The Conspiracy of Left and Right to Discredit Science

by Lorna Salzman (July 2015)


Huffington Post is laughable. This pretension at publishing is a low-brow joke foisted onto liberals but it is by no means the worst. Democracy Now, truthdig, alternet, et al, are far worse because they eschew lurid trivia about sex over 70 and micro-penises in favor of “serious” political analysis. Huffington gets the clown prize when it complains that “..slave owning, Indian-killing Andrew Jackson” is still on the $20 bill. Pretty soon a Huffington yellow journalist will publish heavy-breathing exposes of all the signers of the Declaration of Independence, leading to demands to remove all mention of them from our textbooks, not just our paper currency. “Benjamin Franklin was a philanderer in Paris” (we’ve already had a version of “Thomas Jefferson seduced and impregnated his favorite slave and then cut her out of his will”). Alexander Hamilton! Boy, is he going to get it from the leftist Vice Squad….even though Aaron Burr finished off that libertine and his capitalist economic views.

Right now, there is nothing laudable about any aspect of American politics and culture. The Thought Police are closing in on us. The media self-censors anything about Islamism. Our colleges are passing codes to protect the sensibilities of students who might be offended by strong opinions and demand a “safe space” (how about a prison cell?). Paleoliberals and blacks are beating the drum about our “racist society.” Our religious leaders, seeing the trend away from faith and church-going, bond together and declare secularism to be more dangerous than radical Islam. Transgender folks are smiled on for their personal choice of gender but a white woman who chooses her “race” as black is vilified (hey, wait a minute; don’t the liberals keep insisting that there is no such thing as race? Next there won’t be such a thing as gender. We’ll all be neutered and on our job application it will be illegal to have boxes marked Male or Female.)

Is there a bright spot? YES. One just appeared: Naomi Oreskes. Her book Merchants of Doubt, co-authored with Erik Conway, is one of the most thorough and revelatory books ever written about the deliberate corporate/free marketeer conspiracy to undermine science. And it names names too, most notably F. Fred Singer, a physicist and ex-environmentalist who went over to the dark (i.e. wealthy) side, and including the former head of the National Academy of Sciences and Rockefeller University, Frederick Seitz, William Nierenberg, Robert Jastrow and other black-hatted masters of mendacity. Singer’s vicious attacks on Roger Revelle, a pioneer in climate change science, pursued Revelle to his hospital bed where was being treated shortly before his fatal heart attack. Posthumously Singer published quotes from Revelle that he grossly edited to remove Revelle’s staunch support for anthropogenic climate change, and later filed a lawsuit against Justin Lancaster, a defender of Revelle who charged Singer with deliberately falsifying Revelle’s work. Singer prevailed in the suit which put a ten-year gag order on Lancaster, sealed the court documents and forced him to retract his claim.

The Oreskes/Conway book nails the “free market” corporate band of bandits, starting with the Cold War as an excuse for the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), or “Star Wars," moving on to the tobacco fight, acid rain, loss of the ozone layer, second-hand smoke, and now climate change. Every little fact, event and protagonist of these battles and their respective militia is in this book. It is a one-volume encyclopedia of how we got where we are today and how the anti-regulation forces managed to subvert the political process as well as the mass media which, in their ignorance of science, lent undeserved credibility to non-scientific and anti-scientific claims. I say without hesitation that if you have only time to read one book, THIS is the one. You will be discovering what has been going on for over half a century and what is still going on today over the climate change issue. For summer reading, it is as engrossing and thrilling as any murder mystery you could pick up on your way to the beach.

Many of you may still be unconvinced about climate change, either about its human causes, its extent or its potential dangers. This is because you were deceived by the mass media who assumed that claims, studies and press releases signed by scientists with a Ph.D after their name were reliable and credible. This is essentially the same as giving credibility to creationists who have theology, economic or social studies degrees after their name. Any venture or proclamation can pull prominent names out of a hat. But all of us know that the magician’s rabbit is a trick. Unfortunately we - or rather the mass media - never took the trouble to examine the hat or the rabbit. Nor are the media equipped to analyze and critique the reports of the corporate stooges and biostitutes, the  “Will lie for money" hired crooks, including scientists, who pocket their checks and make sure that their findings or commissioned reports support the a priori positions of those who signed the checks.

How does this mendacious merchandise get retailed? By many outlets, on both the Right and Left, the Right at the behest of the free market believers and the Left, in thrall to the post-modernist attacks on science and science-based social studies. Besides outright fraud in which academics and scientists were (and are) complicit in preparing or endorsing in-house studies by the actual purveyors of poison, there was the suppression of credible scientific studies (some actually prepared in-house by corporations) for decades until the discovery process in lawsuits uncovered them; this was jump-started by the tobacco industry. In addition, widespread misrepresentation or distortion of scientific studies, media manipulation of journalists as well as editors of leading newspapers (a wildly successful strategy), and not least the feverish exaggeration of the economic impact of regulation were integral parts of the tool box. Of special note was the last resort of asking pointless questions or introducing a new hypothesis. This simultaneously deflected critical inquiry and shifted the burden of proof onto the critics and the public rather than the other way around. 

Oreskes and Conway have slashed open the hat and the rabbit and revealed the entrails of the odiferous assemblage called the “free marketeers,” whose campaign to undermine any and all government regulation in the name of “freedom” has never eased up. For them, denying honest science and creating their own science out of whole cloth is the only way to stave off creeping socialism. But wait. The story isn’t over. On the left side of the aisle is a different kind of merchant of doubt: Noam Chomsky. Chomsky’s modus operandi barely differs from one of the main strategies of the corporations, and in one key respect it mirrors it directly. It is the mastery of questions and the introduction of new hypotheses. Both of these are arguably the most effective way of avoiding outright lies and enhancing the credibility of your own positions. Being a master linguist, Chomsky’s hypothesizing mode is exquisitely fine-tuned and effective, and for the paleo-liberals and the left, especially the America haters, he was a god-sent messenger: scholar, academic, intellectual, researcher, at a prestigious university. A whole generation, maybe two or three, opened their eyes, ears and brain orifices and took in his line as leftist gospel. 

But let’s go on now to a choice example of Chomsky’s use of hypothesis to obscure, distract and confuse. Here is an excerpt from an article that I wrote a few years ago, in which Chomsky took issue with Senator George McGovern over the atrocities committed by Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge, both of whom Chomsky staunchly defended. Technically it is not an hypothesis but a “What if?” postulation, but the function and result are the same: raising a hypothetical alternate scenario to rebut his adversary….without having to either lie or present verifiable figures. This is truly one of the cleverest and most devious verbal deceptions ever invented (worthy of some lawyers though).

Here is the excerpt:

The biggest headache that Chomsky has created is the American left, or the SRLs, the Stark Raving Loonies. While he has never functioned as a political leader of the left, his writings and critique of the US have been picked up and disseminated as SRL doctrine, along with the leftist hate and vitriol, and most egregiously the championing of any and all tyrants who dared to oppose the US, no matter how violent and repressive they were on their home territory. Besides Nasrullah of Hezbollah, and Milosevic, the most prominent of these tyrants was Cambodia's Pol Pot, mastermind and master killer from the Khmer Rouge.

An Australian leftist upon whom Chomsky relied for much of his source material on southeast Asia, Ben Kiernan, used to write for the Maoist Melbourne Journal of Politics, but later recanted in an article in the Bulletin of Concerned Asian Scholars, after learning that in Cambodia, between 1975 and 1979, Pol Pot was responsible for the murder of 21% of the population, about 1.67 million out of a total of 7.89 million. Not even China or the Soviet Union came close to this, especially since many of the deaths under Mao and Stalin were not direct murders but were due to well-documented and observed starvation, concentration camp mistreatment and hard labor.

Imagine the US government directly killing 55 million Americans and that will give you an idea of the scope of the Pol Pot atrocities. This was reported by Francois Ponchaud, from his personal experience there, in his book Cambodia Year Zero. But let's look at how Chomsky dealt with these widespread reports on Cambodian murders, both on their extent and their causes. Read this carefully so you can better appraise and get the full flavor of Chomsky's linguistic talents that have been mobilized in the interest of anti-American propaganda. In another time and place these talents would have served tyrants well.

In the Congressional Record of August 22, 1978, Sen. George McGovern, following up his congressional testimony urging intervention in Cambodia, referred to "genocidal conduct"by Cambodia leaders and several days later used the figure of two million murders. Chomsky then, in an very convoluted and hypothetical manner, in an attempt to discredit the claims of genocide and murder, made this comment regarding the intervention proposal: ( my caps)

NOR WOULD HE HAVE BEEN LIKELY TO PROPOSE THIS EXTREME MEASURE IF THE DEATHS IN CAMBODIA WERE NOT THE RESULT OF SYSTEMATIC SLAUGHTER AND STARVATION ORGANIZED BY THE STATE BUT RATHER ATTRIBUTABLE IN LARGE MEASURE TO PEASANT REVENGE, UNDISCIPLINED MILITARY UNITS OUT OF GOVERNMENT CONTROL, STARVATION AND DISEASE THAT ARE DIRECT CONSEQUENCES OF THE U.S. WAR, OR OTHER SUCH FACTORS” (After the Cataclysm, Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman, page 139).

Understanding that Chomsky's most notable achievements are as a linguist, the reader needs to give this statement closer scrutiny. He is resorting to the classic “What if?” tactic. Chomsky is not claiming outright (for obvious reasons; he has no evidence) that the killings WERE due to the above explanations of peasants, the military, starvation, etc. However, he has taken pains to posit the possibility, if not likelihood, that these are alternate explanations in order to discredit McGovern. Indeed, his explanations are very creative, to the point of being so credible that many readers will in fact give them serious consideration as explanations, thus allowing incautious and credulous followers of Chomsky to utilize his hypothesis for their own purposes. Astute readers will readily identify and appreciate the clever use of hypothesis - as opposed to fact. Leftists will of course make no such distinction.

Just prior to this, in fact, Chomsky cast similarly clever doubt on the two million deaths mentioned by McGovern, using once again a hypothetical smaller figure of 25,000 and thus suggesting again that the official numbers of deaths might be much smaller.

A reading of this entire chapter on Cambodia, which is 259 pages long in the book, will make eyes glaze over, filled as it is with reams of details and conclusions about Cambodia that are, depending on one's political sympathies, utterly unprovable because of the impossibility of checking each statement, or a brilliant dissection of massive propaganda produced by the American mililtary to shore up the myth of huge Cambodian massacres. This technique is brilliant and unmatchable, worthy of a linguistic expert, but its utilization is deeply troubling because in effect it calls the reader's bluff: "Here are a thousand facts; I dare you to disprove them." Given that it would take one person months, even years, to track down each claim Chomsky makes and find an irrefutable rebuttal to them, Chomsky has won the game hands down.

Here Chomsky wins the prize for Leftist Merchant of Doubt. It’s a brilliant performance that F. Fred Singer would appreciate, but it is no less reprehensible than the many dozens of examples that Oreskes and Conway provide in their immaculately documented and sourced book. Chomsky may not be perceived as destroying science but he is most certainly violating the precepts of honest research and critical analysis. In the face of flawed scientific hypotheses, scientists are forced to relinquish those that cannot be replicated (i.e. confirmed). In the case of political claims like those of Chomsky, an ideologically motivated political hypothesis is being put forward so as to give the impression that it has a factual foundation. But no such foundation exists. Chomsky is in effect asking us to accept his hypothesis without evidence or providing any means of DISPROVING IT. It is an opinion masquerading as a hypothesis. If it persuades someone that it is credible, it has in effect functioned as a lie. Were a scientist to follow Chomsky’s methodology, he would be kicked out of the science community permanently.

Another example of anti-science attitudes on the left comes from the academic world where post-modernists, Marxists and some feminists have indulged in serious mischief-making over the past quarter of a century, giving contrarians, cranks, muddled New Agers and conservatives more ammunition to denigrate the discipline of science.

In his essay “The Social Siege of Nature” (part of the 1995 collection, Reinventing Nature?), conservation biologist Michael Soule did a scathing critique of post-modernist deconstructionist thought, stating that it does serious damage to science, twisting it in the interest of ideology. He stresses that the cultural and social siege of nature comes from schools of thought with quite different ideologies, ranging from "conservative free market capitalists, humanists concerned with the emancipation and empowerment of certain social and ethnic groups, and others, including animal rights organizations.” The deconstructionists ….”deny that nature is real..or if there is anything we cannot know it because we are shut up in the concentric prisons of cultural bias and sensory apparatus.” Soule says that “the social objective of this movement is to demystify and dethrone the ‘hegemonic dominance’ of science and to place it on “a level field that does not privilege any single approach..”. He concludes that “the nihilism and relativism of radically constructionist critiques of science …while popular in some academic circles, is sophomoric (and) harmful because…it undermines efforts to save wilderness and biodiversity.”

Finally, even in some progressive circles, it has become fashionable to blame everything on the Enlightenment, during which new technologies based on new science were eagerly deployed.

But the Enlightenment was more than technological progress and exploitation. It was the shedding of the shackles of the Catholic Church and the separation of religion and state as well as the explosion in freedom of inquiry that was showered upon human societies. To blame science and technology rather than the follies and failings of human beings and their imperfect institutions is patently absurd. In the end the protocols of science are (or should be) models for human endeavors: a realm of hypothesis, dissent, rebuttal and often proof, a product of our intellect and reason rather than a promotion of an a priori ideology. In contrast to moralizing Religion, Science cannot tell us what is right or wrong but it can tell us the consequences of the choices before us. 

 

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Lorna Salzman's career as an environmental activist and writer began when the late David Brower hired her to be the regional representative of Friends of the Earth in NYC. Later she worked as an editor on National Audubon's American Birds magazine and as director of Food & Water, an early opponent of food irradiation, and then spent three years as a natural resource specialist in the NYC Dept. of Environmental Protection. She co-founded the New York Green Party in 1984 and in 2004 she sought the U.S. Green Party's presidential nomination. She is the author of “Politics as if Evolution Mattered,” which addresses the intersection of evolution with socio-political policy. 

 

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