A secret fundraising document from a shadowy anti-science institute was accidentally made public. The document candidly lays out the anti-science agenda of group, including efforts to undermine science education in public schools, but also plans to broadly redefine society.
The year was 1998, and the document was from the Discovery Institute. Nicknamed “The Wedge Document” by opponents of the Disco. ‘tute’s brand of creationism, it details plans to use attacks on evolution like the thin edge of a wedge, opening a crack which in time would break society free of “scientific materialism.” Ultimately, the document explains, the Discovery Institute’s plans would “replace materialistic explanations with the theistic understanding that nature and human beings are created by God.”
On Valentine’s Day of this year, the story repeated, but instead of exposing the anti-science agenda of creationists, it reveals the equally anti-science agenda of climate change deniers.
The Heartland Institute is a major player in the climate change denial movement, and the release has produced masses of discussion. Their files – including public IRS forms, private details of a board meeting in January, and fundraising and budget documents distributed for that meeting – were accidentally emailed to an unknown third party, who shared them with journalists including Richard Littlemore of DeSmogBlog. The documents answer many questions about Heartland, demonstrating their ties to the ultra-conservative Koch family, continuing ties to the tobacco industry (Philip Morris funded their work in the ’90s), funding to supposedly independent climate change deniers like Anthony Watts, and plans to develop a $100,000 climate change denial curriculum.
Where the Wedge Document reflects the enthusiasm of a new organization, the Heartland files reveal more mature planning. The fundraising document contains few of the grand claims for societal transformation that characterize the Disco. ‘tute’s inaugural fundraising pitch. Instead, Heartland lays out a long campaign against science, including plans for increased funding from climate change denial’s sugardaddy Charles Koch, and a program to fund prominent climate change denier Anthony Watts as he tries to find new ways to pretend weather records don’t tell us about climate change.
Most intriguing to science education advocates is their plan to invest at least $100,000 over this year alone to produce and distribute a curriculum laying out their climate change denial message. The thumbnail at the right links to a full-sized version of the relevant page, which explains:
Many people lament the absence of educational material suitable for K-12 students on global warming that isn’t alarmist or overtly political. Heartland has tried to make material available to teachers, but has had only limited success. …
Dr. David Wojick has presented Heartland a proposal to produce a global warming curriculum for K-12 schools that appears to have great potential for success. …
Dr. Wojick proposes to begin work on “modules” for grades 10-12 on climate change (“whether humans are changing the climate is a major scientific controversy”), climate models (“models are used to explore various hypotheses about how climate works. Their reliability is controversial”), and air pollution (“whether CO2 is a pollutant is controversial. It is the global food supply and natural emissions are 20 times higher than human emissions”).
Wojick would produce modules for Grades 7-9 on environmental impact (“environmental impact is often difficult to determine. For example there is a major controversy over whether or not humans are changing the weather”), for Grade 6 on water resources and weather systems, and so on.
We tentatively plan to pay Dr. Wojick $5,000 per module, about $25,000 a quarter, starting in the second quarter of 2012, for this work. The Anonymous Donor has pledged the first $100,000 for this project, and we will circulate a proposal to match and then expand upon that investment.
The file also claims “Dr. Wojick has conducted extensive research on environmental and science education for the Department of Energy,” but the Department clarified: “David Wojick has been a part-time support contractor for the Office of Scientific and Technical Information since 2003, working to help the office manage and organize its electronic databases. He has never advised or conducted research for the Department on climate change or any other scientific topic, and the office he works for is not a research organization.” His background in philosophy and engineering hardly qualify him to devise an educational curriculum, either.
Aside from the substantial donation Heartland has already received for the curriculum from an unnamed donor, and the significant additional funds they plan to solicit, there are some important revelations here. Heartland’s efforts to influence educators are not news: they’ve bragged about mailing out climate change denying DVDs and handouts to teachers before. But because the educational system is so decentralized, it’s hard to know how effective those mailings have been. This document suggests that those efforts have largely been a flop.
What’s also noteworthy is the language Wojick is quoted using. It is consistently the language of doubt and controversy, and he has returned to that well in his public defense of the program, telling AP reporter Seth Borenstein: “My goal is to help them [teachers] teach one of the greatest scientific debates in history… This means teaching both sides of the science, more science, not less.”
His goal is to sow confusion among teachers and students about what the science of climate change actually says. This is a strategy familiar to aficionados of creationist rhetoric (as is the idea of “both sides of the science”), but more importantly to those familiar with the history of tobacco industry obfuscation. As a famous memo to the tobacco industry argued in 1969: “Doubt is our product.” Fewer people know that that line continues: “Doubt is our product since it is the best means of competing with the ‘body of fact’ that exists in the mind of the general public. It is also the best means of establishing a controversy.” (The link is more than rhetorical: Philip Morris gave significant funding to Heartland in the ’90s, and the same document lists Philip Morris parent company Altria as a major donor today.)
Establishing a controversy and undermining public understanding of the body of fact on climate change are central to Heartland’s account of their new climate change curriculum, and long-standing keys to Heartland’s broader agenda.
For a sense of that agenda, and Heartland’s history, it’s worth turning to a profile in Nature last July. In that profile, Heartland honcho Joe Bast explains his agenda now that Congressional action on climate policy had been stalled:
“We’ve won the public opinion debate, and we’ve won the political debate as well,” Bast says. “But the scientific debate is a source of enormous frustration.” …
Bast’s assault on climate research takes two forms: challenging the credibility of the science, and disputing the claim that there is a scientific consensus on climate change.…
Heartland plans to spend $1.8 million on its climate programme this year. Of that, $413,000 will go to supporting the Nongovernmental International Panel on Climate Change (NIPCC), a small group of sceptics who have set themselves up as a counterweight to the IPCC. … The NIPCC … ignores mountains of evidence about the adverse effects of global warming and instead strings together a confident story that makes rising carbon dioxide concentrations seem entirely beneficial. …
Bast, Heartland and the NIPCC all approach scientific data as attorneys, simply trying to sow doubt and justify political inaction.…
Bast happily acknowledges hand-picking data to support his position, but argues that scientists on the other side do the same thing when they are building a case for global warming. He also says it is only natural that a libertarian like him would decide to question the scientific foundation for climate change.
The climate change denying curriculum is a logical extension of the Heartland agenda, and parallels the rhetoric and strategies of creationists as well. Just as Wojick calls for teaching “both sides” and to cover “more science, not less,” the Discovery Institute’s official policy claims: “Discovery Institute seeks to increase the coverage of evolution in textbooks … a curriculum that aims to provide students with an understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of neo-Darwinian and chemical evolutionary theories … there is nothing unconstitutional about voluntarily discussing the scientific theory of design in the classroom.” (This wrongly assumes that there is such a scientific theory, that evolution has such weaknesses, etc.)
The Heartland memos also reveal an effort to create an echo chamber of science denial, much like the pseudoscientific infrastructure created by the creationists since the 1960s. Heartland spends hundreds of thousands of dollars to fund NIPCC, a group meant to undermine the conclusions of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a body which produces synthesis reports on the state of climate science for use by world governments. The extent of Heartland’s funding, and the degree to which they controlled that project, has never been clear, and these memos show that Heartland is calling the shots. Heartland funding goes directly to publicize NIPCC’s work, but also goes to individuals involved in NIPCC, including Fred Singer, the godfather of climate change denial. Singer has never acknowledged such funding before, and indeed has denied any such funding.
In addition, the fundraising memo shows that Heartland is coordinating an effort to raise funds for a new website raising confusion about the causes of record temperatures. In order to push back against media coverage of the role climate change plays in record-breaking weather, they propose to pay prominent climate change denier Anthony Watts $88,000 to put up a website reformatting weather data from the National Weather Service. The money comes from the same unnamed donor funding the climate change curriculum and many other Heartland initiatives.
It isn’t the first collaboration between Heartland and Watts. As the memo observes, Watts has promoted the claim that flaws in the US-government operated weather station network are so great as to invalidate the claim of global climate change. The memo says this was “work that The Heartland Institute supported and promoted.” That Heartland promoted the project is not news – they publish a booklet Watts drafted on the topic – but how did they “support” it?
The report only mentions Heartland as the publisher, not as a supporter of the work (which I take to be financial support). Nor does the website Watts created for the project ever mention support from Heartland. He acknowledges volunteers and technical assistance from individuals, but the only mention of Heartland’s role is a note in the printed report explaining: “Opinions expressed are solely those of the authors. Nothing in this report should be construed as reflecting the views of The Heartland Institute, or as an attempt to influence pending legislation.” Either Heartland is inflating their role in Watts’s earlier work, or Watts failed to disclose Heartland’s support.
This tangled web of hidden funding and hidden influence is a tool for creating an echo chamber. Heartland quietly funds Watts, Watts produces reports for Heartland to publish. Watts retains a semblance of independence. Heartland can then point to his work and tout its independence, claiming that they are simply reporting what others discovered. Then NIPCC can cite his work, without acknowledging any coordination between their effort and Watts’s. And Watts can cite NIPCC without having to say anything about his shared funding source. To outsiders, it seems like there are multiple independent sources all arriving at the same position, instead of a coordinated media campaign by Heartland.
We don’t know who distributed the Heartland memos, or exactly how they were obtained. But by doing so, the leaker provided a profound public service, one that we can all be grateful for. These memos provide an inside look at the climate change denial machine, revealing how they talk about their work behind closed doors, and revealing their machinations to sow doubt about some of the most important scientific issues of the day.
We also don’t know who the anonymous donor is who funded the denialist curriculum and the weather station project. All we know for certain is that he’s a man who has taken great interest in Heartland’s work since at least 2007. As table 5 of the fundraising memo shows, he gave over three and a quarter million dollars in 2007, another $4.6 million in 2008, and is expected to give $1.25 million to Heartland in 2012. Much of that donation is unrestricted, allowing Heartland to spend it as they choose, while he’s given between $3.3 million and $630,000 in previous years specifically to support Heartland’s climate change denial efforts. For context, public records show that the 2010 budget for the National Center for Science Education was $1.1 million, only slightly more than the $964,150 that Heartland’s anonymous donor gave for climate change denial in the same year (only a fraction of their total climate change denial funding). It’s also well less than the $2 million that the Discovery Institute spent on their creationist efforts in 2010.
If that imbalance concerns you (and it should), I’d suggest donating to NCSE (and I’m not saying that as an employee).