Neil deGrasse Tyson Laments Climate Science Denial But Billionaire Deniers Fund His Museum

Neil deGrasse Tyson

There’s no real way to scientifically establish just how cool, adored, or respected a person is among certain groups.

But a good start might include the number of t-shirts with the person's face on them, the frequency of memes created with their quotes, or the amount of coffee drunk from mugs bearing their likeness.

On all these important and absolutely non-trivial measures, the astrophysicist, author, and educator Neil deGrasse Tyson looks to be winning.

Tyson is an American superstar of science communication. When primetime networks go looking for an articulate and respected scientist who can speak to the masses, Tyson is a go-to guy.

A few days ahead of the historic March for Science, Tyson released a four-minute video he said contained “what may be the most important words I have ever spoken.”

The video — a plea for science to rise up in an emerging age of denial — has been watched more than 28 million times on Facebook.

Denial and Delay

Hundreds of thousands of people across the globe participated in the march, sparked in no small part by the election of Donald Trump and his claims that human-caused climate change is a hoax.

In the video, Tyson issues a warning that the denial of the fundamentals of human-caused climate change has delayed action:

Once you understand that humans are warming the planet, you can then have a political conversation about that … Every minute one is in denial, you are delaying the political solution that should have been established years ago.”

Tyson’s day job is as an astrophysicist at the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) in New York, where he is the director of the Hayden Planetarium.

What few people perhaps realize is that one multi-million dollar funder of that same museum has also been giving millions to organizations that have helped generate the doubt and denial of climate science that Tyson is railing against.

When you have people who don’t know much about science standing in denial of it and rising to power, that is a recipe for the complete dismantling of our informed democracy,” says Tyson, barely hiding his exasperation.

The biggest single financial backer of Donald Trump’s election campaign was the reclusive New York hedge fund billionaire Robert Mercer.

Rebekah Mercer, Robert's daughter, has been described as the most powerful woman in GOP politics. She was an influential member of Trump’s campaign team and, later, his transition team.

Her father Robert invested millions in the far-right website Breitbart. The former chief executive of Breitbart, Steve Bannon, is Trump’s chief strategist.

Mercer Backing the Museum of Natural History

Rebekah Mercer is also a trustee at the AMNH.

DeSmog's analysis of IRS filings shows that since 2013, the museum has accepted $3.1 million in donations from the Mercer Family Foundation, which Rebekah Mercer heads. A spokesperson for the museum confirmed to DeSmog that the Mercer donation was for “general support” only, and not for a specific project or program at the museum.

Since 2008, that same Mercer foundation has donated $5 million to the Heartland Institute, a so-called think tank that regards itself as the primary advocate for climate science denial in the United States.

The Heartland Institute, which has accepted funding from fossil fuel interests, once ran a billboard campaign with a picture of terrorist Ted “Unabomber” Kaczynski next to the words: “I still believe in Global Warming. Do You.”

At the time, Heartland said in a statement: “The people who still believe in man-made global warming are mostly on the radical fringe of society. This is why the most prominent advocates of global warming aren't scientists. They are murderers, tyrants, and madmen.”

DeSmog has found that the Mercers' foundation has pumped at least $22 million into groups, including Heartland, that push climate science denial while blocking policies designed to cut greenhouse gas emissions.

Both Robert and his daughter Rebekah were in attendance at the most recent of Heartland's regular climate science denial conferences in Washington, D.C. (one conference attendee honored by Heartland compared the work of climate science deniers to the heroics of firefighters during the 9/11 terrorist attacks in New York).

Supported by that Mercer money, the Heartland Institute is currently sending out tens of thousands of packages to teachers across the U.S., filled with booklets, letters, and DVDs claiming there is no scientific consensus on human-caused climate change. As reported in the New York Times, PBSand elsewhere, the National Science Teachers Association has labeled the Heartland's mailings as misleading “propaganda.”

DeSmog asked Dr Tyson about the funding and if it was important people had an understanding of how the machinery of climate science denial works. He told DeSmog: “All knowledge has value, especially knowledge of how people distort knowledge.”

He added: “If my viral 'Science In America' video is not evidence enough for the independence of science from funding sources to AMNH, then I don’t know what more examples to offer.”

Koch's Dinosaur Wing

But the Mercers are not the first big money supporters of climate science denial to have also given to the AMNH

In 2006, David Koch gave a reported $20 million donation to the museum to open the David H. Koch Dinosaur Wing. Koch stepped down from the board in December 2015, a move the museum said was not related to pressure from climate campaign groups.

David Koch and his brother Charles, who own the petrochemical company Koch Industries, have been big money backers of the climate science denial industry, donating well over $20 million since the early 2000s.

So alongside Tyson’s plea for science literacy, there might also be a plea for a wider understanding of the driving forces behind the politicization of climate change science.

The issue is a live one in academia. But in short, researchers have been looking at two forces pushing back against the science.

The first are the so-called “free market” conservative ideologues that tend to think government intervention is a bad thing.

When this group is faced with evidence that burning fossil fuels increases the risk of catastrophic climate change, they face an uncomfortable choice. 

Either they accept the science but also accept there will have to be some government intervention, or reject the science and keep their worldview intact. One study has found that they tend to choose the latter (some conservatives do see a way to separate their political beliefs from their acceptance of climate science).

The second group is the fossil fuel industry, where the motivation is much clearer. If people and policymakers accept the science on climate change, then they won’t want to buy as many of their products anymore. That’s bad for business.

Many academic studies have analyzed the nature and impact of this movement against climate science denial.

Emergent Truth on Climate Denial

Drexel University’s Dr. Robert Brulle has analyzed the so-called “dark money” funding streams of the “climate change counter movement” and published his findings in the journal Climate Change [PDF].

Brulle has said: “The climate change countermovement has had a real political and ecological impact on the failure of the world to act on the issue of global warming … If you want to understand what’s driving this movement, you have to look at what’s going on behind the scenes.”

A 2015 study by Yale University’s Justin Farrell, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, analyzed some 40,785 texts and more than 39 million words published by 164 organizations who are part of the climate change counter movement.

Farrell found that organizations that had accepted corporate funding from the likes of the Kochs and oil giant ExxonMobil were far more likely to produce “contrarian” material that could polarize the debate.

For example, organizations that took Koch cash were far more likely to use the argument that “CO2 is good” than those groups that did not.

As Tyson says in his video, “science is an exercise in finding out what is true” and, after turning the wheels of peer review and rival research, an “emergent truth” appears.

The emergent truth on society’s failure to meaningfully tackle climate change is that vested interests, ideology, and fossil fuel groups generated doubt about climate science and delayed the political solutions.

DeSmog approached the American Museum of Natural History. The museum only confirmed that the donation was for “general support.”  

Updated May 15 at 1:38 p.m. PDT: Comments from Dr Tyson were added to this story.

Main image: Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson. Credit: Flickr/Tiffany VaughnCC BY-SA 2.0