Beware the anti-science lurking behind clickbait headlines
Bill Gates has been in the media a lot these days. When you’re a billionaire, you’ll draw the ire of some. When you’re a philanthropist, you’ll draw the ire of others. And when you’re a corporation that’s loosely tied to either of things and a man named Bill Gates, you’ll probably get it worst of all. I’m not sure how this was published. I’m much less sure how it became an editor’s pick on the Forbes site.
But there it was in my news feed today. I’m talking about an article from Forbes titled Bill Gates Venture Aims to Spray Dust Into the Atmosphere to Block the Sun. Whatever Could Go Wrong? It seems like Forbes decided to use the good old fashion clickbait method to spread their article. Fear-monger for clicks, drum up the conspiracy theorist in all of us, and make your money on the onslaught of people flooding your website to see how a mega-billionaire philanthropist is going to destroy the world.
Setting aside the title for a second, let’s talk about the fact that the contents of the article didn’t even reflect what the headline said. Geoengineering is a touchy subject for very understandable reasons. Geoengineering refers to a broad spectrum of solutions proposed where, as a last-ditch effort to control climate change, humanity may be forced to alter the environment in ways that can preserve the life on the planet.
No matter how much deniers want to bury their heads in the sand, the climate crisis isn’t going to go away on its own. And the warming planet will continue to wreak havoc on crops, wildlife habitats, and the human race. Entire ecosystems will eventually be upended and whole local climates forever changed. These are the stakes at hand.
As the story rightly reported, many in the science communities and universities are looking into the various technologies that could reverse the damage done to the climate once the damage has been done. At a certain point, there will be no turning back.
One such technology that scientists are exploring is The Stratospheric Controlled Perturbation Experiment. This is an ongoing set of experiments that uses computer models to explore the idea of putting aerosols into the air to deflect the sun’s rays and thus cool the planet.
I’ll repeat that. It’s done using computer models, not by “aiming” to spray actual aerosols into the atmosphere. While this wouldn’t be a great first line of defense, as a last-ditch effort to save the planet, supposing climate change became a runaway problem that was far worse than anticipated, it would be another tool in a whole toolbox that we could later employ supposing we needed it.
From the inside of the Forbes article itself:
Microsoft’s billionaire founder Bill Gates is financially backing the development of sun-dimming technology that would potentially reflect sunlight out of Earth’s atmosphere, triggering a global cooling effect.
The Stratospheric Controlled Perturbation Experiment (SCoPEx), launched by Harvard University scientists, aims to examine this solution by spraying non-toxic calcium carbonate (CaCO3) dust into the atmosphere — a sun-reflecting aerosol that may offset the effects of global warming.
And scientists eventually want to use a balloon to release somewhere between 100 grams and 2 kilograms of CaCO3 dust into the atmosphere to see how the particles interact with one another. As in, someday long down the road, if needed. And once the tests with all of the equipment go well. And once the permits and papers are granted to them that allows them to do such a thing.
And so on….
From the paper referenced by the Forbes article itself:
A platform test is needed before the science experiment because SCoPEx will use a new flight platform that has not flown before. In other words, there are significant technical challenges in developing it as an operational vehicle independent of the challenges of the actual solar geoengineering experiment…only a few propelled balloon systems have flown in the stratosphere to date.
That’s right. They’re testing the balloon that would be needed and the platform to be able to send such a balloon up into the atmosphere.
And here’s the rub. Climate change is a very severe problem, a threat that looms over the fate of the entire planet and every species that lives on it.
And clickbaity headlines like these that take subtle but very present digs at scientific integrity itself. The goal is simple, it’s to make scientists look like a bunch of bumbling bafoons you’d see in a nineties movie. Inept, incompetent, unable to do anything right without messing things up. And the same goes for the philanthropists who are actually funding research that intends to curb the climate crisis in various ways.
One can’t help but think of The Terminator Seeds explored by Monsanto. They weren’t actually called “Terminator Seeds”, the seeds that were supposed to yield one year of crops, and then, the subsequent seeds would be infertile, forcing the farmers who’d used them to come back to Monsanto and buy more seeds. Those seeds were never used anywhere in the world, ever.
But fear-mongers who wanted to paint science they didn’t understand in a bad light slapped the label on them and conjured up whacky conspiracies of big, bad Monsanto selling bunk seeds to farmers in order to cheat them out of future crops.
The real story is much more mundane. The products were developed but never used because they served as a safeguard against runaway genetic spread. Plants are living creatures, after all, and they reproduce. Seeds that would produce infertile children could be employed on the off chance that genetically modified plants began to spread uncontrollably. Anyone who’s ever dealt with an invasive species understands how catastrophic the uncontrollable spread of such species can be.
The real story is much more mundane indeed, just like the testing of a platform and a balloon is much more mundane than aiming to “spray dust into the atmosphere.” Does Forbes not have a science guy in the editorial who could’ve pulled this one and said, “Hey, we need to work on this headline, here?”
“Philanthropist Bill Gates Donates to Explore Geoengineering Technologies That Could Help Combat Climate Change.” There are plenty of alternative headlines that don’t reek of alarmism.
The thing about anti-science movements, is they don’t always look like anti-science movements. They don’t always storm the U.S. Capitol like QAnon, they don’t always boldly deny climate change by laughably holding up a snowball in the U.S. Senate and saying, “See, global warming isn’t real!”
Sometimes it’s the subtle spread of disinformation that’s consolidated in a poignant headline whose sole goal is to make scientists and scientific institutions look so inept.
That’s how conspiracy theories always work. They gently suggest, “These people have no idea what they’re doing. Anyone with common sense would no better.” And that’s why they spread quickly. Because common sense is something that everyone has. Scientific literacy, on the other hand, is not.