Category Archives: Book reviews

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.

Coal: A Human History

Barbara Freese’s Coal: A Human History provides a concise account of the interactions between humanity and coal, particularly in the United States, United Kingdom, and China. It includes a great many interesting anecdotes, as well as some good analysis of the social, health, and environmental consequences of coal use. In particular, it leaves the reader with a strong sense of the health costs associated with air pollution from coal, even before you start considering its impact on climate.

Freese identifies the forces that drove coal from a mineral of very peripheral importance to a substance that ended up at the heart of industrialization, powering the Industrial Revolution and being burned now in unprecedented quantities, mostly to generate electricity. She points out the importance of population density, wood scarcity, and the improved efficiency of steam engines in prompting the explosion of coal use. She also discusses the suffering associated with coal mining and use, the connections between the industry and industrial relations and organized crime, and the possible future of coal and energy generally.

Ironically, one of the key messages from the book is that coal – gritty, filthy coal – is actually largely invisible now. London’s deadly coal fogs are a thing of the past, and yet coal-fired power plants around the world continue to emit huge amounts of lethal pollution, accounting for tens of thousands of annual deaths in North America and perhaps a million in China. And yet, because the mechanism of this harm is invisible, there is no real public outcry to stop it. Thankfully, reduced suffering and death from air pollution is one of the major co-benefits that will accompany climate change mitigation, once nations finally start getting serious about it.

Climate change is essentially taken as a given in this short book, with some reference made to the possibility of abrupt and dangerous climate change, driven by reckless burning of fossil fuels. Freese is probably correct to treat carbon capture and storage (CCS) dismissively. Significant practical and economic hurdles stand in its way, and it is entirely plausible that it will prove quicker and cheaper to just deploy zero-carbon sources of energy, rather than refit fossil fuel fired power plants so as not to emit greenhouse gases.

One minor cause for complaint is the awkward binding of the hardcover edition. This small thin book just doesn’t want to stay open, and will clasp shut unless constantly held with the covers spread. The book’s treatment of hydrogen as a possible future energy storage medium is also thin and probably overly optimistic.

Those hoping to gain a broader historical perspective on the emergence of coal as an important energy source, the consequences of its use, and the present and future of the material will likely find this book informative, accessible, and useful.