on June 6, 2015
In Merchants of Doubt, Conway and Oreskes investigate the handful of scientists who repeatedly fought against the scientific consensus on the issues of smoking, acid rain, the ozone hole, DDT, and global warming. This comprehensive book advances the thesis that these (most often) former US weapons scientists came to see environmentalism as the next great threat to the American way of life, as the regulation it demanded was a step too far towards socialism.
Conway and Oreskes begin with the case study of tobacco smoke. Even as late as the 1950s, the supposed health benefits of smoking were widely publicized. Soon, though, studies linking tobacco smoke to lung cancer began to mount. Faced with the destruction of their industry, the largest tobacco companies founded the Tobacco Institute to publish research contesting the mainstream health claims. The tobacco lobby also hired Fred Singer and Fred Seitz, prominent former US weapons scientists, to be the public voices casting doubt on the negative health effects of tobacco.
After the tobacco controversy was (mostly) decided in the mainstream's favour, Singer and Seitz consulted for other industries that faced huge losses if forced to comply with environmental or health regulations. They used their positions within the US government to delay or restrict the publication of scientific reports on acid rain and global warming, and were fairly successful in convincing journalists to give their minority positions equal time rather than balanced time.
In 1984, Seitz co-founded the George C Marshall Institute with another scientist, Bill Nierenberg, to lobby for the Strategic Defence Initiative (SDI, also called Star Wars) missile defence program. Many political scientists saw missile defence as dangerously destabilizing to the nuclear arms race, but Seitz and Nierenberg thought it was necessary to stop the spread of communism. While the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 effectively ended the drive for SDI, the George C Marshall Institute has gone on to publish articles and books railing against the climate science of the ozone hole and global warming. The Institute has also become known for casting doubt on the scientific process itself, perverting the usual adage of science that "all scientific truth is provisional" to their own ends.
All told, Conway and Oreskes go into great detail on the shady scientific practices of Seitz et al and how their minority positions, funded by special interest groups and driven by their detest of regulation, have led to dangerous inaction on the part of policymakers. Merchants of Doubt is probably one of the best nonfiction books I've picked up lately, and I highly recommend both the book itself and the audiobook narrated by Peter Johnson. Five stars.
on August 13, 2011
This book amasses, organizes and presents thousands of pieces of data - scientific, commercial, political and journalistic - to reveal the true underlying problem with America's rapidly decaying democracy.
With exhaustive - and almost exhausting - citations, the authors have produced a scathing indictment of the American industrial, political, and pseudo-scientific complex. The huge corporations, their Republican benefactors ( and beneficiaries) and right-wing institutes and religious foundations are revealed as grossly cynical manipulators ver the lives of millions of people.
The degree of cynicism exhibited by the people at the center of the issues dealt with wield enormous power in a fashion that differs from Naziism only in that Naziism was forthright and open; the American complex described in the book operate as clandestine manipulators of the supposedly "free" market they claim to cherish. Their odious criminal influence is not just on science, but also on education, journalism, public health, decency - on democracy itself.
The authors have set a standard of science, journalism and public service that is rarely seen. I can only wish that the American voters had enough curiosity and interest to know how cruelly their elite" treats them.
on June 28, 2011
Science went from being a friend of the people (the Salk polio vaccine, man on the moon, wiping out small pox) to what is now perceived by many as an enemy of progress. This book provides an excellent explanation of how it happened.
The transformation began under Ronald Reagan when credible scientists opposed star wars, and it continues today. Scientists and their research ran into politics, big business, and the far right, which opposes government regulation in any form, even when it protects and serves the needs of society. The far right maintains that society will be protected by market forces, government need not be involved. But "negative externalities" come into play: negative because they hurt society, and externalities because they are outside of the free market system: what financial motives would induce industry to protect us against sulfur-induced acid rain, smoking induced lung cancers, asthma in children raised in homes with smoking parents?
This book shows how industry and government used a small group of right wing physicists to raise doubts about peer-reviewed science done in the interests of society. And it continues today. The "uncertainty" surrounding the climate change debate is a perfect example. Credible scientists including those in the US National Academy of Science have known for 30 years that climate change is upon us and that much if not all of it is it's man made. Yet in the interests of fairness, the voices of a few who question the science are given equal value as the majority who know their stuff, and the public and press can't separate the wheat from the chaff.
This book is full of revelations and a must read for progressives who think that government, informed by science, has a role to play in protecting the people it serves.
on January 15, 2012
I waited a long time to read this book ' in retrospect, too long. I have long been a fan of Naomi Oreskes; I believe she is a brilliant and sensible scientist with a compelling way with words. On the other hand, nothing depresses me more quickly than reading about those who deliberately spread confusion on climate change for political reasons. After a particularly battering year for climate science in the public eye, I want to make sure I stay sane.
However, "Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming", by Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway, was oddly comforting. How could it be so, you might ask, given the subject matter?
It's a good question. The book traces several key players, such as Frederick Seitz, S. Fred Singer, Bill Nierenberg, and Robert Jastrow, in their fight against mainstream science. Many of them were physicists in the era of atomic bomb development, and nearly all had been deeply influenced by the Cold War ' they were anti-Communist to the point of extremism.
This extremism soon extended into science: any new discovery that seemed to necessitate government action was vehemently attacked by Seitz et al. Whether it was the harmful health effects of smoking, second-hand smoking, or DDT, and the existence of anthropogenic acid rain, ozone depletion, or climate change, the same people used the same strategies to sow doubt in the public mind, delaying the cry for action. The algorithm was relatively simple:
-construct arguments against the phenomenon, which scientists had already addressed and ruled out
-widely publish these arguments in the popular press, rather than scientific journals
-demand that the mainstream media be neutral and provide 'equal time' for their side of the so-called controversy
-attack the professional integrity of the scientists who discovered and studied the phenomenon; label them as frauds and/or Communists
-claim that action on this issue would be the beginning of the 'slippery slope to socialism'
It's enough to anger anyone who has the least bit of sympathy for science. The authors say it best: "Why would scientists dedicated to uncovering the truth about the natural world deliberately misrepresent the work of their own colleagues? Why would they spread accusations with no basis? Why would they refuse to correct their arguments once they had been shown to be incorrect? And why did the press continue to quote them, year after year, even as their claims were shown, one after another, to be false?"
History repeated itself many times over, within the course of just a few decades. The attack against climate science that we are currently witnessing is just a larger-scale rehash of the pro-industry, anti-Communist fight against epidemiology, environmental chemistry, and so on. Until now, few attempts have been made to connect the dots, but Oreskes and Conway present a watertight and compelling thesis in Merchants of Doubt.
The hopeful part came when I realized this: all of the previous issues that Seitz et al attempted to discredit were eventually addressed, more or less successfully, by the government, even if some of the public is still confused about the science. Restrictions and regulations on smoking, along with education regarding its harms, has made tobacco use a semi-stigmatized practice in my generation, rather than a near-universal activity. The Montreal Protocol was largely a success, and stratospheric ozone is on the rise. The world, at least so far, has managed to avoid nuclear warfare.
Climate change is undoubtedly a more inevitable and wide-ranging problem, as it strikes at the heart of our fossil-fuel based economy, and will probably surpass, both in rate and magnitude, any change our species has seen in the global environment. However, since the attack against climate science has tracked so closely with previous campaigns, I can't help but hope it will eventually end the same way: with the public and the government realizing the problem and employing effective measures to address it. I know it's probably not very scientific of me to make this connection, but hope doesn't have to be rational to be effective.
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on November 27, 2014
There is evil in the world, and it is profit-motivated. Okay, so lying about the harmful effects of tobacco is bad, but not evil, right? Tobacco directly kills 5 million people a year and kills another 600,000 second-hand consumers. No big deal. The world is overpopulated, and we obviously can't rely on plagues any more (Ebola is having trouble killing more than 5,000 people), so what are we to do? Lie about the causes and dangers of global warming, what else? To be fair, the lying about global warming (and tobacco) is not being done with an view to reducing global overpopulation, but to ensure that profits can continue to be made from the money invested in the fossil fuel infrastructure, from the mining and drilling and transport industries through to the sale of energy end products, electricity and fuels. No cost is accounted for with respect to the health and economic effects in either case.
The difference with global warming is that it affects all the people on Earth for the foreseeable future, and in the worst scenario for us, is an extinction event for humanity.