Merchants of Doubt

I waited a long time to read this book – in retrospect, too long. I have long been a fan of Naomi Oreskes; I believe she is a brilliant and sensible scientist with a compelling way with words. On the other hand, nothing depresses me more quickly than reading about those who deliberately spread confusion on climate change for political reasons. After a particularly battering year for climate science in the public eye, I want to make sure I stay sane.

However, Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming, by Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway, was oddly comforting. How could it be so, you might ask, given the subject matter?

It’s a good question. The book traces several key players, such as Frederick Seitz, S. Fred Singer, Bill Nierenberg, and Robert Jastrow, in their fight against mainstream science. Many of them were physicists in the era of atomic bomb development, and nearly all had been deeply influenced by the Cold War – they were anti-Communist to the point of extremism.

This extremism soon extended into science: any new discovery that seemed to necessitate government action was vehemently attacked by Seitz et al. Whether it was the harmful health effects of smoking, second-hand smoking, or DDT, and the existence of anthropogenic acid rain, ozone depletion, or climate change, the same people used the same strategies to sow doubt in the public mind, delaying the cry for action. The algorithm was relatively simple:

  • construct arguments against the phenomenon, which scientists had already addressed and ruled out
  • widely publish these arguments in the popular press, rather than scientific journals
  • demand that the mainstream media be neutral and provide “equal time” for their side of the so-called controversy
  • attack the professional integrity of the scientists who discovered and studied the phenomenon; label them as frauds and/or Communists
  • claim that action on this issue would be the beginning of the “slippery slope to socialism”

It’s enough to anger anyone who has the least bit of sympathy for science. The authors say it best:

Why would scientists dedicated to uncovering the truth about the natural world deliberately misrepresent the work of their own colleagues? Why would they spread accusations with no basis? Why would they refuse to 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?

History repeated itself many times over, within the course of just a few decades. The attack against climate science that we are currently witnessing is just a larger-scale rehash of the pro-industry, anti-Communist fight against epidemiology, environmental chemistry, and so on. Until now, few attempts have been made to connect the dots, but Oreskes and Conway present a watertight and compelling thesis in Merchants of Doubt.

The hopeful part came when I realized this: all of the previous issues that Seitz et al attempted to discredit were eventually addressed, more or less successfully, by the government, even if some of the public is still confused about the science. Restrictions and regulations on smoking, along with education regarding its harms, has made tobacco use a semi-stigmatized practice in my generation, rather than a near-universal activity. The Montreal Protocol was largely a success, and stratospheric ozone is on the rise. The world, at least so far, has managed to avoid nuclear warfare.

Climate change is undoubtedly a more inevitable and wide-ranging problem, as it strikes at the heart of our fossil-fuel based economy, and will probably surpass, both in rate and magnitude, any change our species has seen in the global environment. However, since the attack against climate science has tracked so closely with previous campaigns, I can’t help but hope it will eventually end the same way: with the public and the government realizing the problem and employing effective measures to address it. I know it’s probably not very scientific of me to make this connection, but hope doesn’t have to be rational to be effective.

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2 thoughts on “Merchants of Doubt

  1. I’ve been thinking about reading this book for a while, as it’s name is cropping up more and more frequently. After reading this, and hearing that it’s not all bad news, I’m ordering it today – thanks!

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