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Alexander Cockburn and the Corruption of Science


I have now asked twice in public and four times in private. I have received three replies, each more vituperative and abusive than the last, but no answer to my question. It was not a complicated request. Alexander Cockburn maintained that the evidence that rising levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere do not result from burning fossil fuels was contained in “papers” written by a Dr Martin Hertzberg. Knowing that papers carry no scientific weight unless they are published in peer-reviewed journals, I asked for references. This request, apparently, makes me an egotist, a liar and the “honorary chairman of the King Canute Action Committee”(1). But that is the extent of the information Cockburn has been kind enough to divulge to me. Of references, there is not a word.

Or perhaps I have received an answer of a kind. In Cockburn’s latest column for the Nation and Counterpunch, he suggests that the request for peer review is “heavily overworked” and has been corrupted by climate scientists(2). Unable to provide peer-reviewed papers to support his claims, he instead attacks peer review. In doing so, he draws on the support of two great authorities: Patrick Michaels and Frederick Seitz. Perhaps he does not know who these men are. He would have done well to have found out before calling them as witnesses for the defence.

 

A private letter sent last year by the Intermountain Rural Electric Association (IREA) – a big electricity provider – called for other companies to help prevent any restrictions on coal burning. “We decided to support Dr Patrick Michaels and his group (New Hope Environmental Services Inc.). Dr Michaels has been supported by electric cooperatives in the past and also receives financial support from other sources. … In February of this year, IREA alone contributed $100,000 to Dr Michaels. In addition we have contacted all the G&Ts [generating and transmission companies] in the United States, and as of the writing of this letter we have obtained additional contributions and pledges for Dr Michaels group.”(3)

 

In 1998, Michaels was invited to testify before the US Congress. He maintained that climate scientists had wildly exaggerated the likely impacts of global warming. He illustrated this with reference to a paper by the climatologist James Hansen in 1988. Hansen had presented three possible scenarios for temperature rises by 2000: high, medium and low. Both the high and low scenarios, he explained, were unlikely to materialise. The middle one was “the most plausible”. As it happens, his middle scenario was almost exactly right. But Michaels took the graph from Hansen’s paper, erased the medium and low scenarios and presented the high curve as Hansen’s prediction for climate change. This, he claimed, proved that climate scientists were exaggerators(4).

 

Frederick Seitz was, until recently, the chairman of both the Science and Environmental Policy Project and the George C.Marshall Institute. Both of them have been funded by ExxonMobil. Both of them deny that manmade climate change is happening(5). In 1998, he wrote the document known as the “Oregon Petition”, which maintained that the production of extra carbon dioxide was good for the planet(6).

 

He circulated it widely, reminding people that he was once president of the National Academy of Sciences, and attaching a “review” of the science of climate change. The “review” was published in the font and format of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, but it was in fact written by a Christian fundamentalist called Arthur B. Robinson, who has never worked as a climate scientist(7), his 22-year old son and two employees of Seitz’s George C. Marshall Institute. Soon after the petition was published, the National Academy of Sciences released this statement:

 

“The Council of the National Academy of Sciences is concerned about the confusion caused by a petition being circulated via a letter from a former president of this Academy. … The petition was mailed with an op-ed article from The Wall Street Journal and a manuscript in a format that is nearly identical to that of scientific articles published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The NAS Council would like to make it clear that this petition has nothing to do with the National Academy of Sciences and that the manuscript was not published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences or in any other peer-reviewed journal. The petition does not reflect the conclusions of expert reports of the Academy.”(8)

 

This was not the first time that Seitz had traded on his former glory. In 1979, he became a permanent consultant to the tobacco company RJ Reynolds(9). He worked for the firm until at least 1987(10), for an annual fee of $65,000(11). He was in charge of deciding which medical research projects the company should fund(12), and handed out millions of dollars a year to American universities(13). The purpose of this funding, a memo from the chairman of RJ Reynolds shows, was to “refute the criticisms against cigarettes”(14).

 

So it is fair to say that both of them know plenty about the “corruption of the peer-review process”, but not in the sense that Cockburn intends. Their attempt to suggest that the chair of the IPCC had altered its 1996 report against the wishes of the other contributers is a classic smear job, and plainly false. As anyone who has read the whole report knows, the conclusion was consistent with its contents and supported by the great majority of its contributers. The IPCC has reached a consensus that manmade climate change is taking place in every one of its assessments. Far from exaggerating the predictions of climate science, it faces constant pressure from governments to dilute its findings(15). Cockburn, like others who deny that manmade climate change is taking place, tells this story exactly the wrong way around.

 

But all this is a distraction – a wilful one on Cockburn’s part – from the need to answer his critics. I asked him a simple question. I have not yet received an answer. Where are the references? Provide them sir, or admit that your claims are unfounded.

 

www.monbiot.com

 

References:

 

1. The first two accusations were made in his emails to me, the third in his latest article.

 

2. Alexander Cockburn, 26th-27th May 2007. Explosion of the Fearmongers. http://www.counterpunch.org/cockburn05262007.html

 

3. The memo can be read at http://www.desmogblog.com/files/IREA-memo.pdf

 

4. Paul Krugman, 29th May 2006. Swift Boating the Planet. New York Times.

 

5. See www.exxonsecrets.org

 

6. http://www.oism.org/pproject/s33p37.htm

 

7. PRWatch, no date. Case Study: The Oregon Petition. http://www.prwatch.org/improp/oism.html

 

8. National Academy of Sciences, April 20, 1998. Statement by the Council of the National Academy of Sciences Regarding Global Change Petition.

http://www4.nationalacademies.org/news.nsf/isbn/s04201998?OpenDocument

 

9. Colin Stokes, chairman of RJ Reynolds, November 1979. RJR’s Support of Biomedical Research. Bates no. 504480506-504480517, p7. http://legacy.library.ucsf.edu/cgi/getdoc?tid=uyr65d00&fmt=pdf&ref=results

 

10. John L. Bacon, Director of Corporate Contributions, RJ Reynolds, 15th July 1986. Interoffice Memorandum to Edward A. Horrigan, Jr, chairman and chief executive officer, RJ Reynolds. Consultancy Agreements – Dr’s Seitz and McCarty. Bates no. 508455416. http://tobaccodocuments.org/rjr/508455415-5416.html?pattern=508455416#images

 

11. Edward A. Horrigan, Jr, chairman and chief executive officer, RJ Reynolds, 15th July 1986. Letter to Frederick Seitz. Bates no. 508263286. http://tobaccodocuments.org/rjr/508263286-3286.html

 

12. RJ Reynolds, no date. Procedures for Managing and Progress Monitoring of RJ Reynolds Industries Support of Biomedical Research. Bates no. 502130487. http://legacy.library.ucsf.edu/cgi/getdoc?tid=cva29d00&fmt=pdf&ref=results

 

13. John L. Bacon, Director of Corporate Contributions, RJ Reynolds,13th September 1979. Minutes of the RJ Reynolds Medical Research meeting. Bates no. 504480459-504480464.

http://tobaccodocuments.org/rjr/504480459-0464.pdf

 

14. Colin Stokes, ibid.

 

15. For a fuller discussion of this point, see http://www.monbiot.com/archives/2007/04/10/the-real-climate-censorship/

 

 

 

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