Last month, Senator Ted Cruz matter-of-factly told an interviewer that he just happened to glance at a four-decade-old article from Newsweek that very morning. He took a piece by veteran science reporter Peter Gwynne on the then-topical prospect of a cooling Earth and wove a conspiratorial tale that climate science is a Trojan horse for government control of the energy sector. Cruz, a declared 2016 Presidential contender, also compared himself to Galileo.
So rack up another score for the infamous “global cooling” piece, which celebrates its 40th birthday today. Surely no brief, and by all rights obscure, work of magazine journalism has given such durable service to the distortion of science.
Newsweek was not the only organization that reported the uptick in scientific interest in the potential cooling of the Earth. Among others, Time, Science Digest, The New York Times and even Walter Cronkite, “The Most Trusted Man in America,” ran with the story. But the coverage was fleeting, and when advancing science failed to back up the cooling speculation, the theory melted away–everywhere except in the echo chamber of conservative media, where the “global cooling” story still resides.
It’s more of an article of faith than a science article, and Cruz is far from alone in citing it as if it were state-of-the-art analysis. Rush Limbaugh is a frequent flyer on the Newsweek story, making the common error of promoting it to a “cover story.” (It was a single-page, nine-paragraph piece on page 64. Apparently, Newsweek’s editors regarded the imminent collapse of South Vietnam as a bigger deal).
Lawrence Solomon, a kingpin of Canadian climate denial, added a new twist two years ago, claiming that the global cooling theory was growing to “scientific consensus.” Yet the American Meteorological Society published a 2008 paper, which reported that even in the theory’s heyday, published papers suggesting a warming trend dominated by about six to one.
Syndicated columnist and TV grumbler George Will revisits the Newsweek piece every few years, as if it were the equivalent of an environmental pap smear or colonoscopy. But his 2009 opus remains my favorite. Will cites not only the Newsweek “cover story,” but also takes aim at the absurd projection that “90 percent of California’s snowpack” could vanish, imperiling the state’s agriculture. With the snowpack now at an all-time low, those doomsayers have egg on their face now.
And of course, it seems half the on-air payroll at Fox News relies on Disco Era magazines for its science. Last year, Neil Cavuto said “nobody questioned” the speculative stories back then, implying that history is now repeating itself with regard to stories of warming. So the short-lived spate of cooling stories live on as an article of doubt . What the continued lifespan of this long-abandoned theory is not about is science.
Naomi Oreskes, the Harvard researcher who tracked the history of doubt-making along with co-author Erik Conway in the book Merchants of Doubt, does not foresee a quick end to the shelf life of the “global cooling” play. In an email exchange, she cautioned, “The closer we get to doing something about climate change, the more we can expect the forces of denial to dig in. Remember, the nastiest of the tobacco industry activities occurred in the 1990s,” after the battle progressed from limiting smoking to regulating secondhand smoke.
The book by Oreskes and Conway, and the new documentary based on it, focus on the long history of manufacturing doubt in health, science and environmental issues. I’ve long thought that the essence of doubt-making is largely taken from our criminal justice system. Twenty years ago, O.J. Simpson’s attorneys stunned America by winning the ex-football star’s acquittal for the double murder that many remain convinced he committed. O.J.’s legal team managed to conjure up enough reasonable doubt by highlighting the attitude of a racist police investigator and an ill-fitting “bloody glove” to win his acquittal. Over in civil court, where “preponderance of evidence” is the standard, O.J. didn’t do so well. Think of that Newsweek piece as the climate deniers’ equivalent of Johnnie Cochran’s bloody glove and you’ll have a good idea of how it’s worked so well, for so long, for its intended audience.
Still, it’s difficult to find any other science, policy or even pop culture issue where 1970s’ knowledge is treated with such authority. An ad in my April 28, 1975, copy of Newsweek touts the awesome computing power of a room-sized invention called a “word processor.” Dominant theory in Washington back then was that the key to lasting peace in the Middle East was our strong friendship with the Shah of Iran.
And if music worked that way, Jay-Z and Beyonc? wouldn’t be the reigning music industry power couple. Back in 1975, it was the Captain and Tennille.
Beyond the stubborn irrationality of climate denial, things change. Completely. Science, in particular, moves on as it becomes more sophisticated. The scientific community stopped talking about global cooling three decades ago. It’s time to retire this long-dismissed theory as an anti-science talking point.