Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Review: "Merchants of Doubt"

(Crossposted from GoodReads) Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global WarmingMerchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming by Naomi Oreskes
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I've been familiar with the basic message of Merchants of Doubt for some time. It is that much of the (alleged) controversy that we perceive around climate change was and is an example of motivated reasoning, generated deliberately by a small group of aging scientists who had previously employed similar tactics to undermine the scientific consensus on the links between smoking and disease; between chlorofluorocarbons and ozone depletion; and between powerplant emissions, acid rain, and damage to forest ecosystems. Funded to a significant extent by industries that feared the consequences of regulation, this group generated the appearance of controversy, and then relied on reporters' unwillingness to make scientific judgments and respect for the "Fairness Doctrine" to ensure that consensus science was depicted in the media as simply one side of a "he said...she said" face-off.

Why did these people do it? Here is where I found the book helpful (apart from its exhaustive documentation of the story I just told in the previous paragraph). The authors show how many of the key figures had backgrounds in the Manhattan Project or the Cold War physics community that grew out of it. For them, the conviction that communism and socialism were the real enemy never went away; in fact, it hardened into a certainty that any government regulation at all was the first step on a road towards complete loss of freedom. Therefore, any science which identified a problem whose solution seemed to require such regulation had to be blocked. Because it seemed to lead to unacceptable conclusions in a different realm (the realm of politics and governance), the science itself had to be wrong somewhere. When the tobacco industry or the fossil fuel industry or whoever it might be went looking for scientific "hired guns" who would fight the dangers of regulation, these scientists were ready, because of their ideological stance, to hear the call.

Oreskes and Conway don't mention it, but I have often wondered whether creationism has a part to play in this story also. Here again, consensus science (in this case the theory of evolution) led to unacceptable conclusions in a different realm (a certain kind of theology). Creationist authors like Whitcomb and Morris (The Genesis Flood) assured their readers that the views of mainstream scientist could be disregarded because "the evolutionist seeks intellectual justification for escape from personal responsibility to his Creator", a foreshadowing of the climate "skeptics" who similarly claim that mainstream climate science is poisoned by the prior ideological commitments of its practitioners. There is probably no direct connection between Fred Singer and company and the "creation scientists"; but the work of the latter may have prepared an audience to accept the arguments of the former.

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