KLG: Why Trust Science in the 21st Century? An Object Lesson

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?[1] (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[2] 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[3]. 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.

_________

[1] 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.

[2] 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.

[3] 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.

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About Lambert Strether

Readers, I have had a correspondent characterize my views as realistic cynical. Let me briefly explain them. I believe in universal programs that provide concrete material benefits, especially to the working class. Medicare for All is the prime example, but tuition-free college and a Post Office Bank also fall under this heading. So do a Jobs Guarantee and a Debt Jubilee. Clearly, neither liberal Democrats nor conservative Republicans can deliver on such programs, because the two are different flavors of neoliberalism (“Because markets”). I don’t much care about the “ism” that delivers the benefits, although whichever one does have to put common humanity first, as opposed to markets. Could be a second FDR saving capitalism, democratic socialism leashing and collaring it, or communism razing it. I don’t much care, as long as the benefits are delivered. To me, the key issue — and this is why Medicare for All is always first with me — is the tens of thousands of excess “deaths from despair,” as described by the Case-Deaton study, and other recent studies. That enormous body count makes Medicare for All, at the very least, a moral and strategic imperative. And that level of suffering and organic damage makes the concerns of identity politics — even the worthy fight to help the refugees Bush, Obama, and Clinton’s wars created — bright shiny objects by comparison. Hence my frustration with the news flow — currently in my view the swirling intersection of two, separate Shock Doctrine campaigns, one by the Administration, and the other by out-of-power liberals and their allies in the State and in the press — a news flow that constantly forces me to focus on matters that I regard as of secondary importance to the excess deaths. What kind of political economy is it that halts or even reverses the increases in life expectancy that civilized societies have achieved? I am also very hopeful that the continuing destruction of both party establishments will open the space for voices supporting programs similar to those I have listed; let’s call such voices “the left.” Volatility creates opportunity, especially if the Democrat establishment, which puts markets first and opposes all such programs, isn’t allowed to get back into the saddle. Eyes on the prize! I love the tactical level, and secretly love even the horse race, since I’ve been blogging about it daily for fourteen years, but everything I write has this perspective at the back of it.

40 comments

  1. Science historian

    Something not pointed out enough is that oil companies in the ‘Global Climate Coalition’, while publicly denying anthropogenic climate change was anything to worry about, were privately hardening their operations against it. Thus Shell was elevating their oil rigs against the sea level rises they were publicly telling us not to worry about.

    I’m no lawyer, but I think that’s the difference between negligent misrepresentation and fraudulent misrepresentation.

    I hope some of the Puerto Rican towns now suing oil companies under RICO are aware of this.

    Reply
    1. Lambert Strether Post author

      Yes, that is what KLG wrote:

      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.

      Reply
      1. Synoia

        Minor Question/Quibble

        Exxon/Mobil (as its predecessor Exxon, which was originally Standard Oil of New Jersey

        I believe Standard Oil of New Jersey became Esso
        Socony, Standard Oil of New York became Mobile Oil,

        Reply
        1. rob

          Standard oil was broken up into 33 companies at the time. And one of the head honcho’s at the time(forget which) , had written in internal memos as to how hard it was to find 33 heads of the “baby companies”, who would all be “on the same page”.
          The myth of anti trust… seems to be that after they break up a behemoth, that is the end of collusion.

          Reply
  2. Henry Moon Pie

    Thanks for this essay that makes clearer the complex relationship between capitalism and science. I especially appreciate your using your experience in this world to enlighten us about how things work in scientific research and publishing.

    I also appreciated that you’ve included humility as one of the essential elements in quality science. There’s an important debate going on right now in science and elsewhere about humility. On one side are the Eco-modernists/transhumanists with their claim that humans can make the Earth “better,” or failing that, invent warp-drive and take us all (ha ha) to a new planet we can screw up. On the other are those who see us primarily as animals evolved on this planet who had better re-learn how to live within the Earth’s limits and in harmony with our fellow living creatures.

    (An aside: I’d include Donella Meadows and The Limits of Growth as among the persecuted along with Rachel Carson.)

    For those who might be interested, there is an interesting example of this debate that begins with an interview in Jacobin with Leigh Phillips, an Eco-modernist and socialist. In “Degrowth Is Not the Answer,” Phillips points out just when carbon emissions really started to be a big problem:

    Indeed, the vast majority of greenhouse gas emissions entered the atmosphere not since the Industrial Revolution, but since the 1950s, what geosphere-biosphere scientists call “The Great Acceleration.” This is coincident with the advent of the welfare state and the legalization and institutionalization of trade unions across much of the West.

    Now that seems to buttress the degrowth case, but Phillips, like most of us, likes the broad prosperity that was a byproduct of New Deal policies and America’s relatively unscathed state following WW II. He doesn’t want to give up a chicken in every pot and a car in every garage. Understandable.

    On the degrowth side is a piece on Resilience.org by Ben Shread-Hewitt written as a critique of Phillips’s interview. Shread-Hewitt wants to make clear just what is behind the Eco-modernist approach:

    Herein lies another aspect of the approach to the ‘eco’ of ecomodernism. SEM is human-oriented, Promethean, and triumphalist. Phillips takes this to its logical conclusion with his “Principle of Audacity” that humanity must transcend ecological constraints, rather than work within them. Echoing the thought of effective altruism, his higher goals for humanity are to:

    “continue to grow economically so that we can… spread throughout the galaxy so as to assure the continued existence of the species in the life-vitiating event of a local supernova; and ultimately advance to a level of technology and understanding of reality that perhaps we can figure out a way to permit intelligence to escape the heat death of the universe”

    Not much room for humility there. The Eco-modernists are arguing that economic growth must continue despite the devastation that we’re visiting upon the rest of life on this planet so that we can spread ourselves around the galaxy just in case the Sun goes supernova or something. Aside from the complete species solipsism, this hubris regarding human scientific capabilities is stunning.

    Yes, we need science with at least a modicum of humility rather than a surfeit of hubris.

    Reply
    1. PlutoniumKun

      I have to admit to finding the growth/degrowth arguments tedious and pointless.

      We have to reduce resource use and pollution. Its that simple. ‘Growth’ is an economic metric, not a concrete reality. Yes, the two have been tied together for some time, although the linkage isn’t quite as obvious as some think. You can have a poor society that is environmentally catastrophic (plenty of historical examples) and a rich one that is significantly less so (fewer examples, but at least in relative terms they exist).

      If I walk to work instead of taking the car, ‘growth’ is not affected, but pollution is greatly reduced. If I take a local weekend break by train and bike instead of flying to Rome, the economic impact is a reallocation, not a plus or minus. If I switch on an electric light at a time when energy is 80% wind instead of 80% gas, I cause less pollution – the light is the same.

      Reply
      1. Thuto

        PK, what are your thoughts on the argument that things like electric cars simply shift emissions from the consumption to the production side (i.e. the energy intensive extraction of natural resources that power climate mitigating tech) and that there simply isn’t enough longitudinal data to conclude that a net reduction in emissions actually occurs because of this shift? Also, with the much vaunted circular economy so far proving, for the most part, to be nothing more than corporate spin, some argue that with the mass adoption of electric mobility other downstream problems like safe end-of-life battery disposal will make the current challenges of landfill disposal of electronic devices look like child’s play. My friends from Ghana know all too well the problem of living with hazardous waste generated from the consumerist throw-away culture of developed countries being dumped on their doorsteps and wonder how their countries will be protected from a repeat cycle of this phenomenon with the mass electrification of transport (This in addition to the next frontier in resource wars being geopolitical conflicts over commodities that will power a climate neutral economy and what this means for countries like Bolivia and the DRC).

        Reply
        1. PlutoniumKun

          Its a very complex issue. First off, my firm belief is that the alleged problems with lithium and batteries is over-rated. Yes mining for lithium and associated materials is going to be damaging, but it is vastly, vastly less than the damage caused by oil extraction. People are not comparing like with like. Someone recently was calling out the alleged damage caused by nickel mining for EV batteries. Yes, they use some nickel, and nickel is very polluting to mine, but there is far more nickel in the chrome on a typical luxury car than there ever is within the battery. Copper is another scare story. By far the biggest use of copper for the past couple of decades was house building in China. Now that the bubble there is popping, then that ‘issue’ has pretty much solved itself.

          There are plenty of comparison studies for IC/EV mixes. In brief, because they are inherently more efficient, if you simply swapped out every petrol/diesel engine for a battery pack, even with a coal heavy power grid there would be reductions in CO2 emissions and associated pollution. Its not much, but its significant.

          If you combine EV’s with extra renewables/nuclear in the mix and focus on making the cars lighter (this is a huge issue – so much energy is wasted moving vehicles many times larger than necessary), you get an even bigger saving and the overall benefits are very significant.

          If you just focus on reducing car use and making what cars are made EV, encourage only non-car EV’s (bikes, scooters, etc) and public transport, then the pollution reduction is orders of magnitude greater.

          I did see some figures for the above recently, but I can’t find the link for the moment.

          The waste issue is mostly caused by the flood of poor quality batteries and associated infrastructure. I don’t think this is a particularly difficult problem as battery quality is getting better all the time and once we get to the end of the first generation of EV’s then the economics will be right for profitably recycling.

          In short, I believe that the pollution/resource issue problem with EV’s is hugely exaggerated when you compare like with like (i.e. batteries vs oil, renewables vs gas/coal etc). We are so used to the daily carnage caused by, for example, every day air pollution caused by fossil fuels that we understate its effects vs the theoretical problems with disposing of solar panels, or burning lithium batteries, or whatever is the scare story today (and I don’t for one minute think these concerns are organic).

          That said, the benefits from EV’s are nowhere near enough if everyone drives an EV truck. At a minimum, we must significantly reduce the weight and size of cars. And then we need to focus on reducing travel demand and increase public transport massively – thats where the big environmental wins are. And we need to be sensible about it. It takes decades to build metro/HSR networks, but a matter of months to take out car lanes and replace them with bike and bus lanes.

          Reply
          1. Synoia

            ” EV’s with extra renewables/nuclear in the mix and focus on making the cars lighter”

            EV;s are heavier than their fossil fuel predecessors. Metal for batteries is much, more heavier than a petrol tank full of petrol.

            IMHO The best solution is a bicycle, or wide spread in shank’s pony and very low transaction cost n, something like air b&b costs, for selling and buying in the property market,

            Reply
          2. Thuto

            Thank you for this response, it is a complex issue indeed. I’ll dig into the subject a bit more to come to a considered view.

            Reply
      2. Objective Ace

        Something can be both an economic metric and a concrete reality. The problem is that its easier for an economic metric to be a concrete reality rather then happiness, wellbeing, health, etc. Those things cannot be measured as effectively.

        If you walk to work rather then buying a car, you are effecting growth. Think about all the profits to Ford and Exxon’s shareholders if you dont buy their products. They do not grow. This is empirically true–you cannot directly argue that point. Rather, what society needs to do is ask if “growth” is what we should be focusing on. What does it matter if there is more stuff or wealth in existence if our environment is destroyed, we are less happy, and live shorter less enjoyable lives? I dont doubt that you agree with this, I just think you are focusing on the wrong things, and arent actually countering any of the factually correct statements the opposing side is making

        Reply
        1. CanCyn

          I don’t care about the growth of fossil fuel companies’ or automobile makers’ profits! The majority of people in the world do not benefit from that kind of growth. That aside, economic growth as measured by most standards is killing the planet and us. I agree with PK, we’re having the wrong argument. Those in developed countries need to focus on how to be comfortable with less. It reminds me of the three Rs – Reduce, Reuse, Recycle. There is a reason that Reduce comes first in the phrase – it is the most important of the three concepts. Yet recycling and recycled stuff and packaging are hugely important to most people.

          Reply
          1. Objective Ace

            It’s one thing to not care and another to be actively harmed by something. Not caring whether there is growth isn’t enough to demand change.

            You’re on the right track arguing how the pursuit of growth is actively killing us and the planet. That is the discussion that needs to be had. Simply proposing alternatives to growth – like green energy, doing without, or walking – isn’t a strong enough argument to get others to care or do anything

            Reply
            1. JBird4049

              GDP is used to quantify growth; mortuaries need funerals, which add to the GDP, therefore increases in death is good for growth, and Covid is good for the economy.

              It is obvious that there needs to be a discussion, but to give another example of malapportioned growth in the United States, it was increased when the auto manufacturers bought out and dismantled public transportation, particularly the trolley systems in many cities.

              Instead of arguing over the amount of growth, it might be better to argue about what kind of growth we are talking about. Trains, homes, medical care, roads, bridges, water, education, sewage, the natural environment, space exploration, energy, the manufacturing of everything, including clothes, tools, and medicine. The replacement of the monopolies especially in food and retail, which means rebuilding all those empty storefronts?

              It is not finding growth that is the problem, it is the decaying of just about everything, excepting finance and the security state, which has to be reversed. We have to exchange our current “growth” in a few areas for the regrowth of the rest of society.

              Reply
              1. Objective Ace

                I would personally deemphasize any conversations about growth. (Except that growth can be harmful)

                If you start talking about different types of growth and how some are good/bad it introduces opaqueness which companies will surely take advantage of. We can actually see that playing out right now in real time with giant electric pickup trucks

                Reply
      3. Henry Moon Pie

        PK, the reason I think it’s an important and necessary argument is that whenever we listen to politicians, media, and of course, business, it’s growth that is our society’s top goal. We structure everything we do to achieve and maximize growth. Until that goal, and its handmaiden, profit, are eliminated as primary societal goals, it’s necessary to push hard against it because we will otherwise never make progress. “Degrowth,” a word that seems to shock or confuse us for some reason at first, is important in terms of conscious-raising, to use an old-fashioned term.

        What’s more important now? Economic growth or cutting carbon emissions? I think we’ve all been learning on this site, with help from you and others, that it’s a lie and a myth that we can do both in anything like a short enough time frame to avoid catastrophic temperature rise. So we have to choose. Right now, our fixation on growth and reliance on it as a societal safety valve prevents us from making a real choice beyond inertial Business As Usual.

        Reply
  3. Michaelmas

    @ KLG —

    Please, if the aim here is communication, then for God’s sake: –

    [1] Why haven’t you, the author, or whoever’s responsible at NC done the basic copy edit of actually re-reading what you’ve written before you/they post it? Because you’ve got the grafs starting “Which brings us back to the strange case illustrated by Assessing ExxonMobil’s global warming projections…” and then “The America Petroleum institute had been aware of APG since the 1950s…” twice in a row.

    [2] Your piece’s central focus is how scientists have been employed to obfuscate the role of hydrocarbon-based fuels in anthropogenic global warming. So, yes, it’s reasonable to risk using an acronym in order to not to repeat the full term anthropogenic global warming every time you need to refer to it. And ‘AGW’ would actually be fairly easy for most readers to figure out.

    Why then do you write “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 (APG)’ with no explanation of where you derive ‘APG’ from? Why do you continue to use APG through the rest of the piece and never explain what it’s an abbreviation of?

    Seriously, I looked at a couple of sites like allacronyms.com, which had 338 meanings for the acronym APG, and acronym24.com, which had 254. None of those meanings for APG was anything to do with anthropogenic global warming, with the nearest being ‘atmospheric pressure glow.’

    Thank you. The item about Charles Babbage was new to me and learning that just about justified the labor of reading the rest.

    Reply
    1. Terry Flynn

      I, too, noticed numerous mistakes. However the central themes are sound and have worried me for years.

      Here, speaking as a health economist, supposedly using “rules based criteria” to ensure fairness in healthcare funding, is why I’m terrified. I missed a post 3 days ago from the journal “Health Economics”. I’m terrified because it is one of two key journals that “matter” for funding. Yet both are firmly rooted in the idea of “monetary constraints” rather thsn “real constraints” (that MMT works under).

      KLG clearly gets this……. But what is worrying is not that a lot don’t….. But that so many more THINK they get it and have control over govts across Europe, Canada and Australasia.

      Reply
    2. BillC

      A tiny team produces an incredible mass of well-reasoned and -curated journalism … complete with the occasional petty typos and briefly confusing cut-n-paste errors that have never impeded my ultimate understanding of a piece (though sometimes, like here, I do have to stop and make sure I’m still lucid and not distracted or drifting off to sleep).

      If that bothers you enough to post such an ungenerous critique, maybe you’d find it even more cathartic to make a donation sufficient to cover a copy editing service for NC’s copious output >300 days a year.

      I’d rather my measly couple hundred $ a year go to more coverage at the expense of perfection, but if you’d like to splash out for the cost of a final-edit team, I’m sure we’d all be grateful.

      Reply
      1. Michaelmas

        BillC: if you’d like to splash out for the cost of a final-edit team, I’m sure we’d all be grateful.

        I don’t want to pick on KLG, who’s still finding their way here. That stipulated, I’ve worked professionally as both writer and editor in past lives. I’ll make a couple of points.

        [1] To re-read what one has written once one has written it is a very low bar to clear and is in fact the most basic courtesy a writer owes a reader — in no way is it ‘perfection.’

        [2] Nor should it even be the job of a ‘final-edit team.’ I always re-read my copy before I sent it in and when I worked as an editor if any writer handed in a draft to me more than once that they clearly hadn’t read through (once can be an accident, which can happen to the best of us) then that writer never worked for me again.

        Thank you.

        Reply
        1. CanCyn

          Jeez dude, chill a bit. No crimes committed here. I noticed the wonky paragraph earlier before anyone had started commenting. I knew someone would point it out and it certainly didn’t mar my enjoyment of the piece. I knew someone would point it out to KLG. If I’d known it would be your overly harsh reaction I would have chimed in. Sorry KLG.
          And agree with Basil P below, it was clear to me that APG was Anthropogenic Global Warming.

          Reply
          1. Objective Ace

            Some people just don’t socialize well. There’s a range of conditions that make this difficult for individuals. While its possible OP is being a jerk, they also could have aspergers or a myriad of other things going on in their lives. I think the critique is valid, albeit unnecessary curt. While it can be difficult, I try not to get too hung up on the curtness

            Reply
            1. CanCyn

              Nah, I’ve worked with people who ‘don’t socialize well’ as you put it. That criticism was way beyond curt.

              Reply
    3. Basil Pesto

      Seriously, I looked at a couple of sites like allacronyms.com, which had 338 meanings for the acronym APG, and acronym24.com, which had 254. None of those meanings for APG was anything to do with anthropogenic global warming, with the nearest being ‘atmospheric pressure glow.’

      Time which could have been better spent rereading a considered piece, rather than not merely bitching, but researching your bitching about an inapt initialism whose meaning can nevertheless be readily inferred through basic reading comprehension, including direct stipulation of what was being referred to as APG! It’s not like it was ‘anthropogenic global warming (SXY)’

      Reply
    4. lambert strether

      {1] is my error, converting it from the original in Word, now corrected. Don’t yell at KLG, it’s neither polite nor productive.

      Reply
  4. Hayek's Heelbiter

    In 1972, as an undergraduate, in my ecology class, we did a case study of what would happen to New Orleans if the levees surrounding the city ruptured.

    “I don’t think anybody anticipated the breach of the levees.”

    – President George W. Bush post-Katrina on September 1, 2005
    No one except perhaps the undergrads at a small Florida liberal arts college

    Reply
  5. PlutoniumKun

    A nice, clear overview of a very complex topic.

    I hope that Covid has taught most people that a bland ‘trust the science’ doesn’t lead to good policy, even if the scientists are dedicated and smart. When you deep dive in to the application of raw science to actual concrete decision making there is a whole world of epistemological complexity that is rarely acknowledged. Worse still, many scientists/engineers don’t actually understand this. I’ve sat many times in meetings involving multidisciplinary groups of scientists and engineers talking past each other with mutual incomprehension, which often leaves the process open to extreme manipulation by those with agendas. I’ve learned long ago to always, always question first order assumptions no matter how experienced or credentialed the ‘expert’.

    Reply
  6. The Rev Kev

    Re the ‘then unknown causes of lung cancer.’ People have known for well over a century that cigarettes caused cancer. Apparently the term ‘coffin nail’ that is used to describe cigarettes goes back to the late 19th century and doctors in the early 20th century noticed the increase in lung cancer patients along with the general uptake of cigarettes. They knew even back then. Having said that, most people ignored the fact and that includes in hospitals as well. I well remember a story of a medico working on a ward full of tracheotomy patients decades ago when smoking was still allowed in hospitals. He nearly turned green when a nurse went around a ward putting lit cigarettes into the tubes in the patient’s necks so that they could have a smoke. After all, who were those people going to listen too?

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bnKLpO9qhOE (59 secs)

    Reply
  7. LilD

    “We” actually know a lot and have known it for a long time.

    Why do the people who have power behave in what “we” think is suboptimal?

    “We” does not exist as an entity with agency.

    Individuals act towards their own incentives and many take advantage of externality to capture short term benefits at the expense of costs imposed on others.

    Solutions to make my great granddaughters life more fulfilling will require systemic changes to get
    – incentives aligned
    – costs accounted for and allocated to reduce exploitation opportunities

    I have very little hope for the next century but keep on plugging away anyway

    Reply
  8. Samuel Conner

    Thank you, KLG.

    > One wonders if in the current pandemic similar things happen in Big Pharma as they did in Big Oil

    more broadly, it seems to be “the precautionary principle for GDP, but not for thee”

    Reply
  9. Cafefilos

    Money corrupts individuals, and money gained through an unjust process corrupts institutions. That’s why neoliberalism has corrupted science.

    Reply
  10. Jeremy Grimm

    Corporations have transformed the label “Science” into a brand and universal seal of approval, almost as reliable as reading Amazon product reviews.

    This post makes much about the importance of identifying where the money to support research originates — whether the money comes from Exxon or the National Science Foundation. I fear the National Science Foundation is almost as closely controlled by Corporate interests as were the internal scientists who were once employed by Exxon. Who holds the National Science Foundation purse-strings and who ‘guides’ the way the research contracts are awarded, and who ultimately owns those who hold the purse and make the rules and make the appointments and control the careers of those who manage the National Science Foundation?

    As this post indicates, quantity of publications has replaced quality of the work. The quantity of citations has replaced more subjective measures of quality — which can be as easily gamed and monetized. And recently — “Authorship For Sale. Papers For Sale. Everything For Sale.” https://www.science.org/content/blog-post/authorship-sale-papers-sale-everything-sale
    Reputation can be purchased. Trust the Science™️ — the best Science™️ money can buy. The scientific enterprise suffered as its support by the Military Industrial Complex withered — but fear not — the remnants have been purchased by private equity and consolidated with the Education Industrial Complex to begin turning a profit producing marketable or market supporting discoveries by the bale.

    Reply
  11. Susan the other

    Science is a slow process. Results, even with the Internet, are communicated slowly. Good understanding needs to achieve critical mass. And then politics take over and nothing gets done for generations. In the interim life goes on following the path of least resistance, and modern convenience. We could use some form of government that has the expertise to stop the damage and the authority to act in a timely manner. No government that I know of actually has that capacity. Not ours and not China’s. Not the EU. Nada. We all just jet off to attend sessions at Davos or the UN and blablablah. We need an official office dedicated to some sort of action. We need a new social contract. The old one based on a balance between capital and labor is virtually useless in our present existential confusion.

    Reply
  12. DMK

    In the mid-1980s, colleagues at the investment firm where I worked carried coffee mugs with the inscription, “He who dies with the most toys win.”

    That one sentence gives us the guiding principle of the oil company CEOS, the Davos elite and PMC proponents of neo-liberalism.

    Reply
  13. Clark Landwehr

    This is the information deficit model as a fantasy. More information does not lead to better decision making. I wish…

    Reply

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