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Heart of the matter

Nature volume 475, pages 423424 (28 July 2011) | Download Citation

The Heartland Institute's climate conference reveals the motives of global-warming sceptics.

It would be easy for scientists to ignore the Heartland Institute's climate conferences. They are curious affairs designed to gather and share contrarian views, in which science is secondary to wild accusations and political propaganda. They are easy to lampoon — delegates at the latest meeting of the Chicago-based institute in Washington DC earlier this month could pick up primers on the libertarian writings of Russian–American novelist Ayn Rand, who developed the philosophical theory of objectivism, and postcards depicting former US vice-president Al Gore as a fire-breathing demon. And they are predictable, with environmentalists often portrayed as the latest incarnation of a persistent communist plot. “Green on the outside, red on the inside,” said one display. “Smash the watermelons!”

So why does Nature this week devote two pages to such absurdities? We now have more than two decades of evidence that closing our eyes will not make the climate sceptics go away. Instead, in the United States at least, they have cemented their propaganda into a broader agenda that pits conservatives of various stripes against almost any form of government regulation. The sceptics like to present the battlefield as science, but, as the News Feature on page 440 makes clear, the fight is, in fact, a violent collision of world views.

Does the following sound familiar? “They distort science, ignore reality and will not tolerate opinions or facts that conflict with their beliefs.” “Cynical manipulators or simple pawns, their purpose is only to keep funds flowing to a corrupt few who profit from the status quo.” Those are the kinds of words scientists use, often correctly, to describe the sceptics, many of whom would have the financial interests of today continue their dominance tomorrow. Yet this is also how sceptics characterize climate scientists, whose careers and reputations they claim are intertwined with protecting the science of anthropogenic global warming.

Nature is not endorsing the Heartland Institute as a serious voice on climate science.”

To address this conflict might be seen as lending respectability to the spurious claims made by sceptics against respected scientists and robust science. So, let's be clear: Nature is not endorsing the Heartland Institute as a serious voice on climate science. Instead, the News Feature is intended to offer researchers outside climate science a window into the motives and tactics of those who have set themselves up as such a voice. (Those inside climate science, of course, are all too aware of these already.)

Despite criticizing climate scientists for being overconfident about their data, models and theories, the Heartland Institute proclaims a conspicuous confidence in single studies and grand interpretations. A 2009 report by the Nongovernmental International Panel on Climate Change, which the institute supports, is well sourced and based on scientific papers. Yet it makes many bold assertions that are often questionable or misleading, and do not highlight the uncertainties. Many climate sceptics seem to review scientific data and studies not as scientists but as attorneys, magnifying doubts and treating incomplete explanations as falsehoods rather than signs of progress towards the truth. As the News Feature points out, although the sceptics feel that they have already won the political battle in the United States, their attacks on science will continue.

Scientists can only carry on with their work, addressing legitimate questions as they arise and challenging misinformation. Many climate scientists have already tried to engage with their critics, as they did at the Heartland event. The difference, of course, is motive. Scientists work to fill the gaps in human knowledge and to build a theory that can explain observations of the world. Climate sceptics revel in such gaps, sometimes long after they have been filled.

It is scientists, not sceptics, who are most willing to consider explanations that conflict with their own. And far from quashing dissent, it is the scientists, not the sceptics, who do most to acknowledge gaps in their studies and point out the limitations of their data — which is where sceptics get much of the mud they fling at the scientists. By contrast, the Heartland Institute and its ilk are not trying to build a theory of anything. They have set the bar much lower, and are happy muddying the waters.

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