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.