“Merchants of Doubt” by Naomi Oreskes & Erik M. Conway

Oreskes_Merchants_of_DoubtISBN 978 14088 2483 2. “Merchants of Doubt – How a handful of scientists obscured the truth on issues from tobacco smoke to global warming” was written by Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway and first published by Bloomsbury in 2010 (this paperback in 2012). If you fast forward to the Conclusion in this book you may be forgiven for thinking you were still reading the last book we reviewed “Debunking Economics” by Steve Keen. For what links the two is how a dogmatic belief in “free market fundamentalism” can cause people to abandon all reason. As if under the influence of some bizarre cult perfectly reasonable people start to deny the very principle of reality: they start fighting scientific rationalism with propaganda.

In some respects there is nothing new in publishing books about climate change denial. We reviewed “Climate Cover-up” by James Hoggan only three years ago. However Oreskes and Conway take a slightly different tack; they go much further backwards in time to trace where the phenomena started. Oreskes work has influence Al Gore’s production of “An Inconvenient Truth” and Gore made it clear that the denial of scientific consensus is nothing new: in the modern era it became of tool of the tobacco industry in the 1950’s. This book follows the path of scientific denial from evidence that smoking killed you, through a significant timeline that takes in SDI (“Star Wars”), nuclear winter, acid rain, the hole in the Ozone layer, second-hand smoke, global warming and pesticides The story is told predominantly from the US perspective and is largely parochial in that respect. This narrative holds together for the Americans because of who was involved in this track-record of denial. The clue is in the sub-title: the denial of scientific realities in all these areas has boiled down to the actions of a small handful of individuals and think-tanks.

Now these guys are hitting well above their weight. The statistics in the USA bear testimony to this with the excessively high level of doubt in public opinion about issues for which utterly overwhelming scientific consensus had been achieved decades before. Denial works. It has worked very well in the USA because these ‘merchants of doubt’ include some of their most senior and well-respected scientists. They are well connected and have influence all the way up to the White House. The same handful of characters appear again and again to sabotage policy progress that was necessary to protect public health and well-being for now and for years to come. Their success has been astounding. So influential have been the views of this minority in the USA that it has turned America into a laughing-stock. How can a nuclear superpower have the scientific belief systems of a nation in the middle-ages? It would be hard not to believe that this is a nation just three square meals away from burning midwifes for being witches. Why need peer-reviewed scientific research, by experts, when it can be ignored by the newspapers more interested in promoting the prejudices that sell their papers? In the country of such superstition the agenda can be pushed around by whomever shouts loud enough.. And whoever has the most money. You can buy the policy that suits the agenda of those who do not wish change to happen. Change is bad for business and must be resisted at all costs.

The authors really believe in the cause of scientific truth but they are working in a grey area. There is no such thing as science that is “settled” and science does not establish “facts”. Writing such things invites obvious criticisms from within the scientific community. Several such fallacies are repeated by the authors. It isn’t clear why because their arguments about the proper scientific-method are normally quite lucid. The book kicks off with the post-war tobacco-cancer controversy which they use to explain their views. However we would have advised them to take a step back and properly define the scientific-method up front with some ground-rules. It would have made it clearer later in the book if they could have demonstrated how the merchants of doubt had broken the rules. These explanations are there but they are buried in the text and arise at random. We suspect most people will just be confused. This book should have been an appeal for the return to scientific enlightenment. However its confusing narrative only serves to bury the case the authors are trying to make. As such it starts to look like their opinion versus those of the deniers. No wonder public policy in the USA is so muddled when even the supreme advocates of scientific reason make such a bad job of making their case?

A case in point: they vigorously defend Carl Sagan’s Nuclear Winter model in the chapter on SDI. However we know from Stephen H. Schneider’s “Science as a Contact Sport” that Sagan’s views were extremely controversial. Schneider and Sagan fell out over the issue. Schneider was no science denier. The authors take sides in debates for which there genuinely remains some debate. However they are trying to explain to Joe Public-USA that there really is a clear delineation between black and white, right and wrong, science and anti-science. To be fair to them it is a really tough topic. Many of their examples are far less contentious and they are able to demonstrate a good case in most examples. But there are too many dead-ends, too much waffling, not enough hard insight to make their argument over-whelming. This is despite the fact that they get pretty darn close to this at certain points.

A second example: acid rain. Oreskes and Conway wax lyrical about how Fred Singer interfered with the scientific process behind the policy-making for acid rain. However they then admit that Singer’s preferred mitigation: a cap and trade system – was actually very successful when adopted. In fact it was so successful that it has been promoted again and again as a solution to climate change. So, are they wrong about acid rain? No, but they have diluted their case. They don’t like the ideologically-inspired scientific views of Fred Singer but the policy he advocated was adopted in the USA and it did work. So, is it possible to be right for all the wrong reasons? No, not according to these authors. For them the better solution would have been direct Government intervention in the market. They quote a 2005 article called “Regulation as the Mother of Innovation” by David Hounshell & team from Carnegie Mellon University, in which it is claimed that the free market lacks sufficient incentives for private investment to handle market externalities like pollution. The authors are playing with fire as once again this comes a matter of their ideology versus that of their opponents. (Note that a much stronger defence of Government intervention is made in the book’s conclusion.)

Although this book often under-delivers and underwhelms it does explain the problem in the USA very well. It highlights the role of the media in misinforming the public. Big media outlets make a big splash of “controversial” scientific subjects. This gets a lot of attention and millions read these stories. Of course they are just that: stories. Stories often fabricated by people who are not scientists. People who work for well-funded think tanks. People who are media savvy, not peer-reviewed. The scientific community finds itself under siege again and release a defence of their work. However the original media outlets are not interested in the views of scientists. Instead rebuttals end up being published in obscure scientific journals that the public will not read. No wonder there is massive scientific consensus on issues for which the public are completely unaware. In such a vacuum you can simply the buy the reality you prefer.

So what version of reality did these people prefer? Arch-denier Fred Singer put it like this when describing his enemies in the environmental movement:

“…there are probably those with hidden agendas of their own – not just to ‘save the environment’ but to change our economic system” – “Some of these ‘coercive utopians’ are socialists, some are technology-hating Luddites; most have a great desire to regulate – on as large a scale as possible.”

So there you have it: as clichéd as it is these days these people honestly thought they were defending liberty from tyranny. It is difficult not to laugh but these people are taken seriously. And maybe we should be less smug on this side of the Atlantic. One of the examples quoted in the section on tobacco smoke was the British pro-smoking group FOREST. We do have our own far-right think tanks such as the Taxpayers Alliance and the Global Warming Policy Foundation who have well-funded influence quite beyond their ability to understand evidence. You get what you pay for. Having grown up in an era when the man from FOREST made regular appearances on British Television defending the rights of smokers we never knew that FOREST were never a grassroots movement. They were a creation of the British Tobacco Advisory Council and paid for by the industry. More fool us. Thankfully FOREST are dead and buried whilst the UK has some of the most advanced Global Warming policies of any country in the world. But scientific reason doesn’t have all its own way here; it just takes more subtle forms – few deny climate change but a significant and powerful minority don’t take it seriously and fight renewable energy schemes based upon their perceptions of the economics or of the loss of visual amenity.

The defence of “liberty” is often invoked by those who have run out of any other rational argument as to why their sector of society should get their way at the expense of the majority. The authors twice quote Isaiah Berlin who said:

“…liberty for the wolves means death to the lambs…”

For the defenders of this liberty any Government involvement in the market is some slippery slope to tyranny. Ironically most of the scientists who preferred this version of reality had spent their entire careers in academic ivory towers paid for by tax payer’s money. They had spent the war working on the Manhattan Project and most of the time since working for Government agencies. None had worked in a commercial business and few had any concept of how the free market actually worked. Their ideology was based upon their own prejudices. Prejudices crafted from a time when science could deliver bigger and bigger nuclear bombs. Science had been a prestige career. Science was muscular and endorsed a belief in “progress” as defined by scientific-driven technology. How dare another group of scientists come along and undermine this view of cornucopian perpetual technological improvement, with their scientific evidence for the harm this progress was doing? This hard-core of scientists felt betrayed by the environmental science that revealed a world their ideology could not comprehend. It was a logic bomb. The market could and was failing. “Progress” was hitting the buffers of physical limits. Since their dogma could not endorse such findings their irrational reaction was to shoot the messenger.

Some of these deniers were also habitual contrarians who simply enjoyed the attention that their claims brought them. It also brought them vastly more money & fame than any actual scientific research would have yielded. It was chillingly-Orwellian how they claimed that peer-reviewed science was “junk” put together by scientists who they alleged were making this junk-science for personal and monetary gain. The pot called the kettle black over and over again. The deniers seldom saw the irony in their claims. Blind ideology replaced all reason. If nobody took any notice of these clowns none of this would matter. But millions of Americans wanted to believe these clowns. In too many cases the President of the United States chose to believe these clowns over everyone else in the scientific community. In some cases it was the President’s office who was paying the clowns to supply whatever evidence suited the ideology was in fashion that year. This is a vision of a medieval-state-of-mind in charge of the world’s largest nuclear arsenal. The implications of this are utterly profound.

We can recommend this book as it tells you a lot about the way the world works. If the world doesn’t make sense then this book can help you make sense of it. The US political system is one that many in the UK aspire to adopt here. God help us if we were to ever adopt this form of reality – a world where you can buy the reality that suits your dogma-of-the-day. This is science-for-sale to the highest bidder. A science where highly experienced and influential scientists could be recruited to give credence to this new version of reality. And it still happens today. The book closes with the tale of the rent-a-general scam in the USA where retired military staff were on hand to talk the media through the second Iraq conflict. As it turned out these were not independent voices. They were handsomely paid by the military industrial complex to convey only positive messages about the wars the American military were engaged in. Senior scientists, senior generals – if you wish to rewire reality to suit the powers-that-be there is a successful formula that works with the media and convinces the public. Who needs real independent experts with peer-reviewed evidence when you can simply write the truth you wish people to believe?

Time to think for ourselves.

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