Merchants of Doubt

In Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming, Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway have produced an important, convincing, and focused book explaining how certain individuals and organizations have intentionally confused the public understanding of science, in areas including the dangers of tobacco smoke, acid rain, and climate change. While – in a certain sense – the book lays out a theory about a conspiracy, the argument differs fundamentally from your standard ‘conspiracy theory’ insofar as the claims being made are precise and specifically documented. Oreskes and Conway point out how Person X, funded by Organization Y, made misleading claim Z despite having previous knowledge of why it is false. They point out how the tobacco industry led “a criminal conspiracy to commit fraud” for years after their own scientists had informed executives about the dangers of tobacco. Now, an alliance between fossil fuel interests and anti-regulation ideologues is proving dangerously effective at preventing well-informed debate on climate change.

Merchants of Doubt is very specific in its focus. It discusses the development of science and policy on certain questions: missile defence, acid rain, the ozone hole, secondhand smoke, climate change, and pesticides. It shows how the common thread uniting many of those who raised questions about the science in each case was a deep-seated opposition to government regulation, sometimes rooted in anti-communism. The book does not go into such questions as what ought to be done about climate change, whether it is possible to stop, or what costs and benefits would accompany the shift to a zero-carbon economy. It doesn’t even go into great detail on what is known about climate science, or the lines of evidence that support the current consensus on climate change. The book focuses exclusively on telling the story of the construction of phony debates, and accomplishes that task convincingly. Oreskes and Conway also use logical arguments and examples to refute some of the most problematic faulty beliefs that have arisen on the subjects of climate change, regulation, and environmentalism in general. It also discusses some quirks of science – such as how practitioners prefer to focus on uncertain areas of new research – and explains how such tendencies have been exploited by those aiming for public confusion.

Merchants of Doubt ends up being quite critical of the media. It argues that individuals are poorly equipped to assess apparent disagreements on highly technical subjects. The book argues that the media has been effectively exploited by individuals like Fred Singer and organizations like the Competitive Enterprise Institute – groups that understood how the media and public opinion functioned, and who were happy to use their expertise to create confusion on important issues. The authors argue that: “small numbers of people can have large, negative impacts, especially if they are organized, determined, and have access to power.” People with good intentions can unintentionally do harm, and sometimes government needs to impose regulations to address that. Those individuals and groups who fundamentally oppose that basic logic have made attacking science into a mechanism for avoiding its conclusions.

Like Jim Hoggan’s Climate Cover-Up: the Crusade to Deny Global Warming, Oreskes and Conway’s book makes for frustrating and uncomfortable reading. It is unnerving to see how easily politicians, media outlets, and other organizations with a pre-existing bias against government intervention can be convinced that science justifies inaction, even when there is a strong consensus to the contrary. Whereas ignorance about acid rain or secondhand smoke had large but bounded consequences, catastrophic or runaway climate change is a profound threat to civilization itself. In that context, it is frightening that such a small band of skilled and determined individuals have been able to have such sway on public opinion and the political process, helping to drive poor decision-making.

The success of the campaign to mislead is perhaps nowhere more frightening than in among American conservatives today. For decades, the world’s scientific bodies have expressed their increasing (and now considerable) confidence that climate change is a real problem, caused by people, about which something ought to be done. The fact that the world remains largely inactive on the issue is thus deeply worrying. Hopefully, the attempts of Oreskes and others to demonstrate how the debate has been manipulated will lead to a clarification in thinking, followed by the deployment of effective actions.

Maybe, after seeing the same group of people be wrong about tobacco, acid rain, ozone depletion, and climate change people will finally stop seeing these people and organizations as good sources of advice on matters of public policy. Oreskes and Conway have provided a service, in moving humanity toward that point. The level of detail with which they have done so is commendable. It is too common to see political outcomes attributed to the power of vague interests; it is much more informative and useful to see precise attribution of who did what, accompanied by informed consideration of why and with what importance.

13 thoughts on “Merchants of Doubt

  1. Pingback: The phony debate on climate science

  2. Pingback: Science never stops

  3. Pingback: People with good intentions might unintentionally do harm

  4. .

    Climate sceptics are recycled critics of controls on tobacco and acid rain

    We must not be distracted from science’s urgent message: we are fuelling dangerous changes in Earth’s climate

    Jeffrey Sachs, Friday 19 February 2010 12.47 GMT

    Many books have recently documented the games played by the climate-change deniers. Merchants of Doubt, a new book by Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway set for release in mid-2010, will be an authoritative account of their misbehaviour. The authors show that the same group of mischief-makers, given a platform by the free-market ideologues of The Wall Street Journal’s editorial page, has consistently tried to confuse the public and discredit the scientists whose insights are helping to save the world from unintended environmental harm.

    Today’s campaigners against action on climate change are in many cases backed by the same lobbies, individuals, and organisations that sided with the tobacco industry to discredit the science linking smoking and lung cancer. Later, they fought the scientific evidence that sulphur oxides from coal-fired power plants were causing “acid rain.” Then, when it was discovered that certain chemicals called chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) were causing the depletion of ozone in the atmosphere, the same groups launched a nasty campaign to discredit that science, too.

    Later still, the group defended the tobacco giants against charges that second-hand smoke causes cancer and other diseases. And then, starting mainly in the 1980s, this same group took on the battle against climate change.

    What is amazing is that, although these attacks on science have been wrong for 30 years, they still sow doubts about established facts. The truth is that there is big money backing the climate-change deniers, whether it is companies that don’t want to pay the extra costs of regulation, or free-market ideologues opposed to any government controls.

  5. .

    The misuse of science

    All guns blazing
    A question of dodgy science
    Jun 17th 2010

    IN 1953 the leaders of America’s big tobacco companies met John Hill, founder of a public-relations company, Hill and Knowlton, to talk about worrying new scientific research linking their products to cancer: worrying, that is, in that it might hurt sales. Hill stressed that a key part of their response had to be making sure that the public was informed of scientific doubts about the validity of the research. The tobacco industry took his advice to heart, even when its own in-house scientists were confirming what the public-health researchers had found out.

    In this powerful book, Naomi Oreskes and Eric Conway, two historians of science, show how big tobacco’s disreputable and self-serving tactics were adapted for later use in a number of debates about the environment. Their story takes in nuclear winter, missile defence, acid rain and the ozone layer. In all these debates a relatively small cadre of right-wing scientists, some of them eminent, worked through organisations sometimes created specially for the purpose to take on a scientific establishment that they perceived to be dangerously unsympathetic to the interests of capital and national security.

    By the time the makers of cigarettes were fighting against legislation on secondary smoking and the makers of chlorofluorocarbons against regulations to protect the ozone layer, their efforts had coalesced into a general attack on the environmental movement and the regulatory bodies it had brought into being. The techniques employed included disinformation of various sorts coupled with an enduring and disgraceful willingness to stick to discredited arguments that seemed to play well. It is a shameful story for many of those concerned, and the authors make effective use of the vast archive of tobacco company documents now in the public domain, and of the personal archives of some of the scientists involved.

    The book is good on drawing out the politics involved, and pointing out the contradictions. People who insisted that it was vital to look at worst-case scenarios when dealing with the Soviet Union proved remarkably averse to taking the same approach to environmental issues. It is rather less strong on the politics on the other side. In most of these campaigns the dissenters have argued that the American scientific establishment is tainted with an anti-corporate liberalism and is trying to impose socialism by the back door. One does not have to agree with this view, or to think that both sides are equally culpable, to feel that the ways in which science is used to generate assent for environmental action may sometimes be as interesting as the ways in which it is mobilised for dissent. Though the authors note as a curiosity that campaigns against secondary smoke predated the evidence that it did any harm, they show no desire to explore this seemingly reversed causality.

  6. Pingback: Climate Cover-Up

  7. .

    “Lately science has shown us that contemporary industrial civilization is not sustainable. Maintaining our standard of living will require finding new ways to produce our energy and less ecologically damaging ways to produce our food. Science has shown us that Rachel Carson was not wrong.

    This is the crux of the issue, the crux of our story. For the shift in the American environmental movement from aesthetic environmentalism to regulatory environmentalism wasn’t just a change in political strategy. It was the manifestation of a crucial realization: that unrestricted commercial activity was doing damage – real, lasting, pervasive damage. It was the realization that pollution was global, not just local, and that the solution to pollution was not dilution. This shift began with the understanding that DDT remained in the environment long after its purpose was served. And it grew as acid rain and the ozone hole demonstrated that pollution traveled hundreds or even thousands of kilometres from its source, doing damage to people who did not benefit from the economic activity that produced it. It reached a crescendo when global warming showed that even the most seemingly innocuous by-product of industrial civilization – CO2, the stuff of which plants depend – could produce a very different planet.

    To acknowledge this was to acknowledge the soft underbelly of free market capitalism: that free enterprise can bring real costs – profound costs – that the free market does not reflect. Economists have a term for these costs – less reassuring than Friedman’s “neighbourhood effects.” They are “negative externalities”: negative because they aren’t beneficial and external because they fall outside the market system. Those who find this hard to accept attack the messenger, which is science.

    We all expect to pay for the things we buy – to pay a fair cost for goods and services from which we expect to reap benefits – but external costs are unhinged from benefits, often imposed on people who did not choose the good or service, and did not benefit from their use. They are imposed on people who did not benefit from the economic activity that produced them. DDT imposed enormous costs through the destruction of ecosystems; acid rain, secondhand smoke, the ozone hole, and global warming did the same. This is the common thread that ties these diverse issues together: they were all market failures. They are instances where serious damage was done and the free market seemed unable to account for it, much less prevent it. Government intervention was required. This is why free market ideologues and old Cold Warriors joined together to fight them. Accepting that by-products of industrial civilization were irreparably damaging the global environment was to accept the reality of market failure. It was to acknowledge the limits of free market capitalism.”

    Oreskes, Naomi and Erik Conway. Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming. p.237-8 (hardcover)

  8. .

    “In the wake of the crash, environmentalists pointed their finger at the usual bogeymen. They claimed that the problem has been that fossil fuel interests have massively outspent underdog environmental groups, funding skeptics to mislead the public and duping the media into giving too much credence to skeptical views about climate change.
    In reality, the environmental lobby massively outspent its opponents. In just the last two years, by our rough estimate environmental organizations and philanthropies spent somewhere north of $1 billion dollars advocating for climate action. In contrast, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Exxon-Mobil, the Koch Brothers, Big Coal, and the various other well publicized opponents of environmental action might have spent, when all was said and done, a small fraction of that. Indeed, much of the U.S. energy industry, including the largest utilities, helped write and lobbied for U.S. climate legislation.
    Nonetheless, and despite the enormous resources spent on public communications about climate, some continue to accuse the media of “false balance” – by which they mean giving equal coverage to skeptical views about climate change. But the phenomenon of “false balance,” according to the best academic studies of the phenomena, disappeared after 2005. And even the very notion completely undermines the idea that media coverage has been biased against climate action. The complaint, after all, is that the media has reported the views of skeptics or opponents of climate action at all.”

  9. Pingback: Oil and gas industry adapting

  10. .

    Your opinion on climate change might not be as common as you think

    Z. Leviston,
    I. Walker
    & S. Morwinski

    Nature Climate Change (2012) doi:10.1038/nclimate1743

    Political and media debate on the existence and causes of climate change has become increasingly factious in several western countries, often resting on claims and counter-claims about what most citizens really think. There are several well-established phenomena in psychology about how people perceive the prevalence of opinions, including the false consensus effect1 (a tendency to overestimate how common one’s ‘own’ opinion is) and pluralistic ignorance2 (where most people privately reject an opinion, but assume incorrectly that most others accept it). We investigated these biases in people’s opinions about the existence and causes of climate change. In two surveys conducted 12 months apart in Australia (n = 5,036; n = 5,030), respondents were asked their own opinion about the nature of climate change, and then asked to estimate levels of opinion among the general population. We demonstrate that opinions about climate change are subject to strong false consensus effects, that people grossly overestimate the numbers of people who reject the existence of climate change in the broader community, and that people with high false consensus bias are less likely to change their opinions.

  11. .

    As the vice-presidential candidate for the Libertarians in 1980, Mr Koch’s ticket attracted only 1% of the vote. Yet the brothers’ lobbying against regulation, unions and entitlements—in almost any circumstance, a position so extreme that William F. Buckley derided it as “anarcho-totalitarianism”—helped push the Republican Party much further to the right than most of its supporters knew or wanted to go. And on climate change in particular this effort was underhand. While acknowledging the reality of global warming, the brothers, both MIT graduates, funded lobbyists, junk scientists and conspiracy theorists to propagate an alternative reality in which climate science is always contestable, and any policy response to it a socialist power-grab. A new book on the brothers’ operations by Christopher Leonard suggests this disinformation campaign began as early as 1991, in a successful bid to prevent George H.W. Bush fulfilling his pledge to curb carbon emissions. Thereby the brothers helped corrupt the American right, mislead the public and destroy a healthy bipartisan consensus on the issue.

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