I suspect that some will now argue Alex Jones’ loss in his defamation trial implies likely success for various actions seeking to penalize oil companies for allegedly spreading disinformation about climate change. The Jones case is a particularly egregious example of disinformation (when I was a boy we called it lying) which the media had no difficulty treating as such, and it stands out for the way in which specific individuals were stigmatized and suffered because of outrageous falsehoods. But supposed disinformation about climate change is a much more problematical question, which hasn’t stopped numerous efforts such as a suit by Delaware to punish oil companies for their alleged disinformation campaign surrounding climate change and its effects. It’s rather like the common attitude, ‘I’m in favor of free speech, but this case is different….’
An informed observer might wonder what makes alleged climate change disinformation different from so many other examples that go unremarked on? After all, nobody sues car dealers when the majority of them claim to have the lowest prices. And weight loss remedies are a constant presence in the media, while most of the world gets steadily more obese.
On a more serious side, there has been ample cases of disinformation where not only have the purveyors of ‘alternative facts’ not been punished, but some are still heralded as visionaries. This column will divide these into issues, personalities/organizations and the resulting negative consequences.
A clearcut example of disinformation involves the supposed overpopulation of the Earth. The fears have been led by Anne and Paul Ehrlich, authors of 1968’s The Population Bomb which foresaw an imminent, global catastrophe without government intervention to slow population growth. They incorrectly ignored other factors that could reduce population growth as well as also promoting a pessimistic and invalid view of future progress in agricultural productivity.
Resource scarcity more generally was promoted (in modern times) by the Club of Rome which produced 1972’s The Limits to Growth. Their mistake was similar to the Ehrlichs’ in assuming limited technological progress, including in controlling pollution, as well as vastly underestimating mineral and energy resources. More recently, ‘peakists’ like Richard Heinberg have published books such as his 2010 book Peak Everything warning of a “century of declines.”
Nuclear power opponents include some with expertise and legitimate concerns, but others operate out of ignorance, for example, insisting that the plants should not be built because no level of radiation is safe. This ignores the reality that the public’s natural radiation exposure is far greater than that from nuclear power plants. Similarly, claims that nuclear waste cannot be disposed of properly are disproven by fifty years of safe storage and nations like Sweden which have managed to develop geological repositories.
Genetically modified organisms (GMO) in agriculture are still subject to disinformation, with claims that they produce ‘toxic’ food and can change human DNA. In fact, they have been intensively studied and the warnings have been widely debunked, with the scientific community demanding that such claims be withdrawn.
Nearly identical opposition to vaccines has been common historically, with modern opposition predating the current pandemic, although that added a political element to the opposition. The modern movement is based in part on the false notion that a compound containing mercury is toxic because the element mercury is toxic, and more recently opponents embraced a study claiming vaccines caused autism. That the study was found to be fraudulent has not deterred many anti-vaxxers. The recent distrust of authorities’ that some anti-vaxxers cite is a prime example of skepticism carried beyond what is appropriate.
The specter of ‘peak oil’ was raised (again) in 1998 and beyond; I myself was called a ‘peak oil denialist’ for not believing that world oil production would peak in 2005 (or 1989, or 1995, or various other dates advocates put forward. It was said this would reduce global trade and might even lead to the extinction of mankind. In fact, peak oil predictions proved so spectacularly wrong because they were made by geologists with limited knowledge of statistics who used invalid methods to forecast production, combined with observers ignorant of oil industry operations who cherry-picked data to imply looming disaster.
These cases have all had real world consequences. Some governments enacted repressive population control measures such as forced sterilizations and abortions, often leading to the killing of female infants in societies where male children were favored. And while starvation exists, the problem is not related to the lack of growth in agricultural productivity but rather poverty and political unrest. Indeed, the explosion that should have concerned us was in our waistlines, not the population, as obesity rates and related diseases are soaring around the world.
Failure to adopt GMO foods in many countries has reduced food production and increased malnutrition and even starvation, as well as increasing habitat loss and reducing biodiversity. Untold thousands, even millions, have died because of disinformation about vaccines while reliance on coal instead of nuclear power has meant possibly millions of additional deaths from pollutants and increased greenhouse gas emissions.
Resource scarcity has had a number of pernicious effects, including the commodity rich countries thinking prices would always rise, supporting their ambitious spending. Similarly, the 1980s saw broad promotion of coal use in place of natural gas, wrongly thought to be scarce and valuable, with the aforementioned negative effects on health.
Besides specific issues that the public has been misinformed about, there are personalities whose career center on bad science but, like the Kardashians, seem to be famous for being famous. Jeremy Rifkin came to public attention protesting the Vietnam War and went on to become a prominent gadfly, writing for example, the 1979 book, The Emerging Order: God in An Age of Scarcity, essentially cashing in on the commodity price spike and fears of scarcity that were prevalent—but mistaken—in the late 1970s. Shortly after, he became known for his opposition to GMOs, warning not only of their danger but the potentially disastrous economic consequences of the commercial failure of the industry. Yet now he is transformed into an expert on the energy transition, featured as a keynote speaker in prominent conferences such as a recent one hosted by the Financial Times.
Greenpeace remains a prominent voice in the media, shrilly warning one and all that nuclear power is not the solution to climate change, as well as decrying the supposed increased reliance on pesticides due to GMO crops. Not only have the Ehrlichs’ not been treated as scientific pariahs for their mistaken views, but Paul especially has received numerous awards for his contributions and his regular co-author, John Holdren, has been president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the science advisor to President Obama.
I should mention that the people mentioned above have often been hailed (frequently by themselves) for their originality and perception. On Amazon’s
One thing that all of these groups have in common (aside from engaging in pathological science) is that none has either altered their views or admitted to mistakes and they continue to be admired and praised by those who like their arguments without regard for the validity of same. This is hardly new: Thucydides once observed “So careless are most people in the search for the truth; they are more inclined to accept the first story that comes to hand.”
Unfortunately, as described above, the cult of the apocalyptic industrial complex has had real-world consequences, often drastic. This explains why so many are skeptical of warnings of impending doom from these quarters, which unfortunately then supports unwarranted skepticism about, for example, vaccines and yes, even climate change.
Many of these pundits compare themselves to The Iliad’s Cassandra, doomed to make correct prophecies which are then ignored. In fact, they are the reverse: always wrong but believed by many. Which raises the question: why do politicians only focus on supposed disinformation from the oil industry? (The ultimate dumb question.)
Apocalypse Never by Michael Shellenberger
Unsettled by Steve Koonins
Fossil Future by Alex Epstein
Superabundance by Marian Tupy and Gale Pooley