This is an archived article. For the latest news, go to the Advance Homepage
For more archives, go to the Advance Archive/Search Page.
Speaker: disinformation misleading public
May 4, 1998

The information explosion has created a new problem for scientists - a disinformation explosion, said renowned ecologist Paul R. Ehrlich, the final speaker for this year's Nature and the Environment, the Edwin Way Teale Lecture Series.

"The disinformation problem has hit the scientific and environmental areas very hard, and it's not a single conspiracy," said Ehrlich as he delivered the lecture, which was also this year's Geib Distinguished Environmental Lecture, on Tuesday night at the Thomas J. Dodd Research Center.

Ehrlich, the Bing Professor of population studies at Stanford University and chair of the Center for Conservation Biology, spoke out against the anti-environmental movement in his speech, Betrayal of Science and Reason. He and his wife, Anne H. Ehrlich, recently co-authored a book, Betrayal of Science and Reason: How Anti-Environmental Rhetoric Threatens Our Future (Island Press, 1996), chronicling the backlash against environmental policies - what the Ehrlichs call brownlash.

According to Ehrlich, the brownlash is fueled by distortions of truth and disregard for scientific methodology, and has gained credibility despite these inadequacies. The movement, which publishes on op-ed pages of major newspapers instead of peer-reviewed academic journals, uses techniques such as writing press releases in the form of scientific journals, he said. They take advantage of a scientifically illiterate population, he said.

"If you're going to do scientific policy for the public you need to get scientific consensus. What brownlash wants to do is take it to the lowest level and have it decided purely on politics. If you want to change scientific consensus, there is a way to do it," he said.

He systematically debunked many of the anti-environmental movement's beliefs, which include notions such as population growth does not cause environmental damage and may be beneficial.

"I don't think there is a scientist that exists who would say there isn't a correlation to population and environmental deterioration," said Ehrlich, a pioneer in making the public aware of the problems of overpopulation and in making the issues of population, resources, and the environment matters of public policy.

Another brownlash belief is that humanity is on the verge of abolishing hunger since food problems are all local, caused by war and can be solved easily by planting crops locally.

"The average person has no idea where their food comes from. The world food problem is complex," Ehrlich said. "Most places don't have the soil, the climate or the pest control to grow the food they need. Agriculture is dependent on the climate - you can't adjust that."

Ehrlich was the final speaker in the 1997-98 lecture series, which is designed to bring together people across disciplinary lines. President Austin, whose background is in agricultural economics, said he was happy to be at the lecture, where ideas are exchanged and students and faculty interact positively.

"In the 18 months I've been here, I've attempted to place a strong emphasis on multidisciplinary approaches to solving problems," he said in welcoming remarks Tuesday night. "I congratulate you for this series and encourage you to continue."

Ehrlich has championed the need for scientists and the public to understand the economic implications of ecology. He has written hundreds of scientific papers and more than 30 books, including The Population Explosion (Simon & Schuster, 1990). Co-founder of the field of coevolution, he has studied the structure, dynamics and genetics of natural butterfly populations.

He is a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the American Philosophical Society, and a member of the National Academy of Sciences. He is the recipient of many awards, including the MacArthur Prize Fellowship and the Crafoord Prize of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, which is given in lieu of a Nobel Prize in areas where the Nobel is not given.

The 1997-1998 Nature and the Environment Series is co-sponsored by the Thomas J. Dodd Research Center, the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, the Graduate School, the environmental engineering program, the Center for Conservation and Biodiversity, the Museum of Natural History and the departments of ecology and evolutionary biology, economics, English, philosophy and political science. It is named for author, naturalist and photographer Edwin Way Teale.

Renu Aldrich