"Review of the must-read book: Merchants of Doubt"
How a handful of scientists obscured the truth on issues from smoking to global warming
JR: I loved “Merchants of Doubt.” But before I could write my review, guest blogger John Atcheson wrote his. John has more than 30 years in energy and the environment with government, private industry, and the nation’s leading think tanks (see “Utility decoupling on steroids.”) He is working on his own novel about climate change.
In Merchants of Doubt Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway take us on a fascinating trip down what they call Tobacco Road. Take the journey with them, and you’ll see renowned scientists abandon science, you’ll see environmentalism equated with communism, and you’ll discover the connection between the Cold War and climate denial.
And for the most part, you’ll be entertained along the way.
Oreskes and Conway are historians who focus on science. What they do best is to sort through history’s discarded headlines and peak into the nooks and crannies of scientific literature to weave together their tale and to reveal the hypocrisy and hubris of a few scientists who show up again and again in contrarian positions against established science.
The trip exposes an unlikely link between Manhattan project scientists and the cult of denial that confronted virtually every major public health and environmental initiative of the last sixty years.
The original villains in this story are Fred Seitz, Fred Singer, William Nierenberg, and Robert Jastrow – physicists all. Sietz and Neirenberg had been involved in building the atomic bomb, and both had worked on other weapons programs. Nierenberg had been the Director of the Scripps Institute and Jastrow, an astrophysicist, had headed up The Goddard Institute for Space Studies and he’d been a successful author of books popularizing space. Singer was a virtual rocket scientist and he had been the first Director of the National Weather Satellite Service. Seitz had been President of the National Academy of Sciences. Each had worked with or for the Reagan administration.
Oreskes and Conway set the table by giving the impressive credentials of these distinguished scientists then asking:
Why would scientists dedicated to uncovering the truth about the natural world deliberately misrepresent the work of their colleagues? Why would they spread accusations with no basis? Why would they not correct their arguments once they had been shown to be incorrect? And why did the press continue to quote them, year after year, even as their claims were shown, one after another, to be false?
Just as Yali’s question sets up Jarred Diamond’s inquiry in Guns Germs and Steel, these questions animate the discussion in the rest of this book.
The authors trace these scientists through the original denier/delayer effort — the cynical “Doubt is our Product” campaign of the tobacco industry, to the current climate denier campaign, with stops at the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), Acid Rain, the Ozone Hole, the second hand smoke issue, and a swipe at Rachel Carson for good measure. Along the way, they accumulate fellow travelers such as Lomborg, Lindzen, Michaels, a host of neoclassical economists ready to discount the future down to or near zero, and of course, Conservative politicians.
Each of these campaigns could fit the same template: seemingly credible scientists, conservative think tanks (some created just for the campaigns), allied with industry, lubricated liberally with money and PR savvy, and leavened with a conviction that the ends justified the means. This explains why talented scientists willingly jettisoned the scientific method.
And what was the end that justified this extreme behavior?
An almost religious conviction in small government and the potential evils of big government; a doctrinaire belief in unconstrained free markets and the purity of capitalism; and the conviction that “environmentalism” and other do-gooder efforts threatened our free market, capitalistic system.
Oreskes and Conway show why cold warriors saw threats to their brand of uber-capitalism as threats to the United States, and they show how environmentalism came to be seen by them as “green on the outside, but red on the inside.” The evolution of the Marshall Institute from SDI defender to Exxon-funded climate denier is particularly illustrative.
Climate scientists themselves come in for part of the blame. As the authors point out, while Singer et. al. and their allies from corporations and think tanks cast their disinformation and misinformation directly to the people, the press and politicians, the climate scientists, for the most part, spoke quietly among themselves.
No disinformation campaign can succeed without the cooperation of the press, and the authors provide some egregious examples of how the press in general, and such conservative organs as the Wall Street Journal and The Washington Times in particular, printed long discredited information and baseless personal attacks, and declined to print rebuttals or retractions when the errors were pointed out.
The book is not without flaws. For example, while they document the press’s individual failures, they don’t hold the discipline as a whole to account to the extent that the media deserves. For example, consider the following statement:
In creating the appearance of science, the merchants of doubt sold a plausible story about scientific debate. They created a Potemkin Village populated, in only a few cases, with actual scientists. A reasonable journalist, not to mention the ordinary citizens, could be forgiven for having been fooled.
Really? Their tactics were crude, the lies obvious, and the truth knowable with only a cursory web search. If the press was “fooled,” it was because they were either hopeless slackers, or they wanted to be fooled.
The authors also describe the scientific method in a manner that makes it sound like a popularity contest. Their almost exclusive focus on peer reviews and peer consensus ignores the critical role of testable hypotheses and empirical observation. In the end, it is the quality and reproducibility of the data that speaks, and it forms the basis for the peer reviews. In their prescription for ‘A New View of Science,” they repeat this perspective, saying, “What counts as knowledge are the ideas that are accepted by the fellowship of experts “¦” This is a slippery slope, in which old theories never die and new ones could be subject to the whims of the times.
In the end, the authors correctly note that what motivates deniers is political ideology, not science. As CP’s Joe Romm put it in Hell and High Water, the reason most political conservatives and libertarians deny the reality of human-induced climate change is that they simply cannot stand the solution. So they attack both the solution and the science.
Despite its small flaws, Merchants is an impressive and disturbing piece of scholarship that does a good job of answering the questions they pose. It should be read by every editor and every member of Congress, and by climate scientists as well.
Here is a terrific talk by Oreskes: