Eco-echo Chamber Amplifies “Corrupt Skeptics” Myth

Published April 23, 2015

Review of Merchants of Smear, by Russell Cook; Policy Brief, The Heartland Institute, September 2014, 17 pages; $6.95 at The Heartland Institute.

In Merchants of Smear, a September 2014 Heartland Institute Policy Brief by investigative journalist Russell Cook, the origin of the idea skeptical scientists have been paid by industry to lie about climate change is finally revealed.

Cook demonstrates the strategy to “reposition global warming as theory rather than fact” originated from instructions to public relations professionals working with an industry coalition responding to former Vice President Al Gore’s climate activism. Contrary to popular opinion, it was “not a top-down directive ordering scientists to fabricate doubt,” Cook says.

‘Easy-to-Remember’ Reporting Points

Cook explains the mainstream media’s approach to reporting climate change can be boiled down to “Three Easy-to-Remember Points” that are in fact not true:

  1. An overwhelming consensus exists in the scientific community in support of the hypothesis of dangerous manmade global warming.
  2. Skeptical scientists are paid by the hydrocarbon fuel sector to create false evidence and arguments opposing the findings of the vast majority of their peers.
  3. Because of the first two points, “journalists should not give equal time to skeptic scientists.” 

Reporters who allow global warming skeptics to present their case are condemned as industry shills and labeled foolish for thinking anything good comes from giving credence to people many journalists believe to be dishonest and self-interested. 

Memo’s Misused

Cook begins his investigation by describing how in early 1991, U.S. coal company associations created the Information Council on the Environment (ICE), a public relations campaign established to compensate for the news media’s blind acceptance of Gore’s global warming sensationalism. ICE intended to counter-argue the debate was not at all settled, and in one of its memos, laid out several PR strategies. Three of those strategies are: 

  1. “Reposition global warming as theory (not fact).” Cook explains the intention was to demonstrate “the theory of man-caused global warming is not established fact since it has basic scientific faults, and the warming might be a result of natural variability.”
  2. “Target print and radio media for maximum effectiveness.”
  3. “Use a spokesman from the scientific community.” 

None of this is in any way unusual. Communications firms use such strategies every day in support of their clients’ interests. Many PR practitioners are agnostic about the actual truth of the claims they are promoting and, at times, support messaging they know to be questionable or even wrong. In this case, however, the primary message being promoted by ICE (the first bullet point above) was and still is correct.

Later in 1991, ICE memos, including the one with the above instructions for PR professionals, were apparently leaked to environmental activists and quickly ended up in the hands of environmental reporters. The phrase “reposition global warming as theory” was reported by some in the media as being part of ICE’s strategy, although at times it was referenced without attribution.

Misinformation Begins with Gelbspan

Cook explains it was not until late 1995, when former Boston Globe reporter and editor Ross Gelbspan started publicizing the instructions from ICE, that it began to gain significant traction in the press. During his December 15, 1995, National Public Radio interview, Gelbspan quoted the phrase from the ICE memo, implying skeptical scientists Robert Balling, Pat Michaels, and Sherwood Idso were being used as tools of this “disinformation campaign.” 

At the same time, Cook tells us, Gelbspan had an article on global warming published as the cover story for Harper’s magazine. In this article, Cook recounts, Gelbspan “recites dollar amounts the skeptic scientists allegedly received from ‘coal and oil interests’ and then offers a highly dismissive but evidence-free assessment: ‘The skeptics assert flatly that their science is untainted by funding. Nevertheless, in this persistent and well-funded campaign of denial they have become interchangeable ornaments on the hood of a high-powered engine of disinformation.’ … [T]his guilt-by-association narrative is all Gelbspan offers as proof of an arrangement between industry officials and skeptic climate scientists, where money was paid under a directive to fabricate false climate assessments.” 

In Gelbspan’s 1997 book The Heat Is On, he repeated the charge skeptical scientists are being used as part of a PR “repositioning” campaign, although this time he accused S. Fred Singer of being one of industry’s tools instead of Idso. This misinformation was immediately amplified by book reviews in the Boston Globe and The New York Times. According to Cook’s research, it was through these influential publications the myth effectively created by Gelbspan appears as fact “across the Internet, on Websites for supporters of human-caused global warming alarmism, nature and science pages, political news media pages, motor vehicle hobbyist pages with general topic discussions, and Google’s scans of books discussing lawsuit issues.”

Cook concludes virtually no one repeating Gelbspan’s claims reveals the true context in which the repositioning phrase was used. Consequently, the fiction that skeptical scientists were paid as part of a PR campaign to lie about global warming continues to distort the climate change debate to this day.

Tom Harris is executive director of the Ottawa, Canada-based International Climate Science Coalition.