Fake science is profitable, in some cases

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.


  1. a_ray_in_dilbert_space says

    Yeah, the situation with climate change is odd. At this point, there are so few scientists who seriously question whether anthropogenic climate change is real or whether it is a threat that journalists looking for a “contrarian” point of view keep going to the same 6 or 8 individuals. So, while you get different climate scientists presenting the science with each article, you get the same shills presenting the dissenting view in every article, raising the profile of the denialists in the public mind even! Even as they spout nonsense, the public gets the idea that they are the real experts. It’s nuts!

  2. wzrd1 says

    It’s only climate change that’s getting distorted, misreported or generally being cluelessly reported, right?
    It’s not as if we heard that the Fukushima reactors were going to be bathed in Cesium-137, to counter the boron in the fuel assembly, right?
    Or how the earliest plants existed one billion years ago, while mysteriously only mentioning the great oxygenation event from 3.5 billion years ago.

    Media organizations, newspapers, radio, television and for a while, online, all retained expert consultants and even kept some generalists on staff. Over time, due to dwindling profits, those experts were shown the door or for those consulting, their telephones ceased to ring. Soon after, “people don’t care about that techie crap” became the mantra and while profits dwindled even farther, false balance nonsense attracted the far fringes and that business was considered good.

    Today, we’d read a report on how toxic mercury is, followed by an expert that advocated children boiling it for fun, then consuming the vermilion for its healthy boost.
    Where vaccines are good, followed with how they murder-death-kill everyone who even thinks of them and how smallpox is still around, relabeled as measles and it’s good for you”! Where polio isn’t extinct in the US, an autoimmune condition and polio are the same, shove that electron microscope up your rectum for both, as electron microscopes are fake news!

    Welcome to it no longer being the dumbing down of America, but the Moronization of the Masses.

  3. says

    My favourite thing from deniers is “follow the money” because apparently there’s more to be made from convincing the world that climate change is real than from sucking up every last drop of oil and selling it.

  4. stroppy says

    Slow, passive shift.

    Mother Jones:

    We don’t expect Fox to improve (some news outlets are beyond redemption), but mainstream and progressive news organizations can do better. They need to cover the Green New Deal and climate change more often, to provide a counterweight to the bunk coming from the right. And they should cover it not as a political story (who “won” the day when Mitch McConnell held a stunt vote on the Green New Deal?), but with substantive reporting and discussion about how to implement climate policies that are fair, effective, and commensurate with the enormous size of the problem.


    The media’s shift toward acknowledging the reality of climate change is welcome, if three decades too late, given that the IPCC has been sounding essentially the same alarm about a warming planet since 1988 (Guardian, 3/30/14). But the public presentation of the climate crisis remains carefully constrained to focus on the horrors awaiting us, not on what can be done to ward off the worst, or who stands in the way of doing so. When climate coverage leaves that out, it amounts to mourning the Earth without trying to save it.

  5. brightmoon says

    Global warming deniers piss me off for the same reason creationists, misogynists and racists do . They refuse to see the harm their ideas cause and they truly don’t care that a lot of that harm will eventually affect them.

  6. jrkrideau says

    anti-vaxxers don’t personally profit, usually

    A lot do not but there is a hard-core vaccine deniers who seem to do fairly well. Andrew Wakefield and Robert Kennedy Jr. come to mind along with sellers of all kinds of woo.

    Dr. Bob Sears in California was doing well for years.

  7. chrislawson says

    “Industries create these campaigns because they are effective at confusing the public and the press about science…”

    The press isn’t confused about climate science. The quote about the journalist shows this. She is fully aware of how bad her journalism on climate science is, but she is forced to write it that way by her publisher. And the publisher is aware of how badly it is burning its own integrity but insists on it anyway. All so the owner can suck cash from corrupt industries.

  8. Howard Brazee says

    I see now that there are ads claiming that our best weapon against climate change is—the natural gas companies.

    Straight denial doesn’t work anymore.