.
- Repeat claims long after scientists have shown them to be false.
- Make assertions without presenting any evidence to back them up. Had a speaker at the AGU meeting said that carbon dioxide does not cause global warming, the audience would have demanded to see the evidence.
- Have no scientific findings that falsify global warming.
- Have opposed global warming for twenty years. True, back then, many scientists were also skeptical, but as the evidence mounted, they changed their minds. Deniers do not change their minds, a sure sign that they base their denial not on science, but on ideology. To paraphrase Richard Lindzen, ‘global warming denial has always been about politics, not science.’”
The book also examines the connections between antiscience front groups and the fossil fuel interests that fund them. And with rigorous research, Powell shows how the same tactics of science denial have shown up again and again over the years, from the tobacco industry-orchestrated denial of the health effects of smoking, to groups who deny that HIV causes AIDS, to evolution denial, to the organized denial of the harmful health effects of toxic substances like asbestos and chromium hexafluoride.
The solution? In my interview with him, James Powell summed up his simple advice for scientists fighting for truth:
“It’s time for scientists to stand up and be counted. Not be reticent. Not be cautious. Not say for instance that there’s no way to tell whether Katrina was caused by global warming, but to say very forcefully that Katrina is exactly the kind of thing we can expect more of under global warming.”
Powell’s comprehensive book is a welcome addition to the growing literature debunking fossil fuel-funded, antiscience disinformation.
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