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.

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