Oreskes and Conway Leave No Doubt

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In their 2010 book, Merchants of Doubt, historians of science Naomi Oreskes and Eric Conway expose in seemingly endless detail the sordid roots of today’s climate change denial. They trace its birth from early (and recently revived) attempts to discredit Rachael Carson and the dangers of DDT to wildlife, even if that first battle was lost by the nascent Merchants almost before it had begun.

A Game Plan is Perfected

In 1953 Tobacco executives got together and initiated a counter-offensive against the emerging scientific evidence that smoking was terrible for your health.1)Thus began the half century long conspiracy that was only partially unraveled thanks to a long legal effort for which the companies were found quite guilty. The industry tried numerous strategies which are detailed in the book but coalesced around one, overarching approach.
The tobacco industry’s key insight: that you could use normal scientific uncertainty to undermine the status of actual scientific knowledge.
This included a host of tactics such as funding oppositional research, actually creating fake but legitimate sounding journals and advocacy groups2)One active example is the National Association of Scholars-which can clearly be seen from this takedown., taking advantage of journalism’s tendency to give equal weight as opposed to an accurate weight and many others which the authors (and others) termed the “Tobacco strategy”. Ultimately, the goal of this strategy is to never let the discussion center on best policies or actions, instead one must keep the debate around the actual science itself (and claim this has to be “settled” before policy can be even discussed, let alone attempted).

New Issues, Same Plan

So effective was this approach in delaying action on tobacco despite overwhelming scientific evidence of its harm, that the Tobacco Strategy was deployed to fight acid rain, the ozone layer and most of all anthropogenic climate change. But this book is not named “The Strategy of Doubt” because what the authors uncovered in their research was that even more than tactics what has connected these diverse attacks on scientific consensus were the same group of individuals and organizations-the Merchants of doubt.
A few, albeit very prestigious scientists, were convinced to lend their weighty voices to issues well outside their areas of expertise in coordination with slews of industry front groups.
The link that unites the tobacco industry, conservative think tanks, and the scientists in our story is the defense of the free market.

Now that we know about it these strategies no longer work right?

Unfortunately, today these strategies are as effective as ever because they play into the doubt/probability based aspect fundamental to the scientific process. The reality that there are is no way to prove a statement 100% true in science, you can only prove the statement false,3)The classic example is the hypothesis that there are only white swans. This could never be proved true; just false if a black swan could be found. But if you randomly sampled thousands of swans from around the world you could be fairly certain that all swans were white, but you couldn't prove it. just does not make sense to most people.4)Is this the fault of our education system, our media, our scientists or just an innate aspect of human nature? This is not just speculation, prominent climate science contrarian was recently found to have accepted $1.2 million dollars from the fossil fuel industry while publishing scientifically and testifying before congress as though he was an unbiased source.5)And he may well have been, but his failure to disclose these conflicts is not just illegal but casts some doubt on claims for impartiality.

3 Things I Liked

  1. Exhaustively Researched: The authors clearly left no stone unturned in their search for the people and organizations responsible for developing and deployed this strategy of Doubt.
  2. Drawing the Connections:In science (including history) the tendency is generally to focus in, but in this case the authors searched for linkages and connections that spanned decades and a multitude of issues. This type of systems-based analysis is fundamental to Sustainability.
  3. No Punches Pulled: The authors were not afraid to call out any scientist who they viewed as having become a Merchant of Doubt but they did not caricaturize them as one-dimensional evil-doers. Rather, they identified various causes for become Merchants; principally an ideological dedication to free market conservatism, thus painting brutally honest but more nuanced portraits of those involved.

3 Things I Didn't Like

  1. Exhausting Detail Included: While the details of dates, times organizations and who did what when are all very important to back up the claims made by the authors, far more of it needed to be relegated to footnotes, endnotes and appendices. They made it really hard to see the forest because they included so many trees.
  2. Hard to Visualize: While infographics may be overused, this book sorely needed some kind of visual guidance to help the reader follow along with all the many people and organizations involved. There seemed to be more characters than Game of Thrones in 1/10th the pages! A genealogical tree or flow chart would have done wonders for me.
  3. Got too Personal:Ultimately this book became too focused on the personalities and quirks of the Merchants themselves and lost focus on the underlying drivers and conditions which created them. While the individuals were important, clearly this movement of fostering scientific doubt is much bigger than any one (or two) person, as it continues stronger than ever today6)And it is not just free-market conservatives. The anti-vaxxers work hard to create doubt around the science of vaccines, demanding impossible proof that vaccines do not cause cancer, while repeating extremely flawed science on their own side. with virtually everyone discussed in the book long gone.

Aaron's Approbation

This book is very important and for anyone interested in science communication in general and climate science communication in particular MUST read it. But for the rest of the public and even scientific community I have hopes that the new documentary will provide an accurate and accessible version of the book or at least you can check out an interview with one of the authors.

Aaron Redman is the founder of Achieving Sustainability and what passes for an administrator in these parts. Currently he is working on his Sustainability PhD at ASU while raising a baby daughter and taking advantage of nap time to foment discussions on this here blog.

Footnotes   [ + ]

1. Thus began the half century long conspiracy that was only partially unraveled thanks to a long legal effort for which the companies were found quite guilty.
2. One active example is the National Association of Scholars-which can clearly be seen from this takedown.
3. The classic example is the hypothesis that there are only white swans. This could never be proved true; just false if a black swan could be found. But if you randomly sampled thousands of swans from around the world you could be fairly certain that all swans were white, but you couldn't prove it.
4. Is this the fault of our education system, our media, our scientists or just an innate aspect of human nature?
5. And he may well have been, but his failure to disclose these conflicts is not just illegal but casts some doubt on claims for impartiality.
6. And it is not just free-market conservatives. The anti-vaxxers work hard to create doubt around the science of vaccines, demanding impossible proof that vaccines do not cause cancer, while repeating extremely flawed science on their own side.
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