Merchants of Doubt

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

Merchants of Doubt

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.

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