How Sun Myung Moon ‘Digested the Scientists’ and Fueled Climate-Change Denial

In an excerpt from his new book The Parrot and the Igloo, Rolling Stone contributor David Lipsky reveals a forgotten chapter in the climate crisis — when two once-respected scientists became merchants of doubt and mouthpieces for the Unification Church's controversial leader

Rolling Stone/August 20, 2023

By David Lipsky

If there were a denial Mt. Rushmore the two biggest heads would be S. Fred Singer and Frederick Seitz. Dishonesty’s Lincoln, lying’s Washington. Together, the two graybeard prophets launched a movement.

Frederick Seitz’s slab would be the larger and more solemn. Most decorated scientist ever to slip over to the dark side, the non-truth side. With just about the grandest possible resume entry: former President of the National Academy of Sciences.

He did it for the old man reasons. Because the new politics made him nervous. Because the new generation made him feel vulnerable and defensive, rickety. (Seitz called students “the youth.”) There are accomplished people who fear any change to the order that once promoted them is really a portent of chaos and doomsday. When Seitz was a university president, one student said hello — and he coolly explained college presidents are not people you say hello to. Fifty years later, climate denial’s most coveted honor is the Frederick Seitz Memorial Award. Its first statuette was delivered by Dr. S. Fred Singer.

Singer’s Rushmore head would smaller, sneakier, giving visible side-eye. He is the man responsible for all of it. There was a big denier convention a decade ago. (Held in Las Vegas; because denial is classy.) The president of a denial think tank raked his eyes across the denial ballroom, took in the denial faces at the denial tables making up his denial audience. “Fred Singer is the most amazing and wonderful person participating in the global warming debate today,” this president explained. “If there’s any person in the world responsible for the development of a skeptics movement on global warming, it’s Dr. S. Fred Singer… Fred is a giant. He is a hero.” Singer is the origin of denial. And here is his origin as a denier.

At this stage of the denial story — end of the eighties, that John Hughes decade — Frederick Seitz is already a denier. This is a story about how and where S. Fred Singer joined him. Singer began as a straight scientist — an environmentalist. Did not attain promotion at the EPA. (HR Departments: be careful who you disappoint.) So he quit. And came back changed. Served briefly in Washington as the Department of Transportation’s chief scientist. And then the surprising part, the historical part of Fred Singer’s journey — his real travels and adventures — began.

The thing this story shows about deniers: they will accept money from . . . anyone. (And once you deny — once your lips break that truth barrier — the succeeding denials become easier and easier. In a sense, you become deaf to the sound made by your own life. As you must.) That openness is what this story is also about. And about how everybody, even people with the most powerful friends, can eventually require the services of a professional denier.

This exclusive excerpt from the new book, The Parrot and the Igloo: Climate and the Science of Denial by David Lipsky, a longtime Rolling Stone contributor. Lipsky’s book is an essential addition to the story of the climate crisis and makes clear that American scientists understood about global warming as early as the 1950s. By the seventies, government scientists were warning the White House that fuel use seemed “certain to cause a significant warming of the world climate over the next decades unless mitigating steps are taken immediately.” (The National Academy of Sciences informed the president, 44 Julys ago, “If carbon dioxide continues to increase, the study group finds no reason to doubt that climate changes will result and no reason to believe that these changes will be negligible.”) It’s a history how we got them there to here: from anticipating what global warming would be to knowing today how global warming feels. What follows is a little understood chapter of the story, involving the Reverend Sun Myung Moon, a cult, and the two scientists who denied science for profit.

One day in 1989, heading away from the Department of Transportation, Dr. Singer climbed into a strange van. At the wheel was the Reverend Sun Myung Moon. There’s that great term in science for the unforeseeable jump: Nonlinear. (It’s the elevator that climbs to two, then five, then all the way to the 107th floor.) The alliance with Reverend Moon was nonlinear. Dr. Singer’s first organized denial group wasn’t climate: it was religion. At first, they were like the mismatch in the movie you fall asleep to on the airplane.

Dr. Singer was a US physicist with an economics sideline. The reverend was a Korean billionaire with a Westchester mansion (it featured an indoor waterfall, bowling alley, and six pizza ovens; the full greasy weekend) who claimed to be the messiah. Dr. Singer alienated potential mentors. Reverend Moon had been on visiting terms with God, Moses, and Jesus since adolescence. The former chief scientist was without children. Reverend and Mrs. Moon were the True Parents of All Humanity — so, a houseful of kids. (When the Reverend went on fishing trips, his tackle box said “True Father’s.”) Dr. Singer was a bachelor. The Unification Church was so couple-friendly that paradise was designated off-limits to singles. (The reverend smoothed this over for Jesus personally, wedding his spirit in absentia to a Korean lady he knew.) You’d think this would tax all Dr. Singer’s powers of alibi.

“In fairness to members of the Unification Church,” Dr. Singer explains on his website, “their beliefs and religious rituals — to an outsider— appear no more odd than those of Catholicism, Mormonism, Christian Science.”

Like smoking and warming, it was all a question of the ideological outlook. Sex is often an X-factor with new religions. Shame or appetite — too much, not at all, or inventive configurations that can be seen all the way from Heaven. In the Church’s wedding ceremony, bride and groom struck each other with a bat called the Indemnity Stick. Then newlyweds embarked on the Three Day Ceremony: sex beneath photographs of Reverend and Mrs. Moon. (“After the act of love, both spouses should wipe their sexual areas with the Holy Handkerchief… [It] should never be laundered.”) Now purified, a genital might be ridden all the way to the stars. “I wish that you could center on the absolute sex organ,” the reverend encouraged parishioners, the “unchanging and eternal sexual organ, and use this as your foundation to pursue God.”

The reverend had plans for America — big and strange. “History will make the position of Reverend Moon clear,” Moon promised, in his 1987 New Year’s sermon. Like many oversize personalities, the reverend experienced his own journey in the third person. “And his enemies, the American population and government, will bow down to him. That is father’s tactic,” Reverend Moon explained. “The natural subjugation of the American government and population.”

He had a thing about crowns. In a tasteful ceremony attended by friends and well-wishers, he arranged for himself and Mrs. Moon to be declared Emperor and Empress of the Universe. And at the Dirksen Senate Office Building, before a startled banquet crowd, he summoned a crown on a velvet pillow. It was brought by a congressman. Reverend Moon then revealed he was King of Peace and “none other than humanity’s Savior, Messiah, Returning Lord.” (Voice-over artists tend to be the unshockable pros of the entertainment industry. But on the church-produced video, you can hear a clenched, what-about-my-soul? pause before the words, “God’s painful heart was eased.”)

But Dr. S. Fred Singer found his way to Reverend Moon’s organization, and discovered a faith like any other, even if it didn’t sound especially like St. Patrick’s or the Christian Science Monitor. It presented an opportunity to test a determination reached by S. Fred Singer: what he was willing to have us believe. As with climate, either Dr. Singer hadn’t researched, and so shouldn’t have spoken. Or he had, and hoped others were in the dark.

Ozone, recycling, and cults were features of the American seventies. Reverend Moon arrived in 1965 with a humble dream: “A place where you can come to pray and not be bothered by Satan.” Nine years later, he was giving private counsel at the White House to President Nixon. In 1976, he gathered two hundred thousand followers for a mongo religious observance on the DC Mall. (Followers collected two thousand blood samples in a vat beside the Washington monument, then set the blend on fire. I still have no idea what this meant.) By the decade’s end he was famous. But loathed. In a Gallup poll, the only figures to share his murky, unloved depths were the dictator of Cuba and the leader of the Soviet Union’s campaign of smiles.

Part of this was the mass marriages. The reverend handled spouse selection, then conducted the vows in sports arenas. Don DeLillo opens his novel Mao II with a Moon wedding, because it’s among the creepiest of modern visuals. Choice and personality (what marriage is, basically) excluded. Just row after row of identically dressed couples, like the assembly line at a wedding cake factory.

Why join? The seventies were touched by the fresh wind of disorganization: the field trip with the substitute teacher, the moment before taking seats in the school auditorium, extended ten years. New arrangements seemed possible because they felt necessary.

“In a country whose young tripped out on radical politics or drugs in the sixties,” reported the Times, “religious cults seem to be the opiate of the seventies.”

There was Scientology, Hare Krishna (shaved heads, orange robes), EST (three-day conference, no bathroom break, squinched insights). Jim Jones, the UFO cult, the Children of God. In a spiritual energy crisis, people turn over every rock. “I’ve seen kids take years to recover,” a former Unification Church leader said. Then continued, as if deliberately refuting S. Fred Singer, “They want you to think of them as just another church, but that doesn’t happen with mainstream churches — that sort of massive residual psychological damage.”

A public relations hurdle, for sure. Reverend Moon had been excommunicated by the Presbyterian Church of Korea. Blackballed by the National Council of Churches (Moon was “incompatible with Christian teaching and belief ”), rejected by the World Council. An international faith outlaw. He’d later be banned from setting foot in the entire nation of England — as Marsellus Wallace would say, he’d lose his London privileges. All this interfered with the simple objective. “If we can manipulate seven nations at least,” Moon said, “we can get hold of the whole world.”

So what do you do? You could chalk it on the board like a B-school problem. The reverend was in a position similar to the fuel companies, the cigarette folk. He had an attractive product — enlightenment. With a bum side effect — you’d joined a cult.

He took up investment in denial: spending yourself clean. The reverend expressed this principle very crisply in a sermon. “All of a sudden they didn’t see Moonies anymore, just the money.”

The church purchased the New Yorker Hotel, where Nikola Tesla had aged away his life on the thirty-third floor. They later acquired United Press International, one of the wire services made possible by the luckless Samuel Morse, via the machine that was the source of all Thomas Edison’s luck. They bought the waterfall mansion from the owners of the Maidenform bra company. (The estate had a creepy, bra-sounding name: Exquisite Acres.)

Property tells a history. First the inventors. Then the manufacturers. Then the mood artists, people who fiddle with the mists inside your head. The church founded newspapers, magazines, a publishing house, a pharmaceutical firm, hospitals, a company that turned out rifle and grenade parts (in which line the reverend probably didn’t face much competition from fellow messiahs), a bank, snapped up farms, restaurants, day care, a video production house, a concert hall and recording studio (NBC’s America’s Got Talent taped there), a whole cable network, an entire eastern campus, the University of Bridgeport. As the New Republic wrote, “Sun Myung Moon is to cults what Henry Ford was to cars.”

Like Keep America Beautiful with their Indian campaign, Moon’s people weren’t above clapping on a wig and fake mustache. You might slam coffee, lace up Nikes, go for a run with the DC Striders Track Club — then discover you were doing laps for Reverend Moon. As the magazines put it, “a dizzying array of front groups.” To beguile reporters and politicians, there were international organizations with bombastic goodwill names. The International Cultural Foundation, the World Family Movement, the Professors World Peace Academy — and a young person’s dance troupe, the Little Angels. This was deployed by the reverend for missions of an especially sinister and adorable nature. “Our young Little Angels . . .enabled us to influence political figures in Japan, and now we will influence the congressmen of other Asiatic countries.” This is Reverend Moon in a sermon. “We must approach from every angle of life; otherwise, we cannot absorb the whole population of the world,” he said. “We must besiege them.”

The church built the raw-seafood empire True World. Still America’s largest supplier to sushi restaurants. If you dipped hamachi in soy last night, odds are you are among the besieged. And far below, at the base of all the turtles, were the kids with starry and transfixed eyes — who, wandering a city, could take in thousands per day. Half of church revenue generated by people who, once the fever had passed, the rescue vehicle arrived, would publish tell-alls like I Was a Robot for Sun Myung Moon. The “organization we’re setting up wants to be utilized as an instrument,” the reverend’s second-in-command said in an interview. “The instrument to be used by God.”

The central heavenly instrument was the Washington Times. Ultra conservative, it would become reliably vicious on climate change. A place for Dr. S. Fred Singer to write columns with nothing-to-see-here, cigarettes care titles. “Chilling Out on Warming,” “No Proof Man Causes Global Warming,” and the immortal “Climate Claims Wither under Luminous Lights of Science.”

The reverend could start it, in 1981, because news jockeys are hard bitten people: a byline is a byline. “I’ve worked for a lot of publishers who thought they were God,” one editor shrugged. It succeeded because the reverend was fine with burning fifty million dollars a year. Also, because politicians are equally hard-bitten: support is support. It became President Reagan’s favorite paper, his go-to morning read. (“Without knowing it,” the reverend boasted, “even President Reagan is being guided by Father.”) Former President Nixon got on board. The first President Bush used a word you don’t immediately associate with Reverend Moon: the newspaper brought “sanity to Washington.”

It caught the eye of the cigarette folk. Opinion maintenance is a daily grind: facts stay fact, but opinion comes unglued overnight. Philip Morris noted the reverend’s sweet advance in a planning document: “Consider acquiring a major media vehicle,” they wrote, like the “Moonies [and] the Washington Times.” Never again, having to bargain or cringe with some East Coast jerk reporter. Conservative activists would relearn this lesson decades later, with fake news items planted on Facebook. The “grassroots readership,” Philip Morris wrote, “cuts the legs from under effete criticism.”

What the reverend was denying overall was that his group was a cult. Theological denial works the same way as climate. Moon began circulating funds in great gusts up the right-wing side of the Capitol. Numbers large and powerful as a storm front — figures at which money becomes weather. Two hundred million. Three hundred. “The Unification Church is trying to buy its way into the conservative movement,” a right-wing lobbyist blabbed to the Washington Post in 1984. “It’s frightening.”

Still, it worked. “The Church has established a network of affiliated organizations and connections,” U.S. News & World Report was explaining, five years later. “Almost all conservative organizations in Washington have some ties to the Church.” Political money is a sort of miracle cream: it heightens, brightens, sharpens, erases. The conservative American Spectator saw the outcome in the loss of a key word. A “creeping reluctance to call a cult a cult.”

Instead, “among Washington conservatives, the Moonies are legit.” Political groups saw money, not the Moonies. It is among the era’s most shameful episodes. Moon, in this hurricane of dollars, did a thirteen-month stretch at Danbury Federal for tax fraud. The publisher of National Review supplied a character reference: “The Unification Church has settled into the landscape of Washington as a good influence.”

There was another outpost to besiege. The most important. As Republican pollster Frank Luntz would later advise on climate, “people are more willing to trust scientists.”

Moon, new to America, grasped this as a nutritionist does a deficiency in the shopping cart. “More than anything else we need scholars in the scientific fields,” the reverend said, in a 1973 sermon with the boot-marching title Our Future Path of Advancement. He envisioned conference halls packed with academic guests. Then, “back in their home countries,” Moon said, “these scholars will influence their own national policies in a joint effort.” By this method, “We will surely influence the policies of the whole world in the near future.”

The deck seemed stacked against him. As of 1978, Moon had been investigated by Congress. The reverend’s aim, they determined, was global theocracy — in “which the separation of church and state would be abolished, and which would be governed by Moon and his followers.” Not a party lots of scientists would drop lab work to attend.

He graced his annual meeting with another goodwill name. The International Conference on the Unity of the Sciences. Staged it in aspirational locales, the church picking up airfare and hotel. If you spoke or handled leadership tasks, there were honoraria. (So unlike most vacations, you headed home with a fatter wallet.) Attendance was fraught, a matter of wrestling and pinning your conscience. Because what the church wanted was obvious. “The presence of distinguished academics at church-sponsored gatherings,” the Washington Post reported, “gives Moon the aura of power and influence he seeks.”

There were scientist-on-scientist accusations of being “bad for the reputation of scholarship.” Parliament advised the entire British scientific roster to sit on its hands. But Frederick Seitz served on the advisory board for eight Moon inventions. He’s right there in the program: as chairman, vice chairman. And S. Fred Singer — who would sacrifice a lot for a good pre-paid air ticket — hit up ten church conferences. As vice chairman, as speaker. It remains among the enduring Reverend Moon achievements. Matchmaking: bringing the two men together.

The first time the denial grandfathers appeared side-by-side was in a magazine story. Nature reported the Freds as “luminaries on the organizing committee” at a 1983 event. That’s the start, for these two names that would enter history together. Frederick Seitz had always wanted the spiritual element deleted from his hard drive. In the fifties he’d complained, “the issue of morality perhaps lies in the philosopher’s domain,” when it came to world-cruncher weapons. So “long as it was green,” was Dr. Seitz’s policy on tobacco. As for morals, “I’ll leave that to the philosophers and priests.” And here he finally was, in a priest’s domain, and Fred Seitz did what he did. He took the money.

“All these people should know better,” sighed the leader of a group for lonely mothers with children in the cult. “The names are used inside, too,” a former church official explained, “to keep kids in the Church. They say, Look, these people are with us. If we weren’t on the up-and-up, why would these people be helping?” Another glum mother, helming another sad parents’ group: “These academics are selling themselves.” She explained to a reporter, “All these conferences are taped and those materials are used in recruiting programs all over the world.” She could just as easily have been speaking about any denial cause; celebrated faces advocating for smoke, for heat. “It adds credibility to their organization.”

Frederick Seitz and S. Fred Singer went above and beyond. Dr. Seitz interrupted the 1988 conference to stand and deliver a short, sympathetic speech on the reverend’s tax woes. “I hope,” Dr. Seitz said, “that this kind of persecution against Reverend Moon will soon come to an end.”

The second Fred sat for an official goodwill photo with the reverend and provided a testimonial. “These conferences,” Dr. Singer said, “have produced a tremendous intellectual output.” His words were reprinted in church literature. “The academic participants have carried the message back to the classrooms.” It’s what reverend Moon had called for, back in the seventies. And it’s where the rocket had landed Dr. Singer.

Any victory — especially one dependent on human weakness — tickled the reverend. “Who digested whom?” Moon asked his followers. “Did Reverend Moon digest the scientists? Or did the scientists digest Reverend Moon? . . . The umpire has declared a winner. Some think they can still stop Reverend Moon, but it is impossible.”

The Reagan era ended, Democrats came back to the White House. And that was the reverend’s end, influence-wise. They had taken his money but never the man — he’d been, in the political phrase of the era, rolled. He grew plumper, older; lines score every face, even a savior’s. His daughter-in-law published a memoir. It killed the movement. Moon expired, on the cross of pneumonia, at the age of ninety-two. His following had dwindled from the millions to the thousands. His family gave up on America in 2012 — after four decades, complained his widow, with “such little results.” America remained unsubjugated. As with ozone, acid rain, the Freds received their names back, with minimal wear and staining.

There was a spot of the type of postmortem action the reverend enjoyed. “It will be interesting to see how many respectable figures in the conservative firmament find nice things to say about him now that he’s gone,” the Washington Monthly wrote. And how many would imitate the reverend’s dishonesty, “by denying they ever had a thing to do with him.”

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