'The Inquisition of Climate Science' – A Book Review

Galileo facing the Inquisiton
Cristiano Banti’s 1857 painting Galileo facing the Roman Inquisition (image source)

The Inquisition of Climate Science by James Lawrence Powell is an essential literary resource for understanding how modern climate science is conducted, and equally, for understanding how climate change denialism has evolved and continues to undermine the public interest, to its great peril.

Powell’s title smartly preempts the spurious notion of a “fair and balanced” debate by positioning its material in a modern day version of Galileo’s “heretical” conflict with the Roman Church and its brutal enforcement program: The Holy Inquisition. It is doubly smart because, quite recently (in a debate just prior to the presidential election), a Republican candidate — in a remarkably ironic and non-self-aware moment — alluded to Galileo’s trials with the Church to paint his views (on climate matters and others) as being similar to Galileo’s situation (Galileo would ultimately be vindicated by history and by stronger scientific evidence).

I recall that a few political pundits commented on this surprising statement after the 2012 debate, noting that Galileo was presenting a new scientific theory/model which directly opposed a rigid, theologically entrenched, human-centric, model of the universe. One could write an entire thesis on this ironic utterance, but suffice to say, that Powell, thankfully, restores this historical allusion to Galileo to its proper scientific context.

To further preempt expected criticisms (presumably based upon the author’s qualifications to write on climate science), Powell offers his bona fides up front: he is not a climatologist or climate researcher (which he sees as an advantage in that he has “no axe to grind, no position to defend” in regards to vindicating climate science). However, Powell does hold a Ph.D. in geochemistry from MIT (a scientific discipline that has great utility for climate research in respects to the multiple chemical interactions between land, water, and, atmosphere) and was appointed to the National Science Board (a presidential advisory board) by presidents Reagan and George H.W. Bush, where he served for twelve years.

A Brief History of Climate Change

Powell breezily brings us up to date through some two centuries of climate science — from the early 19th Century experiments by Joseph Fourier and John Tyndall to later work by Svante Arrhenius (who would later win the Nobel prize for chemistry and who was the first to calculate the ‘climate sensitivity’ metric that was remarkably close to modern estimates) and the early-mid 20th Century work by Guy Stewart Callendar (who first calculate the rise in annual global temperature and attributed this mainly to the 150,000 million tons of coal burned since the Industrial revolution). Callendar also first calculated the CO2 parts per million (ppm) by volume for the year 1900 at 290 ppm (again, remarkably close to modern estimates).

Powell is not afraid to note the great irony of this early climate science, most notable of which is that all of these early climate science pioneers saw a warming planet as an advantageous happening (Arrhenius, being Norwegian, perhaps had some personal rationale at work). They saw warming as beneficial to plant growth, in general (the idea that heat-trapping gases like CO2 would alter precipitation cycles and oceanic chemistry would have to wait for later, deeper, research). Trains of this (somewhat naive) thought can still be found in some modern day (fringe) climate thinking.

This historical overview then moves quickly (but adequately) through the mid to late 20th work by respected scientists Libby, Revelle, and Keeling (who gave us the first computer model/simulation of the Earth’s climate). This work became the foundation for modern climate science. And it is here that the earlier climate change naiveté gives way to more cautionary and foreboding predictions.

And with that change in viewpoint, the author brings us to climate change (global warming) skepticism and “denialism”, which also has a history although one much less extensive and one of a more recent pedigree..

Before dissecting the relatively recent cast of climate change skeptics, Powell is quick to point out the distinction between “honest skepticism” and “denialism”. Indeed, the book uses quotes that bestow honor and duty upon the very idea of skepticism, such as:

“If a man will begin with certainties, he shall end in doubts; but if will be content to begin with doubts, he shall end in certainties.” (Sir Francis Bacon)

“[for the] improver of natural knowledge skepticism is the highest of duties, blind faith the one unpardonable sin.” (T.H. Huxley)

These two quotes in particular (and there are many others) are well chosen; the first because it indicates a process of scientific discovery (that properly begins with doubt, but ends with “certainty’); the second because it highlights the “sin” of blind faith (Huxley was a revered scientific philosopher of his day), which, In the context of this current climate “debate”, can only refer to the continued holding to a belief unsupported by empirical findings.

Climate Change Skepticism and Denialism: The Cast of Characters.

Over the course of several chapters, Powell introduces us to the many names, organizations and artifacts behind the climate denialist movement; here are just a few notables:

Richard Lindzen (a Ph.D and professor of meteorology at MIT, perhaps the one denialist with the highest, relevant, academic/scientific credentials, but whose research was/is not focused on global warming causes and impacts),

Terry Dunleavy (a non-scientist, New Zealand wine grower, and executive vice chairman of the International Climate Science Coalition [ICSC], currently the most prominent denialist organization),

John McLean (another member of the ICSC and major critic of the IPCC reports); his credentials are uncertain.

Ross McKitrick (a Ph.D. and economics professor at the U. of Ontario, coordinator of the ‘Independent Summary for Policy Makers [ISPM] which is a critique/rebuttal of the IPCC’s fourth assessment report, and main critic of the so-called “hockey stick” graph of millennium-long, global temperature changes published by Mann, Bradley, and Hughes),

Dr. Arthur Robinson (a distinguished chemist, head of the Oregon institute of Science and Medicine [OISM], chief circulator of the OISM petition that boast over 30,000 signatures agreeing with the view that there is no scientific consensus on human-caused global warming/climate change),

John Tierney (the noted New York Times columnist and director of his self-styled TierneyLab, which routinely offers Libertarian to Conservative views on numerous subjects, including denial of scientific consensus on climate change)

Bjorn Lomborg (political scientists and statistician, author of the popular 2001 climate change denialist book The Skeptical Environmentalist, which served as a rebuttal to the third IPCC assessment and whose main theorem is that global warming is “no catastrophe”),

Viscount (Christopher) Monckton of Brenchley (non-scientist, former adviser to former UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, erudite scholar of classics and frequent guest at denialist conferences; in 2007, he challenged Al Gore to a “duel” on climate change science {Gore chose not to accept the invitation to debate}; Monckton once described climate scientists as “war criminals”),

and, Michael Crichton (the famed novelist, author of the oft-cited denialist novel State of Fear, and who before his death from lung cancer equated global warming predictions with Nazi eugenics and the Soviet-era, pseudo-scientific, “evolution” theory Lysenkoism).

And there are, of course, many other players and organizations in the denialist game; some we would recognize (such as the Heartland Institute) and others perhaps more obscure to us (such as the George C. Marshall Institute). These are discussed in greater detail in the chapter Toxic Tanks.

Dismantling Anthropogenic Climate Change Denialism

In reading Powell’s book, one quickly and increasingly grows aware of how extensive (and well-financed) is the campaign to discredit mainstream climate science and the researchers who engage in it (even Richard Lindzen, an MIT professor, for example, criticizes his own colleagues, claiming that their pro-anthropogenic climate change positions are motivated by desires for recognition, research money, and academic advancement).

But Powell is never daunted, though the forces marshaled against legitimate climate science seem quite daunting. The author systematically and skillfully addresses and dismantles the denialists’ claims, piece by piece.

Drawing upon research and scientific opinion from members of the American Geophysical Union, the National Academy of Sciences, the National Science Foundation, the American Meteorological Society, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (publishers of the leading peer-review journal Science), NOAA, NASA (former chief climate scientist James Hansen’s research is often referenced), USGS, the American Medical Association, the European Academy of Sciences, and many, many others (noting at one point the 33 Scientific Academies and over 70 International science organizations throughout the world that accept human-induced climate change as a reality), Powell progressively tears down the wall of propaganda, misinformation, and outright lies (such as invented “research” proving that global warming is false) promulgated by the denialist movement.

One of the prominent, recurring themes or points in the book is that of scientific consensus — both in general, and in regards to climate science specifically. Powell keenly observes a (seemingly contradictory) two-pronged attack strategy used by denialists: denying scientific consensus, on the one hand, and, on the other, sometimes admitting to a consensus but then denouncing this consensus as “false and malicious.”

It becomes clear through reading that while climate denialism may be well-funded, it is rather less than well-organized — at least in terms of a consistent mode/method of attack. One wonders how long it will be before the public — nearly fifty percent of which believe there is scientific uncertainty and debate about the cause of global warming — will catch on to this disingenuous, say-anything-and-see-if-it-sticks strategy.

In keeping with this main theme of consensus, the book also maintains a secondary, critical theme: that of the absurdity (and audacity) of asserting that thousands of climate scientists the world over have somehow colluded in a vast conspiracy of lies — all in an attempt to secure more research funding (or worse, as part of some nefarious agenda to destroy the “Western Way”).

The red-baiting of environmentalists in the early 1970’s (where your were “pinko” if you advocated industry cleaning up any of its toxic mess), is still very much alive and kicking in the 21st century.

At times, Powell must resort to short history lessons in order to restore a misappropriated term or theory to its proper scientific context, as with the aforementioned Galileo example. This he does, deftly and seamlessly, with the philosophy of Lysenkoism (see the accusation by Crichton, above). Lysenko, like many modern denialists, was a non-scientist, but had powerful connections in the early Soviet government and successfully demonized the bulk of his scientist comrades who held to the “lies” of genetic inheritance and evolution by natural selection. Lysenko held to a form of Lamarkian evolution in which certain acquired (plant) traits could be inherited. The early embrace of this erroneous, anti-scientific theory lead to the near total ruin of the Soviet agricultural system. It is a cautionary, and valuable, history lesson.

The book has many such history lessons. Throughout, one can not help but feel that one is reading (and participating in) a great historical narrative (or battle)  whose import and impact will be felt far beyond our lifetimes.

Regarding the consistent criticism by denialists of the Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change, Powell establishes a clear chronology in the evolution of the four IPCC reports (spanning the years from 1990 to 2007), showing how each successive report built on the previous one, moving from somewhat tentative assertions e.g., (evidence “suggests” a possible human cause) to progressively more positive assertions (evidence for a human influence on climate change is strong and unequivocal). This he does to demonstrate that consensus develops (typically) incrementally, and to counter the surprisingly absurd view by Tierney (and Crichton) that the “mere existence of scientific consensus is prima facie evidence of its falsity.”

Powell further notes that one criticism of the 2007 IPCC climate assessment (made by Dunleavy) was that the summary of that report (i.e., the Summary for Policy Makers, not to be confused with the denialist version: the ISPM) had “only 51 authors”. Powell rips this one wide apart; noting how relatively rare it is to find a scientific paper with so many authors. Further, that such a large number of summary authors not only reflects well the broader consensus, but typically means that any such summary assessment will be fairly conservative in it assertions — reflecting this broader input from many minds.

Powell’s criticisms of these denialists are seldom, pointedly, ad hominem; he sticks to attacking their anti-science claims and exposing their less than honest tactics and (often) non-existent research. but, of course, one must criticize credentials if those credentials are not relevant (to the science) or entirely lacking.

Summing Up

My only negative criticisms of the book are relatively minor, involving very specific points.

In his thorough criticizing and debunking of the denialists’ claims, Powell unintentionally (but perhaps inevitably) leads the reader to surmise or conclude that most or all of the previous (non-climate change-related) thought and work by these thinkers is therefore dubious, if not outright false.

For example, in detailing noted denialist Robinson’s falling out with two-time Nobel Prize winner Linus Pauling (Robinson helped establish Pauling’s research institute), Powell notes that Robinson thought Pauling’s views on vitamin C to be nonsense, then proceeds to describe Pauling’s reaction to Robinson’s work (“sloppy”), their falling out with each other, and which then sets the stage for a critique of Robinson’s anti-climate change “research”. That’s fine, but Powell fails to note here that subsequent research on vitamin C has shown that large doses of the vitamin actually promote the build-up of DNA-damaging genotoxins in cells, a finding which mostly vindicates Robinson’s blanket criticism of Pauling’s earlier research on this matter.

This is no doubt true as well for at least some of Richard Lindzen’s non-climate change research which most certainly made valid and worthwhile contributions to his discipline (as it is with the physicist Freeman Dyson, despite his reckless, contrarian, and provocative past statements).

Just because a particular “skeptic” or denialist is wrong about anthropogenic climate change, does not mean he/she was/is wrong about everything. I say this with a good degree of caution because often erroneous ideas tend to flock together within the same mind, such as with the scientific-contrarian views of Fred S. Singer and other serious-minded critics of anthropogenic climate change..

One other thing that I would have liked to have seen more of is some discussion or treatment of the psychological motivation(s) of some of many of these denialist thinkers.

In the chapter titled The Anatomy of Denial, Powell succinctly describes the many tactics of denialists (such as adopting the trappings of your opponents, and, accusing your opponents of doing what you are guilty of doing) and then describes, objectively, most denialists as being political Libertarians who oppose nearly all forms of government regulation (but especially of private enterprise). This he deduces from the clearly expressed political views of most of the prominent denialists.

Powell also correctly notes the institutional (and mass media) bias and misrepresentation of facts resulting from fossil fuel industry funding of think tanks (comparing it effectively to the Tobacco industry’s funding of scientific denialism regarding the harmful effects of smoking), and calls these “research” tanks “Potemkin villages of denial.”

However, this necessary style of criticism has the effect of trickling down (to the reader) in the ascribing of similar individual motives (i.e., influenced my money, or vested interest). This is not necessarily true at all. He does not, in my reading of the book, give adequate consideration to the observed phenomenon of ego entrapment — the “in for a penny, in for a pound” motivation common to gamblers who continue to play despite mounting losses — that may likely underlie much of the continued denialism in the face of new and better climate research (the same goes for stubbornly held beliefs in other fields).

There are also a few ironies here. In his analytical description of denialists as seekers of recognition (e.g., for/by being contrarian, or the outsider hero, as with Dyson), Powell is doing essentially what Lindzen did to his pro-climate change colleagues (calling them out as recognition seekers); he is presenting a similar motivational critique as those whom he critiques.

And there are a few other such ironies throughout the book. But these little ironies are probably unavoidable when writing a counter-propaganda critique; one must run the same track as one’s opponents, albeit in reverse.

Again, these are minor criticisms. Powell effectively and engagingly presents his case, offering a clear picture of climate science reality — distinct from the intentional fog of pseudo-skeptical anti-science.

The Inquisition of Climate Science is a rich source of crucially important climate science facts and research and an invaluable critique of the (sadly) numerous climate change denialist fallacies that have contributed to the mass misleading of nearly half the US public (many of which, were unknown to this writer, who is generally well-informed on such matters). The book is remarkable in its breadth of coverage considering it is but  230+ pages in length (and the last 30 pages of which are comprised of notes, references, and index).

Overall, I strongly recommend The Inquisition of Climate Science to anyone and everyone desiring a clear and comprehensive understanding of where climate science is now and how the science got here.

But I would go further: the book should be mandatory reading in every high school science class in the country. For, it is that generation — and its off-spring — which will live to see most of the myriad impacts of human-caused climate change and the consequences of so many wasted years of inaction due largely to the duping power of oil industry-backed, denialist propaganda and misinformation.

I will end here where the book begins — with this prescient quote from Carl Sagan:

“We have designed a civilization based upon science and technology and at the same time have arranged things so that almost no one understand anything at all about science and technology. This is a clear prescription for disaster. We may for a while get away with the mix of ignorance and power but sooner or later it is bound to blow up in our face.”


6 thoughts on “'The Inquisition of Climate Science' – A Book Review”

  1. Most educated people find the use of the term denier or denial to describe a non-beleiver offensive. In western culture it is a term used for the superstitious uneducated masses to demonise the Jews. Jews are hated by the state because they deny the divinity of Jesus Christ. Believers are easy to control.

  2. CO2, like the Greenhouse Gas SO2, Cools !
    Reason it through.

    Warming by chem-trails will not stop the Ice Age.
    “Russian Scientist: New Ice Age to Begin in 2014”

  3. Narotam Lathia

    This kind of denialism is only to be expected of a CULTURE based on Christian philosophy. Other cultures based on Hindu-like philosophy, like India and the Far East have done better and survived for thousands of years. Not sure of the FUTURE of these cultures too as they are under pressure to be more materialistic and consumerist. All this is due to the CAPITALIST market forces driven by the media, advertising etc.

  4. Narotam Lathia

    This kind of denialism is only to be expected of a CULTURE based on Christian philosophy. Other cultures based on Hindu-like philosophy, like India and the Far East have done better and survived for thousands of years. Not sure of the FUTURE of these cultures too as they are under pressure to be more materialistic and consumerist. All this is due to the CAPITALIST market forces driven by the media, advertising etc.

    1. Hi Narotam

      Thanks for your comment. Actually, there is nothing intrinsically materialist or pro-consumerist in the Christian religion (see the numerous passages opposing wealth, or the difficulty in attainment of “heaven” by those with great wealth.

      You are probably confusing a brand of nationalistic Christianity (espoused by the Religious Right in the US) with the principles and ‘beatitudes’ preached by Jesus.

      There are also many liberal Christian churches in the US that practice/advocate the ‘good stewardship’ (i.e., taking good care of god’s creation) model of Christian faith.

      but I would say that, insofar as all religions are to some or great extent anti-materialistic, they have a tendency to make people focus on an after-life (or the next cycle of reincarnation) and not on the material basis of their physical being and survival (the health of the environment, natural resources, etc.).

      thus all religions have the potential to become “anti-Nature” (if only in sheer ignorance of its importance),a and thus, by extrapolation, anti-environmental.

      Just my opinion, but when you think about it, if no one believed in an after life or some “eternal soul” concept, they were probably quickly realize that this life is all they have, and that protecting the natural environment and insuring sustainable use of resources is the only thing that sustains their physical existences 9and those of their off-spring).

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top