From tobacco to climate change, ‘merchants of doubt’ undermined the science

Grist logo Grist examines the new book, Merchants
of Doubt:
How a
Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco
Smoke to Global Warming
, which takes a behind-the-scenes look at how a small group of right-wing ideologues have undermined U.S. policy as it relates to science. Their current target is climate change and with a great amount of funding and support from the political community, the group continues its efforts to do anything in their power to limit U.S. industrial regulation.

Posted Apr. 16, 2010
By Osha Gray Davidson, Grist

"Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful people
can change the world
."
— Margaret Mead

Because Americans
are optimists we tend to see Mead's observation as upbeat and
life-affirming
(as it was probably intended). Blinkered by optimism, however, we miss
the dark
flip side of her observation — that a few fanatics can do immense harm.

In their sweeping and comprehensive new book Merchants
of Doubt:
How a
Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco
Smoke to Global Warming
, historians Naomi Oreskes
and Erick M. Conway document how a handful of right-wing ideologues —
all
scientists — have (mis)shaped U.S. policy for decades, delaying
government
action on life-and-death issues from cigarettes and second-hand smoke,
to acid
rain, and now, finally, to climate change. The book is similar to the
popular
Discovery Channel show "How Do They Do It?" Only instead of
investigating
quirky mysteries like how stripes get into toothpaste, Merchants of
Doubt
looks at exactly how we arrived at the gravest
crisis in the history of our species — one we created ourselves.

Although most of
these scientists were influential men in themselves (and they are all
men),
they could not have done as much damage without powerful allies. Whole
industries bankrolled their research, sometimes laundering the money
through
front groups with innocuous names. Think tanks like the George C.
Marshall
Institute were financed specifically to publish and disseminate their
papers —
junk science that couldn't survive the rigors of peer-reviewed journals.
Oreskes and Conway also devote an insightful section to the mass media's
mostly
unwitting complicity in this scandal.

This premise may
sound like a conspiracy theory, but the truth Oreskes and Conway
elucidate is
more banal and convincing. The title, Merchants
of Doubt
, frames the authors' argument, echoing an internal memo
from the
Brown & Williamson tobacco company that declared: "Doubt is our
product
since it is the best means of competing with the 'body of fact' that
exists in
the mind of the general public." Big tobacco helped finance the industry
of
doubt in its modern form, run by the scientists whose schemes this book
details. In a sense, this is an industrial history and it should be no
more
shocking to see the same names continually popping up than it is to see
Lee
Iacocca's in a history of the auto industry.

The central
characters in Merchants of Doubt include Fred Seitz, S. Fred
Singer
,
William Nierenberg, and Robert Jastrow. These may not exactly be
household
names, but it's probably not much of a stretch to call them the founding
fathers of industrial-strength doubt.

Fred Seitz Fred Seitz was a
pioneer of solid-state physics who helped develop the atom bomb. From
the end
of World War II until his death in 2008, Seitz devoted himself to
protecting
laissez-faire capitalism from communism. He moved quickly from
scientific
research to administrative work, serving as president of the National
Academy
of Sciences from 1962 to 1969. When the Soviet Union
broke a moratorium on atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons, Seitz
immediately
urged President John Kennedy to respond in kind, despite evidence that
radioactive fallout contaminated swaths of land for more than a thousand
miles.
Innocent people would die, but some collateral damage is inevitable when
fighting a war, even a cold one.

Fred Singer Fred Singer is
another physicist turned cold warrior. He began his career developing
the
government's earth observation satellite system. Along the way, Singer
took up
the cudgel defending free enterprise by opposing environmental
regulations. The
other "merchants of doubt" profiled by Oreskes and Conway traveled a
similar path. Physicist
William Nierenberg's work on the Manhattan Project led him in the early
1960s
to become NATO's chief scientist working on developing weapons to use
against
the Soviets. Astrophysicist Robert Jastrow moved from NASA into a
leading
position supporting Ronald Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI,
aka,
Star Wars) to counter "Soviet hegemony," which he called the
"greatest peril" in U.S.
history.

What all these men
have in common (aside from their background in physics) is the belief
that the
Cold War didn't end with the collapse of the Soviet Union.
In their minds, and in the minds of their followers, "real Americans"
are still battling socialism, only now the
threat comes primarily from within. Grasping that bizarre and paranoid
notion
is central to understanding their motivations and methods.

In the 1950s, Big
Tobacco had begun using scientists to sow doubt about links between
their
product and cancer. As the evidence against them mounted in the 1970s,
the
tobacco industry realized they needed something more. They found it in
Seitz,
who was not merely a scientist, but the former president of the Academy
of Sciences.

R. J. Reynolds put
Seitz in charge of the company's biomedical research grant program. The
amount
of money available was staggering. In 1981, Oreskes and Conway write,
the
American Cancer Society and the American Lung Association together
contributed
$300,000 to research. In that same year, Big Tobacco directed $6.3
million to
researchers who consistently found no evidence conclusively linking
tobacco to
serious medical problems.

Seitz and the
tobacco industry were a perfect fit. Environmental and industrial
regulations
were anathema to each. For the industry, it was a simple matter of
self-interest. While Seitz was well-paid for his work, ideology may have
been
the more important factor. Over the years Seitz's conservative views had
grown
ever more extreme. He found himself alienated from many of his
scientific
colleagues over the Vietnam War (many of them were against the war;
Seitz was
an enthusiastic supporter). He also became convinced that
environmentalists
were dupes of communist propaganda, if not outright traitors.

Eventually,
Seitz's right-wing views would become too much for even the tobacco
industry.
Seitz was, in their view, "not sufficiently rational" to maintain a
public
connection with the industry.

While Seitz was
busy doling out "research" funds for R. J. Reynolds, his colleague,
William
Nierenberg, was leading the fight in a different arena: to prevent the
federal
government from taking action on acid rain. Once again, Oreskes and
Conway do
an excellent job of bringing to life a complex and important
environmental
battle that is poorly remembered today. In 1982, Nierenberg was
appointed by
President Ronald Reagan to lead a review of the scientific evidence
concerning
acid rain. Had the acidity of rain in the northeastern part of the
United States
really increased? If so, how serious was
the problem? And what caused acid rain? Was it naturally occurring, or
did
humans play a role in creating the problem?

The questions were
valid, or at least they had been when the phenomenon was first examined a
decade earlier. A broad scientific consensus had emerged over several
years, so
that by 1979 it wasn't news to most scientists in the field when Scientific
American
published an article
explaining to the public that "In recent decades, the acidity of rain
and snow
has increased sharply over wide areas. The principle cause is the
release of
sulfur and nitrogen by the burning of fossil fuels" to generate
electricity.  What's more, the National
Academy of Sciences had released a report in 1981 with similar
conclusions, but
going even further. That study concluded that there was "clear evidence
of
serious hazard to human health and the biosphere" from acid rain,
requiring
immediate action.

The Nierenberg
Panel produced a report at war with itself, marked by a key internal
contradiction. For the most part, the executive summary agreed with the
1981
NAS study. But, write Oreskes and Conway, an appendix was added
suggesting that
"we really didn't know enough to move
forward with emissions controls." The confusion bred by the report cast
just
enough doubt on what was actually known about acid rain to allow the
Reagan
administration to do exactly what it had wanted to do all along:
nothing. The
misleading appendix was written by Fred Singer. In the early 1980s,
Singer was
a senior fellow at the Heritage Foundation, arguably the most
influential
conservative think tank during the Reagan era. Created with an initial
quarter-million dollar grant from beer magnate and right-wing Republican
activist Joseph Coors, the group was initially led by Paul Weyrich, who
combined absolute allegiance to the Free Market, ultra-nationalism, and
fundamentalist evangelical Christianity of the narrowest kind. (Along
with
Jerry Falwell, Weyrich founded the group Moral Majority.)

Nineteen
eighty-four marked a key moment in Oreske and Conway's darkly
fascinating
history of selling doubt. The issue at the center of events at the time
had no
obvious relation to climate change. The controversy involved missiles,
specifically,
Ronald Reagan's $60 billion program to build an impenetrable "missile
shield"
over the United States.
Most scientists regarded SDI as technologically impossible and almost
certainly
destabilizing. Over a thousand experts signed a petition stating that
they
would refuse any government funding of projects that could further SDI.
The
move enraged Seitz and his colleagues Nierenberg and Robert Jastrow. In
reaction, the three hawks formed the George C. Marshall Institute, a
conservative think tank dedicated to selling Star Wars to policy makers
and the
public. For Seitz and his colleagues, GMI represented a decisive step
away from
the scientific community — and from science itself. With the fate of
the
country hanging in the balance, an ideology devoted to the red, white,
and blue
came before science, which prided itself on being colorless and
colorblind.

As the unworkable
SDI inevitably faded, GMI turned to other ideological battles, including
ozone
depletion and global warming. Their adversaries saw these as scientific
issues,
not clashes of ideology, which gave GMI an advantage. Science recognizes
the
inevitability of uncertainty. The point isn't to go for perfection but
to
continually refine models of how complex phenomena work. Science uses
doubt as
a tool, a prod to deepen understanding. Seitz and his associates used
doubt as
a weapon against science. They seized on inevitable uncertainties in
scientific
models as evidence that the models had no value, or worse. In 1987, for
example, Singer, then working at the Department of Transportation, wrote
an
article published in The Wall Street Journal that was
rife with
inaccuracies and distortions minimizing the importance of the discovery
of a
hole in the ozone layer, a portion of the lower stratosphere that blocks
most
harmful ultraviolet rays from reaching the surface of the earth.

"It was the
beginning of a counternarrative," write Oreskes and Conway, "that
scientists
had overreacted before, were overreacting now, and therefore couldn't be
trusted."

That same
counternarrative of denial continues today, stronger and more strident
than
ever, and now focused on creating doubt about all aspects of climate
change.
The ultimate goal hasn't changed since the tobacco days — preventing
government regulation of industry. In a 2007 article, Newsweek
called the George C. Marshall
Institute "a central cog in the denial machine." GMI has received
millions of
dollars from conservative foundations and corporations. Exactly how much
isn't
known because in 2001, tired of facing criticism over the fact that one
of the
largest corporate donors to its anti-global warming work was oil giant
ExxonMobil, GMI made its donor list secret.

The denial machine
contains a huge number of cogs, and it would take an encyclopedia to
list them
all. The authors do an excellent job, however, of touching on many of
the cogs
inside that dreadful box, from clueless writers (Bjorn
Lomborg
, John
Tierney
, George
Will
) to odious politicians (Sen. James Inhofe, Vice President Dick
Cheney)
to the scores of conservative foundations that wrap themselves in the
flag that
they disgrace by their actions.

Merchants of Doubt is an important book.
How important? 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.

One Response to “From tobacco to climate change, ‘merchants of doubt’ undermined the science”

  1. electronic cigarettes are managed for sale
    the same way as conventional cigarettes and consumers needs
    to be at least 18 years-old.

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