The Wall Street Journal Blurs the Lines Between Science, Opinion, & Politics on Global Warming

by Prof. Joseph E. Armstrong

This affair started March 1998 when I received an unsolicited reprint of a scientific article entitled "Environmental effects of increased atmospheric carbon dioxide," by A. B. Robinson, S. L. Balinus, W. Soon, and Z. W. Robinson. The article was accompanied by two items. The first was a photocopy of a four-column news item from The Wall Street Journal (Dec. 4, 1997, although the date did not appear on the photocopy). "Science has spoken: global warming is a myth" by A. B. and Z. W. Robinson. The second item was a petition requesting that I, as a scientist, should agree with these authors and sign the enclosed petition signifying my opposition to the Kyoto global warming accord. As a scientist, I am concerned about global warming, and while I do research in botanical evolutionary ecology, climate and the various factors affecting it, are not my expertise, so I decided to read the article with an open mind.

What a convincing article! How could any rational person continue to harbor doubts about the fallacy of global warming after seeing all this data? Obviously environmental extremists have been misinterpreting the data to sell us their global warming agenda. Rather than worry we can look forward to a future of lush plant growth and prosperity! The citations were numerous and from credible sources. The data figures were many and all pointed to the same conclusion: recent increases in carbon dioxide had no influence on global warming, or there was no evidence for global warming anyway! Hmm, so why wasn't this article more generally known? Usually Science News, The Scientist, or Science feature important and newsworthy publications before any national newspapers. How did the WSJ scoop our best science news publications?

Since we were discussing past climatic changes, I had my graduate ecology seminar class at Illinois State University investigate the entire affair and decide whether I should sign this petition or not. They immediately discovered that the Robinson et al. "reprint" was an unpublished manuscript that was released to the public after the WSJ news article proclaiming "Science has spoken." In science, credible scholarship is published only after rigorous peer review by experts in the field. OK, sometimes scientists who are eager for recognition jump the gun and release to the media copies of important manuscripts that have been reviewed and accepted for publication before they have actually appeared in press.

Going public before publication is a very risky business; everyone remembers that the news about cold fusion appeared before publication, don't they? The fact that Robinson et al. article was formatted and printed to appear exactly like a reprint from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science was the least subtle deception. My class eventually concluded that this manuscript would never be published in a credible scientific journal in anything near its present form because of carefully chosen citations, intentional misrepresentation of other science, and unsupported conclusions. "This (CO2 release into the atmosphere from fossil fuel use) will help to maintain and improve the health, longevity, prosperity, and productivity of all people." They further concluded that this manuscript was never intended for publication and was written solely for political purposes. The authors claimed that the article will be submitted for review and publication but declined to indicate to what publication.

Two authors, S. L. Balinus and W. Soon, are credible astrophysicists who study fluctuating stars, but their stated affiliation with the G. C. Marshall Institute hid their positions at Harvard University. Why? In my experience, faculty at prestigious academic institutions readily proclaim their institutional affiliation, adding more weight to their professional standing and any position they are championing. Certainly Stephen Jay Gould does not hide his Harvard professorship when being controversial. John Mack, the UFO abduction author, was immediately identified with Harvard, too. Neither feared any institutional reprisals for their intellectual excursions, even in the case of Mack, who was far afield of his area of expertise. So why would these two scientists be so reticent? Perhaps because this manuscript was not real science, and they knew it.

Balinus and Soon have published articles cited by themselves that suggest a correlation between solar fluctuations, sort of high and low heat, and Earth temperature fluctuations, suggesting a causal relationship. If true, then any recent global temperature increases were due to a variable sun, not human activities. Fair enough, but correlation does not prove causation. Figure 3 illustrating their data looked surprisingly like the famous snowshoe hare/lynx Hudson Bay Company pelt data long and widely used to show the fluctuating relations between prey and predator populations. Like the hare/lynx data, the Balinus and Soon data can easily be interpreted in the reverse suggesting that fluctuating temperatures on Earth affect the Sun, but at least this was honest data fairly presented for your consideration.

The Marshall Institute is a self-proclaimed independent scientific policy organization, but my class discovered that the Marshall Institute has many ties with the Global Climate Coalition, which represents the interests of auto, fossil fuel, and chemical companies on climatic issues. In this case "independent," which could be taken as meaning even-handed and fair, only means that the Institute is not publicly funded. It takes no great imagination to understand that the self-interests of many companies whose products emit greenhouse gases are best served by scuttling any binding agreement limiting emissions. The motive for this article and the petition drive suddenly became very clear.

The Robinsons, father and son, run the Oregon Institute of Science and Medicine, and they are self-proclaimed experts on alternative health care, home schooling, and environmental education. Neither has a record of scholarship in environmental science, although the senior Robinson was a protein chemist. No biologists, ecologists, or environmental scientists are on the OISM steering committee.

The Robinson et al. manuscript displays many examples of poor scholarship; the results of credible science are reinterpreted by the authors for the purpose of showing that there is no evidence supportive of global warming. The authors ignore that changes in carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere have been implicated in past climatic changes by only considering "recent" studies. Many scientific studies have published data suggestive of global warming, but with less than definitive results and reported as such by honest researchers. Several such studies are cited by Robinson et al. as "no evidence for." In many of the articles Robinson et al. cited, the authors explain why they think they got, or didn't get, the results they sought, and they explain their conclusions and make reasonable warnings, e.g., the data presented are exceptional and not to be taken as typical. These explanations and warnings are ignored by Robinson et al. if the atypical results suited their purpose. Robinson et al. also ignored all studies of greenhouse gases other than CO2. Lastly, using unsupported assumptions, they reach nearly ridiculous conclusions about plant growth in higher carbon dioxide concentrations, the one area my own expertise allows me to comment about authoritatively, and its impact on animal life. At least one of the papers cited by Robinson et al. directly contradicts their plant growth conclusion; perhaps they didn't completely read the paper they cited.

Global warming, as a scientific issue, remains unresolved, and because of its complexity much conflicting and marginal data exists. But the conclusions reached by Robinson et al., upon which The Wall Street Journal news item was based, in my opinion and that of my class, cannot stand the scrutiny of objective peer-review. Our judgement notwithstanding, The Wall Street Journal presented an unpublished manuscript as actual science to a gullible business world. Giving support and credence to an unpublished manuscript certainly reflects poorly on The Wall Street Journal and its standards of reporting and objectivity. We know The Wall Street Journal’s science reporting cannot be trusted if they don't know the difference between opinion and science, or worse, if they do know the difference, then they're just dishonest.

My students recommended that I not sign this petition, but amazingly they discovered that the OISM claims over 25,000 scientists have signed the petition; the list is posted on the Internet. I couldn't find the names of anyone I knew. Five ISU faculty out of thirty in biological sciences at ISU received the same reprint and petition request; the other four simply discarded it. We can wonder how many of 25,000 petition signers subjected this manuscript to skeptical scrutiny; our guess is that they either were predisposed to agree, or were persuaded by what they took to be a legitimate scientific article. I certainly would not have looked up every citation, examined the data, arguments, and conclusions in detail if not used as a class lesson. A non-critical reading of the manuscript would leave me with no option but to think that I harbored an irrational belief that human activities are affecting Earth's climate.

This is a prime example of a deliberate blurring of the lines between science, opinion, and politics, and it has many of the hallmarks of other politically motivated pseudosciences. Just like creationists, the authors adopted the trappings of true science to promote a predisposition on global warming. They selectively used sources and their data to bolster their case; no attempt was made to apply and even-handedly evaluate all available studies. Lastly they sought to influence public opinion via the news media rather than trying to persuade scientists of the validity of their arguments and conclusions.

Whether human-related activities are affecting the global climate like they are affecting many other aspects of the environment remains unknown, so a skeptical attitude is warranted. However the major issue is how scientific issues are decided. Public opinion may be a powerful political force, but it does not change the data and testing of hypotheses. Robinson, Robinson, Balinus, and Soon cannot claim to be honest skeptics on global warming; honest skeptics persist at trying to convince their colleagues of alternative conclusions, and they do it by submitting their manuscripts for publication. If they do not get published, then it is because their data, their arguments, their assumptions, and their conclusions did not stand up to careful scrutiny, not because reviewers were predisposed to a different opinion. Oh sure, some reviewers can be opinionated and have their own political ax to grind, but with persistence, you can find enough fair academics to get any legitimate conclusion published. My years as a journal editor, as a reviewer, and as an author of scientific articles validates my position that most academics will give a valid minority position a fair evaluation.

For public and political figures to insist on definitive answers before taking any action is intellectually a cop-out. At any given point in time we can determine what the best, the safest, the most prudent course of action should be. Minimizing all human effects on the environment would seem prudent whether we think the results potentially dire or not. Have we not reached a stage where we can understand that human activities are an agent for environmental change, and that we should proceed with some thoughtful caution? At a time in history when many special interest factions are fostering a distrust of science and its findings, such episodes, where the lines between science and opinion are purposefully blurred, are particularly disheartening, especially when an influential national newspaper is involved.

Acknowledgement -- This article could not have been written without the energetic efforts of the Illinois State University's Spring 1998 BSC 420, Ecology Seminar class: M. Coykendall, M. Dougherty, L. Ellis, A. Jordan, C. Kirk, J. Schaus, S. Sowinski, J. Styrsky, S. Van Rhein, D. White.

Joseph Armstrong is a Professor of Botany at Illinois State University

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