Astroturf: The Only Grass That Withstands Toxic Friends of Science

There are few parties in the public realm that are more credible than a “grassroots organization” - a group of citizens who rise up with no agenda other than to speak frankly about a public issue. Politicians are inevitably suspect and businesses are clearly self-interested, so reporters are always searching for the “common man” - the “person on the street” - or from impartial experts. No news source wraps up those characteristics more efficiently than the true grass roots organization.

Unfortunately, unscrupulous PR people figured this out years ago and started to create organizations that look spontaneous and economically disinterested, but are, in fact, industry stooges. In the PR business, the creation of such groups is called Astroturfing, in reference to the first company that branded artificial turf. With these groups, you get fake grass, no roots whatsoever.

The most famous Astroturf organization, and one of the most reprehensible, is The Advancement of Sound Science Coalition (TASSC), which the PR firm APCO Worldwide created in 1993 on behalf of tobacco giant Philip Morris. In its foundational document, APCO identified these objectives:

- Establish TASSC as a credible source for reporters when questioning the validity of scientific studies
- Encourage the public to question - from the grass roots up - the validity of scientific studies
- Mobilize support for TASSC through alliances with other organizations and third-party allies
- Develop materials, including news article reprints, that can be “merchandized” to TASSC audiences
- Increase membership in and funding of TASSC
- Publicize and refine TASSC messages on an ongoing basis.

    In short, APCO wanted to use TASSC to “lay the groundwork and provide an environment for a successful grassroots mobilization effort to assist Philip Morris with its issues nationally and in target states.”

    Of course, in order to fabricate a grassroots organization that will be effective in speaking out against “scientific studies,” it's useful to have pliable “scientists” who will take your money and defend your cause. No problem for APCO or Philip Morris. They quickly rounded up spokespeople like S. Fred Singer and Fred Seitz, men who had grown tired of actual science and had chosen instead to use their PhDs to play politics.

    (And lest anyone accuse us of ad hominem attacks against these indefensible figures, consider this post on Fred Singer. We had earlier suggested that the good doctor was lying about whether he had taken money from big tobacco and big oil in the course of representing their interests. Dr. Singer's lawyer sent us a threatening letter, demanding an apology, to which we replied that, in libel, truth is a defence. You don't have to apologize for calling someone a liar when you can prove that they had lied - in this case, at least twice. We've heard no more about it.)

    In 2002, APCO Worldwide introduced another organization to the world: the so-called “Friends of Science (FOS),” about whom you can read a great deal more here. In attendance at the press conference were Dr. Fred Singer, Dr. Tim Ball, Dr. Pat Michaels, and a couple of other Canadian climate “experts.” APCO further advised that a host of other climate change deniers were available on the phone, including, for example, Dr. Fred Seitz.

    That, of course, suggests guilt by association. But the Friends of Science are perfectly happy to demonstrate guilt through their actions. In the years since it burst onto the national scene, the organization has dedicated itself to challenging the conclusions of climate scientists around the world. There is no evidence that FOS has created a single piece of new scientific research and adequate evidence that it has acted in evident hostility to the foremost climate experts in the country, and in the world. For example, Dr. Tim Ball, a man who has consistently overstated his scientific credentials, has suggested repeatedly and publicly that scientists who agree with the international consensus that the climate is changing are part of a global conspiracy to extort more research funding out of government.

    It has also been demonstrated, by the Globe and Mail, that while Dr. Ball and others have been denying their corporate connections, the oil and gas industry was pouring in money, and FOS was going out of the way to conceal that connection.

    So, we have an organization that presents itself as grassroots while concealing its corporate connections. We have an overlapping group of experts who have proved themselves willing to take money from one of the most compromised industries in the world (tobacco), as well as from big oil. We have “scientists” who publish almost nothing in the peer-reviewed press, but who contribute frequently to the nation's opinion pages and who conduct barnstorming tours of the country, urging everyone from newspaper editors to groups of retirees to fight against good climate change policy.

    If the FOS participants want to encourage an informed national debate on climate change, we're all for it. If oil and gas companies want to hire scientists to argue their case, that is their right. But when people act to mislead the media and the public, by misrepresenting their own motives, by hiding their sources of funding and by saying things that are flat-out incorrect, as Tim Ball has on so many occasions, we think it's important that the public be warned.