By KLG, who has held research and academic positions in three US medical schools since 1995 and is currently Professor of Biochemistry and Associate Dean. He has performed and directed research on protein structure, function, and evolution; cell adhesion and motility; the mechanism of viral fusion proteins; and assembly of the vertebrate heart. He has served on national review panels of both public and private funding agencies, and his research and that of his students has been funded by the American Heart Association, American Cancer Society, and National Institutes of Health.
Good question. The title of a recent review by in Science sums up the state of our world: Assessing ExxonMobil’s global warming projections. While the results presented in this paper are unsurprising, it helps if they are put into focus, and one way to do this through the lens of three books by the third author on this paper, Naomi Oreskes: (1) Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming (2010), (2) The Collapse of Western Civilization: A View from the Future (2014), and (3) Why Trust Science? (2019), which includes the Tanner Lectures given by Oreskes at Princeton and responses by several commentators. Merchants of Doubt and The Collapse of Western Civilization (CWC) were coauthored with Erik M. Conway.
Merchants of Doubt and Why Trust Science? will be discussed below, but a worthwhile aside for the present topic is The Collapse of Western Civilization (CWC). It is both short and very much on point today and worth the read. This little book sits on my Shelf of Little Books, to which I return from time to time to regain my bearings. Other companion books include On Bullshit (2005) and On Truth (2006) by Harry G. Frankfurt, Why Not Socialism (2010) by G.A. Cohen, who was a successor to Isaiah Berlin as the Chichlele Professor of Social and Political Theory at All Souls College, and Khirbet Khizeh: A Novel, (2014, orig. 1949) by S. Yizhar (Yizhar Smilansky).
From the flyleaf of CWC: “The year is 2393, and the world is almost unrecognizable. Clear warnings of climate catastrophe went ignored for decades, leading to soaring temperatures, rising sea levels, widespread drought and – finally – the Great Collapse in 2093, when disintegration of the West Antarctica Ice Sheet led to mass migration and the complete reshuffling of the world order. Writing from the Second People’s Republic of China on the 300th anniversary of the Great Collapse, a senior scholar presents a gripping and deeply disturbing account of how the children of the Enlightenment – the political and economic elites of the so-called advanced industrial societies – failed to act, and so brought about the collapse of Western civilization.” Although grim, this is not science fiction. It is science-based fiction, whatever humans think in the year 2023 when the Greenland Ice Sheet is melting.
The nature of The Collapse of Western Civilization can also be gleaned by these few relevant selections from the Lexicon of Archaic Terms at the end of the book, prior to an interview with the authors, in which among other things they talk about the precautionary principle that is willfully ignored forward, backward, and sideways in our Neoliberal world:
- Bridge to renewables – The logical fallacy, popular in the first decades of the twenty-first century, that the problem of greenhouse gas emission from fossil fuel combustion could be solved by burning more fossil fuels, particularly natural gas.
- Human adaptive optimism – (1) The belief that there are no limits to human adaptability, and (2) The capacity of humans to remain optimistic and adapt to changed circumstances…even if the adaptation required suffering.
- Market fundamentalism – A quasi-religious dogma (see invisible hand) promoting unregulated markets over all other forms of socioeconomic organization.
- Sagan effect – In 1959 the US astronomer Carl Sagan identified the greenhouse effect as the cause of Venus’s hotter-than-molten-lead surface temperature; as anthropogenic global warming took hold in the late 2000s the term Sagan effect was used to refer to runaway greenhouse gas effect on earth.
Each of these terms bites hard. Those looking back at us are likely to wonder what we were thinking. So, back to Merchants of Doubt (MoD), which is a go-to source for understanding why public understanding and appreciation of science are in such a parlous state in the early 21st century. Here Naomi Oreskes shows us how science-adjacent advocates who were often physicists (not an accident), sowed doubt about, among other issues, acid rain, the ozone hole, the dangers of smoking and second-hand smoke, and global warming.
The same tactics have been used to demonize Rachel Carson. The financial support for these “scientific studies” came mostly from the industries ultimately responsible for these environmental insults and the array of institutes and advocacy groups established after the Powell Memo of 1971. These are generally considered to include, among others, the Heritage Foundation, the Manhattan Institute, and the Cato Institute. Although the importance of the Powell Memo may be arguable, it is undeniable that the Heritage Foundation and similar organizations such as the always voluble Heartland Institute have been very effective in pursuing their goals to make the “free enterprise system” essentially impervious to challenge over the past 50 years.
But, as is accepted now, acid rain is caused, downwind, by the burning of fossil fuels for electricity generation. The ozone hole has been largely closed in response to the Montreal Protocol. The direct connection between tobacco use and cancer is a fact even if no single person’s cancer can be connected to a specific use of tobacco. And the well-known conservative commentator Thomas Sowell was flat wrong in his insistence that “there has not been a mass murder executed in the past half-century who has been responsible for as many deaths of human beings as the sainted Rachel Carson” because Silent Spring led to the banning of indiscriminate aerial spraying of DDT in the control of malaria.
This is a long and ridiculous story that “frosts me,” as my late grandmother was wont to say, so herewith a digression that illustrates how doubt is marketed by self-interested science-adjacent advocates. Yes, the widespread aerial application of DDT prevented malaria in tropical war theatres during the limited period that was World War II. Therefore, by extension the similar use of DDT throughout tropical and subtropical areas where malaria and other mosquito-borne diseases are endemic will eliminate these diseases. No, actually. The use of DDT (and dieldrin) does work locally, but only when it is done properly by limited application to household walls and foundations. This requires knowledge and persistence on the part of health authorities and the infrastructure to make it happen, something more difficult than aerial spraying.
Long before the insecticidal activity of DDT was recognized, the control of mosquitos by draining swamps (problematic from an ecological perspective but perhaps defensible at a given time and place), eliminating areas and vessels with standing water where people live, and using window screens were successful in the control of yellow fever. These actions directed by William Crawford Gorgas were essential for the completion of the Panama Canal. Malaria was more difficult, but similar approaches also worked; mosquito nets along with screens are essential in equatorial Africa today. On the other hand, aerial spraying of DDT over large areas makes the eggshells of raptors fragile (ospreys and bald eagles have returned to the coasts of the Southeastern US since the use of DDT was banned) while exterminating many beneficial insects. Moreover, this indiscriminate application leads inexorably to DDT resistance, which was recognized in 1947, only two years after WWII, in Florida as marsh mosquito populations became resistant to DDT in response to the selective evolutionary pressure exerted by exposure to the insecticide. DDT use peaked in 1959, long before it was banned in the United States, because it was already starting to fail. Which is a good thing. DDT and other insecticides have been associated with reproductive system dysfunction, cancer, and other problems in humans, and by extension vertebrates in general. Rachel Carson was not responsible for untold deaths because tropical environments were not saturated with DDT from the air. But it makes a “good” story.
In her subsequent book Why Trust Science? Naomi Oreskes asks, “What is science?” Her answer is convincing. Although there can be no single definition of “science” or the “scientific method,” the practice of science consists of and exists in “communities of people, making decisions for reasons that are both empirical and social.” True. And those characteristics make up the practical philosophy of science. But this by no means implies that “the ideal of objectivity through diversity and critical interrogation will always be achieved, and therefore no guarantee that scientists will always be right.” Thus, despite the “trust the science” mantra during the current pandemic, everyone should expect to see the data, all of it, minus any selective gloss. Who pays and for what makes a difference.
Five essentials are required to produce reliable scientific knowledge: (1) consensus, (2) method, (3) evidence, (4) values, and (5) humility. This list seems complete to me, but it takes no great stretch of the imagination to see that each of these depends on who is “doing the science” and for what reason. In his response to Oreskes’s lectures, Jon A. Krosnick raises several important issues, most of them related to changes in research behavior, motivations, and directions in response to the neoliberalization of science, represented in the first instance by the Bayh-Dole Act of 1980. One cannot generalize from his or her necessarily limited experience without great caution, but I was 19 years old when I got my first fulltime paying job in a research laboratory. I have seen outstanding basic research that led to a revolution in molecular cell biology turn into a futile hunt for a unicorn that would make the principal investigators rich (it did not). During this transition all five of the above characteristics wilted among the now former friends and colleagues who led the effort. Yes, scientists are human beings just like everyone else, subject to outside motivations of the larger culture.
But when Krosnick writes that “we do not need to know whether a project’s funding comes from Exxon/Mobil or the National Science Foundation,” basically because scientists are human and will do what they will, he made me stop and think! And I think he is wrong. Although to be fair, one of his goals is to illustrate broader problems in science related to the growth of the business of science into something that has little to do with the practice of science. This is illustrated, for example, by the fact that on the evening of 22 January 2023 there are 326,712 papers on COVID in a little over three years. This is a fact, but it is frankly unbelievable. Krosnick is not wrong when he states, following John Ioannidis (who has already published at least nine (9) scientific papers in the first three weeks of 2023!), that much of what is published is wrong. Or more likely these days, rushed, ill-considered, and possibly irrelevant, which has the same operational definition as “wrong.” The internet makes important things possible (e.g., molecular phylogenetics using the databases necessary for tracking the evolution of SARS-CoV-2 variants) and many things inevitable (e.g., rapid publishing of sketchy “science” for reasons other than the advancement of our understanding of the natural world), when quantity in the academic “marketplace” is the measure of scientific “productivity.”
Which brings us back to the strange case illustrated by Assessing ExxonMobil’s global warming projections. Exxon/Mobil (as its predecessor Exxon, which was originally Standard Oil of New Jersey), as it turns out did good research on anthropogenic global warming (AGW) that was published internally and externally beginning in the 1970s. The question is “Why?” Perhaps it was just innate curiosity on the part of the supremely competent and well-educated scientists and engineers at Exxon, all of whom knew that greenhouse gas emissions are the natural and inevitable consequence of burning their primary product. This has been recognized at least since the 1830s. From On the Economy of Machinery and Manufactures (1832), by Charles Babbage, who invented the first digital calculator: “The chemical changes which thus take place are constantly increasing the atmosphere by large quantities of carbonic acid [i.e., carbon dioxide] and other gases noxious to animal life. The means by which nature decomposes these elements, or reconverts them into a solid form, are not sufficiently known.” (Quoted in Fossil Capitalism, by Andreas Malm). Svante Arrhenius, a founder of (Flashback Alert!) Physical Chemistry who was awarded the third Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1903, published “On the influence of Carbonic Acid in the Air Upon the Temperature of the Ground (1896, pdf; that title is wonderfully descriptive). His temporal predictions were wrong because he underestimated the extent of fossil fuel use in the 20th century. Carl Sagan had discovered in the then recent past that the greenhouse effect was probably responsible for the climate on Venus.
The America Petroleum institute had been aware of APG since the 1950s, the coal industry since the 1960s. The scientists and engineers of Total (France) and Shell (Netherlands), various electric utilities, Ford and General Motors also knew. Thus, a plausible concept was in the air: A mechanism exists for the greenhouse effect on earth and a nascent, if still obscure, scientific consensus supports its likelihood. Besides, anyone who has ever walked through an unheated greenhouse, especially on sunny winter day, can actually feel the greenhouse effect, except the limit of the atmosphere is the glass roof instead of the boundary of the troposphere, which is moving upward. Thus, the sun is not the forcing mechanism for APG.
The scientists at Exxon knew how to address the question, which they did, both with internally developed models of climate change and in collaboration with outside scientists. Their results are remarkably consistent with those of government and academic scientists who were modeling climate change at the same time. The figures in the manuscript proper are similar in their remarkable consistency, showing that APG is quite real. Figure A presented here is taken from the authors’ Review Summary of the paper at the hyperlink. Panel A is based on proprietary Exxon projections from 1982. The observed temperature change (red) tracks nearly perfectly with CO2 concentration (blue) and both are very close to the modeled projections. No, correlation does not mean causation. Except, that is, when there is a mechanism that underlies the phenomenon under study and data to go along with the prediction. The greenhouse effect on atmospheric temperature is one of these situations. Panel B shows that internal Exxon research and five scientific publications substantially agree on temperature increases since 1900. And Panel C shows results of an internal study on historical temperature changes over the past 150,000 years. So, Exxon scientists (and undoubtedly those at Shell and Total) have known for about 50 years that APG is real, with the potential for devastating consequences. As described in the paper, Exxon models are valid, with very high “skill scores” (Table 1).
Which begs the question, how did “management” react? The paper goes into grave detail, but a few highlights:
- CEO Lee Raymond in 2000: We do not now have sufficient scientific understanding of climate change to make reasonable predictions and/or justify drastic measures…the science of climate change is uncertain.
- Exxon/Mobil website, 2007: Gaps in the scientific basis for theoretical climate models and the interplay of significant natural variability make it very difficult to determine objectively the extent to which recent climate changes might be the result of human actions.
- CEO Rex Tillerson and former Secretary of State, 2013: The facts remain there are uncertainties around the climate…what the principal drivers of climate change are…(T)here are other elements of the climate system that may obviate this one single variable of burning fossil fuels]…And so that’s that uncertainty issue.
In 1999 CEO Raymond said, “(F)uture climate projections are based on completely unproven climate models, or, more often, sheer speculation.” CEO Tillerson said in 2013 that climate models are “not competent,” and in 2015 that “we really do not know what the climate effects of 600 ppm versus 450 ppm with be because the models simply are not that good.” I refer the reader to the figures and tables in the complete paper and Figure A, Panel A and Panel B, above. Exxon’s own results put the lie to these statements, and their models of atmospheric CO2 concentrations forcing temperature change is as good as one might expect from an experimental study in a laboratory. Exxon’s own models predict exactly, within a small margin of error, exactly what is happening, which is what we can see today. The Greenland Ice Sheet is melting, perhaps ahead of schedule, though.
Which all brings us to a conclusion that I do not quite know how to handle. The good scientists at Exxon and other fossil fuel companies proved conclusively that APG is real, right along with their academic and governmental peers. Yes, predictions and projections at the margin vary, but the data collected from Exxon itself leave little doubt. Were they troubled that their work was ignored by “management”? Good question, one that I leave to the sociologists. What this story does show conclusively is that it does matter “whether a project’s funding comes from Exxon/Mobil or the National Science Foundation.” In this case the “funding agency” called the right tune for them and the wrong tune for planet Earth, with the result that “nobody” saw the data. Marketing trumped the science. One wonders if in the current pandemic similar things happen in Big Pharma as they did in Big Oil. No, not really. Going back to Naomi Oreskes’s framework for good science being the product of consensus, method, evidence, values, and humility, where are we?
Both NASA and academic scientists share the consensus with Exxon scientists that APG is real. Their methods are complementary and mutually reinforcing, and at times these scientists worked together. The models reflect reality, and in some cases may be too conservative. The evidence is consistent with theory, in that logical predictions match reality. The Greenland Ice Sheet is still melting, permafrost is thawing, and arctic villages are falling into the sea. Polar bears are starving as arctic ice cover changes. The values of climate scientists are not in dispute, except at the Heartland Institute and the like. Yes, some climate scientists are louder and more insistent than others and some are wrong at times; some scientists are less than honest. But there has been no confirmation that climate scientists are in on a vast conspiracy that includes essentially all of them. One of the funniest tropes from the APG deniers is that climate scientists want to get rich from government grants. No, that is not how it works! The return on that “investment” is negative. Besides, no conspiracy that large could last more than a day, and the notion that that many scientific egos will go along with the crowd on anything is absurd.
Humility? All scientific knowledge is provisional, and every scientist knows this. But the then unknown causes of lung cancer did not prevent the Surgeon General of the United States from issuing the Report on Smoking and Health in 1964. The evidence was just too overwhelming, much of it from epidemiological studies of Richard Doll and Bradford Hill in Great Britain during the 1950s. The British Ministry of Health recognized in 1947 that lung cancer deaths had risen 15-fold in the past 20 years. Due to air pollution or smoking or something else? Doll and Hill surveyed 41,000 physicians in the registry to identify the likely cause. From Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer: “In the twenty-nine months between October 1951 and March 1954, 789 deaths were reported in (the) original cohort. Thirty-six of these were attributed to lung cancer. When these lung cancer deaths were counted in smokers versus nonsmokers, the correlation virtually sprang out: all of the thirty-six deaths had occurred in smokers. The difference in the two groups was so significant that Doll and Hill did not even need to apply complex statistical metrics to discern it…the cause of lung cancer (smoking) barely required elementary mathematics to prove its point.” (emphasis added)
Now we know the molecular and cellular agents of lung cancer. The evidence for APG is similarly strong, if requiring more statistics, because we already know the mechanism of APG. I suspect the humility of climate scientists is lessening. We can expect more shouting, soon. Too late, probably. But more on this is upcoming in this series “if the good Lord is willing and the creek don’t rise.” One question I have asked of climate change skeptics is this: If the consensus on APG is wrong, what is the worst thing that will happen? Profits will be extended at perhaps a lower rate while finite reserves of oil, coal, and natural gas will last all that much longer, while alternatives that use the practically unlimited, if diffuse, energy from the sun can be developed. Win, win. We have no other obvious alternative.
As for Rex Tillerson and Lee Raymond of the 0.01%, perhaps the best that can be said of them comes from Upton Sinclair (slightly modified): “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his many millions depend on his not understanding it.” Yes, we could use another Upton Sinclair, 100 years later…It’s a jungle out there. Trust in science, just as you trust in history, sociology, and philosophy. But only when you can see everything and everybody. What lies beneath is as important as what is seen on the surface.
 The first and corresponding author of the paper is Geoffrey Supran, formerly of the Department of the History of Science at Harvard, now in the Rosenstiel School of Marine, Atmospheric, and Earth Science at the University of Miami. He is followed by Stefan Rahmstorf of the University of Potsdam and Naomi Oreskes of the Departments of the History of Science and Earth and Planetary Sciences at Harvard.
 Lewis Powell, Jr (1907-1998) was a corporate lawyer from Virginia who represented clients such as the Tobacco Institute. He was a member of many corporate boards of directors, including that of tobacco giant Phillip Morris (corporate headquarters in Richmond, Virginia), prior to his appointment to the United States Supreme Court in 1972.
 Agents and causes are usually conflated. The cause of lung cancer is smoking in about 90% of cases. The agent of lung cancer is a series of mutations caused by the carcinogens in tobacco smoke. Similarly, the agent of tuberculosis is Mycobacterium tuberculosis. The historical causes of TB, also known as consumption, have been tenement overcrowding with attendant poverty, poor nutrition, and poor healthcare. Because markets, for both examples.