No Doubt About It

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Back to the dark ages with the right-wing think tanks

Scepticism has been developing a bad name of late. Whereas once it suggested Enlightenment thinkers questioning the stale assumptions of feudal theology, the mantle has now been seized by an unholy alliance of 'intelligent design' proponents and climate change deniers. They may have different motivations for their anti-science, but they are equally pernicious to our understanding of the world around us.

Intelligent design is essentially a rehash of creationism. But recognising the plausibility gap in the Bible's account of spare ribs and talking snakes, intelligent design supporters are more circumspect about making testable hypotheses. You're more likely to find evidence of demons than of an intelligent design research programme. They prefer what they call their 'wedge strategy' - playing on people's cynicism and ignorance about science to cast doubt on Darwinism.

If it sounds patronising to talk of scientific ignorance (and don't get me wrong, I'm no Galileo myself) it's ignorance for which the system, not ordinary people, is to blame - an education system which compartmentalises knowledge and which reduces scientific investigation to base market priorities. It's no surprise that many people emerge from school ill equipped to navigate the competing claims that fill the media.

But even the inadequate grounding given at present is too much for the neo-creationists. Undermining secular education is at the forefront of their strategy. Seventeen states in the US are currently debating the legitimacy of intelligent design, according to the National Centre for Science Education. Many demand disclaimers on textbooks stating that evolution is 'a theory rather than a fact'. In Missouri legislators are drafting proposals to require a chapter on 'alternative theories to evolution'.

They claim that this is educational pluralism - and who isn't in favour of that? But down the road of such intellectual relativism lie lessons in alchemy and flat earth theory. Darwin's theory should be subject to scrutiny, modification and challenge - as it has been for more than a century. The point is that, in essence, it has been remarkably resistant to disproof. 'Intelligent design' has not changed that - it has just got some very rich backers.

Which brings me to the climate change 'sceptics'. These highly-publicised doubting Thomases are almost invariably in the pay of oil or automobile multinationals, which seem strangely averse to tackling fossil fuel emissions. They can usually be linked to several of the scores of industry front organisations with innocuous names like the Air Quality Standards Coalition and the World Climate Report.

The biggest of these is the American Petroleum Institute (API). It includes over 300 corporations associated with the gas-guzzling industry, and supports complete deregulation of 'burdensome' environmental standards.

The right wing think-tank the Cato Institute is one beneficiary of its generosity. In the last 20 years it has received over $16 million from just ten conservative foundations for its neo-con expertise. It's a safe bet that if someone is involved with the Cato Institute, they will vehemently deny either the existence of global warming, its dangerous effects, or the need to do anything about it. Often they will throw logic to the wind and challenge it with several contradictory points, hoping that some of the doubt will stick.

A typical example is Steven J Milloy, a Fox News commentator and an 'adjunct scholar' of the institute. Having spent his life nobly attacking clean air laws and toxicity regulations, Milloy became a leading player in the 'sound science' movement. This claims to debunk 'junk' science, allegedly sponsored by the vast conspiracy of muesli-eating peaceniks controlling government funding. However, the David vs Goliath credentials of his pseudo-grassroots organisation the Advancement for Sound Science Coalition were rather tarnished by the revelations that it was funded by energy, pharmaceutical, chemical, tobacco, asbestos and pesticide manufacturers.

The notoriety of such people was the motivation behind the plans drafted at API offices to recruit scientists 'who do not have a long history of visibility and/or participation in the climate change debate'. These designs, leaked in 1998, involved representatives of Exxon, Chevron and Southern Oil. Perhaps they also explain why prominent 'sceptics' such as Philip Stott and Bjorn Lomborg are so short on credentials in the climate science fields in which they claim expertise. Lomborg instead concentrates on making crude economic projections that present environmental spending as a luxury to be set against WTO-blessed economic development. Presumably floods, hurricanes, droughts, water-borne diseases and the myriad other hazards exacerbated by global warming will not impinge on the forward march of the free market.

Yet the sceptical cranks of both intelligent design and climate change denial are repeatedly given media platforms. Partly this is about corporate pressure on media outlets. But it is also about the impetus towards sensationalising news into a Jerry Springer lite slanging match. It gives the impression that the arguments of the cranks have equal weight to the vast scientific consensus. And of course there are limits to this media celebration of freedom of debate. I look forward to the time when an anti-capitalist is brought on TV every morning to counter the business news, but I'm not holding my breath.

The trouble is that science as it exists now is no knight in shining armour. Multinational grants increasingly dominate research priorities. Thus every day seems to bring conflicting advice about what it's safe to eat and drink, with chocolate manufacturers amazed to discover the heart-vivifying properties of their product courtesy of their sponsored scientists.

And these interests rule the roost within governments and international financial institutions too. Witness the ludicrously rigged British field tests for genetically modified crops, which excluded measuring almost every damaging effect (and still they failed). And consider the statistics from Friends of the Earth showing that since 1992 the World Bank has provided $11 billion in finance for fossil fuel projects. Handily, given that such projects would be excluded from the Kyoto climate treaty, '80 percent of this funding went to finance projects intended to export energy from the developing to the developed world'.

Still, once they've turned the world into a desert, at least they'll have plenty of sand to stick their heads into...