Plutocrats and Popular Science

As I finished reading Jane Mayer’s article, “Covert Operations: The Billionaire Brothers Who Are Waging a War on Obama,” in this week’s New Yorker, an image of these brothers’ names flashed into my memory. David H. and Charles Koch inherited the oil refining business turned uncategorizable and behemoth conglomerate that has made them two of the richest men in America from their father, who also instilled in them the same doctrinaire libertarianism that is undermined by such nepotistic windfall legacies. Mayer details how the Brothers Koch launder millions to causes friendly to their business interests, like those opposed to environmental regulations, by setting up various think tanks and foundations few suspect have any ties to them. And here I thought Exxon Mobil was the big force behind the Cato Institute.

It’s disturbing enough to discover how many so-called grass roots movements were produced and funded by people whose conservative ideology serves as a transparent veil for self-interested plutocratic aims, but in the final sections of the article we find out that the Kochs may be influencing public views on the science of human evolution. While reading about the prominence given to the theory that the rapid expansion of brain size that transformed our lineage from bipedal apes to humans occurred as the result of centuries of erratic climate shifts in The David H. Koch Hall of Human Origins at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, I remembered also seeing the name Koch at the end of PBS’s series on human evolution, “Becoming Human,” in which the unstable climate theory likewise featured prominently.

According to Mayer’s article, the Koch’s are major underwriters of Climate Change Denialist propaganda—like that regularly coming out of Cato. Of course, the idea that rapid climate change in the Pleistocene brought about human braininess is not at odds with the scientific consensus that anthropogenic global warming is real and poses a severe threat; it’s a matter of framing. A devious propagandist could easily tweak the presentation of the theory and subsequently use it to make the real threat seem less ominous, which is exactly what many accuse the Kochs of doing at the Smithsonian. And now I find myself wondering, how much currency does the unstable climate theory really enjoy in the paleoanthropology community? John Hawkes, for instance, wrote of the show on his blog that it "may have gone a little too far in the 'climate made everything happen' direction."

The issue of funding for things like museums and public television is fraught with scary questions like this. I consider it one of best arguments against conservatism that private funding for these public presentations of science has such great potential for this type of distortion.