The dichotomous Kochs: why “anti-science” is a useless label

Publicly controversial issues in science can be incredibly frustrating, whether you’re a scientist, communicator, nephew, or neighbor. We have an expectation of rational decision-making and discourse from others, so when people form opinions that contradict scientific understanding, we get mad. Some get patiently mad; others, less so.

As in other cultural disagreements, this frustration can lead to name-calling and labeling. Perhaps the least useful label out there is “anti-science”– often applied to those who loudly reject evolutionary biology or climate science. In doing so, they often cite ideological motivations– the science of evolution is wrong because the Bible says so, or climate change isn’t real because those scientists are all socialists. It’s unscientific thinking, and so the unscientific thinkers are dubbed “anti-science”. After all, if they were “pro-science”, they’d take the science seriously, right?

But exceedingly few of these people will actually disavow all support for scientific inquiry and the rewards thereof. Their rejection is compartmentalized. “Of course science works out all kinds of things,” they might say, “but the science of x is flawed!”

There is, perhaps, no clearer demonstration of this than David and Charles Koch. The fossil fuel industry billionaires are probably the leading boosters of climate misinformation. They help fund groups like the Heritage Foundation and the Heartland Institute (among other conservative think tanks) that have led the way in opposing climate science. Then there are other political groups, like the tea party Americans for Prosperity, which has leaned hard on any Republicans who dared to accept the science of climate change (see: Bob Inglis). The Kochs are critical benefactors behind these efforts, among the most organized and effective sources of public politicization over climate change.

But at the same time, they have donated absolutely astounding sums of money to support other fields of science. Cancer research, especially, benefits from the Kochs generosity, as have a number of universities. And NOVA, the wonderful science program on public television, is now “made possible by” Koch family money.

It can be a reasonably jarring sight, watching those credits. If the Kochs aren’t the kingpins of the “anti-science” movement on the issue of climate change, nobody is, and yet here they are, going out of their way to be extraordinarily pro-science. Should the brothers change their surnames to Jekyll and Hyde, or is the “anti-science” label showing its uselessness?

You can’t fit people into these two boxes: rational & scientific, or irrational & unscientific. We’re all a little bit of everything (though some end up with larger servings of one buffet item or the other). We compartmentalize our thinking. On some topics, we’re right there with the best science, and for the right reasons. On other topics, we might harbor doubts that money has infected the whole thing and those shills in lab coats can’t be trusted. The Kochs obviously think they’re doing a great service by enabling all this opposition to the scientific consensus on climate change. In reality, they’re doing a great disservice. We all make mistakes. Most of us just aren’t able to fund them quite so handsomely.

Now, so what? It comes as no surprise to most that a label used in a contentious public debate isn’t the most fair or accurate. What good does reflecting on this do?

Name-calling obliterates the value of a discussion pretty much instantly. It’s great for succinctly expressing your frustration with a group of people, but not so great for trying to talk to those people. Even if it’s not intended as a called-name, the “anti-science” label has the same effect. Generalized labels like that act as replacements for reasoned arguments and explanations. (We know those arguments aren’t likely to persuade, so we skip ’em and throw a satisfying punch instead.) Obviously, not all labels are fightin’ words- some are mild descriptors- but it’s wise to examine the ones you use so you don’t score too many own goals.

The nature of the public controversy over climate change isn’t scientific, it’s cultural. If you don’t understand where people who disagree with you are coming from, you will never leave square one. Calling them “anti-science” is a fantastic way to not understand them.

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9 thoughts on “The dichotomous Kochs: why “anti-science” is a useless label

  1. The easiest way to point out something of this nature is to note that another name for “climate scientist” is “geologist”, and the scientists commonly employed by the fossil fuel industry are “geologists”. The worst geologist I have ever encountered was a former manager of mine in the oil and gas sector. He took two days to set up a gas chromatograph. It should have taken about 2 hours. He was a racist. He listened to Rush Limbaugh all day. He also is the only geologist I’ve ever met who thought global warming was fake.

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  2. Scott, not a bad article overall, but do you really believe this:
    “The Kochs obviously think they’re doing a great service by enabling all this opposition to the scientific consensus on climate change.”?
    A great service to their giant fortunes, perhaps.

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    • I think it’s much more likely that they believe they’re right than that they’re callously faking it, damn the consequences for the rest of the planet. Lots of “skeptics” (falsely) believe they’re standing up for good science- why shouldn’t the Kochs?

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      • It shouldn’t be necessary to point out the difference between the Kochs (and the large numbers of politicians and others who benefit financially from agreeing with them on climate change) and the average uninformed, MSM-conditioned skeptic. Why are most multi-billionaires “skeptics”? Even conceding the possibility that they believe they’re right, what are the grounds for saying that it is “much more likely”?

        I wonder how the “absolutely astounding sums of money to support other fields of science” they’ve donated stack up against the sums they receive from their unhindered energy interests.

        And as for their capacity for callousness, just consider the morality of manipulating the political system. No, the Kochs are not anti-science, just pro-power and pro-wealth – for themselves.

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        • If climate change being “junk science” could mean saving the Kochs large sums of money, they have a rather strong incentive to believe that’s the case, don’t they? Much stronger than the average person, in fact. They may be incredibly powerful, but that doesn’t make them immune to the same biases that affect the rest of us.

          They provided funding for Richard Muller’s BEST project, remember. (Which didn’t turn out the way they doubtless hoped it would.) Does that sound more like someone who thinks their views will be vindicated or someone who knowingly pushes false propaganda?

          The simple explanation is that they’re human beings who are wrong-headed about some things. The added layer of super-evil, hyper-intelligent liars who donate freely to medical research, colleges, and science education as cover while working to burn the planet should require more evidence. (You could, I’m sure, argue for something in between.) I think we often hip shot for nefarious intent when mundane explanations will do. Just look at the people who attacked my integrity after reading the McPherson post, accusing me of being “in it for the money” or “jealous of Guy’s fame” rather than accepting that maybe I just thought he was wrong. Of course, there sometimes really is nefarious intent…

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          • You’ve made perhaps the best case possible for the Kochs. Could they, even with all the research resources at their disposal, have convinced themselves that there is doubt about the validity of climate change science? Then, based just on that doubt, could they have poured effort and treasure into creating doubt in the minds of others (that is the object of The Heartland Institute – to sow sufficient doubt to hinder action), in a campaign that also allowed them to boost their own power and wealth? It would also help to explain the BEST project, though they seem to have funded a genuine skeptic, perhaps mistaking him for one of their pet scientists-for-hire.

            After all, the tobacco industry also tried to cast doubt on the science of the damage their products were doing. It’s not like they knew they were killing people but pretended they didn’t know just to keep making money. Oh, wait – that’s exactly what they did, isn’t it?

            So given that, and the kind of people the Kochs recruit to their cause (Fred Singer and Monckton spring to mind, and the clearly disingenuous hacks of The Daily Mail), my assessment of the Kochs’ intent leans heavily towards the nefarious.

            What’s really important, of course, is action rather than motivation, though the former depends on the latter.

            (And just how many billions have you made from the McPherson post, so far I mean. :-) )

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  3. Scott,

    You forgot to mention as an addition to NOVA funding, the Koch Brothers pulling their funding for the PBS documentary Citizen Koch. So much for unbiased donations… (cough, cough).

    For info, see: http://www.democracynow.org/2013/5/30/did_public_television_commit_self_censorship

    Also, I think a good case study in how big money influences iconic institutions is Rupert Murdoch’s purchase of The Wall Street journal and how over time such power affects even the most so-called independent journalists protected by supposed firewalls of journalistic license.

    For info, see:
    http://www.vanityfair.com/business/features/2010/06/times-versus-wall-street-journal-201006

    Er… I shant say more.

    Balan

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  4. Oh, and one more thing…

    I agree with you about avoiding moralistic judgments of people in general, as they unleash passive violence and don’t get at the facts and observations of what people said or did. As for the Kochtopus, they donate money to LGBT groups, yes, indeed – and pot legalization. Pass the refers, man! Dude!

    http://www.mediaite.com/online/david-koch-supports-gay-marriage-pot-legalization-and-ending-wars-and-you-shouldnt-be-surprised/

    Still, I think their damage around climate change undoes all the positives.

    Balan

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  5. Hi,

    Read some of your comments on the doubtful scenarios envisioned by Guy McPherson.. Thanks for doing a lot more research than McPherson seems to have done. I started to have a few doubts about the legitimacy of his findings a few months ago after he debated the subject with a U.S. senator I believe. Don’t recall his name, but in essence U.S. senators don’t usually come across as credible debaters but in this case the senator knew his stuff better than others, and McPherson did seem to struggle with answers. Other hints of doubt arise when Guy uses words like troll, or ends debates with a touch of sarcasm, not exactly an endearing quality for someone who would represent the doomsday scenarios he seems to portray. I will continue to peruse his site Nature Bats Last, but with added emphasis on some viable opposition, eventually anyway.

    We must not however lose of the negative possibilities of climate change when denouncing doomsayers by supporting climate change deniers who ignore all signs of climate change.

    Jean Turcot email jturcot@telus.net

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