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Fair and Balanced (and Phony) Science

A Commentary By Joe Conason

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Evading the challenges of climate change -- and the human responsibility to save the planet -- is simple enough even for the laziest citizen. Pay attention only to the theories that support the comforting skepticism of the oil industry. Focus on a set of purloined emails that prove nothing except that scientists can be as unpleasant to each other as any other group of people. Get the "facts" from Fox News Channel, the Wall Street Journal editorial page, the Moonie-controlled Washington Times and all the other conservative outlets that are as fair and balanced as an Exxon press release.

And be sure to ignore the mounting evidence, most notably the actual temperature studies released by the United Nations this week, that proves beyond a doubt that the Earth is warming as carbon-based industrialization spreads across the developing nations.

It is hardly surprising that Fox News would emphasize the use of terms like "trick" in a stolen message from the University of East Anglia without mentioning that the word has an innocent meaning when used by scientists. It is even less surprising that in their zeal to exploit those emails and influence public opinion, the Fox News crew would concoct their own stupid deception.

As the email controversy unfolded, pollsters at Rasmussen Reports asked respondents the following question: "In order to support their own theories and beliefs about global warming, how likely is it that some scientists have falsified research data?" According to their survey, 35 percent believed that it was "very likely," 24 percent thought it was "somewhat likely," 21 percent thought it was "not very likely," 5 percent thought it was "not likely at all" and 15 percent were unsure.

But those results weren't damning enough for Fox, which displayed a full-screen graphic on the poll claiming that 59 percent considered scientific deception to be "somewhat likely" and 35 percent considered it to be "very likely," with only 26 percent feeling it was not very likely. Add up those numbers, and the total comes to 120 percent (with the uncertain 15 percent discarded).

Should we trust the science reporting of a network so challenged by basic arithmetic? Perhaps that question is unfair -- or it would be if Fox and the propagandists of climate skepticism had not indulged in so many earlier episodes of fakery.

Consider the career of Republican Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma, the leading skeptic and former chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, who has vowed to travel to the Copenhagen Climate Conference as a one-man "truth squad." Back when he still chaired that Senate panel, Inhofe sent out a press release with the following bold headline in huge typeface: "Over 400 Prominent Scientists Disputed Man-Made Global Warming Claims in 2007." Described as a U.S. Senate report, this release claimed to debunk the scientific consensus on climate change.

When examined more closely, however, the Inhofe report was an amateurish fraud. Those 400 prominent scientists included more than 80 who had received funding either directly or indirectly from the oil and coal industries and more than 90 who had no scientific expertise in climate science, along with 49 retired scientists and 44 television weathermen.

The Oklahoma senator's attempt to obscure the verdict of actual scientists reflected the advice of Frank Luntz, the GOP public-relations adviser and pollster who authored a notorious 2002 memo telling Republicans that they could only "win" the global warming debate by doing exactly that. Over the past several years, Republican allies in the fossil fuel business have funneled millions of dollars into that effort, while often concealing the true sources of funding behind the studies that question warming and its causes.

Meanwhile, the scientific consensus remains unshaken and profound. From the thousands of scientists who participated in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to the National Academy of Scientists, the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, the U.S. Geological Survey, the Royal Society and the hundreds of peer-reviewed studies published over the past 15 years, the findings are plain enough. Global warming is real, with serious consequences for humanity. Hiding from the truth won't change it.

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