Real Scientists vs. Media Darlings

Published October 1, 2007

This article is one in a continuing series excerpted from the book Smoke or Steam? A Guide to Environmental, Regulatory, and Food Safety Concerns, by Samuel Aldrich, adapted and serialized by Jay Lehr.

Broadly speaking, there are two classes of academic scientists involved in environmental and safety issues. Group A are those who publish their research results and concepts mainly in scientific journals, but are seldom reported in the national news media.

Before being published in a scientific journal, every article must be reviewed by fellow scientists (a process called peer review). Many articles are rejected. If accepted and published, they are still subjected to criticism by thousands of fellow scientists.

Peers Weed Out Falsehoods

Poor science seldom survives these processes. Rigorous peer review is the means by which the public is protected from poor research and flawed interpretations.

It should be obvious that phrases such as “the debate is over,” “a consensus exists,” “shut off the deniers,” and “decertify those who disagree” are the words and tools of scoundrels who know full well that their version of science cannot and will not stand up to what we have always known as rigorous scientific debate.

This is why the advertisements running weekly in the Wall Street Journal and Washington Times challenging Al Gore to debate global warming have not and perhaps will not be answered.

Congressional testimony and interviews in the press are not subjected to peer review. This is how unsubstantiated and misleading statements come to dominate public discussion.

Some Avoid Scientific Critiques

Among scientists, a person is judged objectively on the quality of research and the soundness of ideas and interpretations. But professional environmentalists are often judged by the media and some of their peers by whether their results and concepts support activist agendas.

Most professional environmentalists find themselves in Group B–those “scientists” who are often seen on TV, whose books are on bestseller lists, and whose opinions are widely found in popular magazines and newspapers. There are thousands of scientists in Group A, but a small number in Group B–people such as Lester Brown, Barry Commoner, Paul Ehrlich, Carl Sagan, Stephen Schneider, Irving Selikoff, and Samuel Epstein, to name a few.

This group avoids peer review.

They write books on controversial subjects and use the news media as a forum for their views, the more sensational the better, whether to sell books or to generate invitations for speeches and interviews. They are alarmists, and it pays very well to be an alarmist.

Most are distinguished scientists within their fields of expertise. They then move into the eco-environmental or health arenas, where their expertise no longer holds water, but their reputations cloud that fact from public view.

Popular Falsehoods Proffered

Rachel Carson, who had once been trained in zoology, led the way in this arena of ill-founded conclusions regarding subjects about which she had no expertise.

Butterfly expert Paul Ehrlich’s 1968 book The Population Bomb foisted him into public view with his utterly false predictions that the battle to feed humanity was over and that 10 million children would starve annually by the end of the 1970s.

Dr. Ernest Sternglass predicted in 1969 that all children in the United States would perish from the fallout of our nuclear tests.

Carl Sagan predicted a nuclear winter and that the early 1990s Kuwait oil fires would have a permanent affect on world climate.

Predictions Proved False

Barry Commoner predicted the “virtual death of marine life” in rivers by 1980 due to zero oxygen levels caused by pollution from fertilizers.

Samuel Epstein alleged a prominent herbicide caused cancer and industrial pollution was creating an epidemic of cancer. These allegations were rejected by real science, but in the interim they made Epstein very famous.

Irving Selikoff, whose opinions served as a basis for Environmental Protection Agency standards on asbestos, predicted 40,000 deaths per year from asbestos from 1967 to 1977. The actual number was 522 worldwide.

In 1976 Stephen Schneider supported the view that the Earth was entering a little ice age. Now he is a leading proponent of the theory of global warming.

‘A Right to Lie’

Even the revered oceanographer Jacques Cousteau was not above exaggerating.

After a speech to UCLA students, a young reporter by the name of Dana Rohrabacher, who happened to be a scuba diver, asked Cousteau if he wasn’t being too pessimistic about the difficulty of obtaining fish, clams, oysters, and lobsters from the oceans in the future. Cousteau came up to his face and said, “Did you not hear me? Within 10 years the oceans will be black goo, totally dead, destroyed. The oceans will be lifeless.”

A few years later the young reporter, by that time Congressman Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA), reflected on the ocean’s clear water and abundant wildlife in a speech before the U.S. House of Representatives:

“Why did Cousteau feel he had to lie to such a degree? Was it that he did not know that he was lying, that he did not know that the oceans were not going to be black goo within 10 years or even 20 years? No, Jacques Cousteau was part of a movement that feels they have a right to lie and they have a right to frighten people, because they have a higher calling; their higher calling is to save the environment.”

Jay Lehr ([email protected]) is science director for The Heartland Institute. Samuel Aldrich is an Emeritus Professor at the University of Illinois. His groundbreaking hardcover book for laymen, Smoke or Steam: A Guide to Environmental, Regulatory, and Food Safety Concerns, is available from The Heartland Institute for $12. The table of contents of the book, containing 211 topics, can be viewed at