Jeff Masters gets at something in his great piece on the “climategate” e-maelstrom that most press coverage leaves out: this isn’t our first time around the track. The Manufactured Doubt industry has been around for decades, working to thwart regulatory constraints on large corporations that make dangerous products. Not only are all the same techniques being used in the same way on climate change, in many cases they’re being used by the same people and institutions that fought against tobacco, CFC, asbestos, and auto safety regulations.

In every case they have been discredited, their science exposed as fraudulent, their economic doomsaying given lie by subsequent innovation and growth. In every case, documents later show that the truth about the products’ dangers was known but deliberately concealed and the effort to deceive was intentional and well-funded.

It’s an industry that uses dishonesty to defend corporations. Plain and simple. Everyone ought to know that by now and it ought to frame media coverage of these dreary “skeptic” controversies. Yet the press seems to think that every new claim or contrived controversy from the industry deserves to be met with the same furrowed brow, the same quote and counter-quote presentation of “sides,” the same chin-scratching atmospherics of doubt. It’s always the world’s scientists and scientific institutions being asked to defend their integrity, not the professional dissemblers and character assassins.

I haven’t read the emails. I’ll leave it to others to determine whether a few scientists or a few papers deserve a newly critical eye. As Masters says:

Even if every bit of mud slung at these scientists were true, the body of scientific work supporting the theory of human-caused climate change–which spans hundreds of thousands of scientific papers written by tens of thousands of scientists in dozens of different scientific disciplines–is too vast to be budged by the flaws in the works of the three or four scientists being subject to the fiercest attacks.

Whatever may be on trial in this latest dismal theater piece, it isn’t the validity of the basic conclusions of climate science. Media coverage of this spectacle is a failure if readers do not come away understanding two facts:

  1. The overwhelming majority of peer-reviewed science shows that climate change is happening, human-caused, and dangerous.
  2. The overwhelming majority of economic modeling shows that action to address climate change is compatible with robust economic growth.

The rest is sound and fury.

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UPDATE: A fantastic interview on Washington Post with science historian Spencer Weart reaffirms what I was saying above, particularly this bit:

The theft and use of the emails does reveal something interesting about the social context. It’s a symptom of something entirely new in the history of science: Aside from crackpots who complain that a conspiracy is suppressing their personal discoveries, we’ve never before seen a set of people accuse an entire community of scientists of deliberate deception and other professional malfeasance.

Even the tobacco companies never tried to slander legitimate cancer researchers. In blogs, talk radio and other new media, we are told that the warnings about future global warming issued by the national science academies, scientific societies, and governments of all the leading nations are not only mistaken, but based on a hoax, indeed a conspiracy that must involve thousands of respected researchers. Extraordinary and, frankly, weird. Climate scientists are naturally upset, exasperated, and sometimes goaded into intemperate responses… but that was already easy to see in their blogs and other writings.