Go Read Merchants of Doubt

25/06/2020

Merchants of Doubt, a 2010 book written by Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway, is a must read. As one of the testimonies on the cover of my copy says, if there is one nonfiction book you read this year, it is the one to go for (obviously try to read more than one, but make Merchants of Doubt a priority). It follows a number of stories that mar the history of scientific progress by telling them from the perspectives of actors we often don’t hear from in the modern “debates”: the scientists themselves.

Global warming is the existential threat that lured me to this book when I heard of it, but Merchants of Doubt covers many more issues, all with the common theme of attacking accepted science.

  • The fact that smoking is deadly, and that second-hand smoke is just as dangerous and can have negative outcomes even with limited exposure.
  • Arguments over the dangers of nuclear winter and the massive drive to expand military arsenals during the Cold War period.
  • Acid rain and the long-term destruction of environments beyond the origins of pollution.
  • The Ozone Hole and the battle over discovering what caused it and regulating the use of CFCs.
  • The rewriting of history to tear down Rachael Carson’s heroic campaign against pesticides, particularly DDT, by comparing her some of history’s most atrocious leaders for “causing” the deaths of millions, in an effort to demonise government regulation.
  • The consistent peddling of doubt and misinformation (or downright falsehoods) regarding the reality of global warming.

In each of these cases, it is easy to see where the opposition comes from. The tobacco industry had, and still very much has, an interest in keeping an ill-informed public questioning the dangers of smoking, despite public health campaigns highlighting the various effects of this addictive habit.

As an aside, here in Australia the government has recently announced an attack on vaping, which has been seen as a safer alternative to smoking. Not only could this open up an “illegal” market for vaping products, but it has been criticised as pushing people back into smoking and as a revenue raising effort due to the massive tax made off it. Good work, Health Minister Greg Hunt! Governments being dependent on tax revenue off of harmful products prevents them taking serious action on public health policy.

Arms manufacturers and defenders of Reagan’s SDI program certainly took issue with any argument, scientific or otherwise, that discouraged the growth of military strength. Carl Sagan was extremely outspoken on the damning predictions of a potential nuclear winter, to the extent even some scientists thought he had jumped the gun too early. History and further research pretty much proved him correct.

Acid rain and global warming have faced an uphill battle against the fossil fuel industries, the latter being (as the name suggests) a global “debate” spanning decades. We see it in governments around the world, and at many different levels of government as well. Money in the form of donations and subsidies cycle through in the trillions, all while the radical action required to prevent the worst outcomes of global warming gets pushed aside and demonised as somehow “socialist”.

Who knew survival was a purely socialist idea?

You get the point. Corporate power influences governments’ approaches to major health and environmental issues, with the media and various “think tanks” – mostly “libertarian” in nature – parroting industry talking points to convince the public that there is contention over the facts, if not complete denial of the facts. These are all relatively well-known gears in the global propaganda machine, but there is one that isn’t spoken about as much, or at least one I’ve not seen given much attention before reading Merchants of Doubt.

That is the role scientists, or, I should say, a very select few scientists, have played in these stories of intellectual deceit. Recurring figures in Merchants of Doubt include the likes of Fred Singer, Fred Seitz, Bill Nierenberg, etc. All of these men had connections to various think tanks, industries, and government officials, and a number of them were ideologically driven due to their heavy involvement in the Cold War. Once champions of science – the two Fred’s were “rock stars” of physics at the time – they began to use their renown to strike at not only other scientists and their research conclusions, but the entire structure and process of modern science, including peer review.

Despite having little or no involvement in any of the fields they branched out into, such as the various health sciences or climate modelling, they were picked out as “experts” for industry to use as attack dogs against their opponents. Where uncertainty existed – even the slightest amount – uncertainty was amplified by these powerful voices. Where concrete evidence existed, it was dismissed or misinterpreted to the point of meaninglessness. When science reached conclusions and policy recommendation that dared to threaten the “free market”, entire movements were demonised as wanting to overthrow the capitalist system – such as the “watermelons”, environmentalists who were green on the outside but secretly red on the inside.

Another aside, a similar demonisation is being used to criticise the Black Lives Matter movement, claiming that a “far left Marxist cultural revolution” is using black people as a cover to overthrow America. As such, anyone who dares “challenge” this apparent new red wave can be labelled as racist. I am not joking; this is a legitimate stance held by some major Trump supporters that I’ve seen being shared online. Different causes, same tactics to discredit them (even if it is much more absurd to consider the likes of Joe Biden as Marxist, fuck America is dumb).

These scientists gave an air of “legitimacy” to the claims and counterclaims used to deny science in an effort to protect the free market. Whether they realised it or not, they used some of the methods of the Soviet Union and other totalitarian figures to push their own political agendas, even if it meant crusading against their own profession. They lent their voices and authority to set off “debates” where there was nothing to debate, and now, decades later, we are still inundated with the exact same debunked and disingenuous arguments.

Whereas today we have politicians, media talking heads, and corporate hacks endlessly yapping on about this or that issue, amplified further to some through social media figures, the voices of scientists aren’t often – in my experience at least – repeated. We don’t need the voices of scientists to lend weight to the climate denialist discourse, because the claims have been made so many times that they’re simply “true”. If 95% or more of scientists believe climate change is real, the other 5% don’t need to be named, or have their qualifications examined. The groundwork is there, they just need to shovel more crap on top of it to ensure no one can dig back to the truth.

Merchants of Doubt explores the origins of today’s scarily prominent denial of fact and science, as well as the growing lack in trust regarding the peer review process and integrity of scientific research. I cannot recommend it enough, even if for the global warming content alone. As the authors state, we all have a role to play in trying to reverse this distortion of the narrative, and I believe having an understanding of how that distortion came to be is an integral part of developing thoughts and strategies to do so.

Now, because I have no self-control regarding finishing one book before starting another, time to read Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine

 

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