Merchants of Doubt

Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global WarmingMerchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming by Naomi Oreskes

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I was asked a while ago by a local paper to comment on the issue of global warming. When I had difficulty reducing my views to a quotable byte, I wrote an editorial for the paper. In the editorial, I used the term “manufacture a controversy,” alluding to the fact that while the scientific consensus on global warming is established and has been for decades, there remains the perception for most people that climate change is not well understood and the science is questionable.

This manufactured controversy is what Oreskes and Conway, two historians of science, explore in this book. In several exhaustively-researched chapters, they draw links between “expert” deniers of the dangers of tobacco, second-hand smoke, ozone layer depletion, acid rain, and finally global warming. In each of these cases, Oreskes and Conway argue, there was a clear scientific consensus deliberately attacked by a handful of skeptics. These attacks resulted in perceived controversy for the popular press and ultimately influenced politicians and policy—usually as an argument for not doing anything.

The story the authors tell begins with the tobacco industry, which—as scientific evidence regarding the dangers of smoking and second-hand smoke mounted—enlisted individual scientists and publicity firms to mount a campaign of doubt, making it appear as though the scientific community was divided and more research needed to be done. Oreskes and Conway draw much of their evidence from documents that have been recently made public through the Legacy Tobacco Documents Library (http://legacy.library.ucsf.edu). After this, they argue, many of the scientists and organizations enlisted by the tobacco industry took the same approach to a wide variety of environmental topics, including and culminating with global warming.

Popular perception is biased against the true scientific viewpoint by two factors: a “fair reporting” approach that placed the skeptics’ viewpoint (even when only held by a small minority) on equal footing with the mainline scientific opinion and the fact that skeptics published most of their work in the popular press while the evidence and research on global warming done by the actual scientific community appeared (and continues to appear) in peer-reviewed journals with very small audiences.

So what’s at play here? Do Oreskes and Conway have a conspiracy theory? No. What they have is a group of scientists who came to prominence during the Cold War and then, late in their careers and after their own research days were over, came to see environmentalism as the newest threat to American liberty. The common theme running through tobacco smoke, acid rain, DDT, ozone depletion, and now global warming is that each represents a market failure—a situation in which the true costs are hidden or not quantifiable by the free market. In such situations, government regulation is often necessary. The villains in Oreskes and Conway’s narrative are a small minority of scientists who did not want this to happen and so collaborated with industry, policy-makers, and the media to perpetuate a sense of controversy where the science was clear.

The narrative is compelling. I recommended the chapter on global warming for a discussion group, and though each chapter is densely researched, a friend told me that it read for him like a murder mystery. The historical chapters show two historians of contemporary science at their finest. The concluding chapters, in which Oreskes and Conway offer their take on why controversy is created on these issues, blaming it on “free market fundamentalists” who cannot accept government regulation in any form and are willing to smear any science that disagrees with them through unscientific means, hit hard and—I feel—largely accurately. Finally, Oreskes and Conway offer some insight into why the public often goes along with this: a misunderstanding of how science actually works and a confusion between scientific consensus (attained) and absolute proof or clarity (never attained in science).

Read it. Recommend it to your friends. It is easy to understand why the tobacco industry would want to manufacture doubt about the true costs of their products; it should be fairly easy to see why many today would want to do the same regarding the true cost of fossil fuels. This book connects the dots.

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