Running from Revelation: “Facts, Not Fear” 20 years on

Twenty years ago, the Fraser Institute published a book called Facts, Not Fear with the goal of correcting the alleged misinformation schoolchildren were being exposed to in environmental science programs. The right-wing think tank was concerned that school science textbooks were often drawn from scientific literature (of all places), which was a problem because scientists know they can “improve their access to funds if they can convince politicians that their work may ‘save the planet.’”

Facts, Not Fear claimed that school had become unnecessarily alarmist with gloomy stories about a sick planet when, really, kids just needed reassurance of the “let kids be kids” kind. Using a tandem of economics and public policy writers,[1] the Fraser Institute aimed to undo the damage that 160 environmental studies and another 130 trade publications written for children was doing to an entire generation.

The overall message to kids was: chill out! After all, comforted the book, Earth hadn’t warmed in 17 years. Acid rain may not be destroying forests, as the cause is a mystery. It’s ok to landfill plastic because plastic is inert. Lighter cars result in more accidents and deaths. Greenhouse gases may not cause global warming, temperature predictions have moderated, and a warmer planet is beneficial anyway. Old growth forests are not better and therefore clearcutting has its advantages. There’s just no way to tell if species are becoming extinct. CFCs are non-toxic but save lives, and may not be a major cause of ozone depletion. Water pollution is not an issue. Pesticides don’t cause cancer, but vegetables might. Canada can afford to be wasteful because of its low population density. And population growth is not a problem.

The 300-page report, subtitled Teaching Children About the Environment, was enabled by funding from the Donner Foundation and the free-market, ALEC-linked Alabama Family Alliance, which now goes by the name Alabama Policy Institute. The report’s maple sugar sheen was applied by Fraser Institute researcher Liv Fredricksen and economist Laura Jones, both of whom would go on to work at the anti-carbon tax Canadian Federation of Independent Business (Jones currently serves as executive vice-president; Fredricksen was a CFIB policy analysist in the mid-2000s).

Given this background, it is hardly surprising that the collection of corrected “science” in Facts, Not Fear ranged from the laughable to jaw-droppingly alarming. Today’s readers may come away wondering if “science” was the best term to describe what the authors were attempting. The Fraser Institute’s conclusions read as caricatures here without the full context, but the confabulations and are preserved for all eternity within Facts, Not Fear’s 20 brief chapters.

Because even Canada’s smallest provinces have some form of evaluation process to determine the value a publication could have as a textbook, Facts, Not Fear did not become a curricular mainstay. But it did have its champions, and how reviewers treated Facts, Not Fear depended on their affiliations. Alberta’s school board association president Lois Byers told the conservative weekly Alberta Report in 1999 that she was “very comfortable with the way materials are screened.” That same year, Jim Motavalli, editor of E – The Environmental Magazine, called the project’s sources “ideologically committed,” while the National Review’s Kate O’Beirne agreed that “schoolchildren are being indoctrinated about our doomed planet and urged to take political action on the basis of faulty science.”

From this librarian’s perspective, Facts, Not Fear is a useful prop for discussing media literacy. There’s pedagogical value in its ability to inform conversations about connecting a publication’s source of funding with its message, and explaining the perils of not doing so. (The Corporate Mapping Project, which the CCPA is part of, is looking at some of these issues in the current context.)

Scientists do obtain research funding from public agencies and university operations, sometimes redistributing those dollars within the context of educational projects involving students. But there’s a lot more money available from the private sector. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation alone granted US$4.4 billion in 2016 to various educational projects, or more than five times what the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) provided.

Most scientists will attempt to shield their work from that of their directors or their funders. It’s legion to pure science. But corporate marketing can resemble science and still slant the message according to management’s strategy. The big tobacco companies purposely misinformed the public and ended up having to pay billions of dollars in restitution. Big pharma still gets away with burying its findings when they are unflattering. ExxonMobil’s scientists had determined in 1977 that carbon dioxide releases were society’s primary contribution to global climate change and that expected emission increases were going to add two to three degrees. Despite its proprietary knowledge, the oil company continued to fund public research that argued otherwise. Royal Dutch Shell’s scientists had modelled a similar future by 1988, but the company maintained its poker face.

In the United States Facts, Not Fear was called A Parent’s Guide, as if conceding the report was unlikely to get past a well-informed teacher. The Fraser Institute also cynically attempted to appeal to parents with the promise, “Your children will probably stop pestering you to take up the cause of the day, or at least they will be willing to consider that their crusade may not be for everyone.” Many chapters closed with rapid-fire answers to some of the tough questions kids were asking about the environment: “Is air pollution dangerous? Yes it can be. Severe air pollution is harmful to people’s health, especially those with asthma or other lung diseases. But the air today is much cleaner than it used to be.”

Quit bothering me with questions, kids! Don’t you have TV to watch uncritically, or perhaps an idling car to stand close to? Facts, Not Fear could be summed up, as Bobby McFerrin put it in his hit single of the day, as “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.”

Polluting industries and their cheerleaders at the Fraser Institute may fear the consequences of informed young people adapting their behaviours in an attempt to correct environmental damage and advocating for others to do the same. But efforts to pass off these PR-cloaked “alternative facts” as classroom-appropriate or as part of a tired parent’s survival kit (at least until the science of short-term thinking catches up) are, more accurately, a textbook case of cynicism and manipulation.


Jeremy Tompkins is a business librarian who has worked in both investor relations and public relations. He can be contacted at [email protected] For more information on the Corporate Mapping Project visit www.corporatemapping.ca.

 

References:

[1] Patrick Moore, who authored the foreword, was the primary physical scientist to lend his name to Facts Not Fear given that the original American co-author Michael Sanera is a political scientist and his collaborator Jane S. Shaw an economist. Although Moore was an early member of Greenpeace, his motivations are often questioned. Some wonder whether he used his association with an activist organization and his scientific credentials as a Forestry PhD in service to industry greenwashing campaigns.

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