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September 10, 2010

Review: Merchants of Doubt

Category: Climate Change,Companies,Technology – Tom Harrison – 11:39 am

I sometimes fail to understand the breadth, depth and complexity of human behavior. After reading Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming I have been reminded how perfectly rational it can be for a person to promote a position they know to be wrong, for some greater objective.

The book is written by two science historians and is very readable. They make some rather startling and direct assertions, extensively backed up with footnotes (a significant part of the book is the footnotes themselves). Their research took five years and is careful, fact-checked, and cohesive. Their conclusions are, in short, that for whatever reasons, a very small number of scientists … real scientists … found purpose and financial support in undermining the findings of real science.

The authors detail a systematic, repeated, long-term series of events perpetrated by these scientists and their backers that have resulted in a great deal of harm. Without claiming certainty about why they did this, the authors conjecture that Libertarian ideals seem to have trumped the process of science.

My Sordid Past as a Libertarian

I was particularly struck by this book because I was, at one time, a disciple of the same cause as the actors in this drama. I graduated from college in the early 1980’s with a degree in Economics. My first ever vote was for Ronald Reagan. I read all of Ayn Rand, studied Milton Friedman, and considered myself a Libertarian. It didn’t take long, being in the real world, to realize that pure Libertarian views were (like any extreme) unrealistic, and that the Reaganomics that seemed so promising had some rather unexpected side-effects. To say the very least.

Yet for years I considered myself an economic conservative, and perhaps still do. I believe that markets tend to work, and that all other things being the same, government tends to be less efficient than free markets. Thirty years of perspective have helped me understand that there are few absolutes, and that some middle ground exists between the extremes of Libertarian and Socialist views.

( I should say that “socialism” is not the only endpoint to a line from Libertarian that exists in today’s highly polarized world. In any case, my current views tend to lean towards “free market”, but have been greatly tempered over time. I should also point out that laws and regulations do not equate to socialism; indeed in my moderate view, they are necessary to support the function of markets.)

Exploiting Ignorance of Scientific Process

The conclusions of the authors of Merchants of Doubt are primarily that a very small number of influential scientists found that something (perhaps idealism, perhaps power or money) overran their scientific credentials, process, and ethos. They became, in effect, stooges of extreme libertarian organizations. In so doing, they used their credentials and voices to deliberately cast doubt into what were otherwise scientifically settled matters. Their prominence, and the support of their backers, gave them access to media outlets that willingly slurped up their “side of the story” in the name of fair and balanced reportage.

If you have read my blog before, you may think these guys were the “deniers” of climate change. And yes, they are. But what is most fascinating to me, and which is assiduously documented in the book, is that this pattern of injecting doubt has been happening, systematically, since the 1950s. The first example cited was that cigarettes caused cancer — a successful, long-term effort to muddy what had been a clear scientific finding. Forces more abstract than “guns for hire” were deployed to make the larger point that taking away the right to smoke (even if we know it may kill us) is a reduction of our liberty.

And this works, at least for a while — casting doubt upon science, manipulating the lack of knowledge of the general populace about the process of science, and generally getting an alternate viewpoint, another “side” to the story into the popular view of the problem proved to be very effective. While it was clear in the mid 1950’s (even to the cigarette company’s researchers) that cigarettes caused cancer, this new machine of denial, doubt, and obfuscation was put into place. And here we are, a half decade later, still with a lethal product on the market. To be sure, much has changed, and many lawsuits notwithstanding, the cigarette companies are mostly still with us — the delay was effective.

The Usual Suspects, Again, and Again

The author show how the very same strategies were used to counter claims of harm from acid rain, ozone depletion, second-hand smoke, and then climate change. And, again what is remarkable, is that in each case, a very small number of people, scientists, were deployed to front the counter-attack — the same scientists, in many cases, from issue, to issue, to issue. And, their efforts were financially backed by the same organizations: Heritage Foundation, Cato Institute, American Enterprise Institute, and many others (Cato was founded by the Koch Brothers — their silent financial support was recently detailed by Jane Mayer in a New Yorker article).

And of course, they were given voice by the same right-leaning media outlets that one would assume: The Wall Street Journal, Fortune, Fox News, Forbes, Washington Times and other conservative news. But what is more surprising, to me at least, is that the outlets we know have liberal leanings were taken in by the false “balanced reporting” claims of the other side — The New York Times, not least of all. The authors point out that how the media, guided by the Fairness Doctrine, felt they needed to give voice to alternate views.

Scientific Process versus the Fairness Doctrine

The authors make the important point that the process of science requires extensive, critical peer review to validate, reproduce and confirm findings before theories are generally accepted as true. But after this there aren’t two “sides”, there is scientific consensus. To be sure, science is not immune to human failures (unintentional or intentional), and some findings having consensus are later found to be incorrect. But the process by which they are found to be invalid is the same: careful peer review of an alternate hypothesis.

Merely throwing out potential anomalies, or apparently contradictory facts, or even identifying irregularities in process is not sufficient to invalidate consensus, because solid science does not rest on a single datum, or study, or scientist — it rests on the community of scientists who repeatedly confirm and refine findings, or in the case of errors, are almost always the first to identify them.

This conflict between scientific process and the demand for balanced news provides an opportunity to confuse … everyone, especially policy makers. As with all stories, journalists are right to check their facts and investigate. The main point of Merchants of Doubt is that an orchestrated process that exploits the differences between science and media has created a means to interfere and obfuscate the truth.

Delay, Defer, Distract, Deny

Sadly, we know how the story is resolved. After the truth is eventually revealed, and further attempts to obfuscate are uncovered, we take actions. In each case in the book, these actions took far longer than they would have otherwise — decades longer in many cases. It’s hard to say that the millions of cases of lung cancer that could have been prevented were small, but compared to the expected impacts of climate change are now, and will increasingly be in a whole different order of magnitude of impact to social, economic, and geopolitical structures than their predecessors.

I strongly encourage you to read Merchants of Doubt. My eyes have been open for some time now, but they are open a bit wider today.

1 Comment

  1. […] action to help address climate change. We may be getting past some of the delay tactics of Merchants of Doubt. For the first time in more than a decade, perhaps we’re finally coming to accept that […]

    Pingback by Are We Ready to Get Real About Climate Change (again)? | Five Percent: Conserve Energy — November 13, 2012 @ 4:51 pm

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