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Annals of Stupidity: The Demise of Alexander Cockburn

By Gerald Rellick  Posted by Jason Miller (about the submitter)     Permalink
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There is no shortage of political pundits now wading into the discussion of global warming, despite the scientific complexity of the field. One of the latest entries is Alexander Cockburn. I have read Cockburn regularly over the years, and while I recognized him as a very talented polemicist whose acerbic screeds I could tolerate when directed to the likes of Henry Kissinger, Robert McNamara and Augusto Pinochet, his latest foray into the field of man-made global warming is scientifically dreadful, and hence irresponsible, and reflects journalism and public service at its worst. Were it not for the importance of global warming, we could easily dismiss his writing. But Cockburn has a sizeable reading audience through “The Nation” and his own publication, “Counterpunch.” And since educating the public on this matter is crucial if we are to do something about global warming, Cockburn needs to be taken to task for his dishonesty and slipshod journalism. Cockburn’s writing is so confusing, so polemical, and his “science” so inaccurate that it’s difficult to know where to begin a critique. Nevertheless, let me try, although I believe that going toe-to-toe with him on points of fact is of no value. I’ll leave it to the legitimate climate scientists to deal with this if they wish. There exists a climate science forum for this (ref. 1). The scientists at this site have already taken apart George Will for his equally insipid writings on global warming (see ref. 2, “Will-full Ignorance”).

Cockburn tries to refute the consensus of the world’s leading climate scientists that man-made (anthropogenic) carbon dioxide is responsible for the planet’s current global warming trend. In his first article he does so by relying on the supposed expertise of one man who, it turns out, is no longer active in the field of climate research (ref. 3). Having received no doubt an avalanche of negative reviews, Cockburn begins his second article (ref. 4) by going on the attack:

“No response is more predictable than the reflexive squawk of the greenhouse fearmongers that anyone questioning their claims is in the pay of the energy companies.”

Cockburn throws out this sentence as a straw man. Anyone familiar with Cockburn is unlikely to charge him with being in collusion with any interest but his ego. Like any good polemicist Cockburn is drawn further into his subject by the negative reaction to it. This is quite simply what Cockburn does for a living. So we now have three articles – each worse than the previous – with the promise of at least two more to come.

In his third article (ref. 5) Cockburn gets all twisted around on the interpretation of carbon isotope ratios in the atmosphere, in the oceans and in plant life. Aside from his erroneous interpretations, what is most striking is his casual dismissal of scientists and the scientific method. Although a non-scientist, and one who has just demonstrated in three consecutive articles little or no learning of the relevant science of which he writes, Cockburn forges ahead and challenges the scientists in their own fields of expertise, calling them, for example, “misguided,” and operating on a “naïve and scientifically silly assumption” about how plant-based carbon gets into the atmosphere. To suggest that highly educated and respected scientists throughout the world would overlook something as fundamental and basic as this – but the non-scientist Cockburn would catch it – is utterly preposterous. This is about as credible as Cockburn telling us how, in his other job as an operating room janitor, he uncovered the medical malfeasance of a team of neurosurgeons, claiming they were incorrectly reading CAT and MRI brain scans – all this due to a few weekends of self-study in neurosurgery.

Cockburn also attacks at the personal level. Cockburn calls his critics in the scientific community “greenhouse fearmongers.” He implies they have personal agendas, tied to their need for financial support. But the truth is that any scientist who challenges the anthropogenic global warming scenario – either legitimately or illegitimately –would find almost unlimited financial support from the oil, coal and gas industries, all of which seek to burn their fossil fuels with impunity.

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What we see in these writings is an unqualified intrusion into the very complex interdisciplinary field of climate science, which involves cooperative expertise in atmospheric chemistry and physics, geophysics, meteorology and oceanography. And while the overwhelming consensus of climate scientists is that man-made climate change is real, these same scientists also agree there are many details still under debate, but which will, in due time, be sorted out through the scientific process.

What makes the subject of global warming so attractive to lay journalists, compared to, say, neurosurgery, is that global warming is not remote from everyday life. It affects every person on the planet and, perhaps more importantly from the decision-making level, has profound financial and political-power implications. This opens the door to charges of biased interests and even conspiracy – the very life blood of polemicists like Cockburn.

At bottom, there is no intellectual honesty in Cockburn, just bad journalism, “bad faith,” and the need to be seen and read.

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There is one truly strange comment by Cockburn near the end of his third article. It suggests that he’s either writing all this as a spoof or he’s become totally detached from reality:

“I had hoped to deal with criticisms at the end of the series [but] have changed my plans, since committed greenhousers like George Monbiot charge that I have ignored their rebukes. In actual fact I was offline, in Russia, flying thither over the Arctic and thus able to make a direct review of the ice cap.”

Is he serious? Perhaps next Cockburn will fly over New Orleans and tell us what needs to be done to get that city back on its feet.

References:

Ref. 1. http://www.realclimate.org/

Ref. 2. “Will-full ignorance,” http://www.realclimate.org/index.php?p=90

Ref. 3. “Is Global Warming a Sin?”, The Nation, May 14, 2007, http://www.thenation.com/doc/20070514/cockburn

Ref. 4 “Who Are the Merchants of Fear?”, The Nation, May 28, 2007,
http://www.thenation.com/doc/20070528/cockburn

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Ref. 5. “The Greenhousers Strike Back, and Strike Out,” The Nation, June 11, 2007, http://www.thenation.com/docprint.mhtml?i=20070611&s=cockburn),

——————–
Gerald S. Rellick, Ph.D., worked in the aerospace industry for 22 years. He now teaches in the California Community College system. He can be reached at grellick@hotmail.com

 

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