Thursday, January 15, 2015

Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming by Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway

Periodically I post reviews of relevant science communication books. The following is a reposted review of Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming by Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway.

This book will make you angry.  The title "Merchants of Doubt" comes from the famous line of a tobacco company executive many years ago, that their goal was to "manufacture doubt" in the minds of the public and policy-makers so that no policy-making action would occur, or at least so that it should be delayed as long as possible.  And the tobacco industry succeeded for decades after they themselves knew that tobacco/nicotine was addictive, and caused cancer

Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway are science historians.  What they have uncovered with this book is how just a handful of scientists and their collaborators have had a hand in nearly every major science denial episode for the last 40 years.  And in the center of it all is the George C. Marshall Institute, Fred Seitz, S. Fred Singer, William Nierenberg and Robert Jastrow.

After the tactics were perfected in the fight to deny that smoking causes cancer, these handful of men with close ties to the Reagan and conservative ideologies employed them over and over again to deny that smokestack emissions causes acid rain, CFCs causes ozone depletion, second hand smoke causes cancer in non-smokers, and greenhouse gas emissions cause global warming.  In all cases the science has been right, and this group of men helped delay action for many years until even their deceit couldn't hide the truth.

And those tactics, repeated to deny the science in each of these issues, were all the same: employ a few scientists willing to shill for the industry or who are "skeptical" (to create the illusion of credibility), focus the efforts through well-funded right wing think tanks (to create the illusion of independence), create "new" science specifically designed to create uncertainty (i.e., not to answer questions, but to create contrasting data they can misrepresent), hyperventilate about how "the science is not settled" (knowing that science is never settled, as there is always more research that can be done), and of course, using their PR skills, Frank Luntz wordsmithing, and punchy catchphrases like "sound science" to make it sound like they are saying something when they are not saying anything.

What I found amazing was how the origins of the George C. Marshall Institute and all of its subsequent science denialism came out of the cold war fight against communism.  These handful of scientists were atomic bomb builders and astrophysicists who had no expertise in any of the science they were denying.  But they had connections, most notably with the Reagan administration and the Strategic Defense Initiative (Star Wars) for which the George C. Marshall Institute was started to sell to the public, the military, and conservative legislators.  Yet despite this lack of any expertise they continued to insert themselves into the acid rain debate, the CFC debate, the second hand smoke debate, and the climate change debate.  And each and every time their goal was to push the denial of the science.  They equated environmentalism with communism ("green on the outside, red on the inside").  And using their lobbying skills and influence they were able to create the impression that there was still a raging debate in the science, even though in all cases the science was overwhelming and they represented a very minority opinion (and an opinion not backed by any science).  Actually, in all cases they were not being scientists at all, but rather advocates for non-action (all of these men had long-since stopped doing actual research, and none of them had ever done research in the areas of science they were denying).

What is most disturbing is that they routinely employed unscientific methods and deceit to wage personal attacks on scientists, including taking advantage of Roger Revelle on his death bed, then going after his student Justin Lancaster, then Ben Santer and now climate scientists like Michael Mann and Phil Jones have become the victims of the latest iterations of harassment in the denialist industry's tactics.

Oreskes and Conway end their book with "A New View of Science," which I'll let people read for themselves.  And they should.  In fact, they must.  This book must be on the reading list of anyone and everyone interested in science, so they can read for themselves how just a handful of unscrupulous scientists with deep political connections and a near religious anti-communism fervor have been at the heart of every denial of science in the last several decades. 

Postscript: You'll notice that many of the "go-to" people that climate change deniers like are associated with the George C. Marshall Institute and other denial lobbyist groups like the Heartland Institute. Roy Spencer, for example, is on the George C. Marshall Board, and William Happer is its Chair. It's not surprising that every one of the tiny percentage of scientists who deny man-made climate change is associated with denial lobbyist organizations.

Other related book reviews (click and scroll)


Mr. Richard said...

Although few can be expected to act against their short-term interests, one of the major weaknesses of our society is that structurally it permits people to knowingly lie for money and profit. Given that deception is a fundamental primate behavior with survival benefit, I don't know how this very harmful condition can be prevented from continuing to disastrously affect public understanding and policy.

The Dake Page said...

It's not just lobbyists that lie, it's the lying to ourselves. When you can deny man-made climate change because "it's just a hoax by liberals to tax us to death," you are actively deceiving yourself. You have to actively ignore clear facts, actively seek out any source that will confirm your false conclusion (even if it means your source is a paid lobbyist or a conspiracy blogger), and you have to hold onto those false beliefs despite unequivocal and overwhelming evidence that they are false.

It's a sign of fear, of insecurity, and dishonesty to oneself. The denier lobbyists count on the irrational fears of the populace, where admitting basic science is somehow seen as an affront to your "personal liberties" and other nonsensical thought processes. Lobbyists act like marketing and advertising companies, selling you on the idea that basic fact can be denied if it makes you feel better.

Mr. Richard said...

Your diagnosis of a major social problem is on-target. Can you suggest any achievable (not 'these people should') behavioral or life-style changes that will result in people being less controlled by and responsive to "irrational fears"?

The Dake Page said...

If it were that easy to do it would have happened long ago. It's part of the state of being human; many of us live in fear of reality.

That said, another trait of us humans is the need to feel like we "belong" among our peers, defined as friends, family, or however we self-segregate. When "public opinion" within our self-designated realms change, we change. Often, quickly.

Case in point is the recent gay marriage issue. As recent as when Obama was first elected states were rushing to put on the ballot bans on gay marriage. Not just non-acceptance, but amendments to their state constitutions banning the rights of one group of Americans. Just six or seven years later - a blink of an eye - those amendments have been deemed unconstitutional by state Supreme Courts and now the U.S. Supreme Court has said they are unconstitutional. The rights for gay couples to get married is now accepted by a majority of Americans and states are rushing to codify it in their state laws.

This isn't an outlier. Historically, we hate to change and some folks fight tooth-and-nail to keep from changing, but then we reach some threshold level and everyone rushes to the new view as if they didn't want to be the last outdated view standing. Change tends to be hard to get moving, then happens suddenly. Call it inertia.

So too with public attitudes with climate science. Most people agree we need to start acting on the unequivocal science. The only ones who don't are fossil fuel lobbyists and the fossil fuel campaign contribution legislatures they influence, as well as the extremely insecure and conspiracy oriented among the public. These folks tend to have loud voices, but they disappear as the rest of society sees them as ignorant, buffoonish, and/or dishonest.

So we'll act. The question is how bad it will have gotten during our period of inaction.