Book review by Alison’s Cousin’s Husband Bill. Naomi Oreskes & Erik M. Conway, Merchants of doubt: how a handful of scientists obscured the truth on issues from tobacco smoke to global warming (Bloomsbury Press, New York, 2010) 355pp $37.95
One hears it said that the scientific debate on human-induced climate change is over and that the real battle ground is in politics, ethics and the art of persuasion. In other words, that the formulation and implementation of responses has moved from the “hard” physical sciences to the “soft” social ones.
Orekes and Conway bolster this conclusion. There is no common ground between the sceptics or denialists and the consensus of physical science in all the facets of climate change: whether it is occurring, why and what, if anything, we must do to respond to it. Rather, there is common ground on the criteria of criticism: in the allegations of bias and failure to follow the time-honoured procedure expected of the virtuous scientist. Having a closed mind – being biased, not being sceptical – is the most serious charge that can be made against a scientist which is why denialists have sought to appropriate the term “sceptical” to themselves.
Backed by 64 dense pages of endnotes, the authors meticulously document what lawyers would dub a settled pattern of conduct over many years and seven scientific attempts to manufacture doubt where no scientific doubt existed. The title of the book, “Merchants of doubt” goes to this point: doubt has been deliberately manufactured and marketed.
The story starts with tobacco in the 1950s. A handful of high profile scientists working in conjunction with the tobacco industry, think tanks and media advisers deliberately set out to shake the consensus that was emerging that smoking was a serious health hazard. The pattern was repeated in two ways under President Reagan: to give the public impression of confidence in the feasibility and efficacy of the President’s technically suspect Star Wars Initiative and, secondly, to undermine the scientific case for the United States to take steps to reduce emissions of sulphur dioxide from burning fossils fuels which, falling as acid rain, was destroying forests in the north-east of the country and across the border in Canada. Then there was the ozone hole caused by chlorinated flurocarbons (CFCs) manufactured for hair sprays and refrigerants.
Back then to smoking. The battle in the early 1990s concerned passive or second hand smoking. What epidemiology and medical science were discovering was the stuff of nightmares for the tobacco industry. There were guns enough to hire to shell doubt at the conclusion of that science. In other words there was a well honed modus operandi in place to take on the scientific concern about human-induced global warming when it entered the public sphere with the establishment in 1989 of the International Panel on Climate Change. [Read more →]