Merchants of Doubt

By Bryan Walker 05/06/2010


Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global WarmingWhy should four distinguished American physicists ally themselves in their later years with movements to fight the scientific evidence and spread confusion on many of the most important issues of our time?  That’s a question Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway address in their admirable new book Merchants of Doubt. Three of the physicists were Fred Seitz, William Nierenberg and Robert Jastrow. The fourth, Fred Singer, is still living.

The issues in which the men, jointly or severally, played a part cover a wide range.  A surprising range at first sight.  What have tobacco smoking, the strategic defence initiative, acid rain, ozone depletion, second-hand smoking and climate change got in common? They were not areas of professional expertise for the four scientists. Oreskes and Conway point to the fact that they all involved the possibility of government regulation of market activities in the interests of the environment. Regulation was the road to socialism. All four men were stout defenders of free market capitalism and strident anti-communists. Nierenberg and Seitz hated environmentalists, viewing them as Luddites.

As eminent scientists who had played important roles on a national level they were men of influence and did not hesitate to use it when opportunity offered. The book traces in considerable detail the way they added their weight to the battle against regulation in the fields they engaged with. Seitz, on retirement, was employed by R J Reynolds Tobacco Company to oversee the distribution of a very large grant to biomedical research. To some degree this worked to create friendly witnesses for the tobacco industry.  Seitz agreed with the industry’s position that there was ’no proof’ that tobacco caused harm.  When in later years the battle moved to secondhand smoke, the Environmental Protection Agency called the epidemiological evidence conclusive. Seitz and Singer leapt in to create confusion. Singer claimed that the EPA was taking ’extreme positions not supported by the science.’ He and Seitz became advisers to The Advancement of Sound Science Coalition which attacked the science and campaigned against it. Singer argued that the EPA assumed the risk from second-hand smoking was directly proportional to the exposure, whereas it should have assumed a ’threshold effect’ — that doses below a certain level would have no effect.

Ozone depletion is a serious matter on which to oppose the science, and fortunately the science won out in the Montreal protocol of 1987 and its subsequent revision in 1990.  But Singer, at the time chief scientist at the US Department of Transportation wrote an article in the Wall Street Journal dismissing ozone depletion as localised and temporary and insisting that there was no proof that CFCs were responsible. The ozone hole he accounted for as part of Earth’s natural climate variability. There was therefore no need to regulate CFCs. His writing on this issue had three major themes: the science is incomplete and uncertain; replacing CFCs will be difficult, dangerous, and expensive; and the scientific community is corrupt and motivated by self-interest and political ideology. It reads like a striking prefiguring of the attacks on climate science that persist today.

The four men were closely involved in the attack on climate science in the early days. In 1980 Nierenberg chaired a National Academy of Sciences committee report in which economists Nordhaus and Schelling argued, contrary to the natural scientists’ contributions, that because there were enormous uncertainties about climate change and its potential costs, policymakers should do nothing but fund more research. The report synthesis followed the economists’ line.  It was heavily criticised, but not by the White House which used it to refute two EPA reports advising immediate action to reduce coal use. Then in 1989 the Marshall Institute produced a report written by Jastrow, Seitz and Nierenberg which rejected Hansen’s 1988 claim that warming as a result of CO2 emissions was detectable and instead blamed rising temperature on the sun. It went down well at the White House. ’They are eminent scientists. I was impressed,’ said one member of the cabinet affairs office. Singer joined in during the 90s with a litany of complaints at the findings of the 1996 IPCC and a vicious attack on climatologist Ben Santer for alleged unauthorised changes to the chapter of which he was a lead author.

The book tracks the ways in which these four men lent their considerable scientific prestige to a series of issues in which vested interests tried to deter government action to regulate business activities. They did so not by engaging with the science but by downplaying it or attacking it. The motive was ideological. It’s a sad story.

Part of the interest of the book is its reflections on the nature of science. Science doesn’t provide certainty or proof. What it does provide is the consensus of experts, based on the organised accumulation and scrutiny of evidence. Thus the geological theory of plate tectonics, for example, has emerged as accepted scientific knowledge. Modern science is a collective enterprise. What counts as knowledge are the ideas that come to be accepted by the fellowship of experts, the jury of one’s scientific peers.  If a claim is rejected the honest scientist moves on to other things. When Robert Jastrow and his colleagues first took their claims to the halls of public opinion rather than to the halls of science, they were stepping outside the institutional protocols that for four hundred years have tested the veracity of scientific claims. Many of the claims of the climate science contrarians had already been vetted in the halls of science and had failed to pass the test of peer review. Many were never even submitted for vetting.

Modern journalism often misunderstands the process. It’s considered only fair to give due consideration to another viewpoint. Journalists don’t always understand that the contrarian has already received due consideration by peers. And contrarians are often very insistent that they should be given a hearing. In the case of the four men who are the subject of this book journalists were also fooled by their stature as scientists. But the authors point out that they were never really experts on the diverse issues in which they engaged ’in their golden years’. They couldn’t be. Modern science is far too specialised for that. Physicists can’t also be epidemiologists, ecologists, atmospheric chemists or climate modelers.

The sensible conclusion of the book is that we  must trust scientific experts who work in and through the scientific community of which they are part. The credentials of the experts matter, of course, but they are scrutinised by scientific bodies. We should take seriously the judgments of such groups as the National Academy of Sciences or the IPCC when they report on their searches of the science. It doesn’t make sense to dismiss the consensus of experts because someone dissents, especially if the dissenter is superannuated, disgruntled, a habitual contrarian, or in the pay of an interest group.

I took some comfort from the fact that this book is incidentally a record of the ultimate defeat of  those who attacked the science in the issues the authors cover. But in every case the attackers succeeded in delaying appropriate action. When one considers the magnitude of some of the dangers they denied, their confidence seems irresponsible in the extreme. There is little doubt that the science of climate change will also ultimately prevail. But delay is costly and dangerous. It is to be hoped that many journalists and policy makers read this book and learn from it to ignore the specious attacks climate science still suffers from deniers who play little or no part in its patient work.

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