Why a key creationist climate change denier has gone antivaxx

by Paul Braterman

A friend just sent me a copy of materials that the Cornwall Alliance is sending to its supporters. Here is an extract [fair use claimed]:


Question any part of the climate-change “consensus” (how much climate change is going on, how much humans contribute to it, what if anything we should do about it), and you’re instantly declared “anti-science” or even a threat to the future of the human race.

But don’t be intimidated—or fooled. That response is itself anti-science. It is rhetoric designed to win not by persuading others but by silencing them.

And it arises not just about climate change. From good old Darwinism (goo to you by way of the zoo) and Malthusianism (population growth inexorably exceeds food production and causes a sudden die-off), to the Obama Administration’s insistence that employers must provide insurance coverage for contraception and abortion regardless of their religious conscience, and COVID-19 mask, social distancing, travel, church worship, and vaccine policies.

People in America and around the world are in danger of becoming slaves of scientism and scientocracy.

The rest of the piece is a blurb for an essay by John G West that forms part of a forthcoming book on CS Lewis and his views on the relationship between science and religion (science ought to know its place), leading up to an appeal for funds. The Cornwall Alliance is a charity under US law, rather than a political body, and contributions are tax-deductible.

Why am I bothering you with this nonsense? Two reasons.

Firstly, as a matter of self-defence, people need to be aware of just who the Cornwall Alliance are, and what they are at. Secondly, I cannot but admire the professionalism and rhetorical skill of this presentation, and would urge my readers to learn from it, to the extent consistent with honesty.

The Heritage Foundation’s headquarters building, on Massachusetts Avenue on Capitol Hill, Ser Amantio di Nicolao, via Wikipedia

The Cornwall Alliance is ostensibly a group concerned with the wise stewardship of nature, as enjoined in Genesis. In reality, it is a direct link between Young Earth creationists and the fossil fuel lobby. It is the successor body to the Interfaith Stewardship Alliance, set up around 2005 in  opposition to the evangelical environmental movement (see e.g. here and here). Among its founders was Paul Driessen, who had previously consulted for mining corporations and ExxonMobil. Their CEO, Calvin Beisner, is a regular contributor to Answers in Genesis, probably the world’s leading creationist organisation, which runs the Creation Museum and the Ark Encounter in Kentucky. The Alliance itself professes belief in a directly created Adam and Eve as historical parents of the entire human race, the existence of Satan, bodily resurrection, and the eternal punishment of the lost (that’s me told). Beisner himself has had an admirably broad education, though not, unfortunately, including any science. He has testified before both Houses of Congress, and has links to the Heartland Institute, which is a mouthpiece for the fossil fuel industry,  and the highly influential Heritage Foundation, which honoured him with the Outstanding Spokesman for Faith, Science, and Stewardship Award at the Ninth International IPCC-Heartland.pngConference on Climate Change. (These conferences, not to be confused with the International Panel on Climate Change, are organised by the Heartland Institute, and the 14th conference was addressed by Christopher Monckton, former climate policy spokesman for the United Kingdom Independence Party, as well as by Beisner himself.)

The paragraphs cited are the lead-in to a blurb for an essay by John G. West, Senior Fellow of the Discovery Institute, a conservative and evolution-denying thinktank with scientific pretensions, which carries out its own attacks on climate science (see e.g. here and here). That essay is itself the introduction to a book to be published on CS Lewis’ views of the proper relationship of religion and science. Why are the creationists so fond of CS Lewis, who would certainly have found their views repugnant? The Discovery Institute gives us the answer here: scientists should Know Their Place, otherwise they will become a threat to freedom.

The first thing to notice is the Cornwall Alliance logo, at the head of the mailing from which the piece is taken, with the letters CA lovingly cradling a tree and a bird. Obviously, people who care, and who could possibly take issue with the concept, indeed the God-given duty, of stewardship? Obviously, these are the Good Guys.

The heading of the piece is a direct invocation of St Paul’s first epistle to Timothy. For how creationists use the verse, see this piece, written by John C Whitcomb, co-author with Henry Morris of The Genesis Flood, a foundational text of the modern creationist movement. “Science” as a concept did not even exist when the verse was written, but Whitcomb tells us that Paul is warning Timothy against those who, like today’s secular scientists, study nature without invoking the Divinity.

And in the text, we have the most concentrated distillation one could imagine of partisan anti-science. First, a sneering challenge to the claims of consensus, with the strange argument, recurrent in the denialist literature, that the very fact of agreement among experts is somehow reason to doubt their shared conclusion. And the use of quotation marks further suggests that the consensus is not even genuine. We then have a bid for victim status (“you’re instantly declared…”), followed by a strawman argument (“a threat to the future of the human race”), as if the consensus accusation was one of promoting extinction, as opposed to merely severe damage, damage that we now know Exxon and Shell had correctly predicted in the 1980s.

Then (“don’t be intimidated—or fooled”) the suggestion that if you accept Cornwall’s position, you’re being brave and perceptive. The follow-on reference to silencing is absurd, given the strength, funding, congressional support, and endless well-publicised outpourings of the climate change denial industry, of which Cornwall is itself a part. But again, the bully is bidding for victim status, as bullies sometimes do.

Then comes an amazing concoction. “Good old Darwinism (goo to you by way of the zoo)”; No. Current evolution science is not particularly old, having been revolutionised in past decades by the direct study of genomes, far beyond anything that Darwin could even have dreamt of. No stops at the zoo because the animals there are contemporaries. Our relatives, not our ancestors. And no goo – the study of evolution does not require knowledge of the origins of life, any more than chemistry requires knowledge of the origins of atoms, knowledge that was not available until the 1950s. The slogan, which I have often run into on social media, goes back at least as far as 1976, in the title of a book by Harold Hill. The same Harold Hill who from 1969 on was misrepresenting himself as a consultant for NASA, and claiming that NASA had discovered Joshua’s long day (spoiler: they hadn’t; see here and here)  Malthusianism – again a strawman version, but linked to Cornwall’s central purpose, which is to ridicule any suggestion that our economic practices may be unsustainable.

From here on in, all becomes clear. Critical mention of Obama, and of government-mandated insurance; we are now appealing to a specific tribe. Moreover, a tribe that thinks employers should be allowed to impose their own beliefs about reproductive rights on their employees, as long as this is done in the name of religion. Finally, what has puzzled me for a long time, resistance to policies, even the least intrusive (social distancing), to control the spread of Covid. I think I now begin to understand. Tribes often demand risky behaviour as the price of membership, and it is only in this way that we can make sense of what is going on here. If you doubt this diagnosis, look at the relationship between political affiliation and Covid deaths.

We are looking at a carefully constructed package deal, held together by an ideology that rejects the intrusion of reality, rationalises this rejection in the name of freedom, invokes religion, and – here we come to the heart of the matter – does not want Government making laws that restrict the behaviour of individuals or companies, merely on the basis of scientific information. The linking together of logically unconnected issues is strategic. The construction of the package is masterly.


I thank Glenn Branch, of the US National Center for Science Education, for drawing my attention to this material.