The Heartland Institute's Propaganda Machine Needs to Work On Its Mailing List

The second funniest thing that happened to me this week was discovering a package from the Heartland Institute in my faculty mailbox. Most well-adjusted people wouldn't find this amusing, but I was already well-familiar with Heartland's recent climate denialist mailing to teachers, and had even blogged about its strange alternative reality. Finding a copy addressed to me personally gave me the same kind of disappointing thrill as running out of an Apple store on a release day, being high-fived and congratulated on my purchase by a blue-shirted Apple Genius, and only then actually examining the new piece of crap I just bought.

Heartland’s packet contained a cover letter addressed to “Physical Science Professors” and a 20-page “summary for policymakers.” (I didn’t know that profs were now highfalutin muckety-muck policymakers, but I’ll take what I can get.)

Here’s what the envelope looks like:

NIPCC envelope

What’s notable here is the tag-line: “Don’t just believe in global warming. Understand it.” Let’s parse this nonsense.

Scientists don’t “believe” in ideas, but rather accept scientific ideas based on evidence. In an ideal world this evidence is derived from observations and experiments that are quantifiable, falsifiable, and repeatable. Because reality is messy, we can’t always make a perfect observation or run an ideal experiment, but that’s something for which we should strive. People often use “believe” as shorthand to mean they think an idea is correct, but in science this is sloppy usage. Heartland’s envelope uses “believe” to imply that its denialist dreck about climate is just as valid as scientific research. But if evidence is not a standard for determining what is correct, then everything is just a matter of conflicting beliefs; it’s all just a free-for-all among equally plausible opinions.

Heartland implies that the scientific community’s understanding of climate change is not based on evidence, but on a preconceived allegiance to the idea of anthropogenic climate change. If you read what climate denialists have written about “Climategate,” it’s clear they imagine that devious, scheming scientists manufacture support for manifestly incorrect ideas using a nefarious grant agency/peer-reviewed journal/industrial complex designed to create pre-determined outcomes. They think these outcomes are propped up by data coming from an assembly line of sycophantic peer-reviewed articles produced by cowering graduate students who must toe the party line in order to have a career. This laughable notion is so far removed from the reality of how science works that it is, as physicists like to say, so bad that it’s not even wrongit’s just embarrassing.

Here’s the cover letter, formatted in a memo style to suggest seriousness, I suppose.

the heartland's letter


The most amusing part of the mailing packet was a postcard inviting readers to answer a few questions, then enter a drawing for the chance to win money.

Nothing conveys seriousness like a “Win $500!” sweepstakes contest. Cash rules everything (h/t Wu-Tang Clan), but given the nature of Heartland Institute’s advertising acumen, I’m surprised they didn’t instead dangle the alluring prize of winning a Microsoft Zune mp3 player.

I’m not going to send my card in, of course, but for fun let’s go through the questions.

1. How much time did you spend reading the Summary for Policymakers?

0 - I didn’t read it      5-10 minutes      10 minutes or more

Heartland assumes teachers will only spend about 10 minutes reading their pamphlet. Perhaps Heartland lacks faith in its potential readers?

I spent about an hour carefully reading Heartland's pamphlet. Maybe it's just my compulsive Hermione Granger temperament, but I feel you can only really understand your opponent's arguments if you know what they argue. Defenders of science spend a lot of time analyzing the work of those who undermine science so that we are prepared to counter their arguments. Climate denialists and creationists often indignantly say we reject their claims without having read their work, but on this point as well as on the science, they simply do not know what they are talking about.

2. How would you grade the quality of the report?

A  B  C  D  F

I grade undergraduate students all the time on their understanding of the fundamentals of climate science, and though I have no trouble assessing whether a student deserves an A or an F, I cannot assign a grade to Heartland’s pamphlet. A grade assumes a standard of judgment based on an objective factual reality; Heartland does not operate in such a realm.

3. Did this report change your mind about the causes or consequences of climate change? 

Yes   No

Put me down for "no." But there could be evidence that would change my mind. So far, though, what Heartland offers lacks meaningful data.

4. Do you want more information on climate change?

Actually, yes. Yes I do. But I want real data on climate change, the kind you read in peer-reviewed journals, such as one finds in the analysis of IPCC reports, such as one hears at scientific conferences, not the vacuous rhetoric of Koch brothers-funded hit groups.

Sending me this packet shows that Heartland's marketing is every bit as competent as its science. The Heartland Institute sent these packets to teachers across the country, apparently employing the same hopeful technique as plants casting pollen to the wind. But if they expect this to payoff, if they think teachers will set aside their judgment and critical thinking, then Heartland has seriously misunderstood its audience.


Short Bio

Steve Newton is a former Programs and Policy Director at NCSE.