When Scientists Hate Science

Climate denialists have been able to hide behind very misleading science. But this is far from the first time that science has been backstabbed by its own practitioners.

01.15.17 5:15 AM ET

With Donald Trump’s recent picks to head the Environmental Protection Agency (Scott Pruitt) and the Energy Department (Rick Perry), it appears that science denialism has now been institutionalized. Pruitt, Perry, and Trump deny the fact that increasing levels of carbon dioxide in the environment have trapped heat, causing an increase in the Earth’s surface temperature (“the greenhouse effect”), and consequent climate disruption. Although climate change is undeniable, the current administration has managed to deny it. 

Climate change denialists couldn’t take their anti-science stance without the support of certain scientists. Although the overwhelming consensus among environmental scientists is that global warming is a real and present threat, a few disagree. Sadly, throughout history, science-denying scientists haven’t been hard to find.

In 1985, Barbara Loe Fisher, a prominent anti-vaccine activist, wrote A Shot in the Dark. In one chapter, Fisher claimed that vaccines caused autism. No one noticed. But when Andrew Wakefield, a respected scientist in the United Kingdom, published a paper in 1998 claiming that the measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine caused autism, everyone noticed. More than 1,500 articles trumpeting Wakefield’s theory appeared in newspapers and magazines across the globe. In the United Kingdom alone, thousands of parents stopped vaccinating their children with MMR; as a consequence, hundreds were hospitalized with measles and four children died from the disease. 

During the past two decades, 17 studies have shown that Wakefield’s theory was incorrect. Nonetheless, the notion that vaccines might cause autism lingers. And measles, a disease that was eliminated from the United States by 2000, is back. 

The tobacco industry also found scientists willing to deny that cigarette smoking caused lung cancer. In the early 1950s, two studies published in the Journal of the American Medical Association and the British Medical Journal showed that people who smoked cigarettes were at greater risk of lung cancer than those who didn’t smoke—and the more they smoked, the greater the risk. Enter Dr. Clarence Cook Little, a well-respected geneticist and cancer researcher. For the next two decades, Little, pointing to studies of mice exposed to cigarette smoke, denied the association. “If smoke in the lungs were a sure-fire cause of cancer,” he said, “we’d all have had it long ago.” Although only 1 percent of people who smoke cigarettes get lung cancer, the cause-and-effect relationship is clear. In Clarence Cook Little, the tobacco industry had achieved its goal—to create doubt where the science was settled.

Climate change denialism has followed a similar trajectory. Michael Mann, in his book The Madhouse Effect: How Climate Change Denial Is Threatening Our Planet, Destroying Our Politics, and Driving Us Crazy (Columbia University Press, 2016), describes some of the scientists who have supported an unsupportable position. For example, in the 1990s, climate change denialists trumpeted the work of two scientists from the University of Alabama at Birmingham: John Christy and Roy Spencer. Using satellite-based estimates of atmospheric temperatures, Christy and Spencer found that the Earth’s lower atmosphere wasn’t getting warmer at all. For more than a decade, the fossil fuel industry and its politicians pointed to Christy and Spencer’s data to support their claims. One problem: A review of their work found that during their calculations they had made a sign error (meaning they had used a minus sign instead of a plus sign). In so doing, they had magically eliminated global warming. 

Another approach used by scientists to deny climate change is, instead of looking at trends in the Earth’s temperature over centuries or millennia, they have examined much shorter intervals, like one immediately following the global warming caused by El Niño in 1998. By examining only the 10-year interval between 1998 and 2008, scientists minimized the problem. “It’s like arguing that spring isn’t arriving this year because March 27 was warmer than April 9,” writes Mann.

Why do these scientists do it? One possibility is that science-denying scientists aren’t very smart, that they’re at the bottom of the their science class (where people make sign errors). But that’s not it. Several of the world’s most celebrated scientists have gone to the dark side. Luc Montagnier, who won the Nobel Prize for proving that Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) was the cause of AIDS, now believes that autism is a bacterial infection that can be treated with antibiotics. Linus Pauling, the only person to have won two unshared Nobel Prizes (for Chemistry and Peace), claimed that vitamins taken in quantities vastly greater than the Recommended Daily Allowance could decrease cancer, eliminate heart disease, and prolong life (when the opposite appears to be true). Even Peter Duesberg, a brilliant virologist, became an AIDS denialist, refusing to believe that HIV was the cause.

Another and more obvious explanation for why prominent scientists deny scientific truths is that they are paid to do it. “The war on climate science,” writes Mann, “may well continue as long as there are fossil fuels to be mined and mercenaries to be hired.” But the lure of money doesn’t explain everything. Montagnier, Pauling, and Duesberg were scientific superstars, previously feted by the media for their rigor and hard work. Maybe the problem is that there’s a fine line that separates genius from madness. Or maybe these scientists needed something else to rekindle past glory. Something sensational. 

Scientists are contrarians by nature. They are rewarded with publications and grants when they find something new—not when they confirm what is already known. Add to this the fact that the media loves controversy and these science-denying scientists have a ready platform for their views. Journalists would much rather write that vaccines cause autism (at last, a cause for this debilitating disorder) than that vaccines are safe and effective (which is infinitely more boring). And the media, in the name of “balance,” often feel compelled to air both sides of an issue, even when only one side is supported by the science.  

But it’s a dangerous game we play. And invariably it’s our children and their children who will suffer our ignorance. 

Paul A. Offit, MD is a professor of pediatrics and director of the Vaccine Education Center at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. He is the author of Pandora’s Lab: Seven Stories of Science Gone Wrong (National Geographic Press, April 2017).