MERCHANTS OF DOUBT: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoking to Global Warming
By NAOMI ORESKES & ERIK M. CONWAY
Bloomsbury, 2012, 355 pages, $37.95 (pb)
Review by Phil Shannon
‘Doubt is our product’, ran the infamous internal memo written by a US tobacco industry executive in 1969 about the industry’s campaign against the scientific consensus that smoking kills. Another memo, from tobacco giant Philip Morris, later resolved to ‘maintain the controversy’ over passive smoking for which there was also scientific unanimity over the harm of sidestream smoke.
As the science historians, Professor Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway, show in Merchants of Doubt, tobacco company memos conceded that the science of smoking and health was correct but the tobacco industry, whose “goal was to protect profits”, criminally proposed “multi-million dollar misinformation campaigns” to cast doubt on the science.
The tobacco industry recruited a tiny handful of prominent scientists to provide the ‘white lab coat’ credibility for their commercially-driven campaign. This same, small coterie of scientists had its fingerprints over four decades of other industry campaigns attacking the science of acid rain, global warming, toxic pesticides and ozone layer holes to keep their business sponsors safe from victim litigation, state regulation and punitive taxes on their profitable but dangerous products.
The industry counter-offensives relied on highly distracting scientific red herrings, opportunistically misrepresenting inevitable scientific uncertainties on the margins to discredit the long-settled facts at the core. Not everyone who smokes, for example, will get lung cancer therefore, claimed the industry scientists, the causal link between smoking and cancer is not established, ignoring the statistical probability that smoking will kill half its practitioners, a fact not open to reasonable doubt.
Acid rain, whose principal cause is the release of sulphur and nitrogen from the burning of fossil fuels, was explained away by corporate scientists as due, not to industrial pollution, but to natural variation or volcanoes, two factors which also served as diversions from industrial chlorofluorocarbons which caused the historically unprecedented depletion of the stratospheric ozone layer.
One lone entomologist has opened the portals of denialism to the four-decade-old consensus that the pesticide, DDT, is toxic to environment and people, whilst the sun, rather than fossil fuels, has featured prominently in global warming denialist ‘science’ by highly vocal but isolated contrarians whose views have failed the highly demanding standards of peer-review - “bad losers”, as Oreskes and Conway deservedly call them.
The names of the same scientists crop up in all these industry campaigns, the most prominent being Frederick Seitz, S. Fred Singer, William Nierenberg and Robert Jastrow, physicists all, with no expertise as epidemiologists, ecologists, atmospheric scientists or climate modellers yet claiming the mantle of “all-purpose expert” – an oxymoron in the contemporary world of scientific specialisation and complexity.
All were centrally involved in the American nuclear weaponry and rocketry programs during the Cold War. All were political conservatives, anti-socialist extremists who were also scornful of environmentalists whom they caricatured as either anti-technology Luddites or as political ‘watermelons’ – green on the outside, red on the inside.
All were free market ideologues who saw government regulation of capitalist industry as “the slippery slope to socialism, a form of creeping communism”. Singer saw environmentalism as camouflage for an attack on ‘business, the free market and the capitalistic system’. Their camp follower, Michael Crichton (author of Jurassic Park), aptly summed up their politics when he portrayed the science of global warming as a “liberal hoax meant to bring down Western capitalism”.
Because peer-reviewed science had “revealed the hazards that capitalism brought in its wake”, it, like socialism and environmentalism, had to be attacked. The scientific consensus on global warming, which strikes at the energy consumption heart of the global capitalist economic growth model, has provoked a ferocious denialism of the science of anthropogenic climate change, with the denialists falsely convincing 40% of Americans that most scientists are still arguing about the reality of global warming.
Swift to explain away the rest of the scientific world as self-interested scare-mongers out to obtain more money for their research, and as left-wing, ideologically-motivated subversives set on destroying capitalism, these industry mouthpieces are blind to their own, decidedly real, right wing ideological motivations, and to the buckets of money the denialists have received from a large network of private corporations, right wing foundations and conservative think-tanks.
The Cold War denialists, who would have been the first to denounce the corruption of science under communism (which they simplistically equated with the anti-socialist, Stalinist regime of Russia) were guilty of the same sin of perverting science to conform to a political ideology (free market capitalism) but were doubly demeaned because they did so voluntarily rather than being coerced.
Their essential propaganda allies have been the mainstream media which, loving a conflict, pounced on the appearance of scientific division to present ‘both sides of the debate’. This media ‘balance’ baloney has meant that one ‘side’ of a non-existent debate, an extreme minority representing “deliberate disinformation spread by well-organised and well-funded vested interests”, has received special treatment by the print and airwave echo-chambers for corporate interests.
Mainstream politicians, too, are willingly seduced by the denialists whose refrain that the science is uncertain, and the economic costs of corrective action too high, is used as justification for political inaction and delay.
Cold War and contemporary denialists are right on one thing, however. In detecting a ‘Red Menace’ behind the ‘Green Threat’, they have fingered the political logic of environmentalism which is to constrain capitalism because of its reckless unconcern for the environment. The industry scientists’ response of scientific doubt-mongering, however, serves only to defend profits. Socialists, on the other hand, though Oreskes and Conway stop short of endorsing Marxism, have no trouble with doing what the science says must be done because people and planet matter more than profit.