Climate deniers and other pimped-out professional skeptics: The paranoid legacy of Nietzsche's "problem of science"

How a 19th-century thinker's revolutionary insights drive today's climate-denial flacks – and can help beat them

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published March 7, 2015 5:00PM (EST)

James Taylor of the Heartland Institute (left) and William O'Keefe of the George C. Marshall Institute, as seen in "Merchants of Doubt"     (Sony Pictures Classics/<a href=''>Patrick Poendl</a> via <a href=''>Shutterstock</a>/Photo montage by Salon)
James Taylor of the Heartland Institute (left) and William O'Keefe of the George C. Marshall Institute, as seen in "Merchants of Doubt" (Sony Pictures Classics/Patrick Poendl via Shutterstock/Photo montage by Salon)

Looking back years later at his first major work, “The Birth of Tragedy,” the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche gave himself credit for being the first modern thinker to tackle “the problem of science itself,” for presenting “science for the first time as problematic and questionable.” Dude! If the perverse German genius could only have known how far “the problem of science” would extend in our age, or to what ends his critique of Socratic reason would be twisted. He might be delighted or horrified in equal measure – one thing you can say for Nietzsche is that his attitudes are never predictable – to see how much we now live in a world he made, or at least made possible.

It may seem like a ridiculous leap to connect a scholarly work about ancient Greek culture published in 1872 with the contemporary rise of climate denialism and other forms of pimped-out skepticism, in which every aspect of science is treated by the media and the public as a matter of ideological debate and subjective interpretation. I’m not suggesting that the leading climate skeptics, corporate shills and other professional mind-clouders seen in Robert Kenner’s new documentary “Merchants of Doubt” have read Nietzsche and based their P.R. playbook on what he would have termed an appeal to the Dionysian impulse, the primitive, violent and ecstatic forces that lie below the surface of civilization. (You can see two prime specimens at the top of the page: James Taylor of the libertarian-oriented Heartland Institute and longtime oil lobbyist William O'Keefe, who now heads the George C. Marshall Institute, a climate-obsessed right-wing think tank.) They didn’t have to. That impulse is baked into human culture at this point, and it can be exploited without entirely being recognized or understood.

I’m not discounting the most obvious elements of the 21st-century assault on science, which are amply addressed in Kenner’s film and other recent works on the subject. There is certainly a heated cultural and political conflict over the issue of climate change, but there is no “scientific debate,” no matter how many times Fox News hosts repeat that phrase. Enormous financial interests are at stake, as oil companies and other big stakeholders in the fossil-fuel economy seek to fend off or delay a major social restructuring that could destroy their business. Ideological hangover from the Cold War and the 1960s, especially among a certain paranoid strain of the conservative movement, has turned the climate issue into a symbolic confrontation between American freedom and the sinister global forces of academia and environmentalism, often understood as the new faces of Communism. As former Republican congressman Bob Inglis – a staunch conservative and former climate skeptic who was defeated by a Tea Party rebel in 2010 – puts it, issues of tribal loyalty are at work here that trump rational questions about the validity of scientific evidence.

Inglis is the most interesting individual interviewee in “Merchants of Doubt,” partly because he stands apart from the competing ideological choruses on this issue and has taken on the thankless task of proselytizing his fellow Christian conservatives, one terrifying Deep South radio show at a time. His remarks about tribalism also nudge us toward the Nietzschean subtext of the climate fight, by which I mean not just the question of what political or corporate agendas are being served – since that’s pretty obvious – but why the right-wing counterattack against a previously uncontroversial scientific consensus has been so effective with the general public.

In other words, we need to ask new versions of the questions Nietzsche himself asked: “What does all science in general mean considered as a symptom of life? What is the point of all that science and, even more serious, where did it come from?” Beneath the political, economic and tribal conflict over climate science lies a profound sense that what Nietzsche described as the “Apollonian” forces of social order, in this case being the book-learning of the professoriate and the rules and regulations of government, cannot contain or comprehend the chaotic and mysterious nature of reality. There is considerable truth in that, which was Nietzsche’s great insight -- how much truth and what kind of truth, and how these competing forces can best be managed, being precisely the important questions.

For the sanctimonious forces of liberalism, committed to a one-way human narrative from darkness into enlightenment, it is always tempting to blame such retrograde impulses on a uniquely American combination of ignorance, isolation and religiosity. Those factors have played their part in our nation’s history, but self-righteous rube-shaming is unlikely to lead to political victory, and does not address what appears to be a deep-seated species preference for passion over reason, sensuality over intellect, Dionysian excess over Apollonian discipline. To say that such a phenomenon exists and must be confronted is not to endorse it uncritically, a confusion that has often led to misreadings of Nietzsche. If those of us who would like to save the planet ignore or deny the dark allure of the Dionysian impulse, we have already conceded the high ground on the battlefield of human imagination, and are likely to lose everything.

“Merchants of Doubt” is primarily based on the influential 2010 book of the same name by science historians Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway, which traces the strategy and tactics of climate denial back to the tobacco industry’s 50-year propaganda war against clear-cut medical evidence and increased government regulation. “Our product is doubt,” as one infamous internal memo, found amid the reams of tobacco-industry documents pried free from the corporate vaults, put it. Advised by consultants at the P.R. firm Hill & Knowlton never to directly deny the mounting evidence that cigarettes were addictive and deadly, tobacco execs and their hired scientific hands insisted for decades that they simply weren’t sure. Maybe and maybe not! We need more research and more evidence! We don’t personally believe these things are harmful just because smokers are many times more likely to die of lung cancer – but who really knows?

In a devastating montage near the end of Kenner’s film, we see how leading Republican politicians, who appeared to accept the scientific consensus on climate change until a few years ago, have come to echo this rhetoric almost word for word. John McCain, Mitt Romney, John Boehner and even George W. Bush all used to agree that climate change was real and in large part caused by human activity; Newt Gingrich and Nancy Pelosi once did a public-service announcement together urging bipartisan action on the issue. Those were the days, my friends. After the Tea Party uprising of 2010 and climate counterattacks by the Koch brothers’ Americans for Progress, the oil industry-funded blogger and pundit Marc Morano and numerous others, that all changed. Boehner, Gingrich, Romney and every other Republican candidate or official in the country was forced to flip to the “Heck, I’m no scientist” school of mandatory agnosticism. (We should spare half a kind thought for McCain, who even in his diminished and compromised post-Sarah Palin condition retains a few shreds of integrity.)

Building on the work of numerous other scholars – notably the Australian economist and ethicist Clive Hamilton, whose book “Requiem for a Species” goes somewhat deeper into the same issues – Oreskes and Conway identify a tiny group of renegade right-wing scientists who have established themselves as professional contrarians and saboteurs, seeking to muddy the waters on a whole range of issues from tobacco to acid rain to pesticides and carbon emissions. This cabal has been led by the physicists Bill Nierenberg, Fred Seitz and Fred Singer, who were leading figures in Cold War weapons design but possess no academic expertise in any discipline relating to climate science. Their importance to the climate-denial movement lies in their possession of legitimate Ph.D.s, their ability to comb through scientific studies and cherry-pick confusing or contradictory data points, and – most of all – their eagerness to defend “free-market capitalism” against all efforts to restrain it or redirect it.

This handful of devoted obfuscators, buttressed by an army of industry-funded “experts” from recently invented right-wing think tanks – Morano, O'Keefe, Taylor and pretty much all the other dudes who show up on TV in that role possess no actual background in science – has ingeniously capitalized on the mainstream media’s fetish for balance and succeeded in sowing widespread confusion. Since Barack Obama took office in 2009 – which coincided, not by accident, with the launch of a major climate-skeptic counterattack – opinion polling has consistently reported that at least 40 percent of Americans believe that the seriousness of global warming is exaggerated. That level had never been reached in 12 years of previous surveys. It's bizarre and distressing that such transparently bogus tactics worked so well, but it could only have happened if the seeds fell on fertile ground. For a whole range of reasons, reflecting both America’s chronic political divisions and the deeper cultural forces at work beneath them, many people ached to believe that the scientific bad news simply wasn’t true.

In the film, Naomi Oreskes makes a convincing case that the climate issue fell into the middle of an enduring American ideological conflict, and that it's overly simplistic to see the anti-science counterattack purely in terms of avaricious corporations defending their interests. Seitz and Singer are neoconservative true believers in a Leo Strauss mold, happy to spread disinformation on behalf of what they see as a noble cause. Even a loathsome mercenary like Morano, as we meet him in "Merchants of Doubt," appears to be driven by perverse conviction, although it might not amount to more than the urge to jam his thumb into the eye of liberal orthodoxy. An entire libertarian-reactionary sector of the population – the angry white guys of the Glenn Beck-Rush Limbaugh-Fox News audience – was eager to do likewise, and embraced the competing and contradictory arguments of deniers as revealed prophecy.

Clive Hamilton has written that the doubt-merchants find a ready audience because it’s “just too hard” for many people to face the truth about climate change: “When the facts are distressing it is easier to reframe or ignore them,” just as few of us confront our own mortality until we are close to death. OK, maybe – but there’s a note of condescension in that psychological truism that rubs me the wrong way, and I would suggest that his explanation goes nowhere near far enough. To return to Nietzsche’s terminology, Hamilton is framing the problem in terms of cool, Apollonian logic, and declining to notice the darker, Dionysian factors of the equation.

It might be more productive to turn the question upside down, and to suggest that Americans “reframe or ignore” the bad news about global warming or guns or cigarettes or fast food not because they’re terrified to face death but because they embrace it, in the ecstatic and fatalistic spirit that Nietzsche identified with Dionysus, the Greek god of wine and madness. We’ve all gotta go sometime, and if the planet is toast it strikes many people as more fun to face the end with a quart bottle of Jack, a bag of White Castle sliders and a jacked-up Silverado burning Exxon Premium, rather than nibbling edamame in a hemp-lined, plug-in hybrid on the streets of Berkeley.

Is that an insane and suicidal response to a problem that can probably still be fixed, or at least ameliorated? Sure, but this is America we're talking about. As both myth and lived reality, America is the most Dionysian society in recorded history. Our nation’s unique symbolic importance – the extent to which we are loved and hated, emulated and resisted – testifies to that. America is an orgiastic celebration of stuff that’s bad for you, bad for other people and bad for the planet, thinly papered with pale imitations of the Apollonian institutions of art and learning and faith that (according to Nietzsche) constrained and channeled the Dionysian drives of earlier civilizations.

Guns and fast cars and pornography and a history of careless and rapacious wastefulness are all expressions of the Dionysian impulse rendered into commodities and commercial enterprises, as are Hollywood movies and the oil industry and the McMansion. Nietzsche might well have seen those things as fatally debased versions of the Dionysian, just as our extreme economic inequality and atomized, narcissistic mass culture add up to a vicious parody of his idealized caste-divided society, devoted to producing great art and great thought. Pollution and sprawl and environmental destruction, understood as a collective willingness to live for today and poison tomorrow, represent a self-destructive excess that Nietzsche almost seems to foresee. Greek myth, he writes, warns us that too much “Dionysian wisdom is an abomination of nature, and that those who plunge nature into the abyss of annihilation … must themselves also suffer the disintegration of nature.”

Combating or redefining the extended Dionysian overdose that has made America what it is today is no small task, and the problem with an advocacy film like “Merchants of Doubt” (which is excellent, and should be seen by as many people as possible) is that it’s directed at the Elizabeth Warren voters, the quadrant of the population already committed to Apollonian restraint. It might slightly accelerate the spread of reason, a laudable goal in itself, but if the scientists are even partly right we don't have time for a long march toward victory. There's a major cultural dilemma here that no movie can solve. If we can’t make the social and economic transformation that will be needed to avert planetary apocalypse appeal to the pleasure principle in some way, then we might as well get buckled in for the roller-coaster ride to hell.

Largely due to our own cultural blinders, leftists and environmentalists and intellectuals get easily suckered into the role of the uptight schoolmarm with stick firmly in butt, lecturing the townspeople about how they absolutely must turn off those crazy Christmas lights, stop mixing Doritos with shots of Jägermeister and go to bed at a reasonable hour. It might be good advice, but it only makes everybody feel bad and opens the door for the liars, hucksters and con men. Our fellow citizens aren't as dumb as they may appear: They know our economy and society are in big trouble, they're not sure there's anything they can do about it, and at least the climate deniers and Cold War troglodytes and unctuous corporate pitchmen aren't threatening to make them watch black-and-white TV in the dark, or replace their Coors Light with kombucha.

There’s a scene in "Merchants of Doubt" that expresses this contradiction, perhaps without meaning to. In a vintage TV clip, we see legendary ’80s talk-show host Morton Downey Jr. – a Dionysian figure if ever there was one, and the spiritual godfather of Beck and Limbaugh -- berating cardiologist and tobacco researcher Stanton Glantz, who was foolhardy enough to go on Downey’s show and talk about the dangers of second-hand smoke. “I’m 55 years old and I smoke four packs of cigarettes a day,” Downey crows, “and I’ll be damned if I don’t look 20 years younger than this guy!” It's true -- he cuts a suave and dapper figure next to the rumpled, balding Glantz, and the studio audience explodes in a joyous Dionysian frenzy: Science is bullshit! Smoking keeps you young! Our fate is in the hands of the gods! It's also true that Downey died of lung cancer in 2001 (after spending his last years in the Apollonian mode, as a penitent ex-smoker), while Glantz is still with us, writing, doing research and bedeviling the tobacco industry. The lesson might seem obvious – but the facts, as Nietzsche told us long ago, are only part of the story.

"Merchants of Doubt" is now playing in New York and Los Angeles, with wider national release to follow.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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