Leaving No Doubt on Tobacco, Acid Rain, Climate Change

Oreskes/Conway’s Merchants of Doubt Draws Extensive Climate Denier Connections

In their climate science history book Merchants of Doubt, authors Naomi Oreskes and Eric Conway leave little doubt about their disdain for what they regard as the misuse and abuse of science by a small cabal of scientists they see as largely lacking in requisite climate science expertise.

Book Review

Oreskes and Conway — through a combination of thorough scholarly research and adept story telling — unravel deep common links to past environmental and public health controversies among those now most often identified as climate “skeptics,” “contrarians,” “deniers,” “doubters” … and more. What makes their new book from Bloomsbury Press particularly worthwhile at a time of no shortage of new and intriguing climate change books? It’s their combination of thorough research with writing reminiscent of the best investigative journalism (remember that?).

A fairly quick read even in summertime, and even for the particularly climate-wonkish relishing un-oiled sand between the toes, Merchants of Doubt speeds through seven chapters dissecting the politicization of science in issues ranging from the strategic defense initiative to acid rain, from the ozone hole to secondhand tobacco smoke, from DDT to, of course, climate change/global warming.

The beauty of the treatment is that those narrowly focused on just the latter subject can gain much important background simply by reading the 45-page Chapter 6 on “The Denial of Global Warming.” That chapter, and that chapter alone, might well qualify Merchants as essential reading for anyone seriously wanting to understand the tawdry background of climate science politicization as it was targeted, in particular, at some of the individual scientists and scientific undertakings most respected by the established science academy.

But that focused approach — looking solely at Chapter 6 on climate change — in fact would be short-sighted, so don’t short-change yourself: there is important context to be learned by looking at all the pieces of this puzzle in total. One finds a broad similarity not only in the tactics but also in the very individuals, whose denials of evolving science in these public health fields survives long past the point of evidence-based skepticism.

The mere name Naomi Oreskes, as a result of her previous published research debunking the skeptics crowd, raises temperatures among those most insistent that manmade climate change is a myth, a hoax, a one-world liberal scam. No one will suggest that Oreskes has ever pursued a path to endear her to the denier crowd, and nothing in this book will change that situation. That’s a point for which she no doubt takes pride.

The very two first words of this timely new work — the name “Ben Santer,” the highly respected Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory climate scientist widely credited with “fingerprinting” science pointing to a significant human impact in warming — define Oreskes’s and Conway’s direction. Their chapter 6 helps cement his reputation for scientific excellence among his peers, a reputation persistent in the face of years-long personal and professional attacks and vilifications from those who might wither under the kind of famous question once posed to Senator Joe McCarthy: “Have you no decency?” (See related posting.)

If Santer emerges from the Oreskes/Conway work, as he surely does, among the heroes and good guys of climate science, he is not alone, but rather is in some good company and amidst some household-name climatologists: Jim Hansen, Syukuro Menabe, Roger Revelle, Steve Schneider, and others.

Considerably less flattering representations — and, according to citations in the index gathering far more coverage in their book — go to some former, some now-deceased, and some still ongoing and prominent climate doubters. In this category: the late Frederick Seitz, at one point the president of the National Academy of Sciences and subsequently a consultant to tobacco, energy, ideological and other interests; former Scripps Institution Director William Nierenberg; and S. Fred Singer, who heads his Science and Environmental Policy Project.

Media…Potemkin Villages…and Take-Home Messages

Also coming in for their share of criticisms, and not unfairly, are conventional media organizations and the rise of digital media through which “anyone can have their opinion heard, quoted, and repeated, whether it is true or false, sensible or ridiculous, fair-minded or malicious.”

Pulling no punches, Oreskes and Conway point to the media having reported the scientific debate over health effects of tobacco smoking as being “unsettled long after scientists had concluded otherwise.” They find similar fault also, not surprisingly, in much reportage on climate science, adding that the “Potemkin village” erected by their doubt merchants for too long fooled too many reporters and editors.

Asked what particular surprises and lessons she can draw from her research on Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming, Oreskes told The Yale Forum,  ”I was stunned to discover myself how much the scientific evidence confirmed Rachel Carson’s precautionary approach, and even more stunned to see how ‘prestige’ media took hook line and sinker the ‘Rachel was wrong’ line, without evidently bothering to check the facts.”

Asked how to avoid in future science policy issues the politicizations of the past and present, Oreskes suggested that news media “drop the whole ‘balance’ framework, which is totally unhelpful in dealing with science, and as you say, strive for accuracy.  The real world is rarely ‘balanced.’”

As for the climate science community, Oreskes’ recommendation was brief and to the point: “Consider communication to be part of their ‘real work.’”

The Merchants of Doubt Oreskes/Conway book, copyright 2010, is published by Bloomsbury Press in New York (ISBN #978-1-59691-610-4). As of the end of June, Amazon.com showed it to rank at @ 1,996 in book sales; #14 in science/history and philosophy book sales; #7 in nonfiction/social sciences/sociology/culture book sales; and #3 in business and investing/business life/ethics book sales. Twenty-two customer reviews averaged a 4.1 out of 5 stars in terms of favorability.

Bud Ward

Bud Ward is editor of The Yale Forum (E-mail: bud@yaleclimatemediaforum.org).
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6 Responses to Oreskes/Conway’s Merchants of Doubt Draws Extensive Climate Denier Connections

  1. Bruce L. Rockwood says:

    Thanks for the review. I am adopting this book as one of several for my fall MBA class in Law, Ethics and Public Policy. I have long followed the disinformation by the tobacco and energy industries and it is useful to have the parallel so well documented in this book. Money spent denying reality would be much better spent addressing its consequences.

  2. Deep Climate says:

    The latest Oreskes-Conway book is surely a landmark study and I look forward to reading it soon.

    However, I wonder if the only criticism of “conventional media” to be found there is the problem of “false balance”.

    Ther are many examples of “conventional media”, including the Wall Street Journal, Fox News and the National Post, whose decision makers are clearly not acting in good faith. Indeed, editors and columnists at these outlets have actively co-operated with disinformation and smear campaigns, likely as a result of extreme ideological bias. Did Oreskes and Conway really not even mention this?

    Somehow this is an issue that the Yale Forum manages to resolutely avoid, even when it is directly pertinent. Regrettably this is another example of “false balance” – in media studies itself.

  3. Bud,

    A nice piece again. I am about 1/3 the way through and it is already one of my favorite books. It makes me angry.

    I agree that the two biggest challenges are getting the MSM to report the science and not the false balance and getting scientists to become better communicators. I think there will likely be a movement toward requiring mass communications skills into graduate level curricula. Scientists are no longer able to stay in the ivory tower. Too much is at stake, especially with climate change.

  4. Bud Ward says:

    Deep Climate: You are correct that Oreskes and Conway deal with what they see as ideologically-driven media coverage of climate change. That this is an issue is beyond question, and research done by experts at Yale, George Mason University, and elsewhere clearly points to a connection between one’s political identity and their openness to accepting evidence pointing to a warming climate and a significant human contribution to that warming.

  5. I am a statistical hydrologist with fairly considerable climate experience. I am also a skeptic of catastrophic anthropogenic global warming (CAGW). The reasons to be skeptical are manifold and I have added my voice to those reasons in an essay titled “Hunting of the Boojum” at abeqas.com. Unlike the people profiled in Oreske’s book, I am not affiliated with the ‘bad actors’ of industry. Some of my reasons for skepticism I learned in part from.. Oreskes. Back in February 1994 she coauthored a paper titled “Verification, Validation, and Confirmation of Numerical Models in the Earth Sciences”. You should see my heavily underlined copy. I don’t know what happened to make her now so accepting of the climate model forecasts, NONE of which have been proven right or otherwise subject to any meaningful validations.
    It’s perhaps the association of many of the skeptics with various industry trade groups that she finds distasteful. But someone can be distasteful and still be right. Nor do such industry associations prove CAGW in any sense whatsoever. They do however help sell copies of her book.

    • John says:

      The only place in Oreskes and Conway’s book that the word ‘catastrophe’ appears is associated with denialists (see, e.g, their Chap. 7). The word doesn’t appear in the book review, above. “CAGW”, that I can find, is only used by those who don’t accept that the earth is warming, or if they do, they deny its importance.