A curious thing has happened recently with several of the more notorious deny-the-science propaganda think tanks and hired guns with a history of fabricating and prevaricating on even the most basic scientific principles to deliberately confuse public debates – they're being called out.
One of the more interesting examples happened recently with the Chinese Academy of Sciences. The CAS is similar to the National Academy of Sciences in the United States and is hugely important to China's business and political leaders because scientific innovation is central to economic growth. So when CAS gets its dander up, leaders pay attention.
This particular incident involves a group called the Heartland Institute, which was once a front group for the tobacco industry, then a front group for fossil fuel industries and now, mostly, just an odd collection of deny-the-science antics trying to gain attention for itself.
Last year Heartland put up a billboard in downtown Chicago comparing climate scientists to the Unabomber. They made it worse online by calling scientists "murderers, tyrants and madmen." Eventually the group had to pull the billboard down after a public outcry, and promptly lost a great deal of its corporate funding.
Not willing to let sleeping dogs lie, however, Heartland has now landed itself in yet another scandal of its own making, though this time on the other side of the planet. And, unlike American scientists who have largely stopped paying attention to Heartland's anti-science stunts, the Chinese Academy of Sciences is anything but amused.
Heartland has employed a playbook for years that mixes and matches bits of cherry-picked science to create the illusion of controversy or doubt – explained by historians Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway in their groundbreaking book, "Merchants of Doubt." A film-adaptation is in production from Robert Kenner, director of "Food Inc.," and Participant Media.
On June 12, Heartland issued a press release stating that the Chinese Academy of Sciences had endorsed a Heartland climate science denial propaganda piece, translated it and would present it in China on June 15 – implying that the Chinese leadership and CAS had somehow adopted Heartland's anti-science stance. The only problem: almost none of it was true.
For those who have been following the bilateral talks between the U.S. and China recently on environmental science issues, China recognizes the scientific consensus around man-made climate change and is considering both greenhouse gas reductions domestically and potentially even a national cap by 2016. Chinese President Xi Jinping and American President Barack Obama recently announced a joint effort to reduce potent super greenhouse gasses (HFCs) as well.
None of this backdrop, however, kept Heartland President Joseph Bast from falsely claiming that a CAS "endorsement" represented an "historic moment in the global debate about climate change."
The Chinese Academy of Sciences fired right back.
"The claim of the Heartland Institute about CAS' endorsement of its report is completely false," CAS said in a statement two days after the initial release came out. "Since there is absolutely no ground for the so called CAS endorsement of the report, and the actions by the Heartland Institute went way beyond acceptable academic integrity, we have requested by email to the president of the Heartland Institute that the false news on its website to be removed. We also requested that the Institute issue a public apology to CAS for the misleading statement on the CAS endorsement."
CAS then went a step further in its statement.
"If the Heartland Institute does not withdraw its false news or refuse to apologize, all the consequences and liabilities should be borne by the Heartland Institute. We reserve the right for further actions to protect the rights of CAS."
Finally, to make doubly certain that none of the leadership in China misunderstood its position on the consensus around established climate science, CAS issued a second statement a day later on the incident that concluded by "earnestly" calling on "the general public not to accept and disseminate any misleading information related to the Chinese Academy of Sciences."
Heartland did eventually issue the apology demanded by CAS. "Some people interpreted our news release and a blog post describing this event as implying that the Chinese Academy of Sciences endorses [Heartland's] views," it said in its own statement. "This is not the case, and we apologize to those who may have been confused by these news reports."
Meanwhile, in another recent move, Bob Ward – head of policy at the Grantham Institute in London and a reviewer of the Nobel prize-winning Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change science report – recently took out after another anti-science think tank, the Global Warming Policy Foundation. This group also employs the same cherry-pick-the-science-and-sow-doubt-and-confusion playbook described by Oreskes and Conway in "Merchants of Doubt."
In a formal complaint to the Charity Commission in the UK, Ward said that GWPF "persistently disseminated inaccurate and misleading information about climate change as part of its campaign against climate policies in the UK and overseas," according to the Independent. "The use of factually inaccurate material without a legitimate basis in science is an abuse of the foundation's charitable status, which is all the more reprehensible because the public is more trusting of pronouncements made by charities," Ward said in his complaint to the Charity Commission.
Then there is the stunning, new report from the investigative reporting non-profit 100Reporters and Environmental Health News. Together they recently pulled back the curtain on an extensive effort by one company several years ago to purchase anti-science allies in a public fight. The report brought to light yet another pay-to-play scheme to attack science.
The investigative piece detailed how a Switzerland-based pesticide manufacturer, Syngenta Crop Protection, paid to create third-party anti-science "allies" and kept a list of 130 people and groups it could recruit as experts without disclosing any ties to the company. The report, based on hundreds of court documents from an Illinois Circuit Court, explained how Syngenta paid for anti-science allies in an effort to intimidate scientists and critics of one of their products, the herbicide atrazine.
Heartland Institute was included in the 100Reporters-EHN investigative piece. Another of the anti-science allies described in the piece was Steve Milloy, a well-known tobacco apologist who now spends time denying climate science as well through his website. Here's how 100Reporters-EHN describe his role with Syngenta:
"Milloy…is also in Syngenta's Supportive Third Party Stakeholders Database. In a Dec. 3, 2004, email to Syngenta, (he) requests a grant of $15,000 for the nonprofit Free Enterprise Education Institute for an atrazine stewardship cost-benefit analysis project. In a letter dated Aug. 6, 2008, Milloy requests a $25,000 grant for the nonprofit Free Enterprise Project of the National Center for Public Policy Research. In an email on that date, he writes, 'send the check to me as usual and I'll take care of it.'"
So needless to say, it's been an interesting couple of weeks for the deny-the-science policy and politics crowd.