Pot calling the kettle a science fraud

Erin Brockovich – the real one, not Julia Roberts – is in town at the invitation of the Climate Change Coalition to raise the profile of said party ahead of its run for the NSW upper house in the upcoming election.

But wait . . . isn’t there a party called, I dunno, The Greens or something that has a fairly strong platform on global warming and stuff? Ah, but it turns out the Greens have sold out to The Man. Or something.

And, having helped win a class-action suit against an energy company for poisoning the groundwater near a power station, Brockovich’s qualifications as a global warming spokesperson are . . . ? Oh, I see, energy companies cause global warming, Erin Brockovich hates energy companies . . . gotcha. Or as the great woman herself puts it:

I am absolutely convinced there is a link between environmental destruction and global warming . . . If mother Earth dies we all die. My purpose is to come to Australia and create greater awareness that individuals can make a difference.

OK, so convincing arguments may not be her thing, but that doesn’t excuse the Herald’s resident enviro-sceptic Michael Duffy for taking the opportunity to do a bit of Brockovich character assassination. He starts out by mentioning that Brockovich and her employers made a fair whack of moolah out of the class action suit against Pacific Gas and Electric, obviously implying her motive was profit, not a genuine concern for the cancer-riddled folks of Hinkley, California.

Duffy quotes “investigative journalist” Michael Fumento who claims the cancer-riddled folks of Hinkley were all putting it on and PG&E only paid up because Brockovich and co were good at drumming up bad publicity.

Not that digging up Fumento was a particularly big effort on Duffy’s part. He was interviewed in a 60 Minutes piece on Brockovich a few years back, and the smears on Brockovich’s motives are Fumento’s, not Duffy’s. As Duffy puts it:

[Fumento] found that cancer rates in Hinkley were no higher than the Californian averages. He found chromium 6 causes cancer if breathed in large quantities, but there is no evidence it causes cancer if swallowed. (Information on the websites of the US Environment Protection Agency, the International Agency for Research on Cancer, and Australia’s Department of Environment and Water Resources suggests he’s right.) And he found that no known agent can cause more than a handful of the symptoms attributed by Brockovich and her colleagues to chromium 6.

In other words, the case was a crock.

I don’t know enough about epidemiology and statistics to prove or disprove Fumento’s claims. But I know he has made a name for himself “debunking” scientific orthodoxies in a way that allows him to promote his right-wing social, political and pro-business views.

His 1996 book Science Under Siege claims there is “compelling evidence that many terrors of the day have been wildly exaggerated – even fabricated – by environmental activists, politicians, the bureaucracy, and the media” and that “dioxin, video-display terminals, power lines, pesticides, and other products are not the deadly threats to you and your family’s health that you have heard”.

His 1993 tome The Myth of Heterosexual AIDS claimed “the belief that AIDS is poised to break out widely among non-drug-abusing heterosexuals is a myth created by the media and public health officials” because AIDS is spread by gay men and intravenous drug users. Something the more than 30% of pregnant women in South Africa who have HIV would no doubt be pleased to hear.

Would you believe Fumento – like so many other science sceptics – is a tad forgetful when it comes to disclosing hefty donations he has received from the private sector? Such as the US$60,000 he got from Monsanto when writing his book BioEvolution: How biotechnology is changing our world. (Fumento called the article revealing his failure to disclose the donation a conservative columnist witch-hunt . . . by that well known communist propaganda sheet Business Week.)

Without serious in-depth knowledge, it’s hard to disprove the science, which I’m pretty sure is the idea. But I’ve seen enough of this guy’s form to recognise a corporate shill – a self-styled challenger of orthodoxy who uses bodgy statistics and distorted science to come to conclusions that just coincidentally tally with the views of corporations that have a strong interest in promoting the contrary view . . . and may or may not have contributed to his financial wellbeing in some way. Not that this affects his objectivity, of course.

Duffy goes on from recycling Fumento’s slur on Brockovich to the mother of all tenuous connections.

Brockovich’s problematic record where science is concerned is a real issue when it comes to talking about climate change. We need credible guidance, not least in helping us understand what we do and do not know. Much of what is said publicly on the subject assumes a far greater level of certainty than in fact exists.

Run that by me again? Let’s see . . . one guy . . . who isn’t a scientist and who makes a lot of money pretending chemicals don’t cause cancer . . . claims the science in the Pacific Gas and Electric Hinkley case was bodgy . . . even though PG&E paid up US$333 million . . . therefore Erin Brockovich has a record of dealing in dodgy science . . . therefore global warming isn’t real.

Seriously? If that isn’t the world’s biggest pot calling the kettle a science fraud.

Only the most cretinous fuckwits on the planet are still running the greenhouse-sceptic argument. But it seems we must count among their number one Michael Duffy.

We were reminded of another important aspect of our uncertainty over climate yesterday in the Herald by the climate expert Professor Andy Pitman, who’s about to become co-head of a new climate change research centre at the University of NSW. Referring to this state he said: “We do not know why we are in such a severe drought, nor if this is natural or significantly enhanced through human activities via global warming.”

Which proves your point how, Michael? A scientist says he’s not sure of the extent to which the current drought is a direct result of global warming. OK, that may be so. Does he say global warming isn’t happening? Does he say there’s no evidence it’s caused by human activity? No, but it allowed you to put “doubt” and “climate” in the same sentence.

Practically the only people left on the planet who have any doubt about anthropogenic climate change are “scientists” who get paid by the energy industry, much in the same way there were still “scientists” claiming tobacco didn’t cause cancer up until a few weeks ago. Sometimes it’s even the same people who switched from being tobacco sceptics to being greenhouse sceptics, if the CBC is to believed.

I’m all for being contrarian, but there are some orthodoxies – such as AIDS, tobacco and global warming – where the evidence is overwhelming. And furthermore, where casting doubt on the connection can have horrendous consequences. Tobacco kills millions. Tens or even hundreds of thousands of deaths might have been prevented if South African President Mbeki hadn’t come under the sway of HIV sceptics.

Global warming may not kill as many people, but it’s a gamble I am not willing to take in the interests of maintaining coal and oil company profits. And if they’re not careful, climate sceptics like Michael Duffy will earn themselves an infamous role in history.

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