03 Oct 2016: Opinion

How the Attack on Science Is
Becoming a Global Contagion

Assaults on the science behind climate change research and conservation policies are spreading from the U.S. to Europe and beyond. If this wave of “post-fact” thinking triumphs, the world will face a future dominated by pure ideology.

by christian schwägerl

The last tweets that British Labor MP Jo Cox sent out into the world were about oceans, fishing, and trawler fleets. The day before her assassination by a right-wing nationalist last June, she shared an article on Twitter about why scientific advice is so important for fisheries policy and how it helps replenish depleted fish stocks. A further tweet showed Cox’s husband and their children in a rubber dinghy on the Thames, taking part in a bizarre symbolic "battle" about Britain's departure from the European Union.

Cox’s tweet referred to the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea, or ICES, one of the oldest international scientific institutions in the world. It was founded in Denmark in 1902 with the purpose of putting oceanic activities on a sound scientific footing. Since then, the network has grown to include 4,000 scientists from 350 oceanographic facilities in 20 member states.

Cole Bennetts/Getty Images
An anti-climate action rally in Australia.
Here, international science and scientific political consulting are practiced par excellence. Politicians cannot know how many fish live in the ocean, which is why ICES researchers measure the stocks of hundreds of species and recommend the degree to which they can be exploited or if they need to be protected. Before the European Union fixes fishing quotas, it consults ICES.

The Cox family was photographed in their dinghy flying an “In” flag in favor of staying in the EU, as Brexiteers doused them with water. The family was opposing a fleet of fishermen that EU enemy Nigel Farage had organized. Farage criticized EU fishing quotas as an attack on Britain’s national sovereignty and held them — and not rampant overfishing — responsible for the decline of British coastal towns.

On the day that Cox was murdered, the former mayor of London, Boris Johnson (who has since been appointed Foreign Secretary), visited a fish factory in the north of the country with the same objective of garnering votes for Brexit. Like Farage, he argued against the science-driven policies of the EU. His verbal attacks were directed not only at people like Cox, but also, in a more fundamental way, at the scientific process underlying what is called "evidence-based" policy.

A different scientific body is already used to being a target of anti-science forces. In 1988, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was created with the express objective of keeping governments around the globe abreast of developments in climate research. Hundreds of scientists from all over the world collaborate in the IPCC, among them some of the best minds in the field. The IPCC warns of the grave consequences that will follow in the wake of unrestrained CO2 emissions. By now, some 190 countries have accepted the findings of the IPCC, as demonstrated by their signing of the Paris climate change agreement reached last December.

Most recently, however, new enemies have joined forces with traditional foes of the IPCC, such as the fossil fuel industry.
The continued skepticism about climate change is a repudiation of global and empirical thought.
Just as British opponents of the EU reject the findings of fisheries science, many other like-minded politicians — including, of course, Donald Trump; the neo-nationalist Alternative for Germany (AfD); and other proponents of the new European Right, such as former Czech president Václav Klaus — flatly reject the findings of climate research.

Ostensibly, they do so out of methodological doubt or economic interest. At heart, however, the continued skepticism about climate change is a repudiation of global and empirical thought. Hostility toward science is on the rise. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, a trained quantum chemist, recently warned that Western societies are faced with a "post-fact world" in which emotions and ideology threaten to suppress scientific knowledge and evidence.

The foreign policy expert Ulrich Speck of the Washington, D.C.-based Transatlantic Academy has dubbed this new camp “territorialists,” in contrast to “globalists.” Territorialists find climate change suspect, in part because it could mean that Europeans or Americans have to forego material wealth in order to help other people living in faraway lands, such as the inhabitants of Pacific Islands. The climate doesn’t have walls, and the science studying it is globalist by nature. The worldwide network of measuring stations that monitor temperature, water salinity, and air currents is the same kind of masterpiece of international cooperation as the retrieval of the hugely important Vostok and Dome C ice cores — with their invaluable climate data — from the Antarctic by European, Chinese, Japanese, and Russian scientists, among others.

It is precisely this global ethos of science that draws the territorialists into the fray. When asked recently why he disliked environmental thinking, Alexander Gauland, a leader of Germany's AfD, answered: “Excuse me, but ‘environmental’ has nothing to do with national identity.” This type of thinking is on the rise, and it could have earth-changing consequences. If Donald Trump is elected president, he wants to rescind the Paris climate agreement, dealing a major blow to efforts to mitigate global warming.

Sean Gallup/Getty
Former Czech President Václav Klaus, a climate skeptic, with his book 'Blue Planet in Green Shackles.'

Trump's position is shared within the new populist movements of Europe. Polish Foreign Minister Witold Waszczykowski, of the right-wing Law and Justice Party, announced in January that his government "wants to cure our country of a few illnesses” such as "a world made up of cyclists and vegetarians, who only use renewable energy." Poland aggressively tries to block EU climate change legislation. In France, the right-wing National Front has launched its own "New Ecology" group. Mireille d’Ornano, a National Front politician, described international climate talks as a “communist project” in an interview with The Guardian, adding, “We don’t want a global agreement or global rule for the environment.”

There are other examples in both Europe and the U.S. of how a wave of "post-fact" politics is endangering science-driven progress.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) was founded in 1948 with the objective of protecting the environment and biodiversity. One of the IUCN’s most important activities is to draw up red lists of endangered species. The scientific studies conducted to this end involve plants, insects, mammals, fish, and many other forms of life. Again, hundreds of scientists from across the world are trying to discover through fieldwork, long-term observation, and data analysis what species are declining or are in danger of disappearing from the face of the earth.

One of these threatened species is the Delta smelt (Hypomesus transpacificus), a two- to three-inch long, visually unspectacular fish that only lives at the confluence of the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers in California. This fish used to be abundant, but the IUCN has now classified it as “critically endangered” because of drought and over-pumping of water for agriculture. The Delta smelt is one of Donald Trump’s most defenseless targets, and when he appeared in California earlier this year, Trump refuted the findings of several scientific institutions, including the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), claiming there was no drought on the U.S. West Coast. Farmers didn’t have enough water, he said, because too much was being pumped into the Delta — to the benefit of “a certain three-inch fish,” i.e. the Delta smelt.

Will the future be shaped by empiricism and empathy or by modern ideologies of egotism and hatred?
To Trump, the findings of NOAA and the IUCN mean little, and, if necessary, he would annihilate the Delta smelt. Here, too, his aggression is directed not only at a wild creature, but also at science, which describes this living thing, measures its global chances for survival, and develops categories for the urgency of protection measures.

All this shows that the new breed of ideologists not only has the potential to trample on universal human rights, but also empirical science, which, unlike any other system of thought, rests on a global foundation. The first globe that depicted America, constructed by Martin Waldseemüller at the beginning of the 16th century, revealed to all the earth’s interconnectedness. Three centuries later, Alexander von Humboldt, with his idea of a “world organism,” transitioned from scientific empiricism to global empathy. At the beginning of the 20th century, in the middle of ubiquitous nationalism, scientists, in particular, developed an avant-garde global citizenship. During the Cold War, it was the academies that cultivated the dialogue between the West and the Soviet Union.

Most recently, science contributed to development of the Internet, a structure that connects everything and everyone. Science also has devised the idea of the Anthropocene, which maintains that humanity’s collective impact on Earth and has created a new geological epoch and a new shared responsibility.

This thinking makes it seem meaningful to forego coal-fired power plants in Europe, for example, in order to prevent Pacific Islanders from being inundated by rising seas. But if the current wave of "post-truth" and "post-fact" ideology grows larger, not only climate science, but all of science, might be next in line to be charged by the extreme-right with systematic lying. Climate change denialism might only be the beginning of a much broader development toward a post-empirical world dominated by pure ideology.

In Britain, Jo Cox's assassination by a pro-Brexiteer didn’t stop a majority of voters from supporting Brexit.


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The country is now faced with the task of designing its own rules for fisheries, conservation, and carbon emissions, and it remains to be seen if Britain’s new Conservative government will adopt less stringent environmental standards than the EU.

The outcome of the current conflict between territorialists and a science-driven global environmental community will help determine the direction of the 21st century. How we treat fish in the ocean, the animals we have brought to the brink of extinction, and the climate that sustains life is a reflection of whether we want to be sensitive and empirical in our modern lives, or not.

In these issues, all the big challenges of our time are being mixed in disturbing ways: The crisis of the scientific method, the crisis of nature, and the crisis of humanism become one. The question is whether the future will be shaped by empiricism and empathy along the lines of Alexander von Humboldt's ecological humanism, or whether modern ideologies of egotism and hatred will prevail.

POSTED ON 03 Oct 2016 IN Biodiversity Climate Policy & Politics Science & Technology Europe North America 


I have to say this article is way off beam on so many things, especially in regard to the UK.

"her assassination by a right-wing nationalist last June"

She was not "assassinated" by a right wing nationalist, she was murdered by a guy with mental health problems. The impression given here is appalling.

"Just as British opponents of the EU reject the findings of fisheries science"

"The Cox family was photographed in their dinghy flying an “In” flag in favor of staying in the EU, as Brexiteers doused them with water. "

They crashed an organised and legitimate demonstration against the damaging EU fisheries policy.

"a fleet of fishermen that EU enemy Nigel Farage had organized. Farage criticized EU fishing quotas as an attack on Britain’s national sovereignty and held them — and not rampant overfishing — responsible for the decline of British coastal towns."

The British have not been rampantly overfishing. EU policy has indeed been responsible for the decline of British coastal towns.

The EU has destroyed the UK fishing industry and its long held policy on by-catch led to more fish thrown back in the sea than the catch landed. EU policy favoured industrial massive super trawlers, whereby Spanish beneficiaries of EU funds decimated British waters.

This is a highly political and ill informed article and a pity that it has been hosted here.

Posted by harbinger on 04 Oct 2016

Quite the bombastic emotional article, exactly the type that causes people to question the scientists behind the science, and especially question their agenda. This is not about "egotism and hatred", it is about legitimate skepticism. Something that real scientists should take in stride and answer with the results of credible research - not slander and insults. Climate scientists have nobody to blame but themselves, they opened themselves up to political and ideological criticism when they climbed into bed with shady politicians in order to secure funding. Few people believe that it is merely coincidence that climate science is being used to advance an ideological agenda of ever more power, control and taxes for government.

Posted by ken Wiebe on 04 Oct 2016

Excellent and very accurate overview of the past
and how horrible our future can -- and will be ---
here in the USA (if Trump is elected, I with many
others will leave the USA) and countries in the EU
as well as the UK. I did not know that Ms. Cox was
murdered. This is horrible and another sign of
problems. We have more and more violence in
American schools, colleges and even streets. Now
in the island nations south of the USA, is Hurricane
MATHEW which is the worse storm about to hit the
USA in almost a decade.
Climate change is real --- and we humans are
responsible. We need to be together to do that.
NOW. Not in 10-30 or even 50 years from now.
Our children and grand children lives depend on us
Posted by Woodrow W Clark II, PhD on 05 Oct 2016

The attack on science is a part of the leftist global
strive for power. Thy call themselves "progressists"
as they always imitate something like "liberalism",but
we know them the worst enemies of freedom of
individual and science.
Posted by PermReader on 05 Oct 2016

Deniers are complicit with the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people per year, 88 per cent of them children (WHO) due to human caused extremes in climate. Fancy rhetoric be damned. Facts follow truth/rhetoric, only emotions.

We have been warned for decades. Google: Unchained Goddess, Bell Labs for utube of an early warning.

So, in 1958 Bell Labs warned us. Gore was 6 years old.
Posted by jan freed on 06 Oct 2016

The author's fears regarding anti-environmentalist, anrti-
globalist ("territorialist") sentiment is valid, certainly.
However, scientists and academics generally are far from
blameless. Expensive research which has no apparent
application beyond furthering the authors' reputations and
which gives them a comfortable career going to places and
doing things that they fancy while carefully avoiding any
engagement with ordinary peoples'problems has produced a
profound disenchantment in the popular imagination. At the
same time a different kind of academic espouses all kinds of
'humanistic' ideals with an even more outrageous disregard
for consequences. I'm thinking, for example, of the drive to
advance gender equality by parachuting women into mens'
jobs with quotas alotisnd affirmative action at a time when
the availability of jobs isat an historic low. In short, the
essence of science and sound thinking in academia
generally is objectivity it seems we have lost the ability to be
honest with ourselves.
Posted by Allan Kirk on 06 Oct 2016

One cannot help wondering if the anti-science movement is in large part promoted by those who believe that our economic framework will collapse as climate change accelerates unabated and investments become severely threatened. Clearly, we need an international revolution in economic thinking, with ecological fundamentals as the basis for a new standard. Sadly, we are dangerously slow to embrace such a "radical" philosophy.
Posted by Donald H. Campbell on 06 Oct 2016

Dear Mr. Harbinger,
thank you for your comment. The man who murdered Jo Cox will go on trial in November for terrorism charges. Medical or psychological impairments will not be considered.
See https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2016/jun/23/thomas-mair-trial-accused-jo-cox-autumn-date-november and https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2016/sep/19/jo-cox-trial-will-not-hear-medical-defence-of-thomas-mair
This means he was not "a guy with mental health problems" but a right-wing extremist who targeted and killed Jo Cox for political reasons. Such an act is commonly called "assassination".
Secondly I recommend this article from The Times about British overfishing. http://www.thetimes.co.uk/tto/environment/article4393066.ece In 2015, Britain was the worst EU country in terms of fishing beyond scientifically recommended quotas.
Best regards, Christian Schwägerl

Posted by Christian Schwägerl on 06 Oct 2016

Dear Mr. Wiebe, I'm not quite sure what you mean by saying that scientists have "climbed into bed with shady politicians in order to secure funding". The IPCC is a body made up of scientists and governments (note the difference to politicians only: governments consist of politicians and civil servants). It is totally normal in all fields of science that funding comes from governments. And alternative source of funding would be private companies but issues like smoking and sugar have shown where too strong commercial influences will lead. Having governments on board in the IPCC will not mean that scientific findings about climate change will be exaggerated. Quite conversely, governments consistently have tried to water down findings in order to avoid costly policy changes like phasing out coal or curbing the usw of cars and planes. But scientists have fought hard to fend off too much government influence and their findings and projections have so far been as accurate as one can expect in such a complicated field. Connections with governments are normal in science and have so far not undermined the credibility of the general scientific method. Through taxes everybody pays for scientists to do their jobs - the question is whether the public is then prepared to listen and follow the findings. Best, Christian Schwägerl
Posted by Christian Schwägerl on 06 Oct 2016

Dear "PermReader",
I'm not saying that the new right-wing movements are the only ones ignoring or fighting against scientific findings. In other issues, this also happens on the left of the political spectrum. But in the recent, prominent and very important examples I describe in my article it would be unfair to blame "the left". Here, hostility comes from right-wing populist movements. By the way, in many issues today, traditional categories of "left" and right" have become blurred, and there are ideological overlaps between both extreme ends of the political spectrum. Best, Christian Schwägerl

Posted by Schwägerl, Christian on 06 Oct 2016

The article is on the money. What alarms me more is the comments which indicate the extent to which people have become brainwashed by a captive media. Claims that EU policies have sunk the UK fishing industry are trite - the industry was victim of its own success and and placing rational, regional fishing policies in place was sensible. Now that has all gone out the window with god knows what to replace it.
As for people inventing terms like "progressists", which are probably discussed in some smelly dark conspiracist corner of the internet but which I have never heard previously, well this shows not just how poorly informed people are but how poorly informed they want to be.
If they cannot take the good with the bad and appreciate that this article is part of the Yale fraternity - ie it comes with some degree of gravitas, unlike Fox news, Murdoch news, The UK Times, Sun, Daily Mirror, etc etc - then the author of this article simply has his point neatly reinforced, that the writers criticising this article have been hoodwinked by the attack on science and thus render themselves proof of its tragic success. Welcome to the dumbing down of the world, the Trumping of logic with lies, bigotry and irrational madness.
Dog help us all.
Posted by Glenn on 07 Oct 2016

Let's quickly review the EU's "science-driven" policies:

--GMOs are banned in Austria and France including
GMO insulin which is more pure and cheaper.

--Vast majority of EU citizens consume "organic"
quack food mistakenly believing that it is healthier and
more eco-friendly
Posted by jxxx mxxx on 08 Oct 2016

One problem scientists have is that some claim
that science gives us the answers to problems. It
rarely does.

With climate change, for example, science tells
us that humans have an effect on the climate. It
tells us little else. With complex systems like the
climate, experiment is more important than ever.
Observation tells us little that is reliable.

So we get some scientists saying that science
tells us that we can avoid the worst of climate
change if we keep climate change below 2
degrees Celsius, and that we can keep it below 2
degrees by keeping emissions below a certain

That's just wrong. We don't know that from
science. That's just a guess based on a simplified
model of climate that we know is not accurate.
We know the model is wrong, but we use it
anyway. That's like the old joke about the
scientist telling a farmer how to increase milk
production. "First, you assume a spherical cow . .
. "
Posted by John Smithson on 09 Oct 2016

@JS Science rarely "gives us the answers to problems"? No, it is the rare problem that science cannot provide an answer for - "we" just don't like the answer.

There is only the one Earth how do you experiment on it? Although, that is essentially what we are doing with trying to see just how much carbon we can put into the atmosphere. For any experiment, someone has to observe it. "Observation" is the essence of science. It is 'ignorance' that "tells us little that is reliable."

Nearly all climate scientists say we need to do something about all the carbon we are putting into the atmosphere. There are numerous, very complex models being used--not "a simplified model" that "we" know is wrong--which provide some of the information that scientists are looking at. There are also "observations" of such things as ice cores, for example. And there are countless experiments that have or are being run in multiple fields of science, which corroborate the findings of climate scientists.

For example, "science" tells us that more CO2 is good for plants--up to a point. When there is more CO2 than plants can process, the trend reverses and plants decline. So we get some non-scientists, like yourself, who say "CO2 is plant food" (which is correct), but who then say that, therefore, "CO2 is not a problem." "Science" does not agree.

Instead of an old joke, I will leave you with a new aphorism: You can lead a man to science, but you cannot make him think.
Posted by Rick Clayton on 12 Oct 2016

The opposition to climate science by the likes of
Vaclav Klaus is simple: he is a libertarian
fundamentalist, that is, he fails to recognize what is
taught in (say) the fourth week of most "intro to
economics" courses, namely, that in the presence of
externalities and/or public goods, markets do not
produce socially optimal outcomes. He believes, as a
fundamentalist, that markets ALWAYS are good, so
ANY regulation is bad. His perfectly idiotic economic
ideology--which he shares with many American
Republicans--is another contributor to the "fact &
science free politics" that the author so well
Posted by Alan Richards on 27 Oct 2016

Science skeptics rail against "conspiracies" of liberal and progressive thinkers and political actors, but supply no other terms on which consensus-driven politics can operate. Their preference is for brute power, expressed by economic wealth or military might.
Posted by Ian MacKenzie on 07 Nov 2016

Dear Mr. "Harbinger",
in you comment here you wrote about the murder of British MP Jo Cox: "She was not "assassinated" by a right wing nationalist, she was murdered by a guy with mental health problems. The impression given here is appalling." May I alert you to today's court hearing in which the prosecution clearly stated that it was a politically motivated assassination and not the result of mental health problems.
Best, Christian Schwägerl
Posted by Christian Schwägerl on 14 Nov 2016


"A further tweet showed Cox’s husband and their
children in a rubber dinghy on the Thames,
taking part in a bizarre symbolic "battle" about
Britain's departure from the European Union."

That flotilla was one of the reasons - even tipping
point for a #Brexit win. Rich elite on boats,
swearing at working fisherman. The #Remain
supporters themselves realised this. A very left
wing, political activist Bethany Pickering got off
Bob Geldof's boat in disgust at his actions..


She even ended up voting #leave

The very well respected Green Party - Member
of the EU parliament, Jenny Jones also voted to
Leave.. because it was failing and unreformable..


So trying to link brexit with anti-science is

Even with the new head of the EPA, I'm MORE
confident that he will make sure that Flint has
clean water, than the previous lot

Posted by Barry Woods on 08 Dec 2016

Dear Mr. Woods,
thank you for your comment. I very much appreciate your interest in my article. I have mentioned the bizarre "battle" to highlight Mrs. Cox' interest in fishery policy. The question I wanted to adress was that EU fishery policy at least tries to include scientific advice (from ICES), while the Brexit camp shows contempt for it and Britain has a track record of ignoring it http://www.thetimes.co.uk/tto/environment/article4393066.ece.
(On a more personal level it is beyond me how such an event might have had more influence on the outcome than the Brexit-motivated assassination of an elected member of parliament.)
Secondy, UKIP has a strong overlap with climate change denialists, who are clearly anti-science.
Thirdly, I have witnessed at the ESOF conference in Manchester how desperate the UK science community is about Brexit because it will cut it off from collaboration within the EU. The British science community has warned against Brexit (not enough, it seems.)
These three aspects make me conclude that Brexit indeed has a strong "anti-science" side.

The EU would have needed strong input from Britain for a reform process. It is not a failing institution but our best protection against a return to the world of 1900-1945. I'm writing this with a deep respect for Britain, also for what it has done to liberate my own home country, German, from Nazi rule. The EU for me is an expression of the insight that the darkest parts of our history must not come back. The EU is certainly not a "scientific" institution, but at least it tries to include scientific advice.

My "2 cents" regarding the future: The EU might deteriorate because of Brexit, creating a self-fullfilling prophecy. Or Germany steps in to compensate the loss of British influence but will then be blamed to "rule Europe". It would have been a million times better to stay together.

Best regards,
Christian Schwägerl

Posted by Christian Schwägerl on 09 Dec 2016

Dear "jxxx mxxx"
in your post from Oct 8 you wrote:
"Let's quickly review the EU's "science-driven" policies:

--GMOs are banned in Austria and France including
GMO insulin which is more pure and cheaper.

--Vast majority of EU citizens consume "organic"
quack food mistakenly believing that it is healthier and
more eco-friendly "

I have checked with the Austrian Biotechnology Organisation and they confirm it is NOT true that GM insulin is banned in Austria and France
Their answer: "Insulin is a biotechnology product which requires a centralized approval by EMA. Member states including Austria and France do not have an exemption from that approval"

Secondly, the share of organic produce in the EU is rather small, so your second claim is also NOT true. See for example https://shop.fibl.org/fileadmin/documents/shop/1708-organic-europe-2016.pdf

Best regards
Christian Schwägerl

Posted by Christian Schwägerl on 09 Dec 2016

Great article, thanks Christian. Good to see a piece
go beyond bemoaning the current status quo (attack
on climate science) and spell out the dangers of
where this may lead, i.e. into a more general distrust
of science and scientific institutions.
Posted by Nick Jacobs on 04 Jan 2017


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christian schwägerlABOUT THE AUTHOR
Christian Schwägerl is a Berlin-based journalist who writes for GEO magazine, the German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine, and other media outlets. He is the author of the book The Anthropocene — The Human Era and How it Shapes Our Planet and he is active on Twitter. Previously for Yale Environment 360, Schwägerl reported on Germany's new bike highways and the recent decline in global insect populations.



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Environment 360
is now available for mobile devices at e360.yale.edu/mobile.


An aerial view of why Europe’s per capita carbon emissions are less than 50 percent of those in the U.S.
View the photos.

e360 VIDEO

An indigenous tribe’s deadly fight to save its ancestral land in the Amazon rainforest from logging.
Learn more.

e360 VIDEO

Food waste
An e360 video series looks at the staggering amount of food wasted in the U.S. – a problem with major human and environmental costs.
Watch the video.

e360 VIDEO

Choco rainforest Cacao
Residents of the Chocó Rainforest in Ecuador are choosing to plant cacao over logging in an effort to slow deforestation.
Watch the video.

e360 VIDEO

Tribal people and ranchers join together to stop a project that would haul coal across their Montana land.
Watch the video.