Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming by Naomi Oreskes and Erik. M. Conway

18 May 2014 Written by 
Published in Book Reviews

The role science plays in developing public policy is often misunderstood by the public. A classic example of this is the controversy over global warming, or rapid climate change. In Merchants of Doubt, Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway clearly explain “how a handful of scientists obscured the truth on issues from tobacco smoke to global warming.” It is extensively annotated, including hundreds of peer reviewed scientific journal articles reviewed in five years of research. This book relates how “sound science” was corrupted to promote a brand of what George Soroz has called “free market fundamentalism.” . Frederick Seitz, Robert Jastrow, William Nierenberg, and Fred S. Singer were all highly respected physicists involved in developing secret weapons systems during and after World War II. These were staunchly anti-communist “cold war scientists,” with ideology paramount in much of their later work. Using skillful tactics and their scientific credentials, these scientists were instrumental is misleading the public on various issues. The authors explore the role that these men had in confusing the public over issues most scientists agree upon though peer reviewed science journal articles. A common thread was strong opposition to increased environmental regulations perceived by them as “creeping socialism.” This book summarizes the fight against stricter anti-smoking regulations due to concerns over second hand smoke; strong support of President Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI, commonly called “Star Wars”) in the 1980s; the fight against stricter power plant emissions to limit the effects of acid rain; and their views on global warming. Seitz, Jastrow, Nierenberg, and Singer feel that studies on climate change are inconclusive, and proposed regulations are unnecessary and too restrictive. Often hidden from the public view was their sources of funding from right wing think tanks: the Alexis de Tocqueville Institute, Cato Institute, American Enterprise Institute, Heartland Institute, Heritage Foundation, and the George C. Marshall Institute. The Importance of “Peer Reviewed” Science Oreskes and Conway write: “Peer Review is a topic that is impossible to make sexy, but it’s crucial to understand, because it is what makes science science—and not just a form of opinion.” Credible science evolves largely from “peer reviewed” science journals (Science, The Lancet, Nature, or the New England Journal of Medicine). An article is submitted based on research, and reviewed by at least three experts in the same field. This system filters out obvious mistakes, “sloppy” methods of research, and misleading analysis of the data. Reviewers are not closely connected to the author, financially or institutionally. If this review process raises serious questions, the article is not published. It could be re-written and re-submitted, sent to a less prestigious journal, or abandoned. These complex and technical articles, are generally written BY scientists FOR scientists. A lively debate often follows in subsequent issues of the journal(s). However, certain ideas become generally accepted among scientists as credibly factual. Many specialized scientific organizations sponsor conferences. Papers submitted there are not usually fully “accepted” until published in a peer-reviewed journal. Sometimes, such conferences are held by a think tank or a governmental agency, with a published summary. These summaries are not considered “peer reviewed” but may be further publicized by the mainstream press. The Role of the Mainstream Press The “mainstream” or “popular” media disseminate complex science to the general public. This rapid process often exposes the public to apparently conflicting studies, before the idea has been fully vetted through journal articles. This often confuses the issue, even when sources are cited. The Internet further confuses the issue. There is much inaccurate information on the Web, sometimes intentionally deceptive or misleading. While individual discovery occurs, most scientists work in collaboration with others in their field from around the world. Those scientists that go to the “mainstream” press prematurely to “popularize” a point of view are sometimes criticized or ridiculed for seeking publicity, their “credibility” questioned by other scientists. This can pose a conflict of interest for those scientists advising governmental agencies on issues of public policy, particularly if their stance on public policy issues (based on sound science) is at odds with current political winds. Scientific facts gradually filter into the public consciousness through the mainstream print media. (The New York Times, The LA Times, the Christian Science Monitor, Time Magazine, Discover, The Wall Street Journal, and Forbes). Such major articles or editorials bring these issues to the general public. Mainstream media often try to cover opposing views equally. The “echo chamber” then kicks in. Other papers and magazines pick up an article published in The New York Times. Most newspapers and publications have few fully competent science writers and editors, but believe they are doing the right thing by presenting these opposing views equally. The story is repeated frequently, repetition giving it undeserved credibility. The skeptical view of a few scientists may be given “equal time” with the 99 scientists who believe the “sound science” as vetted through the peer review process. When this process occurs in the scientific journals, it is well and good. When it occurs in the popular press, it confuses policy makers and the public. Most scientific experts in the earth’s atmosphere, climate, weather, and related issues, have come to the conclusion, through the peer-reviewed process, that global warming is a serious threat. The atmosphere is rapidly warming, glaciers melting at record rates, and “severe” weather events increasing. A major cause is burning of fossil fuels during 150 years of modern industrialization. While they may differ over complex specific points, most of this has been generally accepted as scientific fact since the mid-1990s. A handful of scientists, with credible credentials in physics, but not “experts” in fields of science directly related to these atmospheric and climatic changes, has posed doubt over semantics and fine detail of these generally accepted facts in the popular press. Once the “mainstream press” casts the slightest doubt about the severity of the problem, other sources, now citing “credible” articles, spreads this “opinion,” often against generally accepted scientific fact. The smearing of environmentalists and Environmental Protection The concept of environmental protection of wilderness expanded to the areas where we live under Richard Nixon. While not a radical environmentalist, it was Nixon’s Administration that established the cornerstones of our environmental protection laws, with “The Clear Air Act Extension, the Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act, and the National Environmental Policy Act.” These regulations passed after environmentalists and the general public demanded protection for clean air and clean water during the late 1960s and early 1970s. However, the authors continue: “Things were changing, though, and within a few years, Ronald Reagan would begin to shift the Republican Party away from both environmental preservation and environmental regulation, a position that would separate the party from its historic environmentalism, and put it on a collision course with science.” Some ideologues have used an increasingly shrill smear campaign against environmentalists, hinting (or Rush Limbaugh loudly proclaiming) that all environmentalists are Communists, socialists, and fellow travelers; that those favoring stricter regulation are anti-American, that environmentalists are neo-Luddites, or “watermelons,” (green on the outside, red on the inside), or as George Will said, environmentalists are “green trees with red roots.” Using a variety of dirty tricks, and using their historical credibility as “scientists,” this handful of physicists deliberately obscured the truth and cast doubt, making purposely misleading statements on obscure points of very complicated scientific ideas in fields outside their expertise. The hidden agenda is opposition to further environmental regulation, funded by ideologically driven groups supporting free-market fundamentalism. The sources of their funding is often deliberately obscured and hidden. With global warming, several thousand scientists from around the world (through the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) have clearly stated that global warming poses a threat of rising seas reclaiming low lying coastal areas and river deltas around the world, more severe weather, with millions of potential environmental refugees. This campaign against stricter regulations to limit the effects of global warming has been highly successful. Public awareness of the issue was rising in the late 1990s and early during the Bush Administration. Yet, the Kyoto Protocol was abandoned by the US. A global approach to global issues is seen as a threat by ideologues fearful of “world government” and losing our sense of American freedom and independence. By one count, the 2010 elections resulted in about 50 more “global warming deniers” in Congress. No serious action is likely in Congress until at least 2013. A handful of obstructionists, well paid by conservative, pro-business lobbies have demanded (and often received) nearly equal time in the popular press, affecting the ability of sound science to influence public policy. This is a most important book. It should be required reading for courses on government, public policy and environmental sciences, and for all members of Congress. Public policy on environmental issues of such complexity should be based on sound science, not on political ideology. Most scientists agree that our “window of opportunity” for limiting the effects of global warming is fast slipping away. Necessary changes in public policy were stalled by a small group of ideologues in the name of “freedom” and unbridled free market fundamentalism. Our children will rue the day in the not too distant future that we allowed this to happen.

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Roger Chambers

Roger Chambers is a regsitered nurse, working in geriatric nursing for over 30 years. Since 1997 he has tended a large organic garden at his urban home. He has traveled widely in the US and Canada, Europe and Latin America.

He has had several articles in hobby publications on shortwave radio, and several poems in local arts journals and newspapers. An avid fan of birds and the Adirondack Mountains, at present he is largely focused on natural seasonal changes, holidays, and associated local fairs and festivals.

Roger resides in the beautiful Mohawk Valley of Upstate New York.

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