From tobacco to climate change, ‘merchants of doubt’ undermined the science
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
are optimists we tend to see Mead's observation as upbeat and
(as it was probably intended). Blinkered by optimism, however, we miss
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 —
scientists — have (mis)shaped U.S. policy for decades, delaying
action on life-and-death issues from cigarettes and second-hand smoke,
rain, and now, finally, to climate change. The book is similar to the
Discovery Channel show "How Do They Do It?" Only instead of
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
they could not have done as much damage without powerful allies. Whole
industries bankrolled their research, sometimes laundering the money
front groups with innocuous names. Think tanks like the George C.
Institute were financed specifically to publish and disseminate their
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
unwitting complicity in this scandal.
This premise may
sound like a conspiracy theory, but the truth Oreskes and Conway
more banal and convincing. The title, Merchants
of Doubt, frames the authors' argument, echoing an internal memo
Brown & Williamson tobacco company that declared: "Doubt is our
since it is the best means of competing with the 'body of fact' that
the mind of the general public." Big tobacco helped finance the industry
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
shocking to see the same names continually popping up than it is to see
Iacocca's in a history of the auto industry.
characters in Merchants of Doubt include Fred Seitz, S. Fred
William Nierenberg, and Robert Jastrow. These may not exactly be
names, but it's probably not much of a stretch to call them the founding
fathers of industrial-strength doubt.
Fred Seitz was a
pioneer of solid-state physics who helped develop the atom bomb. From
of World War II until his death in 2008, Seitz devoted himself to
laissez-faire capitalism from communism. He moved quickly from
research to administrative work, serving as president of the National
of Sciences from 1962 to 1969. When the Soviet Union
broke a moratorium on atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons, Seitz
urged President John Kennedy to respond in kind, despite evidence that
radioactive fallout contaminated swaths of land for more than a thousand
Innocent people would die, but some collateral damage is inevitable when
fighting a war, even a cold one.
Fred Singer is
another physicist turned cold warrior. He began his career developing
government's earth observation satellite system. Along the way, Singer
the cudgel defending free enterprise by opposing environmental
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
to become NATO's chief scientist working on developing weapons to use
the Soviets. Astrophysicist Robert Jastrow moved from NASA into a
position supporting Ronald Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI,
Star Wars) to counter "Soviet hegemony," which he called the
"greatest peril" in U.S.
What all these men
have in common (aside from their background in physics) is the belief
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
is central to understanding their motivations and methods.
In the 1950s, Big
Tobacco had begun using scientists to sow doubt about links between
product and cancer. As the evidence against them mounted in the 1970s,
tobacco industry realized they needed something more. They found it in
who was not merely a scientist, but the former president of the Academy
R. J. Reynolds put
Seitz in charge of the company's biomedical research grant program. The
of money available was staggering. In 1981, Oreskes and Conway write,
American Cancer Society and the American Lung Association together
$300,000 to research. In that same year, Big Tobacco directed $6.3
researchers who consistently found no evidence conclusively linking
serious medical problems.
Seitz and the
tobacco industry were a perfect fit. Environmental and industrial
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
the more important factor. Over the years Seitz's conservative views had
ever more extreme. He found himself alienated from many of his
colleagues over the Vietnam War (many of them were against the war;
an enthusiastic supporter). He also became convinced that
were dupes of communist propaganda, if not outright traitors.
Seitz's right-wing views would become too much for even the tobacco
Seitz was, in their view, "not sufficiently rational" to maintain a
connection with the industry.
While Seitz was
busy doling out "research" funds for R. J. Reynolds, his colleague,
Nierenberg, was leading the fight in a different arena: to prevent the
government from taking action on acid rain. Once again, Oreskes and
an excellent job of bringing to life a complex and important
battle that is poorly remembered today. In 1982, Nierenberg was
President Ronald Reagan to lead a review of the scientific evidence
acid rain. Had the acidity of rain in the northeastern part of the
really increased? If so, how serious was
the problem? And what caused acid rain? Was it naturally occurring, or
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
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
has increased sharply over wide areas. The principle cause is the
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
going even further. That study concluded that there was "clear evidence
serious hazard to human health and the biosphere" from acid rain,
Panel produced a report at war with itself, marked by a key internal
contradiction. For the most part, the executive summary agreed with the
NAS study. But, write Oreskes and Conway, an appendix was added
"we really didn't know enough to move
forward with emissions controls." The confusion bred by the report cast
enough doubt on what was actually known about acid rain to allow the
administration to do exactly what it had wanted to do all along:
misleading appendix was written by Fred Singer. In the early 1980s,
a senior fellow at the Heritage Foundation, arguably the most
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
Jerry Falwell, Weyrich founded the group Moral Majority.)
eighty-four marked a key moment in Oreske and Conway's darkly
history of selling doubt. The issue at the center of events at the time
obvious relation to climate change. The controversy involved missiles,
Ronald Reagan's $60 billion program to build an impenetrable "missile
over the United States.
Most scientists regarded SDI as technologically impossible and almost
destabilizing. Over a thousand experts signed a petition stating that
would refuse any government funding of projects that could further SDI.
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
public. For Seitz and his colleagues, GMI represented a decisive step
the scientific community — and from science itself. With the fate of
country hanging in the balance, an ideology devoted to the red, white,
came before science, which prided itself on being colorless and
As the unworkable
SDI inevitably faded, GMI turned to other ideological battles, including
depletion and global warming. Their adversaries saw these as scientific
not clashes of ideology, which gave GMI an advantage. Science recognizes
inevitability of uncertainty. The point isn't to go for perfection but
continually refine models of how complex phenomena work. Science uses
a tool, a prod to deepen understanding. Seitz and his associates used
a weapon against science. They seized on inevitable uncertainties in
models as evidence that the models had no value, or worse. In 1987, for
example, Singer, then working at the Department of Transportation, wrote
article published in The Wall Street Journal that was
inaccuracies and distortions minimizing the importance of the discovery
hole in the ozone layer, a portion of the lower stratosphere that blocks
harmful ultraviolet rays from reaching the surface of the earth.
"It was the
beginning of a counternarrative," write Oreskes and Conway, "that
had overreacted before, were overreacting now, and therefore couldn't be
counternarrative of denial continues today, stronger and more strident
ever, and now focused on creating doubt about all aspects of climate
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
dollars from conservative foundations and corporations. Exactly how much
known because in 2001, tired of facing criticism over the fact that one
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
all. The authors do an excellent job, however, of touching on many of
inside that dreadful box, from clueless writers (Bjorn
Will) to odious politicians (Sen. James Inhofe, Vice President Dick
to the scores of conservative foundations that wrap themselves in the
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.