Thursday, January 09, 2014

Review: Merchants of Doubt by Naomi Oreskes & Erik M Conway

Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming
Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming by Naomi Oreskes & Erik M. Conway. First edition, 2010, hardcover, 355 pages.

I'd had this book on my shelf for a while, but I was especially motivated to read it when I noticed that an entire chapter was devoted to contemporary attacks on Rachel Carson and the Environmental Protection Agency's decision to ban the use of the pesticide DDT in the United States in 1972.

In sequence, the book explains how industry, scientists and ideologues asserted that tobacco smoke was not harmful, nuclear winter was not a danger, the Strategic Defense Initiative could work, no measures should be taken to limit the atmospheric pollutants which cause acid rain and destroy the ozone layer, secondhand smoke is not harmful, humans are not contributing to climate change and the aforementioned attacks on DDT regulation.
The sequence is important, because opponents of environmental, public health and consumer safety regulation continually refined their techniques.

Early efforts by industry to sponsor scientists to produce research which would forestall regulation helped delay measures, but, for the most part, even scientists whom industry funded remained loyal to the scientific method. It was only when industry found scientists whose ideology opposed regulation could industry formulate the weapon it wields today, namely the denial of science.

For example, one tactic introduced during the acid rain debates was the suggestion that a regulation's benefits must outweigh its costs of implementation. Since costs of implementation are current and costs of inaction are future, the latter are automatically discounted. Moreover, the costs of implementation are known (although frequently overestimated because regulations spurs innovation), while the benefits of a cleaner environment, especially the aesthetic value, are harder to quantify.

The question which confuses the authors the most is why notable scientists betrayed their legacies in unscientific attacks against their colleagues.
But what about the scientists who helped [the tobacco industry's] efforts? What was this about for Fred Singer, Fred Seitz, and the other scientists [William Nierenberg and Robert Jastrow] who made common cause with the tobacco industry? ... Regulation was the road to Socialism--the very thing the Cold War was fought to defeat. This hostility to regulation was part of a larger political ideology, stated explicitly in a document developed by a British organization called FOREST -- Freedom Organisation for the Right to Enjoy Smoking Tobacco. And that was the ideology of the free market. It was free market fundamentalism. [p. 162] ... If you believed in capitalism, you had to attack science, because science had revealed the hazards that capitalism had brought in its wake. [p. 167] Each of the environmental threats we've discussed in this book was a market failure. ... To address them, governments would have to step in with regulations ... [a]nd this was precisely what these men most feared and loathed.[p. 249]
The United States government adopted industry tactics perfected in these denials of science when it sponsored retired military generals as "independent" experts advocating the war in Iraq in 2003. The Pentagon called these paid employees of military contractors "message force multipliers." Just as the media accepted them because they really were generals, media amplified the message of traitors to science because they really were scientists.

Another tactic was the establishment of pseudo-scientific publications and think tanks. The Internet's expansion has meant that false claims are never truly refuted, as ideologues can always recycle free content. A repeated refrain of Oreskes and Conway is that mass media popularized unscientific claims and their refutations circulated in specialist journals. In addition, media included the unscientific claims in their coverage of scientific topics in the name of "balance," ignoring the role of peer-review in the production of scientific claims.

An important source for this book is the database of tobacco industry documents.

The book has a supporting website.

Share this book with your Libertarian friends. Tell them that they need to show how the "free market" can stop creating the harms rather than simply claim that people distort science in an attempt to limit individual "liberty."

And, if you are unfortunate enough to have friends and family members who are science-denying Republicans, then you may need to lock them in a room and read it to them aloud. Just kidding. Sort of. An audiobook version is available!

See the rest of the blog's entries with the label Science. In my general blog, I posted an article about political morality in the era of pandemic influenza.

One more thought. Since demand in the USA for cigarettes and chewing tobacco has been decreasing, many tobacco companies bought food processing companies like Kraft and Nabisco. Now ownership changes way too often for me to tell you which current food processing companies have tobacco in their corporate boards, but I would not want a former tobacco industry executive overseeing the food I consumed. Stay away from processed foods.

Added January 15, 2014: The authors mention that some reactionaries believe George Orwell is some kind of anti-socialist, anti-leftist figure. They probably base this on a misreading or shallow understanding of Animal Farm, 1984 and Homage to Catalonia. Listen to Adam Hochschild discuss Orwell's experience of the Spanish Civil War.

Update: January 18, 2015
Apparently there is a movie coming out as well!