Merchandising Doubt: the work of climate change scepticism

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.

The final case study is a side track into DDT: “a shrill revisionist attack” by the now usual means during this past decade to undermine the legacy of the late Rachel Carson who was dubbed “hysterical and emotional” when her world changing 1963 book Silent spring was published.

The book of Naomi Orekes and Erik M. Conway, both science historians, is an enthralling and easy read in spite of the meticulous research evidenced in the end notes. The case studies disentangle plots worthy of a detective story. If the issues were not so serious, the book would be worth reading for that reason alone. As it is, the gravity of their charges makes reading the book a must.

There are villains and the surprise is that they are scientists. In particular the authors name Robert Jastrow, Frederick Seitz and William Nierenberg, all highly qualified and respected physicists who had built their career and reputation on their work for the nuclear weapons program. Their influence opened doors in Congress and Administration up to the White House. Fervently anti-communist and alarmed by the criticism from fellow scientists and engineers of Reagan’s Strategic Defence Initiative, they established in 1984 the George C. Marshall Institute to “promote science for better public policy.”

With the collapse of communism in 1989 and the end of the Soviet military threat, the Institute found a new enemy in “environmental extremism.” The doubt-mongering which had successfully delayed action against tobacco and acid rain was in that year turned to climate change. Even by 1979 scientists working in the field were saying that human activities would warm the globe. Nine years later James Hansen of NASA was saying this warming was detectable and by 1995 this was accepted as the consensus by scientists working in the field. The second IPCC report issued that year said as much.

It was this consensus that the small group of dissenting scientists attacked by means such as:

• Issuing publictions never submitted to peer review which deliberately recycled assertions discredited by the evidence such as that world temperatures have not been rising or that the sun or that CO2 from volcanoes rather human activities were responsible for change;

• Passing off such publications as endorsed by bodies like the National Academy of Science;

• creating straw men: putting extremist words into the mouths of others in order to discredit them;

• Alleging corruption of the peer-review process;

• Charging scientific colleagues with secrecy and unaccountability, so much so that this became “a common American conservative rhetoric of political suppression.”

• Attacking consensus scientists and the IPCC in the non-technical but respected general media outlets such as the Wall Street Journal “read by millions of educated people.” (Effective replies on behalf of those attacked appeared only in scientific and other technical publications not read by the general public.)

The cries of doubt and corruption of the scientific process was taken up by scores of right wing think tanks supported by the industries that would stand to lose most if the scientific insights were ever to influence public policy. In fact science is an easy target for such an attack. One can recognize these strategies at work this side of the Pacific.

There is always doubt. An open mind requires that a scientist always be open to the possibility that evidence may be observed that requires reassessment of conclusions. Equally, though, scientists must submit themselves to a time-honoured process of rigorous disputation. This can be relied upon to identify the explanation or theory that best fits the observed data. This becomes the settled or consensus view which is maintained not necessarily as a statement of absolute truth, but as an accurate reflection of reality until further evidence is gathered that throws doubt upon it and better fits another explanation. In this way, by virtue of open-minded sceptism, science is self-correcting.

In other words the scientists of the consensus were being charged with the very sins that those attacking them were committing. The effectiveness of the strategy is shown by the high percentage of the public who believe that the science of global warming is unsettled. In 2006 a poll recorded 74 percent pf Americans believing there was “a lot of disagreement among scientists”. Another poll showed a sharp decline from 71 percent in 2008 to 57 percent 2009 of those who believe there is “solid evidence the Earth is warming.”

The authors point out that the advertising and public relations industries and the media have been enlisted in this corrupt doubt mongering process. The denialists have invoked the “fairness doctrine” to insist on “equal time.” The book chronicles how the doctrine plays into the hands of the “well-organised and well-funded vested interest, or ideologically driven denial of the facts.” In the words of the chair of the ABC Chairman, Maurice Newman, the consensus case is dismissed as an example of “group-think”.

Money may motivate the industries whose profits are threatened if action is taken against climate change but the authors point out that at the root of rejection of science is free-market ideology. The authors write that “the doubt mongering campaigns we have followed were not about science. They were about the proper role of government, particularly in redressing market failures, because the results of scientific investigation seem to suggest that government really did need to intervene in the market place if pollution and public health were to be effectively addressed, the defenders of the free market refused to accept those results. The enemies of government regulation of the marketplace became the enemies of science.

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