Friday, September 10, 2010

Merchants of Doubt / Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway -- N.Y.: Bloomsbury Press, 2010

If I were to nominate a "Book of the Year," it would certainly be Merchants of Doubt by Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway. Their history of "how a handful of scientists obscured the truth on issues from tobacco smoke to global warming" is timely and important.

Meticulously researched, Merchants of Doubt traces the formation and development of a contrarian cabal of scientists. Funded by commercial interest groups, these scientists implemented a concerted strategy to discredit scientific research that might lead to the regulation of industry. In some instances, the effort led to the defamation of the scientists behind the research.

Four names stand out in the origins of the effort: Robert Jastrow, William Nierenberg, Fred Seitz, and Fred Singer. All were physicists who had worked on important defense projects during the Cold War and all were ardent anti-communists. Two of their early efforts to affect the public debate surrounding scientific conclusions were the defense of the tobacco industry and the defense of Ronald Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative.

In the 1960s, Seitz led the effort (paid for by the tobacco industry) to sew doubt on the connection between tobacco and cancer, despite the industry's full knowledge that smoking caused cancer. This was done through the "Council for Tobacco Research," formerly the "Tobacco Industry Research Council," which had been renamed to avoid its obvious connection to the tobacco industry. Seitz was following the footsteps of C.C. Little whose work for the tobacco industry also attempted to sew doubt about the dangers of smoking. There is "no proof" served as the public relations mantra of the industry and it was lent credibility by a small number of scientists on their payroll. Eventually, they could delay public acceptance of the science no longer. Tobacco was regulated and the industry was convicted of racketeering.

Robert Jastrow lead the effort to promote the perception that a space-based anti-ballistic missile system would not only be possible, but would ensure the safety of the public, adopting the premise that a nuclear war was winnable. This effort pitted him against Carl Sagan whose research with four other scientists suggested that even a limited nuclear exchange would plunge the world into a "nuclear winter." Later research suggested that the consequences would not be a severe as Sagan et al. thought, but they would be sufficient to destroy global food production. So contrary to Jastrow's claims, a nuclear war could not be won. Nonetheless, Jastrow pressed his claims by creating the George C. Marshall Institute, with Fred Seitz as the founding chair. In the end, not only has it been accepted that a limited nuclear war would have dire consequences for the planet's ecosystem and vital global economy, but that the possibility of a workable space-based nuclear defense shield is a fantasy.

As the debate over the Strategic Defense Initiative wound down, one participant in the debate, William Nierenberg, co-founder of the Marshall Institute, was appointed by President Reagan to chair the Acid Rain Peer Review Panel, charged with reviewing the results of U.S.-Canadian research on acid rain. His panel included Fred Singer who was suggested to him by the White House. Nierenberg's panel recommended significant reductions in sulfur emissions to control acid rain; however, after showing the draft to the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), Nierenberg returned the report to the committee with changes that significantly reduced the level of confidence in the danger of sulfur emissions.

More amazingly, Fred Singer, charged with writing the final chapter, could not draft anything that the other eight members of the committee could accept. Still, Singer's chapter became an appendix that completely rejected the force of the Panel's report. To top it off, at the behest of the OSTP, Neirenberg attached -- without the consent of the committee -- an executive summary which belied the report's conclusions. These changes confused the public reception of the panel's conclusions, resulting in significant misunderstandings of the science of acid rain.

After leaving the Acid Rain Peer Review Panel, Fred Singer, supported by the Marshall Institute, began promoting a counter narrative to the science establishing the depletion of ozone by CFCs. He was joined in this by Fred Seitz and Patrick Michael, an agricultural climatologist who would later participate in casting doubt on the effects of green house gasses on the climate. The counter narrative to ozone depletion once again stressed the uncertainty of the science, despite the fact that the relationship had been firmly established among the experts in the field.

Beginning in 1998, Fred Seitz and, shortly after, Fred Singer took up the cause of discrediting the dangers of second hand smoke on behalf of the tobacco industry. In this effort, the tobacco industry's public relations firm APCO Associates formed The Advancement of Sound Science Coalition led by lobbyist Steven Milloy to help sway public opinion against the conclusions of the EPA which was warning of the dangers of second hand smoke. Milloy and TASSC coined the tag line "junk science" to smear whatever scientific conclusions (or scientists) were the target of their anti-environmentalist campaigns. This tag line is currently being used by Milloy to attack climate science.

By now the basic pattern of attack was well established: find any reason -- even assert demonstrable falsehoods -- to cast doubt on the scientific conclusions that might possibly call for commercial regulations, and make use of non-peer reviewed mass media channels to confuse public opinion.

By 1979, climate science was arriving at the conclusion that green house gasses are a significant threat to the planet's climate. Of all environmental threats, green house gases, particular CO2, strikes at the core of the world's industrial economy. So it is no surprise that the merchants of doubt would quickly turn there guns on climate science and its scientists. The first responses came from economists Tom Shelling and William Nordhaus, but other familiar actors soon joined the fray, particularly William Nierenberg.

In 1988, James Hansen's testimony to Congress asserting empirical evidence of climate change, raised the stakes, and the Marshall Institute responded, enlisting Jastrow, Seitz, and Nierenberg. Singer joined the attack by publishing an article he purported to be co-authored by Roger Revelle, an eminent scientist who had warned the world of the threat of global warming. Singer's article suggested that Revelle had changed his mind about the certainty of global warming, but Revelle's family and closest friends denied that he had changed his mind. Singer appears to have taken advantage of an ailing (indeed dying) octogenarian to advance Singer's own political agenda. Also joining the global warming deniers was Patrick Michaels who previously had risked depleting the ozone by defending CFCs.

Perhaps the most amazing attack of the doubt merchants is a recent attack on Rachel Carson's indictment of DDT in her book Silent Spring. In this instance, the campaign appears to be generated by a number of libertarian think tanks, including the American Enterprise Institute, the Cato Institute, the Heartland Institute, the Hoover Institute, and the Competitive Enterprise Institute. Oreskes and Conway suggest that attacking Rachel Carson and the long settled debate about the dangers of DDT is a deeply strategic move. They write that if the deniers could effectively suggest that "Carson was wrong, then the shift in orientation [that Silent Spring inaugurated]might have been wrong, too. The contemporary environmental movement could be shown to have been based on a fallacy, and the need for government intervention in the marketplace would be refuted." Whether this is the deniers' intent or not, the campaign against Carson at very least shows the extent to which the merchants of doubt are willing to go to attack environmental science.

With the amazing advance of science and technology, our ability to affect the planet has been significantly increased. Understanding the consequences of those effects is critical to our survival, whether they are various carcinogens, ozone depletion, acid rain, or global warming. Oreskes and Conway have made an unimpeachable case that the ideological agenda of libertarian think tanks and lobbyists and their hired scientists is to discredit whatever scientific research supports regulation. This is a grave threat to the planet and to the quality of our life on it. Oreskes and Conway's expose of these machinations should be required reading for anyone seeking to understand current environmental debates.

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