Alexander Cockburn, fading fast
Dr. Arthur Robinson: circulated Oregon Petition as well as publishing Dr. Edward Teller
In responding to Alexander Cockburn’s atrocious commentary on climate change over the past few years, my tone has been characteristically acerbic. Since Cockburn is one of my major writing influences, it should come as no surprise that I often take the same tone that he does. But all the while when I am responding to him, it is hard for me to suppress a feeling of sadness and worry that his outstanding mind is beginning to fade.
When I first ran into his writing in the Village Voice in the early 1980s, after having resigned from the SWP, I was amazed at his investigative reporting skills. Like a radical version of “Sixty Minutes”, he had a way of digging up the dirt on any number of malefactors. That’s why I am so dismayed by his seeming inability to check the sources he uses in writing about climate change. Perhaps he is unaccustomed to using search engines on the Internet but when he decided to cite Zbigniew Jaworowski as an expert on climate change, he apparently failed to turn up this character’s long standing relationship with the Lyndon Larouche cult, something I was able to do in less than 15 minutes. I fear that he is so into his climate change denialism that he lacks the ability to fact-check his own material. Since he is such a dominating figure, I doubt that his partner Jeff St. Clair has the backbone to take him on even though it is quite likely that he disagrees with him.
But more worrisome is the possibility that Alexander Cockburn has grown intellectually flabby over the years. I imagine that cranking out dozens of articles a year must take a toll on one’s mind. I have been programming for 42 years now and I know what it means to be burned out. Of course, I would switch jobs with him in a heartbeat even though I wouldn’t wish that disaster on the financial records at Columbia University.
The most recent occasion of Cockburn nuttiness was a January 4 Nation Magazine article titled “From Nicaea to Copenhagen” that is not worth reviewing in any kind of detail since it mostly rehashes old arguments with an aggressiveness buttressed by the British email hacks that were posted on the Internet. The opening sentences sets the blustering tone for the remainder of the article: “The global warming jamboree in Copenhagen was surely the most outlandish foray into intellectual fantasizing since the fourth-century Christian bishops assembled in 325 AD for the Council of Nicaea to debate whether God the Father was supreme or had to share equal status in the pecking order of eternity with his Son and the Holy Ghost.”
In the February 8th issues, there are a number of letters attacking this article that Cockburn responds to in his trademark supercilious fashion. One thing in his response did catch my eye: “More than 30,000 scientists have signed the Oregon Petition, which refutes the AGW theory.” (Anthropogenic global warming.) My first impulse was to find out more about the Oregon Petition, something apparently that Alexander could not be bothered with.
Perhaps he might have not heard about this very useful online resource called Wikipedia. If he had, he might have found an entry for “Oregon Petition” that reveals the following:
The original article associated with the petition (see below) defined “global warming” as “severe increases in Earth’s atmospheric and surface temperatures, with disastrous environmental consequences”. This differs from both scientific usage and dictionary definitions, in which “global warming” is an increase in the global mean atmospheric temperature without implying that the increase is “severe” or will have “disastrous environmental consequences.”
Well, what the heck. Who cares about scientific usage when you have bigger fish to fry? After all, Cockburn is dead set on establishing a vast conspiracy involving 99 percent of the world’s scientists and major corporations bent on developing nuclear power. When you are in the business of uncovering conspiracies, who wants to be bothered by petty details? Like the ability of jet fuel to melt steel?
The article that was attached to the petition also appeared to be damaged goods:
The article followed the identical style and format of a contribution to Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a scientific journal, even including a date of publication (“October 26”) and volume number (“Vol. 13: 149-164 1999”), but was not actually a publication of the National Academy. Raymond Pierrehumbert, an atmospheric scientist at the University of Chicago, said that the article was “designed to be deceptive by giving people the impression that the article…is a reprint and has passed peer review.”
There were also problems with the signatories, some of whom appeared to have little connection with climate science as the Seattle Times reported in 1998:
Several environmental groups questioned some of the names in the petition. For instance: “Perry S. Mason”, who was a legitimate scientist who shared the name of a TV character. Similarly, “Michael J. Fox”, “Robert C. Byrd”, and “John C. Grisham” were signatories with names shared with famous people.
It also seems that Cockburn failed to check what www.sourcewatch.org had to say about the Oregon Institute of Science and Medicine (OISM), the outfit that circulate the petition. One of its founders is Arthur Robinson, who was a biochemist not a climate scientist. Surprise, surprise. According to its website, it also markets a home-schooling kit for “parents concerned about socialism in the public schools” and publishes books on how to survive nuclear war. Like the Larouchite fellow traveler Zbigniew Jaworowski, the OISM tends to pooh-pooh the danger of nuclear power and nuclear weapons. Just the kind of people Alexander Cockburn would normally have a violent aversion to, unless of course they shared his screwy ideas about climate change. Sourcewatch reports:
It published two books, Nuclear War Survival Skills (foreword by H-bomb inventor Edward Teller), which argues that “the dangers from nuclear weapons have been distorted and exaggerated” into “demoralizing myths.” Robinson also co-authored another civil defense book titled Fighting Chance: Ten Feet to Survival, in collaboration with Gary North, who like Robinson is a conservative Christian. North is also a prolific author of doomsday books with titles such as None Dare Call It Witchcraft; Conspiracy: A Biblical View; Rapture Fever; and How You Can Profit From the Coming Price Controls. Following his collaboration with Robinson, North built a web-based marketing empire built around apocalyptic predictions that the Y2K bug would make the dawn of the 21st century “the year the earth stands still.
When I read about the shoddy reality of the Oregon Petition and the group that circulated it, I almost felt a tear coming to my eye as I considered the sheer fecklessness of one of America’s most respected radical journalists. How the mighty have fallen.