Climate Skeptic's Debunked Report Exposes How the Denial Industry Works


This post is an installment in a series about the state of American climate skepticism. I'll be expanding upon the ideas put forward in my recent Slate piece, Do Climate Skeptics Change Their Minds?, so read that first. Photo: Steve Snodgrass via Flickr/CC BY

An infamous 2005 report commissioned by skeptic politicians in the House of Representatives now appears to have been fully and officially debunked. The paper, which was authored by an ostensibly "independent" statistician, Edward Wegman, purported to reveal that the famous hockey stick graph was flawed, and that climate scientists were mired in lazy groupthink. Needless to say, it soon became a classic in the climate skeptic cannon. However, much of the study was plagiarized, falsified, and was likely never subjected to peer review. As a result, the journal that published it has retracted the study, and its findings have been rendered moot. Yet it remains useful in one regard: The whole debacle helps illuminate how the so-called 'denial industry' operates, and why hits like this will help dismantle it.That denial industry, to employ a term used by the professor Anthony Lieserowitz, the director of the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication, is the conglomeration of industry, media, and politicians who all have an interest in publicizing doubt about climate change. Companies like Exxon and Koch Industries fund think tanks and political advocacy groups that conveniently publish papers skeptical of climate change and protest climate policy. These papers and deeds then get picked up by sympathetic pundits and media outlets, and the doubt is effectively promulgated. It's one of the main reasons many Americans remain skeptical about climate change.

But this fits the bill as well. Kate Sheppard at Mother Jones reports:

evidence has emerged that staffers for Rep. "Smokey" Joe Barton (R-Texas) worked closely with the "independent" statistician they asked to review the famed hockey stick graph that shows temperatures over the past millennium. The report sided with critics of the graph and accused climate scientists of uncritically reinforcing each other's work ...

That statistician has also been under investigation for possibly plagiarizing portions of that report, and of making all kind of other off-base factual claims in the report. Now the journal that published it has retracted the piece ...

Subsequent analysis by statisticians have revealed that the actual conclusions of the report were flawed as well. Plagiarized, co-authored by an oil-friendly politician's staffers, and statistically flawed -- a more discreditable report there could not be.

So, to recap in context of the 'denial industry': The climate skeptic Rep. Joe Barton, who receives more campaign contributions from oil companies than nearly any Representative in the House, called for an 'independent' report on climate science. He then had his staffers work with the 'independent' statistician, likely influencing its conclusion. The paper was delivered to Congress, where it was touted as proof of that climate science's foundations were flawed. Finally, prominent climate skeptics and conservative pundits everywhere have been pointing to the study for years to back up their claims.

Voila! Ladies and gentlemen, that's the denial industry in action.

For those who lob around the allegation that climate scientists are engaged in groupthink, just consider the degree of conformity demanded by the parties who oppose those scientists -- and the lengths they go to uphold it. There's only one important attribute you've got to have to join the club: You've got to be willing to say climate change isn't real.

The denial industry, by its nature, begets this conformity, as it is ultimately fed by corporate interests pursuing a single goal: ensuring they never have to pay for their carbon pollution. So, we get plagiarism, manipulation, even borderline coercion from various parties involved -- all in an effort to achieve that goal. That's not just groupthink -- that's corporate-sponsored, balls-to-the-wall, greed-driven groupthink right there. When such synchronized efforts are exposed in major media outlets as being baseless attacks on the scientific process, the public will hopefully begin to see through the workings of the climate change-denying industry.

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More on the Denial Industry and Climate Change Skepticism
Do Climate Skeptics Change Their Minds?
How Climate Denial Becomes Fact in Right-Wing Media (Video)
'Financial Kingpin' of Climate Change Denial Exposed: Koch Industries

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