F is for Fake
Payola Punks Soil Science Reporting
by Kit Smith

 Note: the views expressed in the following column are those of Ms Smith and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of any other science journalist, mentioned or otherwise.


I can tell you, from first-hand knowledge, there are lots of science journalists who pursue truth and excellence in their reporting. Three coming immediately to mind are Chris Mooney (because he was just in Buffalo promoting his book), and Mark Schleifstein and John McQuaid of the New Orleans’ Times Picayune (for their prophetic-but-ignored 5-part series on what would happen if the levees breached). There are hundreds more of whom I know. I respect and admire these people--my colleagues--and this esteem is why I find myself wishing Steven Milloy’s children would knife him, and all the other journalists who behave like him, and then bonfire every existing copy of the crap currently passing for scientific journalism.

 Steven Milloy is a lawyer, a columnist for FoxNews.com and former “adjunct scholar” at the Cato Institute. The Cato Institute is nearly a laugh, but really a cry. Funders of this libertarian public policy research foundation include Chevron, Exxon, Shell, Tenneco Gas, the American Petroleum Institute, Amoco Foundation, Eli Lilly, Merck, and Pfizer. The fact that anybody working for this beholden an organization got a job as a journalist says sad and horrible things about the state of American media.

 

But Milloy did. He has written in the past about smoking research and global warming, and articles can currently be found on his self-aggrandizing Web site, www.junkscience.com. How does a lawyer gain the scientific savvy to discuss and dismiss such complex issues? Easy. He takes money directly from the parent company of tobacco giant Philip Morris, and from Exxon Mobil. In today’s media climate, that’s how one becomes an expert.

 Milloy, it was revealed by Paul Thacker in the New Republic January 26th, has been a contractor the whole time that he has been writing for Fox News, and probably back into the early 1990s. Recently he’s reinvented himself as a “political activist” (what he was all along), and has started a small mutual fund called the Free Enterprise Action Fund (FEAF). This fund is Milloy’s new anti-science vehicle. He has put together a “shareholder resolution” demanding that GE “report to shareholders on the scientific and economic analyses relevant to GE’s climate change policy.” It also asks GE to provide “estimates of costs and benefits to GE of its climate change policy.”

 Milloy’s greater charge is that GE’s new “green policy” (which, according to GE’s “Ecomagination” marketing campaign, causes elephants to dance in the jungle) will pave the road to government “interference” by environmental regulations. “I think companies should concentrate on making money...” Why? So they can pay you to tell lies in a public forum? Go get fucked. And take Michael Fumento with you.

 Fumento is another lawyer claiming scientific expertise. On the surface he seems very pro-science; he’s in favor of fuel-cell technology research and he’s a proponent of adult stem-cell research. But much of his (painfully poor) writing is reactionary, and scrutiny reveals him to be anti-environment, blindly in favor of genetically modified food, and, oh yeah, paid for. Fumento took money from Monsanto (guess that explains the blindness). He was a science and health columnist with Scripps Howard News Service; Eamon Javers of Business Week outed him in mid-January, and Scripps Howard fired him, apologizing to their readers for being unaware of his conflicting interests.

 Fumento whined back in a column on Townhall.com that he was a martyr, including the argument that he had written an anti-Monsanto piece. “I ripped Monsanto for being ‘chicken-hearted’ and caving into environmentalist demands.” A little unclear on the concept.... “Ripping” (is that the legal terminology?) the makers of Agent Orange for not being callous or greedy enough doesn’t qualify as impartial.

Fumento still has his job with the Hudson Institute. Another Washington D.C. based non-profit public policy research foundation, the Hudson Institute calls itself “non-partisan,” but as reported by Source Watch, “gains financial support from many of the foundations and corporations that have bankrolled the conservative movement. The Capital Research Center, a conservative group that seeks to rank non-profits and documents their funding, allocates Hudson as a 7 on its ideological spectrum with 8 being ‘Free Market Right’ and 1 ‘Radical Left.’”

In other bad science reporting news, FICTION writer Michael Crichton received the prestigious American Association of Petroleum Geologists (AAPG) annual JOURNALISM award in early February. Apparently nobody at the AAPG owns a DICTIONARY.

At first blush, this might seem outrageous, or at least so ridiculous that the late-night comedy writers fear for their jobs. However, consider the sad state of general knowledge about petroleum geology. Most people, for example, believe the world’s oil supply to be concentrated in the Middle East. In fact, according to energy statistics from the U.S. government, Russia is both the second largest exporter and producer. The U.S. is the third largest producer and Norway is the third largest exporter.

This ignorance extends into policy issues as well: Contrary to popular belief, OPEC does not control the oil market. OPEC responds to lowered demand for oil by lowering production, which in turn keeps prices stable. OPEC can influence the oil market but can by no means control it. Likewise, OPEC is not engaged in price fixing or price setting.

People also seem to hold the misconception that petroleum is used to generate electricity. Coal is still responsible for over 50% of electricity generation. Nuclear power is 20%. Fuel oil is a mere 3% of this puzzle. This misunderstanding is largely due to use of the term “energy consumption.” In politics and journalism, this phrase includes not just electricity but your car and airplanes. In 2004, the DOE estimated that nearly 14 million barrels of oil a day were consumed for transportation, while only half a million barrels is used for electricity. This makes the “energy crisis” a little less scary, no?

The average American’s understanding of the oil economy is a fiction. Suddenly it looks not only appropriate but necessary for the AAPG to award a novelist their little journalism prize.

Too many people believe what these industry shills tell them. It’s easy to tell lies about science because most people don’t know enough about it to discern truth from propaganda. And then, some just prefer propaganda. Stephen Milloy still writes for Fox.

Readers no longer seem even to question the authenticity of what they are told, unless it involves a drug addict’s memoir. America’s scientific illiteracy leaves plenty of room for artificial spin—in a field where what you don’t know can shorten your life and render the planet uninhabitable.

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