Apr 132009
Authors: Erik Anderson

“Doubt is our product,” stated a now-infamous internal memo of the tobacco industry in 1969.

And it was – the tobacco industry made a business of manufacturing and selling uncertainty to combat a growing body of evidence that linked smoking to cancer.

At the forefront was Frederick Seitz, an ageing physicist who served as the principal scientific advisor to the RJ Reynolds Tobacco Company’s $45 million medical research program. The goal of the research was not to look at the health effects of smoking cigarettes, but to confuse the existing science.

Seitz was ultimately let go because he was “quite elderly and not sufficiently rational to offer advice,” according to a 1989 internal memo.

But Frederick Seitz was not about to retire.

In 1998 Seitz organized the “Oregon Petition” in conjunction with the Oregon Institute of Science and Medicine to challenge the scientific consensus on man-made global warming. If you’ve been reading this section of the paper in the past weeks, you’ve probably heard of this petition.

So who was Seitz working for now? I’ll give you a hint: this company posted profits of $40 billion in 2008, the largest ever recorded by any company.

It was ExxonMobil.

Between 1998 and 2004, ExxonMobil contributed $16 million to organizations that deny or minimize the effect of humans on global warming, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists. Seitz’s own organization, the George C. Marshall Institute, received $630,000 between 1998 and 2005. That’s about 20 percent of its entire budget.

ExxonMobil has developed a network of ostensibly independent non-profit organizations like the Marshall Institute through which it can launder information to the public. Together they promulgate the non-peer-reviewed and often discredited research of a handful of global warming skeptics. Many of the individuals in these groups are associated with more than one organization, sometimes up to eight.

In effect, ExxonMobil is leveraging dissent, making it seem as if there is less consensus within the scientific community than there actually is.

ExxonMobil isn’t the only player in this game. The Republican Party, which receives three times more money from the oil industry than Democrats, realizes that it is “vulnerable” on issues like global warming, as expressed in a memo by top political consultant Frank Luntz. In that same memo, Luntz went on to assert, “the scientific debate is closing [against us] but not yet closed. There is still a window of opportunity to challenge the science.”

The media seems complicit in this disinformation campaign, often neglecting the sometimes complicated science behind global warming and instead presenting only the politicized debate surrounding the issue.

In an effort to be fair, they provide a platform for oil and coal-funded propaganda without distinguishing it from reputable peer-reviewed research. (You may have noticed that CNN suspiciously forgot to include questions on global warming during its two presidential debates, which were prominently sponsored by the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, a $35 million coal industry campaign.)

This isn’t a huge conspiracy — it’s just business as usual. It’s not even something we haven’t seen before. The tobacco industry was forced by a lawsuit to share the internal documents that exposed their massive campaign to intentionally deceive the public.

Should that happen to ExxonMobil, we’ll probably see more of the same. Manufacturing doubt has become a multi-million dollar industry in this country.

This is a tale of caution. While dissent is an essential part of informed debate, be wary of where you get your information.

Legitimate dissent is not industry-funded propaganda. If you are truly doubtful of man-made global warming, base your opinion on reputable scientists’ research.

However, if you just want to be contrarian, maybe you could be getting paid to be an industry hack too.

Erik Anderson is a senior natural resources major. His column appears Tuesdays in the Collegian. Letters and feedback can be sent to letters@collegian.com.

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