Distinguished computer scientist, entrepreneur, climate crusader, and Penn Stater John Mashey delivered a special seminar through the Earth Systems Science Center Thursday at the Walker Building. There, he articulately and engagingly connected invisible dots between think tanks, climate change deniers, tobacco companies, the media, and even universities.
Mashey, whose seminar was titled “The Machinery of Climate Anti-Science: Science Bypass and Confusion Tactics Inherited from Big Tobacco,” attended Penn State from 1964-1973 and graduated with a BS in math, and an MS and PhD in Computer Science. Born and raised on a small farm in Western Pennsylvania, Mashey’s career quickly took off. He spent a decade at Bell Labs in New Jersey, developing computer software programming that bore his name. He soon moved to Silicon Valley, working on supercomputers. Through that work, he termed the now popular and widely implied concept of “big data.”
A heart attack quickly slowed Mashey’s career — “my doctors told me to get out of the fast lane, or you’ll stop driving,” he said — and soon developed a second career, one as an investigative blogger that studies climate science and highlights “anti-science” and energy issues, the basis for Thursday’s seminar.
Mashey began his presentation by defining the difference between anti-scientists and pseudo-scientists, both of whom he’s worked diligently to discredit in his career.
If science is a brick wall, anti-scientists, he said, “are folks who think if they can find one flaw in science anywhere, the whole thing falls down.” Pseudo-scientists, meanwhile, draw conclusions based on invalid scientific principals. It’s these approaches that Mashey defined as science bypass: an attempt to throw out all accepted research, while always calling for more research to be conducted. This ploy allows anti- and pseudo-scientists to reject any current scientific findings, be it for climate change, the harms of tobacco (Mashey’s two specialties), or anything else.
“Who can argue with more research,” he hypothetically posited.
Mashey, who now enjoys semi-retirement writing for science-positive websites including the climate change-oriented DeSmogBlog and Skeptical Inquirer, demonstrated how the Koch brothers and tobacco, backed by pseudo-scientific think tanks, essentially fueled the creation of the Tea Party. The significant financial contributions from the incredibly wealthy Koch brothers created misinformation that, Mashey said, “convinces people to support agendas against their own best interest.”
But this flow of misinformation and mysterious funding doesn’t stop at political lobbyists and large corporations, he said, but instead is also found at universities. A center at George Mason University is entangled with the Heartland Institute, a think tank that is in turn supported by the Koch Brothers.
Perhaps his most famous example that demonstrated his unique skill in combining science and journalism was his scathing 250-page critique of the Wegman Report, which worked to validate criticism of new evidence towards climate change. This more or less rebuttal to a rebuttal was featured in USA Today and marked a low moment for the pseudo-scientists that Mashey discredits.
“They don’t like me very much,” he said with a spry chuckle.
Image: Penn State