The Serengeti strategy: How special interests try to intimidate scientists, and how best to fight backPosted by Jim at Wednesday, January 07, 2015
By Michael E. Mann
(Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists) – Much as lions on the Serengeti seek out vulnerable zebras at the edge of a herd, special interests faced with adverse scientific evidence often target individual scientists rather than take on an entire scientific field at once. Part of the reasoning behind this approach is that it is easier to bring down individuals than an entire group of scientists, and it still serves the larger aim: to dismiss, obscure, and misrepresent well-established science and its implications. In addition, such highly visible tactics create an atmosphere of intimidation that discourages other scientists from conveying their research’s implications to the public. This “Serengeti strategy” is often employed wherever there is a strong and widespread consensus among the world’s scientists about the underlying cold, hard facts of a field, whether the subject be evolution, ozone depletion, the environmental impacts of DDT, the health effects of smoking, or human-caused climate change. The goal is to attack those researchers whose findings are inconvenient, rather than debate the findings themselves. This article draws upon the author’s own experience to examine the “Serengeti strategy,” and offers possible countermeasures to such orchestrated campaigns. It examines what responses by scientists have been most successful, and how to combat the doubt-sowing that industry has done regarding the science behind climate change and other fields.
Critics of science frequently present scientific knowledge as if all our understanding of a given field hinges on the work of just one scientist. Forget the thousands of evolutionary biologists whose work over more than a century has repeatedly confirmed the theory of evolution; to creationists, it is just “Darwinism”—the conclusions of one ostensibly suspect individual named Charles Darwin.
And it is labeled as “just a theory,” as if that somehow diminishes its validity. (For that matter, gravity is “just a theory” as well. Yet no one steps off a tall building to test it.)
This reflects a popular misconception of what a theory is to scientists. While in common parlance the word “theory” conveys something speculative, tentative, or uncertain, in the field of science the word refers to an understanding of an aspect of the natural world that has held up repeatedly to scrutiny and testing over time.
Industry-funded front groups and their hired guns have learned that they can use this confusion over terminology to their benefit. Rather than admit that decades of research has revealed dangerous effects of DDT on our environment, these organizations try to lead the public into believing that concerns about these chemical contaminants are just the hysterical speculations of one scientist named Rachel Carson. For example, the Competitive Enterprise Institute (http://www.cei.org)—an advocacy group funded by fossil fuel and chemical industry concerns and conservative private interests—maintains a website, RachelWasWrong (http://www.rachelwaswrong.org), dedicated to discrediting Carson and her legacy as a way of casting doubt upon all environmental concerns.
This is a classic ad hominem attack, consisting of innuendo and obfuscation, often focusing on irrelevant items, whose net effect is to direct attention away from the merits of an argument and instead to the character of the person making it. This approach appeals to feelings, emotions, and prejudices rather than intellect—exactly the point when the attacker is on the wrong side of the facts. This approach is not held in high regard by those interested in reason and rationalism, based as it is upon tenets that are the opposite of science.
But it is effective, for a number of reasons. By singling out a sole scientist, it is possible for the forces of “anti-science” to bring many more resources to bear on one individual, exerting enormous pressure from multiple directions at once, making defense difficult. It is similar to what happens when a group of lions on the Serengeti seek out a vulnerable individual zebra at the edge of a herd, which is why I call it the “Serengeti strategy” in my book The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars (Mann, 2012).
An additional part of the motivation behind the targeting of individuals: It is difficult to take on an entire group of scientists at once. But bringing down individuals is easier, and it serves the larger effort of dismissing, obscuring, and misrepresenting well-established science and its implications. What’s more, these highly visible tactics create such a negative atmosphere that other scientists are discouraged from conveying their research’s implications to the public.
This strategy falls under the umbrella of a larger, overall conception, which some researchers refer to as the “tobacco strategy” because it characterizes the way that tobacco interests sought to discredit research that linked their products to lung cancer (Oreskes and Conway, 2010). Whatever it is called, it has repeatedly been adopted by the chemical industry, big agriculture, the pharmaceutical industry, and just about any corporate interest that has found itself on a collision course with scientific research—particularly research that reveals specific potential damages or threats caused by their product.
It is educational to see how long the use of these tactics has been around, and how it was applied on a massive, wide-reaching scale to make a meme—a cultural idea or belief system, similar in some ways to a catchphrase—go viral, long before the social media era. And of course, this technique has now been refined and expanded upon, to include a barrage of messages from authoritatively named pseudo-news outlets, an alphabet soup of legitimate-sounding front groups, and a bevy of experts-for-hire with impressive—or at least impressive-sounding—credentials, who together form a “Potemkin Village” (Oreskes and Conway, 2010) of antiscientific disinformation. One can observe this strategy writ large in the current public discourse in the United States over whether or not human-caused climate change exists—a debate that has been largely settled in other parts of the world, such as the European countries whose citizens have overwhelmingly accepted the evidence for it.
Indeed, when overseas Americans encounter the widespread acceptance of anthropogenic climate change, they are often surprised. “After my climate change book came out, I had dinner with a Dutch minister from a right-wing, conservative party—and he sounded like a Greenpeace guy,” commented author Elizabeth Kolbert (The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, 2014) about the European reception to her book The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History (Kolbert, 2014). [more]