Twisting logic of pseudo-science

November 23, 1993|By Jon Margolis

THE French, who know human frailty, coined the phrase, "epater le bourgeois," meaning to shock respectable folks for the sake of shocking them.

It's still done, and these days respectable folks come in greater variety. Among the preferred targets in some circles are environmentalists, who often deserve the treatment. A few of them do seem committed to the survival of every species save homo sapiens. And some have exaggerated both the certainty and the extent of global warming and the ozone hole.

Their excesses have produced an equal but opposite reaction by an increasingly bold anti-environmentalism that berates "les serrers des arbres" (that's tree-huggers) but too often degenerates into pseudo-science.

One of the chief perpetrators of this brand of dishonesty is talk-show host Rush Limbaugh, who loves to debunk what he calls the "scam" of ozone depletion.

In his book, "The Way Things Ought to Be," Limbaugh bases his scientific case on information in "Trashing the Planet" by Dixy Lee Ray, the former governor of Washington. She in turn relies on two other writers, one of them a follower of imprisoned political extremist Lyndon LaRouche.

Their contention is that man-made chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) are an insignificant cause of chlorine in the stratosphere because so much chlorine comes from natural causes such as volcanoes. One volcano, according to a report they cite, was emitting 1,000 tons of chlorine every day.

Except it wasn't. That report, according to its own co-author, turned out to be incorrect. Very incorrect. And volcanoes aren't high enough for their chlorine to get into the stratosphere.

Oh, and chlorine from natural sources is soluble, meaning rain washes it out of the lower atmosphere. CFCs are insoluble and inert, so they get way up there and do their damage.

"It's the standard bad science technique," said Gary Taubes, who wrote the book "Bad Science" and who dissected the ozone debate in the June issue of Science magazine. "You take only the evidence that backs your case, over-interpret it and call all contradictory evidence part of a plot."

Pseudo-science is not solely the province of ideologues. It has established a presence in the mainstream press. Earlier this year, Gregg Easterbrook, a correspondent for Newsweek, wrote an article full of unsupported pronouncements, including this one:

"Logging is good for the greenhouse effect." That's because "young trees withdraw carbon dioxide, the primary greenhouse gas, from the air much more rapidly than do mature trees."

They do. Jeffrey Dawson, professor of forest biology at the University of Illinois, said that mature trees are "basically static" when it comes to absorbing carbon dioxide.

Does that mean logging is good for the greenhouse effect? No, Mr. Dawson said, pointing out that eventually all the wood either burns or decomposes, releasing its carbon back into the atmosphere. "It's a long-term wash," he said. Besides, he said, the greenhouse problem is hardly central to the debate over where and how to cut trees, nor are forests central to the greenhouse question.

It may be no accident that Mr. Easterbrook spoke at a conference organized by the Center for the New West, itself a practitioner of pseudo-science, and one of the frauds of American public life.

Philip Burgess, its director, once was asked to comment on what Rutgers University professors Frank and Deborah Popper had written about the West. Mr. Burgess immediately, and loudly, proclaimed that because the Poppers were from New Jersey, their ideas about the West lacked validity, thereby revealing a mindset both anti-intellectual and un-American. Ideas should be evaluated on their merits, not their parentage, and if this is one nation, indivisible, no American is an outsider in his own country.

More recently, Mr. Burgess wrote that Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt's plans to change federal grazing practices were "simply a smokescreen" for a plot to cheapen Western land so that the secretary's friends and Democratic contributors could buy it at bargain rates.

The evidence for this? None, because it is fantasy, as is much of what emanates from the Denver-based center. It claims to be a think tank, but its output reflects less thought than propaganda in support of the corporations that finance it. Chief among these is US West Communications, the Denver phone company whose president is the center's board chairman.

US West has every right to finance a PR agency and call it a think tank. Mr. Burgess has every right to join the pseudo-scientists. Intelligent people have every obligation to observe that all this is what the French would call "la foutaise," or "beaucoup de non-sens."

Jon Margolis is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune.

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