Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Buying dissenting voices: how it's done

Ever wonder where the 'smoking doesn't cause cancer' or 'CO2 isn't an important driver of our global warming' voices come from? They seem so much louder than their numbers suggest. Hint: It's the same way PACs buy politicians for wealthy interests:
Why Buy a Climate-Skeptic Cow When Milk is Cheap? | Cosmic Variance

... When I was an undergraduate (bear with me here) I spent a summer working at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. I worked with Sallie Baliunas, a CfA scientist who was a fellow Villanova astronomy grad, and was running an ambitious project to track chromospheric activity on a large sample of Sun-like stars. Sallie is an outstanding astrophysicist, and was a great advisor, as well as a friend. It’s no coincidence that I ended up going to grad school at Harvard’s astronomy department; the physics department didn’t like people from smaller schools and wouldn’t let me in, and Sallie helped convince the astronomy department to accept me.

Sallie also was, and continues to be, very right-wing, of the libertarian variety. Letting the free market do it’s job was the best strategy in nearly any circumstance, she firmly believed. Her interest in stellar variability led her to contemplating the role of Solar variability in the Earth’s climate, and she became convinced that changes in the Sun were essentially the only important factor in explaining changes in the Earth’s temperature. In particular, that human-produced emissions had nothing to do with it. Nothing about this belief was influenced in any way by large piles of cash offered by oil companies. But, once her views became known, they were more than happy to provide platforms from which to spread them; she’s now an editor at Tech Central Station, as well as a fellow of the George C. Marshall Institute.

Nobody could be more sincere in their views about climate change than Sallie is. I also happen to think that she’s dramatically wrong, as do the vast majority of (much more expert) scientists working on the question. But this is how the game is played — no need to bribe people when you can influence the public debate much more easily, and without fear that your targets won’t stay bribed. Unfortunately, oil companies have a lot more cash to spend on this purpose than the atmosphere does. Which is why public-minded scientists who agree with the carefully researched views of the IPCC need to keep hammering on the importance of doing something to fix this problem, before the damage is irrevocable.
Philip Morris developed many of these techniques to slow public health attacks on smoking. Dissenting voices are important for the health of science, but these economic interests give them vast power -- somewhat to the detriment of science. The effect can work the other way too, if science showed that chocolate prevented cancer then the candy companies would amplify that as well. Alas, I have a hard time thinking of examples where this effect works to the good. Drug companies, for example, vastly amplified voices promoting estrogen therapy for menopause -- beyond what the science justified. The result was a fiasco.

If there were an economic upside to promoting HIV dissenters, they'd have wreaked vastly more havoc than they have to date.

(Oh, those politicians? PACs don't pay a politician to change their vote. They find politicians who favor their positions and fund their election and reelection. It's not so much classic bribery as it is selection - often selection for very dim people. This selection effect probably explains the past the incompetence of GOP representatives over the past 20 years.

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