The Relentless Attack on Climate Scientist Ben Santer

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Ben Santer
Dr. Benjamin D. Santer, who was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship for research supporting the finding that human activity contributes to global warming, is currently a climate researcher at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. (Photo: Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory)

The following is an excerpt from Merchants of Doubt by Erik M. Conway and Naomi Oreskes.

Ever since scientists first began to explain the evidence that our climate was warming — and that human activities were probably to blame — people have been questioning the data, doubting the evidence and attacking the scientists who collect and explain it. And no one has been more brutally — or more unfairly — attacked than Ben Santer.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is the world’s leading authority on climate issues. Established in 1988 by the World Meteorological Organization and the United Nations Environment Program, it was created in response to early warnings about global warming. Scientists had known for a long time that increased greenhouse gases from burning fossil fuels could cause climate change — they had explained this to Lyndon Johnson in 1965 — but most thought that changes were far off in the future. It wasn’t until the 1980s that scientists started to worry — to think that the future was perhaps almost here — and a few mavericks began to argue that anthropogenic climate change was actually already underway. So the IPCC was created to evaluate the evidence and consider what the impacts would be if the mavericks were right.

In 1995, the IPCC declared that the human impact on climate was now “discernible.” This wasn’t just a few individuals; by 1995 the IPCC had grown to include several hundred climate scientists from around the world. But how did they know that changes were under way, and how did they know
they were caused by us? Those crucial questions were answered in Climate Change 1995: The Science of Climate Change, the Second Assessment Report issued by the IPCC. Chapter 8 of this report, “Detection of Climate Change and Attribution of Causes,” summarized the evidence that global warming really was caused by greenhouse gases. Its author was Ben Santer.

Ben Santer had impeccable scientific credentials, and he had never before been involved in even the suggestion of impropriety of any kind.
Ben Santer had impeccable scientific credentials, and he had never before been involved in even the suggestion of impropriety of any kind, but now a group of physicists tied to a think tank in Washington, DC, accused him of doctoring the report to make the science seem firmer than it really was. They wrote reports accusing him of “scientific cleansing” — expunging the views of those who did not agree. [1] They wrote reports with titles like “Greenhouse Debate Continued” and “Doctoring the Documents,” published in places like Energy Daily and Investor’s Business Daily. They wrote letters to congressmen, to officials in the Department of Energy and to the editors of scientific journals, spreading the accusations high and wide. They pressured contacts in the Energy Department to get Santer fired from his job. Most public — and most publicized — was an op-ed piece published in the Wall Street Journal, accusing Santer of making the alleged changes to “deceive policy makers and the public.”[2] Santer had made changes to the report, but not to deceive anyone. The changes were made in response to review comments from fellow scientists.

Every scientific paper and report has to go through the critical scrutiny of other experts: peer review. Scientific authors are required to take reviewers’ comments and criticisms seriously, and to fix any mistakes that may have been found. It’s a foundational ethic of scientific work: no claim can be considered valid — not even potentially valid — until it has passed peer review.

Santer had done what science requires him to do. He was being attacked for being a good scientist.

Peer review is also used to help authors make their arguments clearer, and the IPCC has an exceptionally extensive and inclusive peer review process. It involves both scientific experts and representatives of the governments of the participating nations to ensure not only that factual errors are caught and corrected, but as well that all judgments and interpretations are adequately documented and supported, and that all interested parties have a chance to be heard. Authors are required either to make changes in response to the review comments, or to explain why
those comments are irrelevant, invalid or just plain wrong. Santer had done just that. He had made changes in response to peer review. He had done what the IPCC rules required him to do. He had done what science requires him to do. Santer was being attacked for being a good scientist.

Santer tried to defend himself in a letter to the editor of the Wall Street Journal — a letter that was signed by 29 co-authors, distinguished scientists all, including the director of the US Global Change Research Program. [3] The American Meteorological Society penned an open letter to Santer affirming that the attacks were entirely without merit. [4] Bert Bolin, the founder and chairman of the IPCC, corroborated Santer’s account in a letter of his own to the Journal, pointing out that accusations were flying without a shred of evidence, and that the accusers had not contacted him, nor any IPCC officers, nor any of the scientists involved to check their facts. Had they “simply taken the time to familiarize [themselves] with IPCC rules of procedure,” he noted, they would have readily found out that no rules were violated, no procedures were transgressed and nothing wrong had happened.[5] As later commentators have pointed out, no IPCC member nation ever seconded the complaint.[6]

But the Journal only published a portion of both Santer and Bolin’s letters, and two weeks later, they gave the accusers yet another opportunity to sling mud, publishing a letter declaring that the IPCC report had been “tampered with for political purposes.”[7] The mud stuck, and the charges were widely echoed by industry groups, business-oriented newspapers and magazines and think tanks. They remain on the Internet today. If you Google “Santer IPCC,” you get not the chapter in question — much less the whole IPCC report — but instead a variety of sites that repeat the 1995 accusations.[8] One site even asserts (falsely) that Santer admitted that he had “adjusted the data to make it fit with political policy,” as if the US government even had a climate policy to adjust the data to fit. (We didn’t in 1995, and we still don’t.)[9]

The experience was bitter for Santer, who spent enormous amounts of time and energy defending his scientific reputation and integrity, as well as trying to hold his marriage together through it all.

The experience was bitter for Santer, who spent enormous amounts of time and energy defending his scientific reputation and integrity, as well as trying to hold his marriage together through it all. (He didn’t.) Today, this normally mild-mannered man turns white with rage when he recalls these events. Because no scientist starts his or her career expecting things like this to happen.

Why didn’t Santer’s accusers bother to find out the facts? Why did they continue to repeat charges long after they had been shown to be unfounded? The answer, of course, is that they were not interested in finding facts. They were interested in fighting them.

A few years later, Santer was reading the morning paper and came across an article describing how some scientists had participated in a program, organized by the tobacco industry, to discredit scientific evidence linking tobacco to cancer. The idea, the article explained, was to “keep the controversy alive.”[10] So long as there was doubt about the causal link, the tobacco industry would be safe from litigation and regulation. Santer thought the story seemed eerily familiar.

He was right. But there was more. Not only were the tactics the same, the people were the same, too. The leaders of the attack on him were two retired physicists, both named Fred: Frederick Seitz and S. (Siegfried) Fred Singer. Seitz was a solid-state physicist who had risen to prominence during World War II, when he helped to build the atomic bomb; later he became president of the US National Academy of Sciences. Singer was a physicist — in fact, the proverbial rocket scientist — who became a leading figure in the development of Earth observation satellites, serving as the first director of the National Weather Satellite Service and later as chief scientist at the Department of Transportation in the Reagan administration.[11]

Both were extremely hawkish, having believed passionately in the gravity of the Soviet threat and the need to defend the United States from it with high-tech weaponry. Both were associated with a conservative think tank in Washington, DC, the George C. Marshall Institute, founded to defend Ronald Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI or “Star Wars”). And both had previously worked for the tobacco industry, helping to cast doubt on the scientific evidence linking smoking to death.

From 1979 to 1985, Fred Seitz directed a program for R. J. Reynolds Tobacco Company that distributed $45 million to scientists around the country for biomedical research that could generate evidence and cultivate experts to be used in court to defend the “product.”
From 1979 to 1985, Fred Seitz directed a program for R. J. Reynolds Tobacco Company that distributed $45 million to scientists around the country for biomedical research that could generate evidence and cultivate experts to be used in court to defend the “product.” In the mid-1990s, Fred Singer coauthored a major report attacking the US Environmental Protection Agency over the health risks of secondhand smoke. Several years earlier, the US surgeon general had declared that secondhand smoke was hazardous not only to smokers’ health, but to anyone exposed to it. Singer attacked this finding, claiming the work was rigged, and that the EPA review of the science — done by leading experts from around the country — was distorted by a political agenda to expand government control over all aspects of our lives. Singer’s anti-EPA report was funded by a grant from the Tobacco Institute, channeled through a think tank, the Alexis de Tocqueville Institution.[12]

Millions of pages of documents released during tobacco litigation demonstrate these links. They show the crucial role that scientists played in sowing doubt about the links between smoking and health risks. These documents — which have scarcely been studied except by lawyers and a
handful of academics — also show that the same strategy was applied not only to global warming, but to a laundry list of environmental and health concerns, including asbestos, secondhand smoke, acid rain and the ozone hole.

Call it the “Tobacco Strategy.” Its target was science, and so it relied heavily on scientists — with guidance from industry lawyers and public relations experts — willing to hold the rifle and pull the trigger. Among the multitude of documents we found in writing this book were Bad Science: A Resource Book — a how-to handbook for fact fighters, providing example after example of successful strategies for undermining science, and a list of experts with scientific credentials available to comment on any issue about which a think tank or corporation needed a negative sound bite.[13]


[1] “The IPCC Controversy,” Science and Environment Policy Project.

[2] Frederick Seitz, “A Major Deception on ‘Global Warming,’ ” Wall Street Journal, June 12, 1996, Op- Ed, Eastern edition, A16.

[3] Benjamin Santer et al., letter to the editor, Wall Street Journal, June 25, 1996, Eastern edition, A15.

[4] Susan K. Avery et al., “Special insert: An open letter to Ben Santer,” University Corporation for Atmospheric Research, Communications Quarterly (Summer 1996),

[5] Ibid.

[6] Paul N. Edwards and Stephen H. Schneider, “The 1995 IPCC Report: Broad Consensus or Scientific Cleansing,” Ecofable/Ecoscience 1, no. 1 (1997): 3–9.

[7] S. Fred Singer, letter to the editor, Wall Street Journal, July 11, 1996, Eastern edition, A15. For a detailed account of the entire event, see Edwards and Schneider, “The 1995 IPCC Report,” 3-9.

[8]Jonathan DuHamel, “The Assumed Authority — The IPCC Examined,” Climate Realists Blog (formerly CO2 sceptics), posted May 29, 2008; “The IPCC Controversy,” Science and Environment Policy Project.

[9] “IPCC Global Warming Report,” American Liberty Publishers.

[10] John Schwartz, “Philip Morris Sought Experts to Cloud Issue, Memo Details,” Washington Post, May 9, 1997, A02.

[11] Richard Leroy Chapman, “A Case Study of the U.S. Weather Satellite Program: The Interaction of Science and Politics” (Ph.D. thesis, Syracuse University, 1967).

[12] S. Fred Singer and Kent Jeffreys, The EPA and the Science of Environmental Tobacco Smoke, Alexis de Tocqueville Institution, University of Virginia, 1994, BN: TICT0002555 and BN: TI31749030, Legacy Tobacco Documents Library.

[13] Bad Science: A Resource Book, 26 March 1993, BN: 2074143969, Legacy Tobacco Documents Library.

Copyright 2010 by Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway. Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming. Reprinted by permission of Bloomsbury USA.

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