Scientific Orthodoxy and Scientific Fact

Open letter to George Monbiot

I just read your recent piece (3 May 2007) on Alexander Cockburn's anthropogenic climate change scepticism and his reliance on one scientist. Let me first state that broadly speaking I'm with you on this one. Irrespective of our exact scientific interpretation, it seems obvious that the exponential rise in humanity's overall impact on our planet's delicate environment (consumption and population) has had some effect whose full impact only future generations will experience.

However, your approach equating climate change deniers with 9/11 truthers worries me for several reasons. The only thing the two groups really have in common is that they challenge the received wisdom as popularised by the mainstream liberal media such as the Independent and the BBC. However, let us be in no doubt the former group enjoys large backing from corporate lobbies and pitifully little support from grass roots activists, while the latter group receives only limited funding from a few isolated entrepreneurs, but much more support from a large grass roots movement including many relatives of those murdered in the 9/11 attacks. Indeed it cannot escape my attention that in another recent piece (Guardian, 6 February 2007) on the purported insanity of 9/11 truthers you favourably quoted a Counterpunch investigation to explain how intense heat caused by burning aircraft fuel could have distributed evenly along 400m long piles causing the towers to collapse vertically from the bottom rather than bend and topple at the point of collision. Indeed please just consider the long list of those who doubt the official conspiracy theory (in which Osama Bin Laden ordered 19 mainly Saudi Arabian hijackers to kamikaze passenger jets into strategic buildings of US military and financial power) includes not only David Ray Griffin, who has extensively dissected the official 9/11 report and answered just about every scientific point you have attempted to make, but also Richard Heinberg, auhor of the Party's Over, Democrat representative Cynthia McKinney, Michael Meacher and Andreas von Bülow, former State Secretary in the German Ministry of Defence. History teaches us that the establishment has never had a monopoly on empirical truth, but your reply to Cockburn's article focuses not on scientific analysis of substantive facts, but on suspect concepts such as “peer-reviewed” research or a “scientific consensus”. Peer review merely means that research has been reviewed by someone else in a position of trust employed by corporate or state institutions. Peer-reviewed research has been used to support the safety of genetically modified organisms with terminator genes, deny the side effects of selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors or claim that new behavioural categories such as ADHD have genetic or polygenic roots (cf. Jay Joseph, the Missing Gene). The overall bias of peer-reviewed research tends to reflect the vested interests and bias of its funders. Currently biotech and pharmaceutical multinationals represent a huge lobby perfectly prepared to spend billions in funding research and public relations to sustain whatever scientific thesis suits their interests. Pitifully little research money is channelled into investigating the psychosocial causes of childhood behavioural problems or the dangers of genetically modified crops, so dissident researchers are soon lampooned as mavericks or even as conspiracy theorists, whose work has not been peer-reviewed. If you go against the grain in today's world of intermeshed corporate, state and non-governmental entities, your work simply does not get peer-reviewed, little more than an establishment rubber stamp.

Second we should take a quick look at Alexander Cockburn's motivations. Honestly I think he's an old timer who sees progress in terms of extending to millions of the world's poor the same prosperity we take for granted. As a brand of commercialised libertarianism has accompanied this steady rise in material living standards, some mistakenly see progress as evolution towards society in the most enlightened middle class enclaves of the US and Western Europe. Consider the cultural microcosm of the aspiring intellectual elite who congregate in the Starbucks where I sit at the heart of a larger Borders store. Most would almost definitely consider themselves progressives, yet all are indulging in a form of politically correct consumerism, reassured their coffee, or at least some of it, is fair trade and very aware of most of the issues you raise in your regular Guardian columns. Indeed your books are often on prominent display alongside those of Naomi Klein. They have, if you like, been peer-reviewed or rather vetted as safe for public consumption unlikely to rock any boats.

Science does matter and it is surely too important to leave to a technocratic elite in bed with a historically deceitful corporate establishment.

By all means polemicise against climate change deniers, but please do so based on science and do not suggest that only an elite in the pay of big business and big government have a monopoly over scientific analysis. Despite all the rhetoric we hear from very mainstream political and business leaders, I do not see any abatement in orthodox economists' addiction to continuous material growth. The government are forging ahead with plans to expand airports and provide more gambling opportunities with an economy based on abstract financial, marketing and personal services nobody really needs. The same ruling elite who preach a “don't worry, be happy and trust us” philosophy, also invest millions in belittling, subverting and as a last resort criminalising dissident intellectuals. Just because some popular conspiracy theories are plainly wacky, does not mean all unorthodox perspectives should be tarnished with the same brush or are even conspiracy theories at all. Let us not forget in the run up to the invasion of Iraq, Tony Blair described the “war for oil” slur as a mere conspiracy theory circulating on the Internet. On 9/11 it is the establishment, not their naysayers, who entertain the public with a grotesque conspiracy theory defying the laws of physics. The establishment can no longer deny the reality of climate change, because you cannot lie very long about medium-term weather forecasts and the human impact on the environment is undeniable to all but the most hardened followers of Frank Füredi's Spiked Online sect (who incidentally agree with you on 9/11, but never mind). As for motivation, while it may seem superficially plausible that US imperialism in the Middle East may have induced a bunch of extremists to perpetrate atrocities against the civilian American population and some have hypothesised that US has been drawn into a war that it cannot win, copious evidence, which you have yourself quoted, shows that US plans to conquer the world's largest source of cheap and easy fossil fuels in the Middle East and Central Asia predates the first (Persian) Gulf War at a time when the US oil imports accounted for less 50% of domestic consumption. Their actions are entirely consistent both with their high-consumption economic model and with the peak oil scenario (which the likes of Alexander Cockburn and Greg Palast also deny). History is replete with examples of governments instigating and perpetrating atrocities against sections of their citizenry to engender a climate of war and hiding this reality from their own population. Without such levels of government deceit the huge crimes against humanity such as Nazi Holocaust or the largely forgotten forced famines in Belgian Congo, Ukraine or British occupied Bengal in 1943-44 would not have happened.

If we accept that Bush and Blair are not motivated by high humanitarian ideals such as spreading democracy and women's rights, defeating tyrants or ridding the world of weapons of mass destruction, then we have to weigh the merits of two explanations for their behaviour: the systematic pursuit of power or inherent contradictions of our current model of development. I submit that the driving force behind the current wave of imperialist conflict is ultimately the latter, but inevitably engenders the former with increased levels of ferocity as supply fails to meet growing demand for limited resources on a finite planet.

Neil Gardner