Sunday, 16 April 2017

Book Review: Merchants of Doubt

I just finished reading the 2010 book by Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway, Merchants of Doubt. The subtitle is "How a handful of scientists obscured the truth on issues from tobacco smoke to global warming" and is a pretty fair summary of the book. The authors have completed what appears to be a very thorough investigation of several scientists whose names keep appearing as combative opponents against the broad consensus views of scientists. The authors summarise their findings on pages 6-7:
In case after case, Fred Singer, Fred Seitz, and a handful of other scientists joined forces with think tanks and private corporations to challenge scientific evidence on a host of contemporary issues. In the early years, much of the money for this effort came from the tobacco industry; in later years, it came from foundations, think tanks, and the fossil fuel industry. They claimed the link between smoking and cancer remained unproven. They insisted that scientists were mistaken about the risks and limitations of SDI [the Strategic Defense Initiative, or Star Wars]. They argued that acid rain was caused by volcanoes, and so was the ozone hole. They charged that the Environmental Protection Agency had rigged the science surrounding secondhand smoke. Most recently - over the course of nearly two decades and against the face of mounting evidence - they dismissed the reality of global warming. First they claimed there was none, then they claimed it was just natural variation, and then they claimed that even if it was happening and it was our fault, it didn't matter because we could just adapt to it. In case after case, they steadfastly denied the existence of scientific agreement, even though they, themselves, were pretty much the only ones who disagreed.
The way that these scientists managed to get their views, and the appearance of a lack of consensus among scientists, was by exploiting journalistic balance required until the 1949 Fairness Doctrine. Under the doctrine, journalists in the U.S. are required to dedicate airtime or column space to present issues in a balanced manner, such as by presenting both sides of an argument. This sounds good in theory, but when one side of the argument consists of hundreds (or thousands) of scientists and the other side consists of a handful of naysayers, it is hard to see how this doctrine doesn't just reverse the bias in favour of the minority. And it was effective. The authors note (p.32):
...their ability to invoke the Fairness Doctrine to obtain time and space for their views in the mainstream media was crucial to the impact of their efforts.
This allowed these scientists to create doubt in the minds of policy-makers and the public, making it difficult for these groups to assess the veracity of scientific claims (and counterclaims):
"Doubt is our product," ran the infamous memo written by one tobacco industry executive in 1969, "since it is the best means of competing with the 'body of fact' that exists in the minds of the general public". The industry defended its primary product - tobacco - by manufacturing something else: doubt about its harm. (p.34)
The book goes through a narrative that is mostly chronological, with chapters devoted to tobacco from the 1950s to the 1970s, strategic defense (the Star Wars programme in the 1980s), acid rain and the ozone hole in the 1980s and 1990s, secondhand smoke in the 1990s, global warming from the 1990s onwards and the recent (at the time of writing the book) re-opened debate about DDT (a pesticide banned in the 1960s). Oreskes and Conway conclude that:
The link that unites the tobacco industry, conservative think tanks, and the scientists in our story is the defense of the free market.
Throughout our story, the people involved demanded the right to be heard, insisting that we - the public - had the right to hear both sides and that the media had an obligation to present it. They insisted that this was only fair and democratic. But were they attempting to preserve democracy? No. The issue was not free speech; it was free markets. It was the appropriate role of government in monitoring the marketplace. It was regulation. (p.248)
That may well be the case, but I was surprised that the authors singled out Thomas Schelling as one of their bad guys (in the climate change chapter), for identifying the importance of uncertainty in climate projections. And I was even more surprised that they also took issue with William Nordhaus:
What could be done to stop climate change? According to Nordhaus, not much. The most effective action would be to impose a large permanent carbon tax, but that would be hard to implement and enforce. (pp.178-179)
Later on, Oreskes and Conway go on to say:
A handful of economists in the late 1960s had realized that free market economics, focused as it was on consumption growth, was inherently destructive to the natural environment and to the ecosystems on which we all depend. (p.183)
One of those economists? William Nordhaus, though the authors don't note this. [*]

That gripe aside, this book was a really timely read, given the post-truth world we are currently living in, where it seems that even the most robust scientific findings are made to look questionable. If this book had been written now, I wonder if this passage would be even need to be re-written:
With the rise of radio, television, and now the Internet, it sometimes seems that anyone can have their opinion heard, quoted, and repeated, whether it is true or false, sensible or ridiculous, fair-minded or malicious. The Internet has created an information hall of mirrors, where any claim, no matter how preposterous, can be multiplied indefinitely. And on the Internet, disinformation never dies. (p.240)
For some more on this, I recommend this Tim Harford post (which, you will probably note, covers some of the same ground as the Merchants of Doubt book).

Overall, despite the minor gripe about Nordhaus and Schelling, I found this an excellent read. It also makes me think about the current situation in New Zealand with alcohol licensing and local alcohol policies, where the industry has funded some limited research. Food for thought.


[*] This bit made me angry enough that the next book I am reading is Nordhaus's The Climate Casino. You can expect a review of that book in due course.

1 comment:

  1. Nice review. But the question over it looms: are you a critical thinker, open to alternative viewpoints, or have you made up your mind on the integrity of the principal author and accept her material without question? I've also read Oreskes' book, reviewed her movie, and analyzed her broader material, and I haven't found a person who's undertaken "a very thorough investigation of several scientists", I see a person who's made a worthless comparison of skeptic climate scientists to others while regurgitating worthless, unsupportable, and quite old talking points about "media fair balance," and while failing to ever once offer a shred of evidence proving such skeptics are in a pay-for-performance arrangement with industry people to lie to the public about man-caused global warming. Worse, I see a historian painting a portrait of herself via narratives that literally don't line up right when you fact-check what she says. And what I ultimately see is a woman's material, when opened to the harsh thorough investigation that it begs for, as something that could torpedo the entire 'skeptics are paid illicit money to lie' accusation. In my view, from what I've gathered, it is possible that she may be part of one of the biggest acts of libel/slander in history, as I note in the final piece below.

    "Merchants of Doubt: A Climate Change Dud"

    "'Skeptic Climate Scientists Do Not Deserve Fair Media Balance.' Spread This Line Widely; NEVER Check its Veracity and Don't Examine its History."

    "Ron Arnold: "Naomi Oreskes Warps Climate Skeptic History'"

    "To be Credible, you must Keep Your Story Straight, Pt 1"

    "To be Credible, you must Keep Your Story Straight, Pt 2: 'Oreskes' timeline problem'"

    ""To be Credible, you must Keep Your Story Straight, Pt 3"

    "An Accusation Built on a Foundation of Sand"