Merchants of Doubt

How a handful of scientists obscured the truth on issues from tobacco to global warming.

According to a May 2010 survey by the Yale Project on Climate Change, only 61 percent of Americans believe that global warming is happening, this despite near-universal consensus among climate scientists that global warming is real. What explains this disconnect? In part, it’s due to the effectiveness of a small group of doubt-mongering scientists, who, with the help of a compliant media, have succeeded in obfuscating the truth about climate change. More remarkable is that this loose-knit group of individuals has been operating for decades, fighting the facts on a laundry list of health and environmental issues, including tobacco, secondhand smoke, asbestos, acid rain, and the ozone hole.

This isn’t to suggest that these ideologically driven scientists are experts on the points they debate. In fact, they have done virtually no original research on the issues in question. Instead they rely on public relations strategies designed to mislead the public, executing campaigns with the assistance of private corporations and conservative think tanks. In the new book “Merchants of Doubt” (Bloomsbury Press), historians of science Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway “roll back the rug on this dark corner of American science,” chronicling this pernicious effort in exquisite detail.

Last week I interviewed Oreskes about “Merchants of Doubt,” focusing on: the tactics that have been used to deny the truth; the media’s failure to accurately represent the issues; and a particularly objectionable publication titled Bad Science: A Resource Book, which Oreskes and Conway describe as “a how-to handbook for fact fighters, providing example after example of successful strategies for undermining science.”

When did the right wing’s ideologically driven attack on science begin?

Erik and I trace it to the founding of the Marshall Institute [1984]. It began not so much with an attack on science but a defense of the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI). The three fellows who created the Marshall Institute—Bill Nierenberg, Bob Jastrow, and Frederick Seitz—were all strong proponents of missile defense, and they created the Institute to defend SDI against the dominant criticism of the majority of scientists. They demanded that the press give them equal time for their views, even though they were vastly outnumbered. When the press didn’t give them equal time they threatened to sue under the Fairness Doctrine, which was a very effective strategy and one they have used in subsequent debates.

Playing devil’s advocate for a minute, why don’t their views deserve equal time?

The [main] issue is accuracy. We have consistently seen the press giving equal time to very extreme minority positions. We have also seen the media presenting global warming as a huge scientific debate, when in reality the scientific community has had a consensus on the issue since the early- to mid-1990s.

What strategies have been employed to delay legislative action or limit legal liability?

Their main strategy has been doubt mongering, but they have also attacked individual scientists. That’s where it gets ugly and unprincipled. If it was a principled debate, they would go to scientific conferences and argue and at the end of the day they would go out for a beer like everybody else. But they take it outside the halls of science. Every time a scientist does an important piece of work that refutes one of their claims, that scientist is attacked [in an attempt] to undermine the science they’ve done.

Can you talk about Bad Science?

It’s a how-to handbook for regulated industries that want to challenge science that supports the need for regulation. There’s a document in it that says: Don’t lie; you don’t have to. All you have to say is: There’s still a lot that’s not settled, there’s still a lot we don’t understand. Of course, that’s true. And studies show that if people think the science is unsettled, they will think it’s too soon for the government to act, and that’s what it’s all about—convincing people that government action isn’t justified.

How does one decide when the evidence is strong enough to take action on an issue like global warming?

It’s a judgment call, but we can’t make good choices if we’re being fed misinformation. One of the paradoxes of this story is that the guys we write about are deeply committed to the idea of the free market, but for the free market to work people have to have good information. These guys have done everything in their power to make sure we do not have good information.

In the book you devote a chapter to the effort to discredit Rachel Carson. Is that part of an effort to question the environmental movement?

Exactly. Recently there has been an attempt to reopen the debate about DDT, which was banned in [the United States in] 1973. The people who defend DDT have made this big point of saying that all these people in Africa died unnecessarily. It’s a completely preposterous argument. First, DDT was not banned in Africa. African countries were perfectly free to use DDT, and in fact American corporations were allowed to continue manufacturing it for use overseas. Second, it’s factually untrue, as malaria eradication failed because insects developed resistance to DDT. It’s an attempt to discredit Rachel Carson as a hysterical female, and to claim that the environmental movement was based on hysterical alarmism.

Scientific evidence is published in places where the masses don’t see it, but unscientific claims appear in mass media. How does one combat that?

It’s part of the extreme difficulty of this problem. We think the scientific community bears some responsibility. Until recently the scientific community has taken the approach that it’s their job to do the science and someone else’s job to communicate it. Scientists have to take responsibility, and the leadership of the scientific community has to do much more.

How can scientists who are trying to defend themselves get their message out if the media are doing an inadequate job or won’t give them a voice?

Scientists have to be more proactive. The contrarians are extremely proactive. They don’t hesitate to call journalists and say, “I didn’t like your story. You didn’t present my point of view.” Scientists generally don’t do that, and we’re not saying scientists should become bullies. But they have to do a lot more work to explain what they do in plain English. While they may do wonderful work, if nobody knows about it then it won’t have the impact it should.

Do you believe global warming will eventually go the way of tobacco? That is, after decades of denial, the doubt mongers will eventually give up the fight and say: We knew the truth all along.

I do think that will happen. My worry is that by the time it happens, irreversible damage will have been done. For people who died of lung cancer, irreversible damage was done. So in that sense there’s an analogy, but this is worse. If you quit smoking, within a few years your lungs start to clear up and your risk of getting ill decreases with every passing year. The problem with global warming is that many of the changes that are taking place—particularly in the Arctic—are irreversible. The lag times for the natural response are very great, and this is why scientists are getting increasingly frustrated, upset, and worried.

Are you hopeful that the contrarian strategies you have identified will be further exposed?

I choose to be optimistic because I don’t know what the alternative is. Erik is more pessimistic than I am and keeps saying that we will be the historians who chronicle the train wreck. But we hope journalists will begin to talk about this and think about why they haven’t covered this story more effectively. But things aren’t looking so great, and we don’t have very much time left.

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