ACSH is astroturf, here's why

The American Council on Science and Health recently got some exposure on twitter, then a little too much exposure, after publishing this highly problematic (and hysterically bad) op-ed/infographic on twitter and on their site.

This opinion piece, presented as if there is some method or objective analysis, purports to show which are the best and worst science news sites. But this immediately started to fall apart on the most cursory inspection. First of all, notice the x-axis, it’s clearly some kind of subjective assessment, and it immediately fails to be credible as the New York Times is classified as “more ideological” than Forbes (a source of global warming denialism including writing by James Taylor), or Fox News. Then twitter started in on it and quickly the y-axis started to come apart as well. Phil Plait points out that just on basic inspection it’s a joke:

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Other commentators on Twitter tried to science it up for them by making the y-axis based on pageviews only to learn that oh, that axis was subjective too, based on the author’s idea of what compelling is.

And insult to injury, Nature (from the top left no less) weighs in and calls it garbage in the nicest, Naturiest way possible:

It’s a curious exercise, and one that fails to satisfy on any level. It is, of course, flattering to be judged as producing compelling content. But one audience’s compelling is another’s snoozefest, so it seems strikingly unfair to directly compare publications that serve readers with such different interests as, say, The Economist and Chemistry World. It is equally unfair to damn all who work on a publication because of some stories that do not meet the grade. (This is especially pertinent now that online offerings spread the brand and the content so much thinner.)

Come to think of it “Fails to satisfy on any level” is a bit harsh coming from Nature.

Naomi Oreskes, noted science historian of Merchants of Doubt (albeit wrong on nuclear power and likely GMOs) weighed in:

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So basically, no one is fooled here.

Scienceblogs is also listed as ideological and of little value, maybe because our sciblings from angrytoxicologist to Effect Measure to the Pump Handle, to me (all the way back in 2007) and the excessively thorough Orac (see also) have been pointing out the obvious for years – the ACSH is astroturf. MotherJones, who admittedly have ideological problems from time to time on GMO and nutrition, are also frequent critics of ACSH, pointing out the felonious past of their one-time Director and their funding from industry for whom they provide excellent cover.

The newly revealed documents say that ACSH staffers should approach potential corporate financial backers with pitches geared toward specific issues. Last year, the documents note, the group planned to “seize opportunities to cultivate new funding possibilities (Prop 37, CSC, and corporate caving, etc.).” Proposition 37 was a 2012 California ballot initiative mandating the labeling of genetically modified foods. (It failed.) “CSC” is shorthand for the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, a consumer watchdog group that seeks to eliminate dangerous chemicals from cosmetic products. The documents suggest ACSH planned to mention CSC in its fundraising pitches to L’Oreal, Avon, and Procter and Gamble.

Lately, ACSH has become a vocal player in the debate over hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking.” In February, the council posted an outline of a “systematic, objective review” it intends to publish on the scientific literature covering the potential health effects of fracking. In an April op-ed for the conservative Daily Caller website, Whelan criticized Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D-N.Y.) for dithering on whether to allow fracking in New York State and asserted that “publicity savvy activists posing as public health experts are spearheading a disingenuous crusade to prevent the exploitation of the vast quantities of natural gas.” Fracking, Whelan wrote, “doesn’t pollute water or air.”

These links to industry have made their efforts to take on notable quacks such as Mehmet Oz backfire spectacularly because they are easily dismissed as so contaminated with ideology themselves. And we should not be surprised, founded in 1978 as a counterpoint to Nader’s CSPI, they basically exist to push back against attempts to regulate industry in the consumer’s interest.

So what we have here is basically an op-ed in chart form, in which media such as NYT, CNN, Motherjones, and historic critics of ACSH are “ideological” or “not compelling” whereas basic science journals like Nature who do not usually wade into their political waters are high impact along with media politically-aligned with ACSH such as Forbes and the Economist. Great stuff. I agree with Nature, it fails at every level. And in the end such an exercise, even if not performed in such a amateurish and obviously fraudulent way, would be enormously difficult to undertake. Almost all news sources screw up, and I have been critical, at some time, of almost every single one of those sources from MotherJones, to Forbes, to the NYT, the Guardian (where I have also published), Wired etc. This is not a straightforward exercise and only saying Nature itself is reliable for news would be incredibly limiting and absurd, as would saying you should believe sources of journalism such as the NYT without question. It also is a conflation of science reporting with periodic garbage in opinion section (Pollan in the NYT for instance is usually in opinion or food sections, huffpo has a separate science entity that is passable), and if we’re going to weight media down by opinion sections of course Nature will likely win. They’re loath to express an opinion on anything.

On to more important matters, what is the deal with the ACSH anyway? It seems a very contradictory organization. They seem to have lots of legitimate scientific content, a staff with legitimate credentials, and a list of distinguished policy advisors, as well as good articles on anti-vax, ag, alti-med etc. The American Council on Science and Health, is not just astroturf, but may be one of the best astroturf investments out there for those interested in advancing their industry message. Why is this? Because they are really good at using legitimate science reporting and advocacy to camouflage a freemarket fundamentalist product. While railing against politicization of science, they happily submit deeply political material as some kind of nonideological exercise in scientific expertise. Take their review of Trumps nominees for cabinet positions with a scientific mission, in an article entitled Evaluating President Trump’s Science and Health Choices guess what? There were no bad choices.

Given all that, not to mention overruling scientists on Yucca Mountain, the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, Keystone XL, and more, it seems strange that some activists worry the incoming President will be any more anti-science than the last. The reality is presidents embrace science when it agrees with policy.

Ok that’s a start, apparently scientists are for Keystone XL, Obama is apparently anti-science, or at least, there is no reason to expect Trump (Global Warming is a Chinese Hoax) to be more anti-science than Obama. Fascinating. They clearly hate politics, and are very serious people that aren’t political in their opinions, but Obama is anti-science, and Trump apparently is not. Oh my. It gets better:

Health and Human Services – The position of HHS Secretary is often given to party loyalists with little or no relevant expertise in healthcare policy, but President Trump instead chose Dr. Tom Price, a medical doctor and Congressman. Dr. Price recognizes that the Affordable Care Act needs to be fixed, a necessary reality in 2017. This office also oversees the Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Given the attention the opioid crisis has gotten, along with concerns in the science and health community that the CDC has been too aggressive in promoting crises to lobby for funding about, there are a number of challenges that Secretary Price faces beyond health insurance.

Tom Price, plagued from the start with ethics violations for self dealing through legislation (and – failure to disclose – an ACSH supporter!) is great for HHS. The ACA needs to be fixed (apparently not a political statement), and the CDC is “promoting crises to lobby for funding”. For a non-political, non-ideological group this is starting to sound a bit crazy-pants.

His critics tried to drum up controversy, noting that Dr. Price has been affiliated with an organization that has been critical of mandatory vaccines and also some essential ones. However, in Senate testimony, he unequivocally rejected them and embraced evidence-based medicine.

He actually did not reject the AAPS (they who shall not be named), it was not unequivocal, and that organization is more than antivax, it promotes lies about abortion and breast cancer, the link between HIV and AIDS, and Tom Price is a member. But apparently since he’s on the freemarket fundamentalist side, we’ll just ignore this, gloss over his weak non-disavowal, and not even mention the name for fear of reminding people just how anti-science this group is.

It gets even better:

Environmental Protection Agency – On its science findings, the EPA can be terrific, but the accusation by critics has been that they have been picking political goals first, and gathering data later. As mentioned above, the EPA’s “Waters of the United States” rule, where private ponds and creeks can be defined as “navigable waters” that fall under the EPA’s jurisdiction, remains mired in the courts, while pollution experts argue that its mandates on emissions were made using narrow data and ignoring studies which showed pollution is not causing any acute deaths in the U.S. now.

The EPA needs to return to being a data-gathering agency that recommends policies to elected officials and less of an unassailable oligarchy that skirts around Congress by issuing green decrees.

How is this not an intensely political position? The EPA, which has “protection” in its name should no longer be proactive but instead should just gather data? This is a radical reorientation of the function of an agency of government, can you pretend that’s anything but a political goal?

Also they love Scott Pruitt:

Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt successfully challenged EPA rulings on scientific grounds, while acknowledging that the office has an important role to play in regulating pollution, including carbon dioxide. The challenge will be convincing lawmakers and the public that EPA is again evidence-based and making decisions to protect the long-term health of all Americans, rather than, as critics claim, used as a way to pass laws without involving Congress.

Tasking someone who has defeated EPA with reforming its work is a bold move, but it won’t be easy taming this bureaucratic leviathan or undoing the carefully groomed relationships anti-science groups have created with career bureaucrats there.

That’s right, antiscience groups are in the EPA now, and the guy who is going to fix it is the Oklahoma AG who sues the EPA so his state can have more earthquakes than any other, and who submits proposals from the oil and gas industry to the EPA as if they are his own. But the ACSH, they hate mixing politics and science. Heavens forbid.

Finally my favorite:

Department of Energy – Former Texas Governor Rick Perry has been tapped to head a department that he once said should be eliminated. However, he since admitted he was wrong and had changed his mind – a rare trait in a politician. While many states floundered with the low GDP of the last eight years, Texas did well, and that was because of energy production.The Obama administration too often used this department to subsidize the alternative energy industry. Solyndra, which went bankrupt and cost taxpayers $535 million, is just one example. Tens of billions of dollars were squandered because we subsidized corporations to compete with cheap Chinese labor on solar panels, or promoted wind, which hasn’t been a viable large-scale solution in the last 700 years and isn’t now.

To be successful, Gov. Perry should redirect funds away from corporate subsidies and back to basic research in alternative energy. As a bridge to a pollution-free future, he should encourage the development of America’s natural gas resources which, if done with proper regulatory oversight, will reduce greenhouse gas emissions even farther than it has. Smart natural gas extraction will increase our country’s energy independence and poke Vladimir Putin in the eye, since evidence has shown that the Russians were manipulating environmental activists to prevent America from attaining energy independence and being an energy exporter.

Obama’s secretary of Energy was Ernest Moniz, a nuclear physicist and an expert in the issues that are DOEs mission. Rick Perry’s greatest interaction with the DOE was forgetting its name on a debate stage while trying to list agencies to eliminate. Also I can’t resist this, here is his college transcript.

Note he, unlike Obama’s nominee, is not a nuclear physicist, and he got a D in a class called “meats”. But, the ACSH assures us, they hate politics! Rick Perry is going to be great because he will direct us away from renewables (hey the Chinese have those down anyway) and he’s probably learned a lot about nuclear physics since nearly failing “meats”. There is nothing political to see here. No siree.

Wow. That is the ACSH being apolitical and purely scientific. This is also consistent with a long history that I’m sure they’d wish we’d ignore, for instance of climate denial. Here is S Fred Singer, notorious denialist and ACSH former staff, waxing poetic about fellow climate denier Michael Crichton’s book State of Fear (porn for climate denialists per Chris Mooney)

The not-so-hidden message of State of Fear, spelled out in copious footnotes, a lengthy afterword, an appendix, and a twenty-page bibliography, is an oddly reassuring one for a Crichton book, even if many scientists would disagree with it: There is no such thing as global warming, or at least nothing that anyone can prove or predict — and when it comes to climatic change, the only thing we have to fear is fear itself, and the experts who are in the business of purveying it.

For good measure, Crichton’s protagonist, “MIT professor on special leave” John Kenner, also delivers a number of mini-lectures challenging some of the Green movement’s most cherished beliefs, arguing, for example, that DDT is safe enough to eat, that the giant sequoias are practically junk trees, and that the methane emitted by termites is potentially a greater hazard than the atmospheric buildup of carbon dioxide.

I suspect that Michael Crichton is motivated by the same anger as so many of us who don’t want to see science misused for political purposes — or used just to gain grants from government and foundations. These are the sentiments that led to the founding of my organization, the Science and Environmental Policy Project. I was therefore pleased to see the great respect paid by Crichton to the late UCal professor Aaron Wildavsky, a founding director of SEPP.

Tellingly, the book points out that critics of the “consensus” and skeptics about global warming tend to be mainly retired academics — scientists who are no longer in the rat race for tenure, research grants, and career-building honors.

As Crichton states disarmingly (p.573): “Everybody has an agenda. Except me.” Well, there are a few others like him. The hundreds of scientific skeptics who have signed the Heidelberg Appeal, Leipzig Declaration, and Oregon Petition against junk science share the same agenda as Crichton.

There you have it, from the ACSH site, Climate change is fake, it’s a conspiracy to get grant money (by mostly retired scientists? wah?) and insert politics into science, and the noble scientists of the Oregon petition prove Crichton right.

But remember, the ACSH is not political! They don’t deny climate science, or maybe they don’t anymore, they’re very reasonable people. They’re much better these days I’m sure! Except how they refer to Al Gore as “still demented” for his advocacy of climate science, promoting the Lomborgian distraction:

The real cause of so much suffering in the world is not climate change but poverty. In a more prosperous world, diseases like malaria and cholera largely will go away. And deaths from preterm birth complications and birth asphyxia/birth trauma — both of which are in the top 10 causes of death in poor countries — will also vanish.

When it comes to human disease, climate change is mostly a distraction. Eliminating poverty will do far more to save people’s lives than lowering the temperature a notch.

That’s Steve Berezow, who insists he is not a climate denialist. Here is Steve calling David Gorski (an MD/PhD surgeon, scientist, and tenured professor) a liar over it:

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Note Gorski was saying ACSH denies climate change, which as we can see from Singer’s article above, is without question at least a historical fact. These days though, ACSH being the savvy astroturf that they are, they don’t take the same hard line. Instead they go for the Lomborgian middle – don’t deny climate change, just say there is no point doing anything significant to address it, address poverty instead, because hey, we can’t chew gum and walk at the same time and only one issue should get funding at a time. All problems will be addressed serially, starting with Malaria. Charming. If someone holds a gun to your head say, “I support a carbon tax”, which is safe because it’s now probably inevitable (move those goalposts!).

Berezow, who in his free time does cosplay as a cantankerous middle-schooler, also loves climate denialist Richard Lindzen, and as we can see above, “maverick” social scientist Bjorn Lomborg of the “do-nothing” school of climate change:

Consider Alfred Wegener, the father of plate tectonics. In his day, he was mocked and ignored. Today, his theory forms the foundation of geology, but it took more than 30 years for that revolution to occur.

Surely, there are other scientists in the world today whose ideas are scorned but may very well be correct. Only time (and more data) will tell. Let’s consider a few of those “scientific outcasts” here.

Bjorn Lomborg, Roger Pielke, Jr., Cliff Mass, and Richard Lindzen. These four distinguished thinkers come from different backgrounds. Lomborg is a political scientist and statistician; Pielke, Jr. is an environmental policy analyst; Mass is a meteorologist; and Lindzen is an atmospheric physicist. What they all have in common is a rejection of climate change alarmism. And that has unfairly earned each of them the label of “climate denier.”

To varying extents, all of them have caused trouble for themselves by daring to question the common refrain that global warming is the world’s #1 problem and is exacerbating most other problems. Lomborg believes, for instance, that fighting infectious disease and malnutrition are far bigger priorities than fighting climate change. Pielke, Jr. disagrees that climate change is responsible for the increasing cost of disasters. Similarly, Mass refuses to blame climate change on phenomena such as oyster deaths and unusually warm weather in the Pacific Northwest. Lindzen critiques climate models as inaccurate.

This is the classic Galileo Gambit. These are the Galileos (or Wegeners) of our day, misunderstood geniuses or “distinguished thinkers”. They should be listened to, not Michael Mann, or Gavin Schmidt. They aren’t ideological hacks who have no countervailing theory to explain the data, nothing to offer that survives in the literature. They are just geniuses oppressed by the dogmatic consensus scientists! Just like Galileo!

But of course, they’re not like Galileo, they’re denialists. Well documented (Lomborg Lindzen) fact-denying, politically-motivated denialists moving the goalposts and making up conspiracies about climate scientists and emails and trying to convince us that global warming might just be a party and not a threat to civilization. **Cliff Mass, it should be noted, is mixed in with less reputable scientists by Berezow, but he doesn’t deserve this company. While he does have his critics it’s more about conflict over framing the debate on climate change, he accepts the science and is not a denialist. I would argue this is another example of ACSH mixing the real with the fake, and if this wasn’t clear I was targeting Lindzen and Lomborg for my criticism then this was an error. Finally, Roger Pielke Jr. is also problematic, characterized as a climate misinformer by John Cook, he doesn’t deny the science but is something of a lukewarmer like Lomborg, downplaying our knowledge of global warming in a fashion that some believe is dishonest. **

On topics relative to their industries ACSH are of course quite favorable. It’s easy for them to be good on antivax, or big ag, their agenda has been consistently documented for almost 40 years to deny any harm from these industries (minus tobacco). But where there is ideological (or likely financial) conflict with the industries they serve and protect we of course see denialism. Their response is to scream “liar” at the top of their lungs but all we’re doing is pointing out their words. When challenged, they go into hysterics, the thread on the BS infographic alone is hysterical with Berezow responding to any critique with ad hominem at anyone – reporters, scientists, whoever – calling them liars and lunatics. They certainly comport themselves as cranks when criticized, and despite being challenged by legitimate scientists from Phil Plait, to Oreskes, to Nature itself their little BS infographic stands and I’m sure they remain quite proud of it. But that’s pretty typical of cranky denialists, they can’t even tell when they’re generating crap because they tend to be so incompetent at evaluating science they probably think their little Op-Ed in graph form is super clever. And certainly not political. Never that. It’s not I tell you!

This hypocritical refrain is my favorite part of all this, I had previously mocked their arguments against a science march and it’s part of a general pattern in their writing. They admonish us to keep science out of politics, and politics out of science (an impossibility as I argued), don’t march against Trump, it will stain science as political, then they publish op ed pieces saying Trumps picks are great on science and Political correctness prevents advancement of science. They’re trying to have it both ways, they don’t want politics out of science, just the politics they disagree with, which kind of proves my point. Science is fundamentally political since it’s a human endeavor, and humans think ideologically, not scientifically – including these guys.

Their other defense is one of distraction. They’re not antiscience because – look over there! We’re fighting antivax! And altie-meds! This is true. But this is like standing over a dead body with blood on your hands and exclaiming, “But I give to charity!” It doesn’t matter that they’re very good on other topics. This is part of the slickness of this operation. They generate lots of good content to mix with the bad, package it as “apolitical” and pure science, then pass off their politics and their brand of anti-science with the rest of the good stuff. It’s camouflage. It’s very clever, and it clearly works. Lots of folks I respect will defend ACSH because they are good on their issues. I would just ask them to take the 30,000 ft view here of what is going on.

So, yet another piece of hackery from a very old, very ideological, astroturf organization. One of the oldest, and to their credit, one of the best at the game. I can’t wait for them to lose their minds at me, spew childish insults and try to attack me personally (per usual). They can’t deny their words though, and they can’t defend the ideological garbage they insist is “apolitical”. Anyone who has eyes to see understands their record, their own words, and their actions dealing with critics show who they really are.

**updated to clarify Cliff Mass is not to be confused with Lindzen or Lomborg as a denialist or lukewarmer.

11 thoughts on “ACSH is astroturf, here's why”

  1. Thank you. I’ve had my suspicions, but you’ve nailed it for me. A great service. Science 2.0 bookmark now in trash.

  2. Mark…you are very unfair to me. I am not a denialist and never have been. Can you find a SINGLE piece of evidence that I am not in the mainstream of my field? I have published a number of papers on climate change, including my first work with Stephen Schneider. Calling people names is not helpful in creating a bipartisan movement to deal with climate change…including a national carbon tax…cliff mass

  3. Cliff, where exactly did I criticize you? I believe I singled out Lindzen and Lomborg. I would be more offended at Berezow for including you in a sentence with those two, than at me for pointing out they are ideological actors who undermine climate science.

    This is the trick they pull, mixing the legitimate with the illegitimate to provide this exact cover story when criticized. I’m not going to play this game.

    As far as name calling, see Berezow calling Gorski a liar above, when he was demonstrably telling the truth. If you are for legitimate debate on climate change you have to identify actors who are dishonest brokers in the debate. To label them as such is not name calling (as Berezow exemplifies), but instead serves to bring debate back into a productive sphere that is not contaminated with nonfactual, ideological, or dishonest positions.

  4. Your statement referred to everyone on the “list”, including me. I think you should have explicitly stated that I am NOT one of the denalists. Here is your text:

    “This is the classic Galileo Gambit. These are the Galileos (or Wegeners) of our day, misunderstood geniuses or “distinguished thinkers”. They should be listened to, not Michael Mann, or Gavin Schmidt. They aren’t ideological hacks who have no countervailing theory to explain the data, nothing to offer that survives in the literature. They are just geniuses oppressed by the dogmatic consensus scientists! Just like Galileo!

    But of course, they’re not like Galileo, they’re denialists.”

    You are grouping me with the rest of that bunch…which is not fair

  5. I mention Lomborg and Lindzen going into the quote, I then identify Lomborg and Lindzen as the denialists after the quote. Pretty clear. For the record I’d say it was unfair to be grouped with them, but I wasnt the one who committed that sin. I’m happy to add even more clarification, but I don’t think anyone is actually confused. The people who directed you here to my little blog within hours are just grinding their axe.

    How do you feel about being listed with those two in the first place? I think thats the problem, and that’s ACSH gimmick. Mix the real with the fake.

  6. I would also point out that failing to quote the very next sentence when I distinguish exactly who I’m talking about – that is unfair. That is cherry-picking in fact. Maybe try less hard to engineer outrage where there is none to be found. Thats your thing right? Cooling people off who read too much into nothing?

  7. I would appreciate you adding a sentence that explicitly states that I am NOT one of the denialists you are talking about.

  8. OK Cliff, I added a paragraph contextualizing both you and Pielke, it only seems fair he gets an explanation as well. For years I have struggled to categorize him because while he clearly trucks with the denialists including the climate denial clearinghouse at Watts Up With That, he avoids frank denialism or engaging in conspiracy theories. That being said, I think he is ideological and ultimately untrustworthy in his analysis, as do sites such as Skeptical Science that thoroughly track his mixed record on the science characterizing him as “misleading”.

  9. Thanks Mark. My sin, to some, is that I talk about uncertainty and push back when folks claim that individual event is “proof” of global warming. I would not trust Skeptical Science as a reliable source of information…it is not. And I would leave Roger Pielke alone–he is an extraordinarily accomplished scientist and his ideas are always worth listening to, even if you may not agree. We don’t all have to agree on everything…that is what science is about. Terms like “denier” are simply unhelpful and work against bringing folks together in the long run to deal with anthropogenic global warming…cliff

  10. Will have to agree to disagree there. What I see is a situation in which terms like denialism are critical to help people understand that ideologically motivated players are working in a dishonest fashion to undermine science and the debate over AGW. Just as one wouldn’t expect evolutionists and creationists to come together in the long run, some people for ideological reasons are fundamentally-opposed to the science of AGW due to conflict with free market fundamentalism. The assertion that it’s a matter of disagreement is just not the case, our point is there is healthy and unhealthy debate, and debate in which some actors are using dishonest arguments for ideological motives is pathological and only serves to delay necessary action.

    To say it’s just a matter of disagreement is to ignore the reality of motivated reasoning, of astroturf groups, and of ideological actors who seek to undermine truthful discussion for personal or political gain. They rely on the good-hearted and well-intentioned to treat them with respect, invite them in, then they set the house on fire. We’re trying to point out who the arsonists are.

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