Merchants of Doubt: review and reflections
Merchants of Doubt
How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming
Naomi Oreskes and Erik M Conway
June 2010, 368 pp, Bloomsbury Press
This is a very good book. It is well written and a clear exposition of the authors’ case, describing how a few scientists involved in US military programs during the cold war then shifted their expertise into selling doubt to preserve the markets of the free world from interference on health or environmental grounds. The chapters deal with the strategic defense initiative, acid rain, the ozone hole, second-hand smoke, global warming and the recent attacks on Rachel Carson’s legacy from Silent Spring. The main merchants of doubt Oreskes and Conway name are Frederick Seitz and Fred Singer, William Nierenberg and Robert Jastrow. Others joined in later on.
The basic strategy of sowing scientific doubt to preserve profit was developed by the tobacco industry in the 1950s. Frederick Seitz was intimately involved. SDI was the impetus for a larger scale attack on scientific efforts to describe environmental risks such nuclear winter and the population-ecology links being made by Paul Erlich and others. Seitz was the lynch-pin, but when acid rain and ozone issues became policy issues, the other players became involved. Their strategy was to dilute the science in order to delay action. In each of these cases, a concerted and deliberate effort was made to sow the seeds of public doubt, using scientific-sounding think tanks and providing ‘balance’ to controversial scientific research. Assisted by a willing media in some quarters, who willingly provided polemic and more generally by the media at large, who were reporting disagreement as news, doubt was being sown, reaching from the White House to the major news outlets in America and across the western world.
Industry abetted this effort specifically around second-hand smoke and global warming, funding specific strategies to sow doubt, for which the authors provide documentary evidence. They funded think tanks, conferences and reports to put ‘the other side’ of the story. Op-eds by the scientists themselves and sympathetic columnists in major news outlets promoted ‘the other side’ as viable alternatives to mainstream science. By and large, the strategy has been successful as a delaying tactic. Legislation on second-hand smoke was delayed for some years until the evidence of risk to innocents, particularly children, became overwhelming. The case for policy on global warming is still being delayed. Finally, the lies around Rachel Carson and the banning of DDT continue to gain currency, as being document by Tim Lambert at Deltoid and others.
The book is controversial because it not only documents what occurred but builds a case as to why the merchants of doubt acted in the way they did. By imputing motive to their actions, the book moves onto why a handful of scientists obscured the truth on issues from tobacco smoke to global warming. This is not where science history usually goes and is fuelling outrage and derision from opponents. But the authors prosecute a very strong case.
They also detail the style of argument used very well providing insights into the modus operandi of organised denial. Mirroring as a style of argument, for example accusations about scientific conspiracy; “If we’re doing it, they must be doing it, too” becomes an unconscious admittance to the charges being made about global warming being an organised charade of the scientific establishment in order to influence global governance.
If I have to quibble, it would be around the role of DuPont in the ozone hole issue, where as the largest manufacturer of CFCs, DuPont organised a phase out of chemicals in favour of what turned out to be more efficient replacements. This was pretty much glossed over. However, a technological fix was readily available and the delay was in industrial turnover. This is an example where industry can and does, responds to the scientific evidence and plays a positive role. Perhaps the subject for another book.
The publishers have also ensured that no-one who subscribes to the world view of free-markets unhindered by environmental regulation or governance will be persuaded by the book, carrying endorsements by Al Gore, Elizabeth Kolbert and Bill McKibben.
Australia has similar examples to those in MoD, most notably documented in Guy Pearse’s the book High and Dry and the essay Quarry Vision. We have scientists in Australia who are just as prominently sowing doubt with pseudoscience.
The depressing aspect to all of this is that people do not understand abstract reasoning very well. It is poorly taught or not at all, and like mathematics, isn’t something that people need very often. So when fallacious arguments are presented, most people don’t have the cognitive tools to see through them. For example, following a true statement by a false statement, but inferring the latter is true, makes that false statement much more believable. “Environmentalists are advocates, therefore environmental science is advocatory”, is one very commonly put argument. Rhetorical tricks, such as the rule of threes, presenting points in three bites, preferably with rhythm (written or spoken) are also effective. How often have you heard someone say they would swoon if George Clooney read a laundry list? Sometimes even the words are not that important to communicating a message.
Scientific reasoning is also not taught well, but the situation is improving. Science undergraduates might do something in research methods, however, a Doctor of Philosophy can still be obtained without any grounding in the philosophy of science (I can name names, but won’t).
One of the main tools used in scientific reasoning is approaching a hypothesis as both an optimist and a pessimist. The optimist looks for patterns, for links, for how to bridge other hypotheses and assumptions. If a hypothesis such as the global warming effect is widely accepted and backed up with multiple lines of evidence and explanatory power, then it is ok to be an optimist. The pessimist takes a hypothesis apart, trashes assumptions and doubts that the evidence supports that particular conclusion. When preparing new work, a scholar will do both, because if they don’t, the peer reviewers of that work will take it apart for them. Then reject the paper.
The skeptic will tell you that the proper scientist is always a pessimist. This is not the case.
As Sherrilyn Roush puts it,
the pessimistic inductivist … tries to undermine our confidence, and show that there is one potentially threatening argument form he could use. However, this argument form requires much more than has been expected if it is to serve the pessimist, and pessimists have not actually ever offered what is needed.
The starting point at which questions arise as to what we have a right to believe about our theories is one where we have theories and evidence for them, and we are involved in the activity of apportioning our belief in each particular theory or hypothesis in accord with the strength of the particular evidence. The devil’s advocate sees our innocence and tries his best to sow seeds of doubt. If our starting point is as I say, though, the innocent believer in particular theories does not have to play offense and propose sweeping views about science in general, but only to respond to the skeptic’s challenges; the burden of initial argument is on the skeptic. The greatest strength of the realist attitude lies at this starting point, as Arthur Fine (1996) realized, and I will argue here that no one has given reason from the history of science to give it up. In particular, no pessimistic induction over the history of science has done what it needs to do in order to undermine our right to apportion our beliefs in particular theories to the evidence we have for them.
This statement broadly supports the conclusions of earlier philosophers of science about methodical falsification, and was an area upon which Popper, Kuhn and Lakatos all agreed. It places the burden of proof on the pessimist, asks for evidence, and if that evidence is not supported by the body of scientific knowledge, the argument can be disregarded.
All the arguments of the Merchants of Doubt presented by Oreskes and Conway are arguments by induction and all have this limitation. Good scientific communication will contain the argument of the optimist – this is what we know, and the pessimist – and this is what we are uncertain about. When have you ever heard a merchant of doubt speak of their own doubt?