The War on Science Part 3 - Chapter 10 Summary

Otto begins chapter 10 by reiterating one of his main points so far — science is not independent of politics. He then gives some background on past efforts to shape public opinion in the U.S., focusing on Sigmund Freud’s nephew, Edward Bernays. Bernays is known as the “father of public relations”; he originally served on the Creel Committee, which sought to sway public opinion in favor of joining WWI. He continued afterward to help companies shape public opinion, advocating a “third party technique” in which the company itself is not the one seen promoting its viewpoint. This approach was featured heavily in the American Tobacco Company’s efforts to sow doubt about the connection between smoking and cancer, in which they had fringe scientists argue their case. Together with the pushback against Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, Otto presents this as the foundation for industry-promoted anti-science carrying through to today. He then takes a few pages to overview the many sources of anti-science on both sides of politics, where the right complains of “liberal scientists with a socialist agenda” while the left speaks of “greedy corporations and mechanistic scientists” hiding dangers to public health and safety.

The remainder of the chapter can be seen as an extended case study. Otto gives a detailed account of industry’s fight to reject the scientific validity of climate change, starting by giving a brief overview of the history of scientists investigating the phenomenon of global warming. Interestingly, we see that as far back as 1977, Exxon recognized the danger of global warming and began engaging in their own research and funding climate science research. However, they quickly changed their tune when the U.S. began serious talks of imposing stricter regulations on the fossil fuels industry. In this time, Exxon began stressing the uncertainty of the science of climate change, starting to fund groups promoting climate denial. The American Petroleum Institute (API) laid out a plan to teach the public that climate change science is uncertain, adopting the third-party strategy by funding “environmentally skeptical” think-tanks. These efforts paid off, as shown by President Bush’s refusal to sign the Kyoto Treaty and the immediate pseudoscience pushback against claims that polar bears were endangered by climate change. This was all part of the API’s Global Climate Science Communications Plan (GCSCP), which essentially had an established 7-step method to counter real science with pseudoscience (see p292-294). Moving forward to the Obama administration, we see the coordinated takedown of cap-and-trade. This anti-science effort was certainly aided by “Climategate”: leaked emails from the Climatic Research Unit (CRU) which, when viewed out of context, made it appear that scientists had been doctoring data to make it look like the earth was actually warming. As the war against climate science continued, climate denial started making its way into public policy (p325-326). Climate denial remains a persistent characteristic of the Republican Party, as seen in the 2016 election (and, may I add, up to the present).

Otto closes his chapter by exploring whether companies may be held responsible for spreading misinformation through a RICO (Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act) Investigation. He then quickly goes over refutations of the top ten climate denial talking points, and finally stresses that societies that suppress knowledge inevitably lose out in the end. Leading into the final section of his book, he says “Science is inherently political. If authoritarians with vested interests who disagree with its findings are allowed to intimidate scientists or quash those results, democracy loses.”

Emmet Francis is a PhD candidate in the UC Davis Biomedical Engineering graduate group. For more content from the UC Davis science communication group "Science Says", follow us on Twitter @SciSays.

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