This book made me angry. And it should make you angry as well. The title “Merchants of Doubt” comes from the same line from a tobacco company executive used in a similar book that came out a couple of years ago that I recently reviewed (Doubt is Their Product). The basis, first used by the tobacco industry many years ago, was that their goal was to “manufacture doubt” in the minds of the public and policy-makers so that no policy-making action would occur, or at least so that it should be delayed as long as possible. And the tobacco industry succeeded for decades after they themselves knew that tobacco/nicotine was addictive, and caused cancer. Yet they carried on a well-funded campaign to confuse and disinform the public.
Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway are science historians. And what they have uncovered with this book should shock even those who are familiar with some of the tactics used by the professional denialist industry. What is even more shocking is how just a handful of scientists and their collaborators have had a hand in nearly every major science denial episode for the last 40 years. And in the center of it all is the George C. Marshall Institute, Fred Seitz, S. Fred Singer, and the lesser known but equally deceptive William Nierenberg and Robert Jastrow.
After the tactics were perfected in the fight to deny that smoking causes cancer, these handful of men with close ties to the Reagan and conservative ideologies employed them over and over again to deny smokestack emissions cause acid rain, CFCs cause ozone depletion, second hand smoke cause cancer in non-smokers, and greenhouse gas emissions cause global warming. In all cases the science has been right, and this group of men helped delay action for many years until even their deceit couldn’t hide the truth.
And those tactics, repeated to deny the science in each of these issues, were all the same: employ a few scientists willing to shill for the industry or who are “skeptical” (to create the illusion of credibility), focus the efforts through well-funded right wing think tanks (to create the illusion of independence), create “new” science specifically designed to create uncertainty (i.e., not to answer questions, but to create contrasting data they can misrepresent), hyperventilate about how “the science is not settled” (knowing that science is never settled, but the public won’t understand), and of course, using their PR skills, Frank Luntz wordsmithing, and punchy – though meaningless – catchphrases like “sound science” to make it sound like they are saying something when they are not saying anything.
What I found amazing was how the origins of the George C. Marshall Institute and all of its subsequent science denialism came out of the cold war fight against communism. These handful of scientists were atomic bomb builders and astrophysicists who had no expertise in any of the science they were denying. But they had connections, most notably with the Reagan administration and the Strategic Defense Initiative (Star Wars) for which the George C. Marshall Institute was started to sell to the public, the military, and the conservative legislators they were trying to influence. Yet despite this lack of any expertise they continued to insert themselves into the acid rain debate, the CFC debate, the second hand smoke debate, and the climate change debate. And each and every time their goal was to push the denial of the science. They equated environmentalism with communism (“green on the outside, red on the inside”). And using their lobbying skills and influence they were able to create the impression that there was still a raging debate in the science, even though in all cases the science was overwhelming and they represented a very minority opinion. Actually, in all cases they were not being scientists at all, but rather advocates for non-action (all of these men had long-since stopped doing actual research, and none of them had ever done research in the areas of science they were denying).
What is most disturbing is that they routinely employed unscientific methods and deceit to push their political views. These handful of men have almost single-handedly cost the lives of thousands of Americans and increased the cost to taxpayers millions or even billions of dollars through their denial of the science. Most egregious in this has been S. Fred Singer. First as a denier that smoking caused cancer, then as a denier that CFCs caused ozone depletion, and now as a denier of climate change, Singer has used despicable methods to deceive fellow scientists who were too slow to realize that such deceit was possible from one of their own. What he did to Roger Revelle on his death bed is disgraceful. What he did to Justin Lancaster is despicable. What he and others did to Ben Santer is just one more example showing that the denialist industry, led by these few men and paid for by the biggest industries on the planet, will go to no end to deny any science or destroy any scientist in their path. The recent attacks on climate scientists like Michael Mann and Phil Jones are the latest iterations in the denialist industry’s tactics.
And according to Oreskes and Conway, the denialist industry isn’t even satisfied denying the present and the future, they have also recently turned to denying the past. You may have heard parroted from people here that the banning of DDT by environmentalists has killed millions of people in Africa. Not true. But the denialist industry has decided it needs to deny ALL science, and that means going back to the 1960s to attack Rachel Carson, whose book “Silent Spring” documented the dangers of widespread pesticide spraying. DDT was banned in the US after it was discovered that it caused the thinning of eggshells in raptors like our national symbol, the Bald Eagle. But like all the other denialist attacks, the idea that the US ban cost lives in Africa is completely false. DDT use actually increased in Africa after it was banned in the US, and in fact is still used today. It just doesn’t work any more because the mosquitoes it is supposed to kill gained resistance to it, in part because of the overspraying advocated by the manufacturers to sell more product. But this is just one more case where facts are tossed aside in favor of an ideological promotion of an anti-science agenda designed to further the profit of the few at the expense of the many.
Oreskes and Conway end their book with “A New View of Science,” which I’ll let people read for themselves. And they should. In fact, they must. This book must be on the reading list of anyone and everyone interested in science, so they can read for themselves how just a handful of unscrupulous scientists with deep political connections and a near religious anti-communism fervor have been at the heart of every denial of science in the last several decades. As I indicated to open this review, the book made me angry. And we should be angry. And then we should not let them get away with it any longer.
Other science book reviews
Note that this article is part of a group called “Exposing Climate Denialism – A Guide to Tactics and Tall Tales,” located at climatelies.gather.com.
For those interested in knowing the truth about climate change, please check out my group The Truth About Global Warming at climatetruth.gather.com.