Profiles in Denial: Introduction

June 6, 2019

Politically and socially effective science denial requires the willing participation of at least a small number of scientists with recognized accomplishments. In this blog series, we will profile several of these scientists, for whom skepticism – initially boosted by religious, political or economic leanings – has long since soured into denial that promotes debunked arguments and rejects peer-reviewed scientifically established evidence. In this introduction, we point out how the voices of these relatively few scientists have been amplified through a purposeful proliferation of closely allied think tanks.

The template for organized denial of a number of the science topics we deal with on this site was set, in many ways, by The Advancement of Sound Science Coalition (TASSC). This was a non-profit lobbying group established in 1993 by the tobacco company Phillip Morris, with advice and organization from the crisis management consultancy APCO Worldwide. The immediate objectives of TASSC were to discredit a 1992 EPA report that identified second-hand smoke as a confirmed human carcinogen, to fight against anti-smoking legislation, and to proactively pass legislation favorable to the tobacco industry.

APCO’s strategy for TASSC was to co-opt the term “sound science” in the group’s name, to minimize links to the group’s funding from the tobacco industry, and to “create the impression of a ‘grassroots’ movement – one that had been formed spontaneously by concerned citizens to fight ‘overregulation’.” In order to create that impression, APCO and its associates seeded a number of regional, and allegedly independent, “think tanks” dedicatedto make the case that efforts to regulate tobacco were based on the same ‘junk science’ as efforts to regulate food additives, automobile emissions and other industrial products that had not yet achieved tobacco’s pariah status.” APCO later suggested broadening the scope of these think tanks even further, to include questioning government research and regulations on issues such as global warming, nuclear waste disposal and biotechnology. The fake groundswell of “grassroots” regional organizations parroting the same talking points is often referred to “astroturfing.”

APCO told Phillip Morris executives that: “No matter how strong the arguments, industry spokespeople are, in and of themselves, not always credible or appropriate messengers.” They proposed instead to engage in “intensive recruitment of high-profile representatives from business and industry, scientists, public officials, and other individuals interested in promoting the use of sound science.” Among their recruits, over the years, were some of the old cold-warriors and anti-regulatory stalwarts that appear in several of our blog series: Frederick Seitz, the former President of Rockefeller University and of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences; S. Fred Singer, the former chief scientist for the U.S. Department of Transportation; and Patrick Michaels, a past president of the American Association of State Climatologists. Among the three of these scientists, they have argued persistently against the peer-reviewed scientific research backing up the health hazards of tobacco smoke, acid rain, ozone layer depletion, pesticides and climate change. They have been repeatedly wrong, but never in doubt. They have also been members and founders of numerous other industry-funded anti-regulatory think tanks: the George C. Marshall Institute, the Science and Environmental Policy Project, the Heartland Institute, the Cato Institute.

The appearance of many think tanks, all opposing what they term the “junk science” behind diverse regulatory proposals, thus hides the fact that it is a very small group of politically motivated scientists who generate all of this noise and considerable political pressure. This point has been made compellingly in Merchants of Doubt by Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway. The same strategy of having a few deniers’ voices echoing from many directions has also been adopted in anti-evolution crusades. For example, the Discovery Institute has promoted it in a “wedge” strategy to launch an eventual all-out war to overthrow scientific materialism and to replace it by “a broadly theistic understanding of nature.”

The Discovery Institute’s strategy starts with pseudoscientific Intelligent Design (ID) “wedge” arguments intended to cast doubt, without explicitly biblical overtones, on a few specific aspects of the theory of evolution. To accomplish this, they initially need only a handful of religiously motivated scientists: “A lesson we have learned from the history of science is that it is unnecessary to outnumber the opposing establishment. Scientific revolutions are usually staged by an initially small and relatively young group of scientists who are not blinded by the prevailing prejudices and who are able to do creative work at the pressure points, that is, on those critical issues upon which whole systems of thought hinge. So, in Phase I we are supporting vital writing and research at the sites most likely to crack the materialist edifice.” In this blog series, we will profile Phillip Johnson, the originator of the “wedge” strategy, as well as two of the scientists – Michael Behe and William Dembski – they’ve recruited to drive their so far unsuccessful “revolution.”

As in the case of TASSC, the Discovery Institute has also been supported in its approach by loose alliances with other religiously motivated ID-promoting think tanks and web sites, including Answers in Genesis, Science Against Evolution, Evolution News, the Institute for Creation Research, and the Foundation for Thought and Ethics.

TASSC also set the template for media campaigns to combat the science their funders did not care to deal with. APCO sought to:

• “Establish TASSC as a credible source for reporters when questioning the validity of scientific studies. Encourage the public to question-from the grassroots up-the validity of scientific studies.
Mobilize support for TASSC through alliances with other organizations and third-party allies.
Develop materials, including news article reprints, that can be “merchandized” to TASSC audiences. Increase membership in and funding of TASSC. Publicize and refine TASSC messages on an ongoing basis.”

They advised TASSC members to strategically target journalists with regional newspapers in promoting their “junk science” claims, but “to avoid cynical reporters from major media.”

The Discovery Institute follows a similar strategy, but has sought in addition to publish popular books on “design theory” and its cultural implications, and to get favorable coverage on ID in national news magazines such as Time or Newsweek and on TV science shows such as Nova. Their wedge strategy document adds: “Alongside a focus on influential opinion-makers, we also seek to build up a popular base of support among our natural constituency, namely, Christians. We will do this primarily through apologetics seminars. We intend these to encourage and equip believers with new scientific evidences that support the faith, as well as to ‘popularize’ our ideas in the broader culture.” The anti-regulatory science deniers have similarly “equipped” their own support base among conservative voters. Not surprisingly, there is substantial overlap between these two distinct support bases: once one accepts one class of peer-reviewed science as “junk,” it becomes easier to adopt the same attitude toward another class of peer-reviewed science.

Two of the most decorated and currently influential scientists among climate change deniers and skeptics – Will Happer and Steve Koonin – have just recently been named by President Donald Trump to serve on a Presidential Committee on Climate Security intended to cast doubt on the determination by U.S. Intelligence agencies that climate change represents a national security threat and on the government’s own 4th National Climate Assessment, which outlined the extreme dangers to U.S. health and economic well-being of the fossil-fuel-burning path we are currently on. Happer is a prominent atomic physicist specializing in the technique known as optical pumping, while Koonin is a prominent theoretical nuclear physicist. Happer and Koonin worked together for a number of years, alongside other elite U.S. scientists, on an initially secret advisory group called the JASONs, where their attitudes toward climate change most likely took root.

The JASON group grew out of a 1958 summer study program launched by physicists John Wheeler, Eugene Wigner and Oskar Morgenstern to advise the government on advanced scientific research relevant to military issues. The Jasons were formally established in 1960 and recently contained anywhere between 30 and 60 forefront scientists with high-level security clearances, spanning the fields of physics, biology, chemistry, oceanography, mathematics and computer science. The group has included many Nobel Prize winners and members of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, with new members selected by current members. Happer and Koonin are both past chairs of the Steering Committee for the Jasons, and both went on subsequently to serve for relatively brief periods as Undersecretaries for Science within the U.S. Department of Energy.

The Jasons do most of their work during annual summer studies, producing mostly classified reports advising the Departments of Defense (DoD) and Energy (DOE), as well as the U.S. Intelligence Community. As part of his initially classified work with the Jasons, Happer made a substantial scientific contribution through the development of adaptive optics to overcome atmospheric distortion in astronomical telescopes and laser communication systems. One of the group’s most notable reports, declassified in 2002 as a result of a Freedom of Information Act request, advised Defense Secretary Robert McNamara about the wisdom of using tactical nuclear weapons during the Vietnam War. This and other work relevant to Vietnam led to a division of the group along political and ethical lines.

Will Happer, along with Edward Teller and William Nierenberg (another past Jason chair), was among the more hawkish members who later supported Ronald Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) proposal. In 1984, Nierenberg, along with Frederick Seitz and Robert Jastrow (the founder of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies), formed the conservative think tank the George C. Marshall Institute, specifically to support SDI. But by the end of the 80’s the Marshall Institute was heavily involved as well in casting doubt on the science behind climate change projections. Happer joined the Marshall Institute and chaired it starting in 2006. When the Marshall Institute was disbanded in 2015, Happer became one of the founders of the CO2 Coalition, to carry on the climate change denial.

Following the Vietnam War the Jason group branched out to take on research into unclassified, non-military work on behalf of DOE, on problems like global warming and acid rain. An influential Jason product along these lines is a 1979 report on The Long-Term Impact of Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide on Climate. The report relies heavily on Jason member Gordon MacDonald’s climate modeling that convinced him that human burning of fossil fuels would likely lead to dangerous global warming that would outstrip any industrial cooling effects. But this work seems to have exacerbated the political split among Jason members, with Nierenberg, Happer, Freeman Dyson and Koonin expressing serious doubts about the evidence and the modeling behind the climate concerns.

Happer would carry his skepticism forward to his service during 1991-3 as the DOE Undersecretary for Science. He was initially appointed to the position by President George H.W. Bush, but his appointment was extended at the beginning of the Clinton administration. However, his serious skepticism about the significance of both ozone layer depletion and the warming impact of carbon dioxide brought him into direct conflict with Vice President Al Gore, and Happer was replaced as Undersecretary in 1993. In the years since, as both the evidence for anthropogenic global warming and the sophistication of global climate models have improved and pointed ever more strongly toward serious consequences, Happer’s attitudes have only calcified. As we describe in more detail in a subsequent post in this series, he repeats already debunked points promoted by other climate change deniers and has resorted to absurd comments like the following: “The demonization of carbon dioxide is just like the demonization of the poor Jews under Hitler.”

Steve Koonin has taken more of a skeptic’s stance, especially after leaving his Professorship at CalTech in 2004 to take on the role of Chief Scientist at the major oil company BP. Koonin argued in a 2014 op-ed Wall Street Journal column that “Climate Science is not Settled,” interpreting the quantitative uncertainties in global climate model projections as reasons to delay mitigating actions. (The bands surrounding projected hurricane paths also reflect quantitative uncertainties, but delaying actions to move out of the path can prove fatal.) In a follow-up column in 2017, Koonin urged a “red team/blue team” debate about the role of human activities in global warming. On their face, such arguments are not unreasonable, as no science is ever “settled” in the sense of being absolutely completed, and debates can be healthy for the progress of science if they don’t simply rehash previously stated positions. The problem is that such claims are most often used by their political proponents in attempts to drastically reduce funding for continued research that might settle the science, and to delay the adoption of policies that could mitigate the worst effects of climate change.

Several of the profiles in this blog series explore the paths by which some good, initially skeptical, researchers have gotten locked into denial positions by valuing their political or religious affiliations above the scientific method, by psychological resistance to admitting mistakes or errors of judgment, and by participation in think-tank “echo chambers” where their resistance is reinforced by like-minded denialists. But we also include profiles of two scholars – Phillip Johnson and William Dembski — who entered the fray as denialists and have used the echo chambers to advance pseudoscientific concepts that they felt were necessary to support their denial.