‘Merchants of Doubt’ responsible for climate confusion – book review


Climate Science Watch readers who have not yet done so are urged to check out the new book Merchants of Doubt, by Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway. Accurately called “powerful” by The Economist, Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming tells a compelling and illuminating story that should shake up the views of even some of the global warming skeptics.

Just how important is this book? Osha Gray Davidson of grist.org says: “If you read just one book on climate change this year, read Merchants of Doubt. And if you have time to read two, reread Merchants of Doubt.”

Co-authored by science historians Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway, the book researches the inner workings of the policy-stalling denial machine. Delving into the root of the problem, this work sheds light on the question of why confusion still surrounds the reality of human-caused climate change despite the overwhelming agreement among the world’s leading climate scientists about its causes and ever-advancing understanding of its consequences.

The authors compile and document in impeccable detail the use of doubt-manufacturing to create confusion and delay. Reputable scientists have long identified hazards to our societies and surroundings by way of top quality research. However, very often the needed policy action on scientifically-backed critical issues has been stalled because the public and politicians remain confused. A significant contributor to their confusion, say Oreskes and Conway, has been the action of a small number of influential individuals who have exploited the fact that “uncertainty favors the status quo” to successfully spread contrarian views.

Oreskes and Conway take us back in time to see doubt-seeding employed to stall efforts to address such public health and environment threats as cigarette smoke, DDT, ozone depletion and climate change. By tracking a cast of characters led by ‘cold warrior’ physicists Frederick Seitz, Fred Singer, William Neirenberg, and Robert Jastrow, Oreskes and Conway show how action on pressing public policy issues has been delayed time and time again.

These doubt-manufacturing leaders, write Oreskes and Conway, turned against the mainstream scientific community because of their conviction that the end of the cold war signaled the potential rise of socialism in the United States. Indeed, “these [anticommunist] scientists looked at environmentalists as ‘watermelons’: green on outside, red on the inside.” This mindset led Seitz, Singer and Co. to take positions working for major corporations and conservative think tanks concerned with keeping the public in the dark about pressing dangers, including the health risks of cigarettes and secondhand smoke, the potential harm of DDT, or our ultimately disastrous dependence on fossil fuel consumption.

Much of the book is a lead-up to the most recent contrarian effort, the perpetration of doubt about human-caused global climate disruption. Oreskes and Conway focus on the steps that have defined the US’s nonchalant attitude toward climate change. They show clearly how it is possible that we’re in such an ill-equipped position, facing a rapidly and dangerously changing world.

Merchants of Doubt raises the question of what we’re to do to counter such contrarians. The authors underscore that the media play a large part in the battle of scientific understanding versus doubt-mongering. Scientists have depended on the media to represent their work accurately, because their time is occupied by research rather than public relations. Unfortunately, as the authors point out, proper representation has not happened: modern journalism has not taken into account the importance of the peer review process, choosing instead to frame things as an exciting debate, even when no valid disagreement exists.

The media is ultimately responsible for the way it presents complex issues. However, with the current state of today’s journalism—with science sections being dropped from news outlets and the rise of global warming deniers taking to the blogosphere to broadcast their views—accountability is a scarce resource. Oreskes is no stranger to this: her famed 2004 Science article, “The Scientific Consensus on Climate Change”, clearly identified that “there is a scientific consensus on the reality of anthropogenic climate change. Climate scientists have tried repeatedly to make this clear. It is time for the public to listen.”

Six years later, the struggle against climate contrarians continues. The late Steven Schneider, Stanford climatologist, delved into this very subject with his latest paper co-authored with William Anderegg, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The paper, “Expert Credibility in Climate Change”, took Oreskes’ research topic another step using a more complex metric to address the relative credibility of scientists who have publicly expressed opinions on the attribution and severity of climate change, and whether or not it should be addressed through policy measures (interview with Schneider here). As might be expected, they found a striking level of agreement among climate experts on the evidence for anthropogenic climate change. The agreement was there in 2004, and it persists today. Yet climate deniers continue to have influence and occupy space in the media. How can they be countered?

Science writer Chris Mooney, in his new American Association of Arts and Sciences (AAAS) report, Do Scientists Understand the Public?, asks how well scientists communicate their ideas to the public: Instead of placing all the blame on the public or the media for misunderstanding the complex science, Mooney says scientists must become better communicators.

Maybe additional studies about the lack of credibility of climate deniers will lead the truth of the perils we’re faced with to eventually sink in with the public. Perhaps, once scientists learn better two-way communication with policymakers and the public, we’ll see the demand for action that’s needed. It’s possible, but it’s also possible the climate deniers will keep countering reputable work with ‘junk science’ while those convinced of the evidence will be frustrated and those who are uncertain will grow more perplexed.

Everyone concerned about this problem should read Merchants of Doubt. The book tells a powerful story, based on painstaking research. Reading it might even shock the system of a skeptic or denier.

Earlier post on Merchants of Doubt here

Video Update: While at Netroots Nation, CSW spoke with Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway about the internet as a tool for climate change education:

Here’s a video conversation I had with Naomi Oreskes back in March, with some discussion about Merchants of Doubt:
Part 1

Part 2

Earlier CSW posts:

July 24: Supporting Science, Benefiting Society

February 6, 2008: Naomi Oreskes lecture: The American denial of global warming

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