Distorting science while invoking science

Debating science shouldn’t enable antiscience disinformation

Guest authors Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway share some research from their recent must-read book “Merchants of Doubt,” which is reviewed here. The book documents how the cast of characters peddling pseudo-science had been stunningly consistent over the years, from secondhand smoke skeptics to “Star Wars” missile defense proponents to modern climate science deniers. Naomi Oreskes is a professor of history of science and provost of Sixth College at UC San Diego, and Erik Conway is a historian of science and technology, living in Pasadena, California. This is cross-posted at Science Progress.

Despite a two decades old consensus among climate scientists that the globe is warming, many people believe that there is still an active debate. This is due in large part to a direct and strategic public relations campaign being waged behind the scenes by free market-fundamentalists and funded by big polluters. Big industries such as tobacco, oil, and coal, aided by conservative foundations and the free-market ideologues who inhabit them, have spent hundreds of millions of dollars to undermine science and scientists. In doing so, they make it difficult, if not close to impossible, for ordinary people to get the information upon which reasoned public policy should be based.

This coalition, promoting disinformation while claiming to be dedicated to science, is nothing new. In fact, today’s climate deniers are using the same playbook used by supporters of Ronald Reagan’s failed “Star Wars” program in the 1980s, and by the tobacco industry to avoid regulation of secondhand smoke in the 1990s. Indeed, science denial, free-market fundamentalists, and big industries have a long and sorry past together.

Let’s start with secondhand smoke. In the 1950s, scientific evidence demonstrated beyond a reasonable doubt that the tars in tobacco smoke caused cancer. The tobacco industry responded by trying to get science on its side, pumping money into scientific and medical research that might show that tobacco was all right after all. It didn’t work. Despite decades of effort and hundreds of millions of dollars spent, the industry was losing the public relations battle, and, more important, customers. By the 1980s, smoking rates had decreased dramatically.

In the early 1990s, things got even worse for the industry, as science showed that secondhand smoke was deadly, too. Philip Morris executives decided then that science itself was their enemy. In 1993 they created an organization called The Advancement of Sound Science Coalition, or TASSC, and a website,, which claimed that the science surrounding secondhand smoke was “junk.”

Soon, TASSC was making that claim about the science related to the ozone hole and global warming as well, and Philip Morris was recruiting third parties””mostly libertarian think tanks and antitax groups, such as the Heartland Institute, Americans for Tax Reform, and National Empowerment Television, a conservative TV network””to join the effort.

It is perhaps not surprising that the tobacco industry found antigovernment groups willing to make common cause. But it is a bit more surprising that they found reputable scientists””indeed, some exceptionally distinguished ones””willing to help them. As we document in our new book, Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming“”the tobacco industry and libertarian think tanks knew that to make their claims seem credible, they would need scientists to make them.

In the 1950s, the Tobacco Industry had recruited C.C. Little, a prominent geneticist (and one-time eugenicist) to direct a “research program” to challenge the mainstream scientific position that tobacco was deadly.

In the 1970s, after Little retired, R.J. Reynolds created its own Biomedical Research Program, and recruited former National Academy of Science president Frederick Seitz. From 1979 to 1985, Seitz (by this time retired from the presidency of Rockefeller University) ran a research program for Reynolds that served to generate results and experts that could be deployed to defend smoking.

How did Seitz segue from defending tobacco to attacking these other lines of scientific inquiry? Well, in 1984, Seitz had joined forces with Robert Jastrow, founder of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, and William Nierenberg, retiring director of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, to create the George C. Marshall Institute. The goal of the new organization was to defend President Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative (also known as “Star Wars”) from attack by the Union of Concerned Scientists, and in particular by the equally prominent physicists Hans Bethe, Richard Garwin, and astronomer Carl Sagan.

Between 1984 and 1989, the Marshall Institute focused on defeating communism by emphasizing the Soviet threat and the defensive possibilities of Star Wars. In hindsight it is clear that they greatly exaggerated both. One 1987 piece by Jastrow thundered that “America had five years left” before the Soviet Union became so superior it would achieve world domination without firing a shot. The collapse of the Eastern Block only two years later proved them wrong, yet the Marshall Institute didn’t go out of business for its inaccurate advocacy.

Instead, they found a new enemy to fight, an internal enemy they perceived as the next great threat to liberty””environmentalism and the science that supported it.

During the 1988 election, candidate George H. W. Bush had promised to address climate change””pledging to meet the “greenhouse effect with the White House effect.” But soon after Bush took office, Nierenberg presented a briefing to the White House staff that claimed global warming was caused by the sun, not greenhouse gases, and that as solar irradiance declined during the 1990s, the Earth would begin to cool.

Despite a complete lack of evidence that the sun actually had increased in brightness during the previous few decades, Nierenberg’s briefing was taken seriously. One White House staffer commented on the written report that accompanied it, “Everyone has read it.” And it strengthened a faction within the White House, led by Chief of Staff John Sununu, which opposed environmental regulation.

Alan Bromley, appointed a few months later as the president’s science advisor, realized how the White House staff had been misled. After some effort, he managed to restart discussion of the pros and cons of carbon taxes and cap and trade systems within the White House. In 1992 President Bush signed the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change despite continued opposition inside his own administration. But the Framework Convention was only a promise of intent””it set no binding limits on greenhouse gases. That was supposed to be done later, in what became the Kyoto Protocol, negotiated in the mid-1990s. By then, the Marshall Institute had forged links to the American Petroleum Institute and to Republican leaders who now controlled Congress.

Meanwhile, Seitz and Nierenberg had joined forces with another Cold War physicist, S. Fred Singer, one of the original rocket scientists of the late 1940s and 1950s. In 1990, Singer had established the “Science and Environmental Policy Project” in office space shared with the Washington Institute for Values in Public Policy, a think tank financed by the strongly anticommunist Unification Church. In editorials published by the Washington Times (owned by the Unification Church) and in many other venues, Singer now took on the issue of the ozone hole, insisting that the problem was being exaggerated, and that there was no scientific consensus on the issue, and it would be premature to regulate chlorofluorocarbons, or CFC’s.

Of course, in retrospect scientists from around the world decisively and conclusively determined CFC’s to be a major threat the ozone layer, which is the planet’s natural line of defense against cancer-causing ultraviolet radiation. Thankfully, world leaders listened to the urgency of the actual science, and in 1987 signed the Montreal Protocol, which set a declining cap on ozone-depleting pollution. Kofi Annan hailed the treaty as “perhaps the single most successful international agreement to date,” and thanks to swift political action, scientists believe the ozone layer will recover fully by 2050.

Undeterred by overwhelming scientific evidence, Singer also defended tobacco. In the mid 1990s, finding all avenues for legitimate scientific debate about the effects of second-hand smoke exhausted, he turned to   attacking the Environmental Protection Agency’s review process. His work was extensively cited in a handbook of antiscience circulated by the industry in 1993: Bad Science: A Resource Book. The two-hundred page collection of opinion pieces and quotations was designed to make mainstream science appear corrupt and unreliable. But legitimate scientific debate occurs in the pages of academic journals, not in op-eds or in industry-circulated handbooks.

Then, in 1996, Singer joined Seitz and Nierenberg in attacking a young scientist from the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, Benjamin Santer, over his leadership of one chapter of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Second Assessment Report.  In the opinion pages of The Wall Street Journal, they attacked Santer, and claimed that he had altered the report to fit U.S. climate policy (as if there even was one!). The attack on Santer in op-eds and other non-science fora presaged last year’s assault on climate science, the theft of email from the University of East Anglia, and subsequent media feeding frenzy.

The attack also presaged Oklahoma Senator James Inhofe’s recent threat to indict climate scientists, and the witch-hunt by Virginia Attorney General Kenneth Cuccinelli focused on climate scientist Michael Mann, who had previously taught at the University of Virginia, and who has been exonerated by four separate panels. All these events are consistent with a longer history of attempts to undermine science and scientists to prevent government regulation of harmful industrial products and activities.

The New York Times recently declared the East Anglia affair a “manufactured controversy,” but this is just the most recent in a pattern of manufactured controversies spanning decades, a product of the ideology that George Soros has called “free market fundamentalism.” It is an ideology that rejects the idea that government regulation is ever appropriate.

Over the past half century, science has demonstrated that many industrial activities and consumer products are damaging to the natural environment and to human health: tobacco, DDT, acid rain, ozone depletion, and the burning of fossil fuels. These activities have unintended consequences that the marketplace did not anticipate, and did not succeed in preventing. Because these unintended consequences are “market failures,” it is reasonable to conclude that something needs to be done, something that creates a “price” for bad behavior that markets can recognize.

That something could be a carbon tax, or it could be a cap and trade system, or it could be some other form of regulation or prevention. Yet some people have continued to insist””despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary””that all problems can and should be solved in the marketplace and no government action is needed. Because science suggests that government action is needed to protect the common good, free market fundamentalists have come to see science itself as their enemy.

The efforts of these free market ideologues to undermine legitimate scientific debate in the popular media helps to explain why, 18 years after President Bush signed the U.N. Framework Convention, people are still confused about the science of climate change. It also helps explain why the federal government has taken no action to reduce emissions while nearly every other major economy puts together climate action plans. Meanwhile, the ice caps continue to melt, the permafrost thaws, and weather events become more extreme.

Ironically, worsening climate change and the increasing risk that we are approaching irreversible tipping points make it more likely that the heavy-handed government intervention that conservatives dread will actually be required. The longer we wait, the harder the problem of climate change will become to solve””and the more likely it is that climate change will become not just inconvenient, but very destructive, and perhaps catastrophic.

Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway

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26 Responses to Distorting science while invoking science

  1. cervantes says:

    Well, they are still effective it seems. The NYT today has a long front-page article on the impressive progress Portugal has made developing renewable energy; and a story on the Russian heat wave/drought/wildfires buried, predictably, on the back pages. Both stories manage to completely avoid mentioning climate change.

  2. Pete Best says:

    I think that the book “lies and the lying liars who tell them, a fair and balanced view of the right” goes along these lines of trying to ridicule the right and quite rightly too.

  3. Doug Bostrom says:

    No matter how many times I’m confronted with the fact, it never fails to boggle my mind that this issue was done, ready for being addressed and corrected 22 years ago. 22 years of prevarication and delay! For the sake of argument, let’s grant for a moment that 2 years to produce the first IPCC assessment was duly cautious, worth waiting for. That leaves 20 years of milling around, waffling.

    No wonder some people think this is the greatest public policy failure we’ll ever witness. Why did it happen this way? We would like to know, wouldn’t we? Oreskes and Conway provide us with one of the only plausible reasons– professional PR forces employed political and social science research in a way that is almost unbelievably malicious and destructive.

    We really need some formal accountability for what’s happened here. The same tools–weapons, really– employed in this fiasco are proliferating in all sorts of venues where private enterprise is bumping up against public health. Should encouraging a crowd to head for a locked exit in a fire be seen as some sort of crime? That’s not unreasonable to think about.

  4. Seth Masia says:

    The tradition of corporate resistance to science dates back at least to 1925, when General Motors, DuPont and Standard Oil managed to suppress a surgeon-general’s report on the health hazards of tetraethyl lead in gasoline.

  5. Sarah Smith says:

    Barack Hussein Obama is a smoker.

  6. Prokaryotes says:

    BP, Chevron Units Among Companies Settling N.Y. Gasoline Additive Cases
    MTBE renders water undrinkable and can cause nausea and other maladies, the plaintiffs have argued.

    In the Exxon Mobil trial, New York City argued that the company could have used ethanol as an oxygenate and instead opted to use MTBE to save money. New York State banned the use of MTBE starting in 2004, as have dozens of other states.

    Exxon Mobil has asked Scheindlin to overrule the jury, order a new trial or reduce the damages award.

  7. It is amzing how people still are debating for Global warming. Wake up!

  8. rpauli says:

    Thank you for this wonderful summary. You may be too kind as you seem to excuse these actions as the politically driven momentum of “market failures”

    This looks more like information warfare where the Pyrrhic victory has delivered the plunder. And the disinformation campaign continues to prevent and suppress much of a response.

    It is no solace that climate physics will be the ultimate winner — no matter what the outcome of the information battle.

  9. Prokaryotes says:

    Innospec executive fined over bribes to boost sales of toxic fuel additives

    Briton David Turner to pay £25,000 for role in selling tetraethyl lead to Iraq and Indonesia after its ban in western countries

  10. JM says:

    Sarah Smith says:
    August 10, 2010 at 3:35 pm
    Barack Hussein Obama is a smoker.

    Idiots like this are why the lobbyists always win. They’re the weak link.

  11. Jeff Huggins says:

    Sue Them and Charge Them

    I hope that people are collecting evidence of intent to mislead, fraud, willful deceit, civil and criminal negligence, and all reasons why these folks should be held liable. There are numerous reasons, plenty of available evidence (if it is kept and organized), and lots of specific names attached. Most of my background is in business — Baker Scholar at Harvard, McKinsey consultant, Disney exec, and etc. — and a very large number of these folks at the oil and coal companies, and related think tanks, will simply not change from their ways unless and until they feel the likelihood that their OWN, PERSONAL, situations and fortunes are at stake. That is the bottom line of it. Until credible suits and charges are brought against these folks — as they should be — we will not see suitable change. The only thing that cares less about our rhetoric than the climate itself does are the folks who are messing up the climate — and until they feel the threat of very real consequences, they’ll keep doing what they think they do best.

    To what degree are the two authors — and I thank and congratulate them! — getting together with excellent law firms and with the sorts of institutional plaintiffs that have the will and wisdom to advance the civil and legal avenues?

    I’m not joking.



  12. #4. Sarah Smith says:
    August 10, 2010 at 3:35 pm

    Barack Hussein Obama is a smoker.

    This is an example of the Tu Quoque form of the argumentum ad hominem fallacy. Not only is it an irrelevant attack on the person, it doubles-down on its irrelevancy with a kind of schoolyard, “Well, you do it!”

    Pointing out that so and so is a smoker hardly serves to refute said individual’s argument, even and especially if the argument is about the evils of smoking. Indeed, said smoker is arguably in an even better position to state with authority that smoking is not a good thing.

  13. Peter Mizla says:

    Dealing with Deniers is a difficult job. I have met people in my day to day interactions who do not understand climate change or Climate science- and who get much of their news from Fox News or the national media which gives NO news.

    At a web site called In the ‘Green living’ Section I had a brief encounter with a Denier-I am ‘shelby93 by the way- in this conversation ‘Nomander’ seems to be a ‘professional’ denier -perhaps set up by the owner of this site- which tends to lean far to the right.

    From those who deny or lack information their reply is ‘its just a cycle’.

    The professional Deniers however have a more sinister goal-mislead the public of the dire threats they are facing.

  14. Chris Winter says:

    Seth Masia wrote: “The tradition of corporate resistance to science dates back at least to 1925, when General Motors, DuPont and Standard Oil managed to suppress a surgeon-general’s report on the health hazards of tetraethyl lead in gasoline.”

    Thanks, I never knew that.

    But the attitude was there. In Junk Science, Dan Agin reports that when 17 workers died in 1924 at the Standard Oil plant in New Jersey, and others suffered acute neurological damage due to lead toxicity, management said, “These men probably went insane because they worked too hard.”

  15. Chris Winter says:

    Peter Mizla, I took a look at that thread on the City-Data site. (Ghu, that’s horrible software.)

    I wouldn’t say “Nomander” is a professional denier, based on the imprecision of his language. (“There is no private emails.”) He is, however, without doubt a denier.

    Oh, wait… You mean “professional” in the sense of “dedicated” or “determined.” In that case I agree.

  16. toby says:

    I just finished “Merchants of Doubt”, and it is an excellent read.

    Its make you realise that all along the people who politicised science were the deniers, not the standard ones of today, but people like Fred Sietz, Bill Nierenberg and Fred Singer. All of these men had powerful leverage with Republican administrations and were responsible for delaying action on second-hand smoking and acid rain, before truning their baleful attention to climate change.

    Their names will live in infamy.

  17. Robert Nagle says:

    I have to confront deniers everywhere and all the time. I am just a layman (and btw, Crock of the Week and Skeptical Science are helpful, not to mention CP), but I never cease to be surprised at 1)the number of lefty people who think it’s all a right-wing conspiracy to profit from carbon trading, 2)the number of highly educated people in oil and gas who haven’t updated their knowledge for over a decade and 3)the number of Republicans who almost seem to take pride in conspicuous consumption of fossil fuels and unsustainable lifestyles.

    Also, I live in Houston; yes, I realize that it’s the headquarters for a lot of fossil fuel companies, but I am amazed at the number of people have no idea how the consequences might affect a coastal city like Houston. The extent of their knowledge is that global warming might produce inconvenient weather on occasion. I am also amazed at the number of people who are ignorant about how electricity is generated or the source of their own energy. I once interviewed someone in public affairs for a major web hosting company who had no idea what their carbon footprint was or what the fuel mix of their utility was. (I had to tell him after examining several reports).

    I’m glad that Oreskes has traced the origins of denialism, but the cognitive dissonance of many Americans is often self-inflicted.

  18. Peter Mizla says:

    Chris Winter

    Thanks for the look over at CD- yes the software is atrocious.
    ‘Nomander’ is not as you said a ‘Professional’ in the sense he/she is a scientist- but he works real hard at that site as a ‘Professional denier’.

    It seems strange for site that large to have such a tiny allocation of discussion to AGW.

    By the way I was ’employed’ at that site a few years ago as a Moderator at the Connecticut forum-I left 2 years ago after disagreement with management- I was ‘Skytrekker’.

  19. Michael Tucker says:

    Those who defended the Tobacco Industry must have known that eventually they would fail. What did they gain? TIME! The object was delay.

    What is the difference between a climate change denier and someone who DOES believe we need to do something but just not now? Nothing really, the object is the same: delay.

    So for those who do agree with the science we seem to have at least two camps:
    1) We must set a limit on CO2 emissions now so we can begin the long process of drawing down the atmospheric concentration.
    2) We can wait. Sure doing something now would be nice but we can do it later. Maybe with a lame-duck congress or just maybe at some unspecified future time.

    It is quite glaringly obvious that some like Lester Brown, Bill McKibben, Jim Hansen, and Joe Romm think that time is wasting and we had better do something immediately. I have a lot of respect for those folks and I too am worried but there are some who do not share that same level of concern. I have a lot of respect for Dr Chu and I believe he has a much better understanding of the subject than I do. I also think President Obama feels the same way. Since Obama and Chu are not worried I have decided to also try to achieve that same emotional calm. Honestly, if the President of the United States and the Secretary of Energy can enjoy summer and ignore the ever increasing CO2 why can’t I? My summer report will be How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Warming Earth.

  20. Anonymous says:

    Sarah Smith says:
    Barack Hussein Obama is a smoker.

    And your father smelt of elderberries.


  21. Peter Mizla says:

    Obama and Chu are worried–

    they are severely limited in what they can accomplish- I feel their message to inform the public totally ‘missing’- a total failure to communicate what we face.

    Remember Obama was not exactly very effective in defining health care either.

  22. adelady says:

    Doug Bostrom, it’s not 22 years it’s more like 30.

    Remember President Carter installed solar panels on the roof of the White House in 1979. Reagan removed them in 86.

    I’m often depressed by thinking of the educational and setting-an-example opportunities forgone in all these years.

  23. TAFL says:

    Congress should smoke out the leading AGW deniers and bring them to a formal hearing. Purgery in this setting would be punishable by law. National coverage would be guaranteed. They could be discredited in a way that brings the right media into the game and maybe, just maybe shift the public opinion to where we can re-start the political process required for effective action.

  24. adelady #21

    As Oreskes and Conway make clear in their book, pages 170-171 the Office of the President recieved ‘…a report of the potential impacts of carbon dioxide-induced warming…’ produced by Roger Revelle then director of Scripps Institute of Oceanography (oceanographers seem highly prominent in the conduct of the science). ‘Lyndon Johnson mentioned it in a Special Message to Congress later that year.’ (1965)

    By my reckoning that makes it 45 years.

    The book revciewed here and also Eric Pooley’s ‘The Climate War’, Joe’s book ‘Straight Up’ and Jim Hoggan’s (DeSmogBlog) ‘Climate Cover-Up’ are each worth reading but sadly I don’t see many of those displaying ‘cognitive dissonance’ engaging with these as they would rather parrot ‘its a hoax’, always without cogent arguments to support their position, and cling to offerings from clever propagandists who trade on myopia by picking on details such as solar variability and GCRs and baffle the brains of the ignorant with pseudo-erudition.

    I have come across all this in action on forums but I keep trying, those not yet decided may just pick up on who is telling porkies (porky pies – lies).

    PS. The way Revelle was treated by Singer is nothing short of a scandal. And it wasn’t only Revelle who was bullied by expensive litigation initiated by Singer. To use an Americanism, Singer is a piece of work!

  25. Icarus says:

    Jim Hansen says that Richard Lindzen has already blatantly lied to the US Congress. Isn’t that a crime? Jeff Huggins is absolutely right – we won’t make an impact on these despicable AGW deniers until there are real, painful and personal consequences for their conscious deceit.

  26. PurpleOzone says:

    S. Fred Singer is actively, publicly, promoting AG Cuccinelli’s investigation of UVa’s climate work when Mann was professor/researcher there.

    Singer wrote a letter to the editor published in the Richmond Times-Dispatch August 7, 2010 = last Saturday.

    Singer concludes: “It is quite likely that Cuccinelli will discover a smoking gun. Perhaps some of the e-mails that British researcher professor Phil Jones admitted to having deleted will tell us just when Mann became aware that the hockey stick was bogus and a fraud.”

    Let me guess — Singer is drooling about having hoards of emails to extract s*** from and smear on Mann. Guessing again — Singer is providing La Cucharacha with behind-the-scenes “science” support. Some of the contortions of science in Cuccinelli’s brief are “singerish” imo.

    Singer has published a couple of other letters about the AG’s fishing expedition that are vindictive toward Mann.

    Singer can outlast the energizer bunny. I wish Mann would or could sue him.