“Alternative Facts:” The Pseudoscience of Doomsday
Alternative Fact: Climate change is not happening.
Fact: There are many lines of evidence indicating global warming is unequivocal.
Alternative Fact: Climate change is not that bad.
Fact: Negative impacts of global warming on agriculture, health, and the environment far outweigh any positives.
Alternative Fact: Increasing CO2 has little to no effect.
Fact: Many different measurements support the strong effect of CO2.
On June 7, the Philosophy of Science Association (PSA) and the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) Center for Science and Democracy hosted a webinar on anthropogenic climate-change denial ( Our use of the term “denial” refers collectively to the various expressions of antipathy toward the science of anthropogenic climate change. Some commentators distinguish between denial as a complete rejection of climate-change science and “skepticism,” which feigns an open-minded and critical attitude consistent with the scientific method, while obstructing and confusing the debate by introducing unverified data and misinformed hypotheses).
“Scientific Facts vs. Alternative Facts (sic)” describes “alternative facts” as scientifically indefensible empirical claims and misinformed hypotheses promulgated to challenge the now well-established scientific consensus concerning climate change. The webinar demonstrates how the employment of such false assertions creates doubt among voters and their representatives concerning the underlying science; much as the tobacco industry did beginning in the 1950s. The goal of the webinar is to help philosophers and scientists explain climate change to the public, and challenge “alternative…scientific…facts.”
The webinar began with a summary of the scientific method and what counts as verified scientific knowledge. They explained how and why science succeeds at its tasks, why scientists believe what they do, and the appeal of alternative facts as they misappropriate authority, contort the logic of scientific investigation, undermine trust in science, and thereby erode democracy.
The presentations ended with David Danks, L.L. Thurstone Professor of Philosophy and Psychology, and Head of the Department of Philosophy Carnegie Mellon University, who explained how alternative facts advance the interests of the powerful and engender policies that hinder positive change. Danks highlighted the resulting decline in respect for the scientific process, the knowledge it produces, the scientific community, and those who champion well-informed public discourse.
The webinar stressed that the irrationality embodied in alternative facts perverts the scientific method and represents a hazard to rational public policy. When the goal of public policy is to prudently satisfy public needs, the scientific method provides reliable data, reviewed by impartial and independent experts, which supports causal explanations that can guide lawmakers toward appropriate legislation. However, when policymakers primarily serve the private interests of business, they often hire well-paid “merchants of doubt” to propose alternative facts. Their intention is to deny, or at least undermine, inconvenient scientific data that suggest policies that interfere with capital accumulation.
Socialist Political Action: The Challenge and Program
The presentation intends to help scientists and philosophers describe climate science in non-political settings, so the participants are careful to avoid political talk. Danks argues that inviting politics into the debate about alternative facts only adds “more noise to the problem.” For Danks, scientists and philosophers should demonstrate how the logic of climate-change denial begins by first establishing political interests, and then proceeds to support those interests by cherry picking data. This “inverts” a scientific rationality that demands that data determines issues of public concern as well as inform remedial policies.
While the webinar serves the scientific and philosophical communities, Danks’ admonition would be triply unhelpful for socialist activists. First, it excludes from the debate those ethical principles encapsulated within socialism that are required to establish a logical connection between scientific facts and socialist public policy. When socialists restrict responses to alternative facts by only explaining the scientific method, they lose an opportunity to introduce those singular principles and perspectives that identify the socialist voice within the wider public debate. Talk about the scientific method, while necessary in helping people understand what scientific facts are, is not sufficient to drive political debate toward the kind of radical change that socialism represents.
Second, it biases the focus of the debate toward the propagandistic mechanics of denial, leaving its causes unexplained; causes that socialists wish to identify with the processes of capitalism. While Danks’ admits the causal potency of political “interests,” he does not identify them specifically, and the nature of the causality therewith remains hidden. For those who consider socialism a purely political program, Danks’ restricted perspective might appear unproblematic. However, socialism also comprises a Marxian scientific research program that can reveal the causal bases for climate-change denial, and adheres to the same rigorous scientific standards as other sociological research. It enjoys well-ordered functional explanation and statistical modeling common to the human sciences. Marxism’s distinctive world-view integrates morality and science. It explains not only how capitalism systematically exploits, alienates, and represses workers, but also how the inexorable functional drive for capital accumulation creates what Marx identifies as a “metabolic rift” between humanity and its life-sustaining environment.
Finally, socialist activists wish to explain causes and generally address issues under the bright lights of their political views. Socialists publicly confront power by questioning the underlying ideology and structure of capitalism. To do so clearly and convincingly, some fundamental concepts and perspectives of socialism must enter the debate. The central problem for socialist activists is not the avoidance of any putative noise of political talk. It is rather how to effectively integrate explanations of the epistemic and social value of the scientific method with the Marxian moral and empirical accounts of the economic structure and functions of capital. When socialist activists do this, a more comprehensive and distinctively socialistic conception of climate change denial emerges that can effectively inform the public debate.
From Use Values to Exchange Values
Marx’s conception of use values illuminates the role of alternative facts in sustaining capitalist accumulation. Marx defines a commodity as “an external object, a thing which satisfies through its qualities human needs of one kind or another.” Commodities have both use-values and exchange values. A use value is “an aspect of the commodity [that] coincides with the physical palpable existence of the commodity. Wheat, for example, is a distinct use-value differing from the use-values of cotton, glass, paper, etc. A use-value has value only in use.” If humans share use values, commodities take on a social use value. For a social use value to become a commodity, it must also enter into a process of market exchange. Under capitalism, commodities are artifacts of human labor produced for sale. When social use values enter into capitalist markets through commodification, they obtain a quantitative exchange value, embodied in an exchange medium, money, and expressed as a commodity’s price.
The distinction between the concepts of use value and exchange value provides a basis for a Marxian account of climate change denial. The atmosphere embodies a use value that satisfies a variety of human biological needs. It functions to supply the oxygen required for respiration, protect people from the Sun’s UV radiation, maintain a temperature compatible with human life, and distribute water across the planet. However, the coal industry also uses the atmosphere as a cost-free depository for those greenhouse gasses that result from the production and consumption of coal. As long as these use values remain sustainable, and freely available to all at no cost, the needs of both humanity and the coal industry are satisfied. Under these circumstances, the coal industry requires no capital investment to sustain the capacity of the atmosphere to store greenhouse gasses; thus defending the prevailing rate of profit of the existing productive forces, if all other factors remain relatively constant.
However, climate science has conclusively demonstrated that anthropogenic global warming is causing predictable and catastrophic effects such as sea-level rise, mega-storms, and mass extinctions, all of which will increasingly threaten humanity. This is because there is a limit to the quantity of atmospheric greenhouse gasses that is compatible with human life. As the public’s knowledge of climate-change science grows, and the urgency for remediation increases; the use value of the atmosphere as a greenhouse gas depository becomes a focus of public concern and policy. Proposed corrective policies include regulations that add new costs to coal production and limits to consumption; thus introducing significant capital demands, while reducing accumulation.
In order to mitigate this threat, the coal industry exercises three strategies: 1) deny the scarcity, 2) postpone, but not solve, the problem by raising prices and seeking efficiencies, and 3) admit that the resource is finite, but claim that it can remain sufficiently abundant through technological innovation and the exploitation of replacement resources.
The denial of climate change science exemplifies the first strategy. The coal industry employs alternative facts to convince people that overwhelming scientific evidence is questionable, if not simply untrue. In addition, they suppress public criticism and the dissemination of scientific facts by advocating laws that ban references to sea-level rise and climate change. They attempt to minimize concerns over the diminishing social use values of the atmosphere. They exaggerate the atmosphere’s (and the ocean’s) ability to sustainably absorb then purge greenhouse gases. They misrepresent the effectiveness, practicability, cost, and technical feasibility of clean-coal technology with a pretense of corporate responsibility intended to convince the public of the “wisdom” of capitalist markets. When all else fails, they propose alternative facts to promulgate unsubstantiated conspiracy theories, thus eroding public trust in science.
However, as climate change denial weakens under the weight of scientific evidence, the coal industry begins to rely on the second and third strategies. Once the public appreciates human causality and atmospheric emission limits, a new use value emerges: the value of maintaining a biologically suitable atmosphere. Since human labor is required to create the technology to provide this new use value, and because it is a social use value, it can become a market commodity; and, with the required marketization and capital, obtain an exchange value.
Since this exchange value represents an additional production cost imposed through regulation, the coal industry must take steps to defend its current rate of profit. It does this by transferring much of the cost of reducing CO2 emission and mitigating environmental pollution to the American taxpayer. They resist inhibiting government regulations, lobby for advantageous market structuring and regulation, and employ speculative investments to supply the needed capital as remediation costs increase and commodity demand decreases. Capitalists generate further profit from technological innovations that clean-coal technology companies introduce into market.
Our account of the dynamics of capital’s exploitation of the market potentialities of “producing” a life-sustaining atmosphere provides a basis for understanding the coal industry’s employment of junk science. Their merchants of doubt concoct alternative facts and “theories” supported by cherry picked “evidence” that buttress their lobbying efforts for favorable regulatory policies.
Socialism: It Isn’t Noise. It’s the Message
Socialist activists need not isolate their resistance to alternative facts from their ideological advocacy. This is because Marxian analysis provides insights into the socioeconomic causality of climate-change denial. As the public experiences the damaging consequences of climate change, calls for significant decreases in greenhouse-gas emission will intensify. The coal industry will adapt in ways that will affect the fossil-fuel market’s status quo. The coal industry will continue struggle to retain as much of the current productive forces as profitable, while gaining new market opportunities with the commodification of a life-sustaining atmosphere. Thereby, the coal industry intends to have its cake and eat it too. A socialist perspective on climate change denial encourages immediate and sustainable remedies, while illuminating the systemic forces of capitalism that drive a massive erosion of scientific standards that cripples knowledgeable public discourse, and endangers humanity.