Alternative Universe - the Heartland Institute's "Environmental" Journal

I had never heard of the Heartland Institute until a couple of days ago. A right wing think tank dedicated to the memory of free market economist and Nobel laureate, Milton Friedman, it is not nearly so visible nor so influential as the Heritage Foundation, the American Enterprise Institute, or the Cato Institute, but from what I can judge from its Website, the creative imaginations of its principals are far richer than those of more established conservative organizations. For what the Heartland Institute has done is to have launched what must be truly the world's first right wing environmental journal. And if that sounds like something akin to a black mass, that's because it is.

Now actually quite a few individuals on the political right harbor genuine environmental concerns. Those individuals with a passion for hunting and fishing obviously do not want all of the game to disappear. Similarly, those whose businesses have to do with recreation in wilderness area do not wish such areas to be despoiled. Others simply subscribe to the notion of responsible husbandry of natural resources. The members of the Heartland Institute are not of this ilk, however.

Their online journal, which is available in print on a subscription basis, is entitled "Environment & Climate News – the Monthly Journal for Common-Sense Environmentalist". Sounds like something to which I'd like to subscribe, I thought when I saw the title. Then I started reading.

"Environment and Climate News" is straight commentary, there's no objective news reporting whatsoever. There are no departments, just one feature article after another, all essentially commentary. Although the writers do cite sources and include quotes, all sources adhere to a single viewpoint. There's only the barest pretense of observing normal journalistic standards.

Most of the articles consist of attacks on global climate change theory and they provide an ammunition pack for right wing debaters engaging this issue. In all cases the authors of the articles have some scientific or technical credentials, lending a superficial not to say spurious air of credibility to their comments, and, interestingly, all cite purported scientific research findings in support of their positions.

Some of these findings are pretty astonishing in the light of mainstream scientific publications on the subject. One contributor, a certain John Dale Dunn, argues in the current issue that the world may in fact be growing colder. Another asserts that no significant amount of polar ice has been lost. Significantly, none of the articles discuss any strategies for environmental restoration or for the mitigation of environmental degradation resulting from human activities. They are all polemical in nature.

The general tenor of the publication is that the environmental community is a collection of frauds and mountebanks and that global warming in particular is a hoax, although there are inconsistencies in the magazine's presentation and editorial posture in this regard. Some commentators acknowledge slight climate change, and some fewer admit that increases in carbon dioxide might play a role in it, but these in the main are mere caveats.

Predictably, much space is devoted to attacking Al Gore as though he were the originator of the theory of global warming and as though an attack on his character would be sufficient to discredit it.

Perhaps the most amazing statement is that scientists are being dismissed from Federal agencies for expressing doubts as to global warming when precisely the opposite is the case.

One wonders what will come next. Will such institutes attempt to found pseudo-scientific journals where bogus experiments are routinely reported and passed off as legitimate? Or perhaps pseudo-scientific conferences where learned papers are presented? One could even envision a whole scholarly and scientific alternative universe with its own renowned scientific figures and its own parallel history. But can such a universe truly endure? Ann Coulter recently announced that she was embarking on a "scientific" career in biology in which she would achieve lasting renown for decisively discrediting Darwinian evolution. She also indicated that whatever tomes she and her elves might write on the subject would decisively influence the course of Western Thought for decades to follow just as did Darwin's monumental "Origins of the Species".

Obviously, the academic community of biologists and paleontologists is unlikely to accord her the accolades she craves so perhaps the billionaires who fund the right wing think tanks can set up some analog to the Nobel committee and award prizes for career achievements in pseudo-science, one of which would go to her. But can such efforts be sufficient to raise Ms. Coulter to the stature of Charles Darwin in the long run? One wonders.

Perhaps next the intellectual right could raise up figures in the realm of theoretical physics who would undermine the theories behind radioactive dating and establish that the world was a mere 6,000 years old, a position, which as it happens some of the Republican Presidential candidates endorse. And would such figures also endure and earn a lasting place in the history of thought, a place alongside Albert Einstein, Niels Bohr, and Max Planck? Or perhaps they would even displace these figures and show them up to be frauds as well just like Al Gore.

Josef Stalin was deeply supportive of pseudo-science in Russia during his long reign, attacking renowned scientists and scholars of all disciplines and elevating ideologically motivated hacks and cranks to the highest positions. None of his efforts had any effect upon the judgment of history except that they added further to the mountain of ignominy in which his reputation will forever be entombed. So history does not favor officially sanctioned pseudo-science, but you never know.

A few final thoughts on these matters:

Most recent polls show an overwhelming percentage of the public expressing belief in global warming. For all the efforts of the right wing think tanks, that war appears to have been lost. On the other hand, another poll shows 87% of Republican members of Congress subscribing to the position that global warming is a hoax, and we also know that the same position is upheld by all major Republican presidential candidates with the exception of John McCain. Clearly this issue remains extremely important to ideologues on the political right, and the fact that both the scientific community and the public at large are in four square opposition does not persuade conservative opinion makers to back off. Indeed, if the Heartland Institute's activities are any evidence, the fight to discredit mainstream climatologists is being waged with unprecedented intensity.

I would add that the "Environment & Climate News" also expresses disdain for renewable energy projects, dismissing them as boondoggles championed by woolly minded environmentalists. The editors are definitely no friends of the industries discussed in these pages.

So is this the beginning of a trend? Will political reactionaries wage an every more far ranging campaign to propagate pseudo-scientific discourse in the interest of various stakeholders in the old energy regime as well as for the fundamentalist religious groups that comprise the popular base of support for the Republican Party? And will major mass media outlets begin to cite writers trafficking in such discourse as sources? And, if so, will the contributors to the right wing think tanks finally win the public debate that they are losing today?

Probably not in the long run. The problem with pseudo science is that it has no predictive power, and, furthermore, it seldom offers underlying theoretical frameworks that are conceptually powerful and stimulate further research and discovery. Rather it serves to curb discourse and substitute orthodoxy for investigation. That's because pseudo-science is essentially spin and obfuscation. Someone like Ann Coulter has no real interest in furthering the understanding of how life developed. Unlike a real scientist such Edward O. Wilson, she's not going to spend months out in the field collecting and examining specimens and noting their surroundings and interactions, nor is she or any other creationist or pseudo-scientist going to attempt to identify mechanisms for change. You don't have to when you can simply invoke a succession of divine interventions and pass that off as natural history.

But then one should never underestimate the power of big megaphone, and Anne Coulter has that and Edward O. Wilson doesn't. Perhaps we should establish a bourse for pseudo-science futures.