Merchants of Doubt by Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway

My notes from:

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

Imagine a gigantic banquet. Hundreds of millions of people come to eat. They eat and drink to their hearts’ content—eating food that is better and more abundant than at the finest tables in ancient Athens or Rome, or even in the palaces of medieval Europe. Then, one day, a man arrives, wearing a white dinner jacket. He says he is holding the bill. Not surprisingly, the diners are in shock. Some begin to deny that this is their bill. Others deny that there even is a bill. Still others deny that they partook of the meal. One diner suggests that the man is not really a waiter, but is only trying to get attention for himself or to raise money for his own projects. Finally, the group concludes that if they simply ignore the waiter, he will go away. This is where we stand today on the subject of global warming.
This book was mind-blowing. Here’s a rough summary:
  • In the middle of the 20th century, scientists started producing studies saying cigarettes cause cancer. The evidence was really piling up, so the tobacco industry hired some very well-respected scientists and some top PR firms. These guys launched a campaign shedding doubt on the scientific consensus.
  • The campaign worked by confusing the public and policymakers, thereby delaying action on the problem so the industry could maintain the status quo. It worked so well that the model was replicated to cast doubt on other issues, including acid rain, DDT, the ozone hole, and finally climate change.
  • The guys that participated in each of these campaigns of confusion were essential the same dudes. They just went from one issue to the next. While their paychecks from the industries they were protecting were good motivation, they were also motivated by a free market idealism and a fear that any and all regulation is a “slippery slope” to communism.
  • The media, always looking for a good debate, loved this whole two-sided climate change debate thing. They gave equal air and print time to “both sides”, even though one side was based on groundless pseudo-science and was financed by the fossil fuel industry. They essentially manufactured debate when there was none. This includes the NY Times, Wall Street Journal, and on and on.
  • The campaign confused everyone and made people question the science far beyond the actual uncertainty of the studies, giving policymakers an excuse to “wait and see”. An excuse for inaction, for maintaining the status quo. This inaction has virtually continued to this day.

Kindle Highlights

  • Lately science has shown us that contemporary industrial civilization is not sustainable. Maintaining our standard of living will require finding new ways to produce our energy and less ecologically damaging ways to produce our food.
  • Science has shown us that Rachel Carson was not wrong. This is the crux of the issue, the crux of our story. The shift in the American environmental movement from aesthetic environmentalism to regulatory environmentalism wasn’t just a change in political strategy. It was the manifestation of a crucial realization: that unrestricted commercial activity was doing damage—real, lasting, pervasive damage.
  • That pollution was global, not just local, and the solution to pollution was not dilution. This shift began with the understanding that DDT remained in the environment long after its purpose was served. And it grew as acid rain and the ozone hole demonstrated that pollution traveled hundreds or even thousands of kilometers from its source, doing damage to people who did not benefit from the economic activity that produced it. It reached a crescendo when global warming showed that even the most seemingly innocuous by-product of industrial civilization—CO2, the stuff on which plants depend—could produce a very different planet. we all have to deal with global warming, whether we like it or not, and some people have been resisting this conclusion for a long time.
  • Why did they continue to repeat charges long after they had been shown to be unfounded? The answer, of course, is that they were not interested in finding facts. They were interested in fighting them.
  • The same strategy was applied not only to global warming, but to a laundry list of environmental and health concerns, including asbestos, secondhand smoke, acid rain, and the ozone hole. Call it the “Tobacco Strategy.” Its target was science, and so it relied heavily on scientists—with guidance from industry lawyers and public relations experts.
  • Ludwig von Mises, an Austrian aristocrat, was one of the founders of modern laissez-faire economics.32 And this brings us to the crux of our story, the pivot around which these diverse actors came together. The link that unites the tobacco industry, conservative think tanks, and the scientists in our story is the defense of the free market.
  • Throughout our story, the people involved demanded the right to be heard, insisting that we—the public—had the right to hear both sides and that the media had an obligation to present it. They insisted that this was only fair and democratic. But were they attempting to preserve democracy? No. The issue was not free speech; it was free markets. It was the appropriate role of government in monitoring the marketplace. It was regulation. So we must consider the ideology that drove the merchants of doubt—the ideology of laissez-faire economics—before we finally turn to the question of how to make sure that we don’t get fooled again.
  • The billionaire investor George Soros has coined a term to describe this perspective: “free market fundamentalism.” It is the belief not simply that free markets are the best way to run an economic system, but that free markets are the only way that will not ultimately destroy our other freedoms. “The doctrine of laissez-faire capitalism holds that the common good is best served by the uninhibited pursuit of self-interest,”36 Soros wrote. Like its bête noire, Marxism, laissez-faire economics claimed to be scientific, based upon immutable laws of nature, and also like Marxism, it has not stood the test of experience. If it were a scientific theory, it would have long ago been rejected.37 Free-market fundamentalism is an article of faith.
  • First they claimed there was none, then they claimed it was just natural variation, and then they claimed that even if it was happening and it was our fault, it didn’t matter because we could just adapt to it.
  • Respected media outlets such as the New York Times, the Washington Post, Newsweek, and many others repeated these claims as if they were a “side” in a scientific debate.
  • Seitz, Singer, Nierenberg, and Jastrow had all served in high levels of science administration, where they had come to know admirals and generals, congressmen and senators, even presidents. They had also dealt extensively with the media, so they knew how to get press coverage for their views, and how to pressure the media when they didn’t. They used their scientific credentials to present themselves as authorities, and they used their authority to try to discredit any science they didn’t like.
  • why did the press continue to quote them, year after year, even as their claims were shown, one after another, to be false?
  • “We don’t know what’s causing (acid rain)” became the official position of the Reagan administration, despite twenty-one years of scientific work that demonstrated otherwise. “We don’t know” was the mantra of the tobacco industry in staving off regulation of tobacco long after scientists had proven its harms, too.
  • Ozone: In short, Singer’s story had three major themes: the science is incomplete and uncertain; replacing CFCs will be difficult, dangerous, and expensive; and the scientific community is corrupt and motivated by self-interest and political ideology. The first was true, but the adaptive structure of the Montreal Protocol had accounted for it. The second was baseless. As for the third, considering Singer’s ties to the Reagan administration and the Heritage Foundation, and considering the venues in which he published, this was surely the pot calling the kettle black.
  • The “real” agenda of environmentalists—and the scientists who provided the data on which they relied—was to destroy capitalism and replace it with some sort of worldwide utopian Socialism—or perhaps Communism. That echoed a common right-wing refrain in the early 1990s: that environmental regulation was the slippery slope to Socialism. Fred Singer had said virtually the same thing in his attack on the EPA: “If we do not carefully delineate the government’s role in regulating [danger] … there is essentially no limit to how much government can ultimately control our lives.”
  • In the report with Jeffreys, Singer was promulgating an old adage: that the dose makes the poison. Where did that come from, anyway? The answer is Paracelsus, a Renaissance medic who died in 1541. Singer and Jeffreys were challenging the EPA with a five-hundred-year-old aphorism.
  • One answer has already emerged in our discussion of acid rain and ozone depletion: these scientists, and the think tanks that helped to promote their views, were implacably hostile to regulation. Regulation was the road to Socialism—the very thing the Cold War was fought to defeat.
  • claimed much the same thing as Fred Singer had: that science was being rigged to advance a political agenda. Whether or not that was true, this report made clear that the inverse was certainly true: science was being attacked to advance their agenda, the defense of free market capitalism.
  • There are many reasons why the United States has failed to act on global warming, but at least one is the confusion raised by Bill Nierenberg, Fred Seitz, and Fred Singer.
  • Whether the imponderable side effects on society—on coastlines and agriculture, on life in high latitudes, on human health, and simply the unforeseen—will in the end prove more costly than a stringent abatement of greenhouse gases, we do not now know.
  • Nierenberg’s CO2 and climate report pioneered all the major themes behind later efforts to block greenhouse gas regulation, save one. Nierenberg didn’t deny the legitimacy of climate science. He simply ignored it in favor of the claims made by economists: that treating symptoms rather than causes would be less expensive, that new technology would solve the problems that might appear so long as government didn’t interfere, and that if technology couldn’t solve all the problems, we could just migrate. In the two decades to come, these claims would be heard again and again.
  • The Institute might have disbanded—its raison d’être disappeared—but instead, the old Cold Warriors decided to fight on. The new enemy? Environmental “alarmists.” In 1989—the very year the Berlin Wall fell—the Marshall Institute issued its first report attacking climate science. Within a few years, they would be attacking climate scientists as well.
  • NOTE: mistakes in messaging: “There is major uncertainty and disagreement about whether this increase [in CO2] has caused a change in the climate during the past 100 years; observations simply don’t fit the theory,” he insisted. Of course there was disagreement—the Marshall Institute had generated it—but not among climate scientists.
  • Yet again, unscientific claims were being circulated broadly, but the scientists’ refutation of them was published where only fellow scientists would see it.)
  • As scientists had acknowledged many times, there are many causes of climate change, so the key question was how to sort out these various causes. Now that warming had been detected, could it be definitively attributed to humans?
  • We might dismiss this whole story as just infighting within the scientific community, except that the Marshall Institute claims were taken seriously in the Bush White House and published in the Wall Street Journal, where they would have been read by millions of educated people. Members of Congress also took them seriously. Proposing a bill to reduce climate research funding by more than a third in 1995, Congressman Dana Rohrabacher called it “trendy science that is propped up by liberal/left politics rather than good science.”
  • How did such a small group come to have such a powerful voice? We take it for granted that great individuals—Gandhi, Kennedy, Martin Luther King—can have great positive impacts on the world. But we are loath to believe the same about negative impacts—unless the individuals are obvious monsters like Hitler or Stalin. But small numbers of people can have large, negative impacts, especially if they are organized, determined, and have access to power.
  • there’s another crucial element to our story. It’s how the mass media became complicit, as a wide spectrum of the media—not just obviously right-wing newspapers like the Washington Times, but mainstream outlets, too—felt obligated to treat these issues as scientific controversies. Reporting on climate in the United States became biased toward the skeptics and deniers because of it.
  • In an active scientific debate, there can be many sides. But once a scientific issue is closed, there’s only one “side.” Imagine providing “balance” to the issue of whether the Earth orbits the Sun, whether continents move, or whether DNA carries genetic information. These matters were long ago settled in scientists’ minds. Nobody can publish an article in a scientific journal claiming the Sun orbits the Earth, and for the same reason, you can’t publish an article in a peer-reviewed journal claiming there’s no global warming. Probably well-informed professional science journalists wouldn’t publish it either. But ordinary journalists repeatedly did.
  • Even Milton Friedman acknowledged that there may be external costs that markets fail to account for—and pollution is the clearest example. Regulation is needed to address external costs, either by preventing them or by compensating those who are saddled with them. the idea that free markets produce optimum allocation of resources depends on participants having perfect information. But one of several ironies of our story is that our protagonists did everything in their power to ensure that the American people did not have good (much less perfect) information on crucial issues. Our protagonists, while ostensibly defending free markets, distorted the marketplace of ideas in the service of political goals and commercial interests. The American belief in fairness and the importance of hearing “both sides” was used and abused by people who didn’t want to admit the truth about the impacts of industrial capitalism.
  • Until recently the mass media presented global warming as a raging debate—twelve years after President George H. W. Bush had signed the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, and twenty-five years after the U.S. National Academy of Sciences first announced that there was no reason to doubt that global warming would occur from man’s use of fossil fuels. “Balance” had become a form of bias, whereby the media coverage was biased in favor of minority—in some cases extreme minority—views.
  • In principle, the media could act as gatekeepers, ignoring the charlatans and snake oil salesmen, but if they have tried, our story shows that at least where it comes to science they have failed. As we have seen, it wasn’t just obviously right-wing outlets that reported false claims about tobacco and these other subjects; it was the “prestige press”—indeed, the allegedly liberal press—as well.
  • A key strategy in the campaigns to market doubt was to create the appearance that the claims being promoted were scientific.
  • equal time to the majority view among climate scientists as well as to deniers of global warming—represented nearly 53 percent of media stories. Another 35 percent of articles presented the correct majority position among climate scientists, while still giving space to the deniers.167 The authors conclude that this “balanced” coverage is a form of “informational bias,” that the ideal of balance leads journalists to give minority views more credence than they deserve.
  • This divergence between the state of the science and how it was presented in the major media helped make it easy for our government to do nothing about global warming.
  • Recently, there has even been an revisionist history style attack on Rachel Carson:
    • The game here, as before, was to defend an extreme free market ideology. But in this case, they didn’t just deny the facts of science. They denied the facts of history.
    • We saw in chapter 3 that as the acid rain story was emerging in the 1960s, the American environmental movement was changing its orientation away from an aesthetic environmentalism toward legal regulation. Carson’s voice was fundamental to that reorientation.
    • If Carson was wrong, then the shift in orientation might have been wrong, too. The contemporary environmental movement could be shown to have been based on a fallacy, and the need for government intervention in the marketplace would be refuted.
  • Thinktanks at the bottom of this:
    • The Heartland Institute is known among climate scientists for persistent questioning of climate science, for its promotion of “experts” who have done little, if any, peer-reviewed climate research, and for its sponsorship of a conference in New York City in 2008 alleging that the scientific community’s work on global warming is a fake.75 But Heartland’s activities are far more extensive, and reach back into the 1990s when they, too, were working with Philip Morris.
    • Often financial contributions were referred to in company documents as “philanthropy,” and because these organizations were all nonprofit and nonpartisan, the donations were all tax deductible.
    • The network of right-wing foundations, the corporations that fund them, and the journalists who echo their claims have created a tremendous problem for American science. A recent academic study found that of the fifty-six “environmentally skeptical” books published in the 1990s, 92 percent were linked to these right-wing foundations (only thirteen were published in the 1980s, and 100 percent were linked to the foundations).
  • There is a deep irony here. One of the great heroes of the anti-Communist political right wing—indeed one of the clearest, most reasoned voices against the risks of oppressive government, in general—was George Orwell, whose famous 1984 portrayed a government that manufactured fake histories to support its political program.
  • The rhetoric of “sound science” is similarly Orwellian. Real science—done by scientists and published in scientific journals—is dismissed as “junk,” while misrepresentations and inventions are offered in its place.
  • Orwell’s Newspeak contained no science at all, as the very concept of science had been erased from his dystopia. And not surprisingly, for if science is about studying the world as it actually is—rather than as we wish it to be—then science will always have the potential to unsettle the status quo. As an independent source of authority and knowledge, science has always had the capacity to challenge ruling powers’ ability to control people by controlling their beliefs. Indeed, it has the power to challenge anyone who wishes to preserve, protect, or defend the status quo.
  • the soft underbelly of free market capitalism: that free enterprise can bring real costs—profound costs—that the free market does not reflect. Economists have a term for these costs—a less reassuring one than Friedman’s “neighborhood effects.” They are “negative externalities”: negative because they aren’t beneficial and external because they fall outside the market system. Those who find this hard to accept attack the messenger, which is science.
  • We all expect to pay for the things we buy—to pay a fair cost for goods and services from which we expect to reap benefits—but external costs are unhinged from benefits, often imposed on people who did not choose the good or service, and did not benefit from their use. They are imposed on people who did not benefit from the economic activity that produced them
  • DDT imposed enormous external costs through the destruction of ecosystems; acid rain, secondhand smoke, the ozone hole, and global warming did the same. This is the common thread that ties these diverse issues together: they were all market failures. They are instances where serious damage was done and the free market seemed unable to account for it, much less prevent it. Government intervention was required.
  • All this had real impact. After George H. W. Bush signed the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, formulated at Rio, the Republican Party turned against it and led the charge against its follow-up, the Kyoto Protocol, which would have put teeth into the general principles established at Rio. President Bush’s pledge to take concrete action to protect the planet had vanished along with his promise of no new taxes. The world would not be made safe for green vegetables. It would not even be safe for polar bears. Or people living on Pacific Islands.
  • Republican turn against environmentalism occurred even as popular support for U.S. environmentalism was rising. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, Cold Warriors looked for another great threat. They found it in environmentalism, which just at that very moment had identified a crucial global issue that required global response. In the early 1990s, global warming changed from a prediction about the future to a fact about the present. Global warming became the most charged of all environmental debates, because it is global, and it implicates everything and everyone.
  • So our Cold Warriors—Fred Seitz and Fred Singer, Robert Jastrow and Bill Nierenberg, and later Dixy Lee Ray, too, who had dedicated their lives to fighting Soviet Communism, joined forces with the self-appointed defenders of the free market to blame the messenger, to undermine science, to deny the truth, and to market doubt. People who began their careers as fact finders ended them as fact fighters. Evidently accepting that their ends justified their means, they embraced the tactics of their enemy, the very things they had hated Soviet Communism for: its lies, its deceit, its denial of the very realities it had created.
  • Scientists response
      • Why did the scientific community stand by while this was happening? With the notable exception of the atmospheric science community’s defense of Ben Santer, scientists fighting back have been conspicuously scarce.
      • Clearly, scientists knew that many contrarian claims were false. Why didn’t they do more to refute them? Where were the real scientific voices speaking out against the Potemkin village? One reason for scientists’ silence involves the complex dance that takes place in science between the individual and the group. Scientists are strongly motivated by the accolades and prestige that accrue from making a major discovery. Yet, at the same time they are often reluctant to attract the limelight for themselves. The reason is twofold. First, nearly all modern science is the result of teamwork—a point to which we shall shortly return—and second, knowledge counts as science when it reflects the consensus of expert opinion, even if it originated in the genius or creativity of one person. In the modern world, any scientific breakthrough is likely to be the result of the collective effort of several dozen, scores, or hundreds of researchers. The IPCC today attempts to summarize the work of thousands. A scientist who steps out to speak on behalf of his colleagues risks censure, lest colleagues think he is trying to take all the credit for himself. The scientific societies have tried to address this by developing formal statements on climate change that reflect the collective wisdom of their members, but these statements tend to be dry at best, and often nearly impossible for a normal person to decipher. Who among us has read the IPCC Summary for Policymakers, much less the thousands of pages of actual reports? Indeed, who on the planet has read all this stuff? What average citizen knows that the American Meteorological Society even exists, much less knows to visit its home page to look for its climate-change statement?92 Clearly, it’s ridiculous to imagine that anyone would, so someone has to summarize and communicate it. Then another difficulty arises. Scientists are finely honed specialists trained to create new knowledge, but they have little training in how to communicate to broad audiences, even less in how to defend scientific work against determined and well-financed contrarians. They often have little talent or taste for it, either. Until recently, most scientists have not been particularly anxious to take the time to communicate broadly. They consider their “real” work to be the production of knowledge, not its dissemination, and they often view these two activities as mutually exclusive. Some even sneer at colleagues who communicate to broader audiences, dismissing them as “popularizers.” Scientists’ commitment to expertise and objectivity also places them in a delicate position when it comes to refuting false claims. If a scientist jumps into the fray on a politically contested issue, he may be accused of “politicizing” the science and compromising his objectivity—as Carl Sagan was when he tried to call public attention to the dangers of nuclear winter. This places scientists in a double bind: the demands of objectivity suggest that they should keep aloof from contested issues, but if they don’t get involved, no one will know what an objective view of the matter looks like.93 Scientists have also been afraid to get involved because they have seen what happens when they do.
  • The great economist John Maynard Keynes famously summarized all of economic theory in a single phrase: “There is no such thing as a free lunch.” And he was right. We have experienced prosperity unmatched in human history. We have feasted to our hearts’ content. But the lunch was not free.
  • It’s not surprising that many of us are in denial. After all, we didn’t know it was a banquet, and we didn’t know that there would be a bill. Now we do know. The bill includes acid rain and the ozone hole and the damage produced by DDT. These are the environmental costs of living the way citizens of the wealthy, developed nations have lived since the Industrial Revolution. Now we either have to pay the price, change the way we do business, or both. No wonder the merchants of doubt have been successful. They’ve permitted us to think that we could ignore the waiter while we haggled about the bill.
  • In their textbook, Understanding Scientific Reasoning, Ronald Giere, John Bickle, and Robert Mauldin show that the outcome of a rational decision-theory analysis is that if your knowledge is uncertain, then your best option is generally to do nothing. Doing something has costs—financial, temporal, or opportunity costs—and if you aren’t confident those costs will be repaid in future benefits, you’re best off leaving things alone. Moreover, acting to prevent future harm generally means giving up benefits in the present: certain benefits, to be weighed against uncertain gains. If we didn’t know that smoking was dangerous, but we did know that it gave us pleasure, we would surely decide to smoke, as millions of Americans did before the 1960s. Uncertainty favors the status quo.
  • To change the way the problem of global warming looks, Giere and his colleagues conclude, you’d need “undeniable evidence both that doing nothing will lead to warming and that doing something could prevent it.”2 But as we have seen, any evidence can be denied by parties sufficiently determined, and you can never prove anything about the future; you just have to wait and see. So the question becomes, Why do we expect “undeniable” evidence in the first place?
  • The protagonists of our story merchandised doubt because they realized—with or without the help of academic decision theory—that doubt works. And it works in part because we have an erroneous view of science. We think that science provides certainty, so if we lack certainty, we think the science must be faulty or incomplete. This view—that science could provide certainty—is an old one, but it was most clearly articulated by the late-nineteenth-century positivists, who held out a dream of “positive” knowledge—in the familiar sense of absolutely, positively true. But if we have learned anything since then, it is that the positivist dream was exactly that: a dream. History shows us clearly that science does not provide certainty. It does not provide proof. It only provides the consensus of experts, based on the organized accumulation and scrutiny of evidence.
  • Sensible decision making involves acting on the information we have, even while accepting that it may well be imperfect and our decisions may need to be revisited and revised in light of new information. For even if modern science does not give us certainty, it does have a robust track record. We have sent men to the moon, cured diseases, figured out the internal composition of the Earth, invented new materials, and built machines to do much of our work for us—all on the basis of modern scientific knowledge. While these practical accomplishments do not prove that our scientific knowledge is true, they do suggest that modern science gives us a pretty decent basis for action.
  • let the witnesses to events speak for themselves. So we close with the comments of S. J. Green, director of research for British American Tobacco, who decided, finally, that what his industry had done was wrong, not just morally, but also intellectually: “A demand for scientific proof is always a formula for inaction and delay, and usually the first reaction of the guilty. The proper basis for such decisions is, of course, quite simply that which is reasonable in the circumstances.”12