U.S. senator on ‘science denialism’ in the face of climate change

Speaking in the Media Lab, Whitehouse asserts ‘only a few’ Senate Republicans believe climate skeptics

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U.S. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse speaking at an Environmental Solutions Initiative event Nov. 22 at the MIT Media Lab.
Adib Hasan–The Tech

U.S. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, a Democrat from Rhode Island, spoke last Monday to a full audience in the Media Lab as part of the MIT Environmental Solutions Initiative’s “People and the Planet” lecture series.

MIT professor John Fernandez, director of the Environmental Solutions Initiative, opened the talk by asking the audience what they will say when their grandchildren ask, “What role did you play when seas overtook coastlines and redrew continental maps, and superstorms inundated entire cities and led to mass migrations?”

Upon taking the stage, Whitehouse got straight to the issue he came to discuss: “The enterprise of science has a rival: science denialism.” Diving into the history of this phenomenon, he discussed those rejecting Einstein’s theory of relativity in the early 1900s despite evidence from the solar eclipse of 1919. Whitehouse also discussed the Tobacco Institute, created by the tobacco industry to spread faux science as propaganda to derail regulations.

An audience member asked how many of Whitehouse’s Republican colleagues actually believed the climate change denial groups and how many just felt bullied into voting for fear of losing reelection. Whitehouse mentioned that he knew of many who agreed that climate change is primarily human-driven, and propositioned that “only a few” Senate Republicans believe what climate skeptics say. When discussing climate change with him, a Republican colleague made sure even his staff was not present when expressing his real opinion for fear of being reported.

“It is good to hear from a reliable source that there are Republican senators who at face value mention climate change denial but believe the science,” Seiji Engelkemier ’19 said in an interview with The Tech.

Whitehouse listed some advantages that science denialism has over science. Unlike science, denialists do not have to prove anything; they just have to point out flaws or gaps. The creation of a large network of denial groups allows for more complexity and obscurity, which creates a seemingly larger consensus than the Tobacco Institute could singly do. Whitehouse claimed that the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission allows for greater donor anonymity, with groups like Donors Trust obscuring the funders of science denialism. He asserted that by going straight to the news instead of publishing peer-reviewed articles, “Climate denial groups avoid the tests of true science,” and can get their message out easier than science. “This isn’t science,” he said. “This is public relations in a lab coat” with “unlimited funding.”

In concluding his talk, Whitehouse said that science needs a group designed to defend the enterprise of science, similar to how firefighters put out fires or police departments investigate crimes. He asserted that this group should not be filled with scientists, whose goal is to produce knowledge, using an analogy that people wouldn’t call a scientist if their home was on fire.

When it comes to political action, Whitehouse stated that his preferred method of controlling climate change would be a tax on carbon, as this tax would be easy to implement on many large producers, easy to apply to imports, and allow people to make market-based decisions. Since he claimed that Congress is heavily influenced by climate change denier groups, Whitehouse’s views of the current path forward would involve multi-state agreements implementing emission reductions. During the previous “People and the Planet” lecture last semester, former U.S. Representative Bob Inglis, a Republican, also discussed benefits of a carbon tax, according to MIT News.

Update 11/30/17: The article was edited to correct a quote attributed to John Fernandez.