There are many ways that fake science can be promoted: two factors are the profit motive and lazy media. Or are those the same thing? The media has become obliging to industry in part because they also want to make money.
One day at the conference, while six or seven of us were standing in a circle during a break, the conversation shifted to climate change. Because I didn’t know much about the subject, I kept asking the others questions, trying to understand whether the research was any good. A woman who covered the environment for a newspaper out west began laughing, saying that there were about a dozen scientists who said that climate science was nonsense. She kept contact information around for all 12 of them, she told us, because her editors required her to put one of these doubters in every story to provide journalistic “balance.”
Several reporters in the circle giggled. This was my first hint that what I was reading in the media on climate science might be overemphasizing contrarian opinions. Because what everyone in that circle already knew, and I was learning, was that by 2004 thousands of climate experts around the world had published research showing global warming was real, and mostly caused by carbon dioxide pollution from burning oil, coal, and gas.
I’ve noticed that. There are huge numbers of qualified people working at universities around the world who will give you the same strong answer — climate change is real — yet it’s always the same handful of climate “skeptics” who get all the attention. Understanding and accepting the scientific consensus makes you a mundane member of a huge community of informed agreement, disagreeing makes you one in a million, and therefore newsworthy. I’ve joked before that if I wanted to fund my retirement, all I’d have to do is accept Christ in my heart and reject godless evolution, and I’d get daily invitations and honoraria to make my testimony.
But there I’d just be getting bits of cash from little church groups all over the country. If I really want to clean up, I’d have to tap into the oil and gas and coal industry, or maybe Big Tobacco, industries with bigger pockets.
Industries create these campaigns because they are effective at confusing the public and the press about science, which helps to slow or stop policy changes that would require stronger anti-pollution laws, or taking products off the market. Today disinformation has become its own industry, one that distorts not only climate science, but most areas of research where studies might influence how the government regulates corporations.
There’s the catch: I don’t want to be effective at confusing the public. Clarity doesn’t pay when your salary comes from liars, though.
But I have to add that money isn’t the only motive to fake science. Creationists are driven by their religion; anti-vaxxers don’t personally profit, usually, and are doing themselves harm; flat-earthers are fueling their ego with contrarianism. Money helps, though.