Reviewed 8/25/2010

Merchants of Doubt, by Oreskes & Conway

How a Handul of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming
Naomi Oreskes
Erik M. Conway
New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2010




ISBN-13 978-1-59691-610-4
ISBN-10 1-59691-610-9 355pp. HC $27.00

There is a disturbing thread running through the past seven decades. It touches most of the major technical or scientific controversies that occurred during that time: smoking and lung cancer; the Strategic Defense Initiative; acid rain; ozone depletion; and global warming. Industry's response to each of these was to circle the wagons and spend generously on supposedly independent agencies or scientists in order to amplify the uncertainty in the public mind regarding measures that threatened to reduce its profits.

Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway trace the industry involvement in each campaign of obfuscation like prosecuting attorneys preparing for a criminal trial.

In each case, industry efforts were abetted (inadvertently, it is true) by the media's penchant for "balance" in presenting both sides of a story. The authors ask whether this is appropriate for science issues (emphasis in original):

"The simple answer is no. While the idea of equal time for opposing opinions makes sense in a two-party political system, it does not work for science, because science is not about opinion. It is about evidence. It is about claims that can be, and have been, tested through scientific research—experiments, experience, and observation—research that is then subjected to critical review by a jury of scientific peers. Claims that have not gone through that process—or have gone through it and failed—are not scientific, and do not deserve equal time in a scientific debate."

– Page 32

Indeed, one of them (Oreskes) published a study1 in 2004 that surveyed 928 scientific papers and found none that contained statements disagreeing with the mainstream consensus view that global warming was real and caused by human activities.

Others have pointed out the danger of providing space in newspapers or other media for views which are dissident and unscientific. Note carefully why this is unlike a political dispute: politics operates by opinion, while science depends on factual evidence.

And yet the minority faction that works to deny the existence of evidence, dispute scientific facts, and delay action on problems has been remarkably successful in many of their campaigns. The authors document these successes, each time taking the deniers' arguments apart in a question and answer method. In essence, they ask, "Was the phenomenon harmless, as the dissidents claimed?" and follow this by citing the published research that shows the present or projected harm. They also go to some lengths to explore the motivations driving the dissidents' persistent obstruction, presenting evidence to support their conclusions — including internal memos and tax records showing their funding from industry sources.

The revisionist attack on Silent Spring, Rachel Carson's 1962 exposé of DDT, best illustrates the threadbare deceptiveness of these anti-science arguments. Beginning about 2007, a spate of denunciations of Carson's work appeared, blaming its influence for the deaths of millions from malaria. The authors quote Thomas Sowell (p. 223) as charging, "there has not been a mass murderer executed in the past half century who has been responsible for as many deaths of human beings as the sainted Rachel Carson." What substance there is to such claims rests on the failure of the Global Malaria Eradication Campaign which ran from 1955 to 1969. It failed in developing nations, most notably in sub-Saharan Africa, because many people had trouble with its method of applying DDT to interior walls and because the carrier mosquitoes evolved resistance to the pesticide. Also relevant is that the use of DDT which Carson objected to, widespread outdoor spraying, was not a major part of this eradication campaign.2

In the United States, mosquitoes resistant to DDT were noticed as early as 1947, and DDT use peaked in 1959, 13 years before the pesticide was banned. This resistance was largely due to DDT's use in agriculture, not in disease control. So, ironically, the former application doomed the latter. But you won't hear the protesters acknowledge these facts. They only repeat, stridently and ad nauseum, the allegation of mass murder. Unfortunately, such allegations are all too frequently published by newspapers and other mainstream media. Even the New York Times, the erstwhile newspaper of record, has a record of spreading such distortion — as when its columnist John Tierney called Silent Spring "junk science" and cited agricultural bacteriologist I. L. Baldwin as the authority who refuted Carson. The authors point out that the source Tierney cited was not a scientific paper by Baldwin, but his review of Silent Spring — one in which he supported Carson's thesis that pesticides are poisons.5 The authors' extensive analysis of such inaccurate press coverage is one of their book's best features.

This same general pattern can be seen in protests of everything that threatens to cut into corporate profits. Sales of cigarettes. Restrictions on use of pesticides. Improvements in vehicle fuel efficiency. Replacement of CFCs. Limits on fly ash or sulfur dioxide or mercury or arsenic or greenhouse gases. Oreskes and Conway do an excellent job of describing this pattern and diagnosing its causes, and I judge their book a must read. Its only major defect6 is in its index, which misses a fair portion of occurrences of proper names in the text.

1 The study is Beyond the Ivory Tower: The Scientific Consensus on Climate Change. See also What does Naomi Oreskes' study on consensus show?.
2 Indoor use of DDT (on walls or clothing) is both more cost-effective, because one dose lasts for months, and less likely to breed resistant mosquitoes because it does not expose most of their populations. For these reasons, indoor use has never been banned. The only complete ban, in fact, was on use within the United States, and it came ten years after multiple scientific studies confirmed Carson's warnings. American companies were still free to manufacture it for use overseas, and they have done so.
3 This ideology consisted of ardent anti-communism and free-market fundamentalism. The latter is generally what motivates resistance to measures intended to protect human health or the environment, because such measures involve government regulation of the private sector, which free-market fundamentalists hate.
4 Seitz founded the Marshall Institute along with Jastrow and Nierenberg. Edward Teller may also have played a role in its founding.
5 Baldwin objected to Silent Spring because it did not sufficiently praise pesticides as boons to agriculture.
6 There is a dispute over Nierenberg's role in downplaying warnings about climate change during the Reagan administration. William's son Nicholas Nierenberg, along with his daughter and her husband, have published numerous letters and Web pages in support of the late scientist. This dispute is unresolved, AFAIK, but the authors provide sources to back up their claims and most third party opinion I have seen supports them.
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