WordsDay: Merchants of Doubt

Posted on July 8, 2010


What do the following things all have in common: tobacco safety and the dangers of secondhand smoke, the Strategic Defense Initiative, acid rain, the ozone hole, global warming, and the recent attacks on Rachel Carson (author of Silent Spring)? According to the new book by science historians Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway, Merchants of Doubt, they were all manipulated by a very small group of once well respected scientists whose radical free-market and anti-communist ideologies corrupted them to the point of attacking scientists, scientific organizations, and ultimately the process of science itself.

Merchants of Doubt focuses on seven different areas that are presented roughly how they’ve occurred chronologically, starting with the safety of tobacco in the 1950s, proceeding through nuclear war and the misguided defense of SDI, the opposition to regulation of both acid rain and CFCs, and finishing up with the recent attacks on global warming and attempts at historical revisionism with respect to Rachel Carson and the regulation of DDT. But through all of these areas, the main cast of characters barely changes, the methods used to attack scientific conclusions remain remarkably consistent, and the goals of the attacks become clearer and clearer.

We learn reading Merchants of Doubt that Fredrick Seitz, Robert Jastrow, William Nierenberg, and S. Fred Singer were the main instigators of attacks on science in service of their ideology. Several were involved with the development of the atomic bomb and all were cold warriors who equated environmentalism with communism and/or socialism. All four men believed the teachings of Milton Friedman, who taught that capitalism equals freedom, and so to rein in capitalism to stop a market failure (which is what most environmental problems are) meant to put limits on freedom. And because these men couldn’t stomach the possibility that their ideology was wrong, they sought to corrupt the public sphere and science itself to protect their ideology.

One way that Oreskes and Conway found the scientists had done this was by attacking numerical models. The early computer models that supported the hypothesis that the dinosaurs were killed by an asteroid impact were also used to estimate how the global climate might react to other major effects, such as the eruption of a supervolcano, global warming, and nuclear winter. Nierenberg and Singer didn’t like the results of the nuclear winter models because the model results ran contrary to the “USSR is a major threat, SDI must happen” narrative that the two men had created. The problem was that the models showed that even a small nuclear exchange would throw the entire globe into climatic upheaval, and the supporters of SDI didn’t like this. So a cousin of Fredrick Seitz attacked the models – in 1986. Attacks on climate modeling have grown as the models have radically improved and as the models’ projections have been observed.

Another tactic described in Merchants of Doubt was attacking the science was by manipulating the media. The Fairness Doctrine was used by Seitz and the tobacco industry to force reporters and editors to give equal time to the tobacco industry when countering scientific claims about the dangers of smoking and later secondhand smoke. A greater problem with the media, however, was that Seitz, Jastrow, Nierenberg, and Singer could attack the science they didn’t like in the mainstream media without reprisal. Scientists who tried to demand corrections were ignored by the media and forced to publish their corrections in the scientific press instead of the mainstream media. Merchants of Doubt describes repeated incidents with respect to the editorial board of the Wall Street Journal, which published erroneous columns, heavily edited or simply refused to publish correction letters, and rebutted expert scientists with industry spokespeople. PR firms even went so far as to provide stories for publication in Scientific American that were linked and referenced in media reports and full page advertisements as if they’d been peer reviewed. Singer himself finally got to the point where he would repeatedly make false claims about the science even in the face of rebuttals that proved him wrong – he simply continued on as if the rebuttal had never occurred.

Merchants of Doubt also describes how Seitz et al misrepresented scientific uncertainty to their advantage over the course of the last 60 years. The scientists did this in a number of ways, starting by equating two different types of uncertainty – uncertainty with respect to causes vs. uncertainty with respect to effects. Acid rain experts knew what caused acid rain with great certainty, but the effects of acid rain on lakes, forests, and ecosystem health were unknown, so Nierenberg and Singer said that the uncertainty in the effects justified more research on the causes of acid rain. Singer and Seitz misused uncertainty to attack the EPA and the data linking secondhand smoke to lung cancer by claiming that medical researchers couldn’t know all the risk factors and so couldn’t conclude that there actually was an increased risk for lung cancer caused by secondhand smoke. This flew in the face of decades of statistical experiment design and ignored the fact that the link had been detected on three continents in multiple ethic groups and across all economic levels. Oreskes and Conway found these two methods have been and are being used in combination to oppose taking action on global warming.

Oreskes and Conway point out that economics has been used to counter science since at least the Reagan Administration. For example, panels that were formed to address only the accuracy of the science were saddled with economic analyses that had not been asked for and that valued ecosystem services at $0 in their cost/benefit comparisons. Another example is that the analysis that estimated economic damage due to acid rain used a very high discount rate to devalue future damages in favor of present-day profits. This economic tactic has since been used to devalue the economic effects of global warming on future generations by economists like William Nordhaus and Bjorn Lomborg [Correction: Lomborg is not himself an economist, but he makes economic arguments that rely on a high discount rate]. And the authors point out how every environmental problem is evidence of the failure of free market fundamentalism: “If you believed in capitalism, you had to attack science, because science had revealed the hazards that capitalism had brought in its wake.”

There are a few other points that were clear from reading Merchants of Doubt. First, Reagan’s presidency was where much of this really took off. The Reagan White House was hostile to acid rain regulations and didn’t like the unanimous scientific assessment of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS), and so the White House created an acid rain panel specifically created to undermine the NAS. The panel was chaired by Nierenberg and had Singer as a direct White House appointment. Reagan wanted the MX missile and the SDI, so the Reagan White House ignored the intelligence community and formed an outside group to provide the anti-“Commie” justifications for the creation of the MX and SDI. That panel was also headed by Nierenberg.

Second, attacks on the science serve as indirect defenses of Milton Friedman’s free market fundamentalism, but the defense is ironic for several reasons. One irony is that free markets rely on accurate information to function properly, and yet the people involved in attacking science have done their best to make information as inaccurate as possible. A second irony is that the free market fundamentalists used Orwellian tactics to fight against those perceived as being “watermelons” – green on the outside, red on the inside – and yet Orwell had ascribed those tactics to the USSR. A final irony is that, in their fight to stall environmental regulations as long as possible, Seitz et al are responsible for making environmental issues so serious that draconian anti-free market measures may be the only way to solve them. As a result, it’s entirely possible that the free market ideas espoused by Seitz et al may not survive their own machinations to save them.

Finally, while the only one of the four scientists still alive today is Singer, the web of libertarian organizations that pushed the anti-science messages of Seitz, Jastrow, Nierenberg, and Singer is alive and well. Organizations such as the American Enterprise Institute, the Competitive Enterprise Institute, the Heritage Foundation, the Heartland Institute, the Reason Foundation, the CATO Institute, the Marshall Institute, and many other smaller and less well funded organizations continue to use the tactics pioneered by Seitz et al against environmentalism in particular and science in general, all in support of an economic system that is clearly collapsing.

Merchants of Doubt was researched over years spent reading hundreds of thousands of page, and there are about 1100 references (an average of 138 for every chapter and the conclusion), so no mere summary or review could hope to do more than scratch the surface of the information contained in this book. Because the book points out the factual failings of Chicago-school economic theory, it will be dismissed by supporters of free market fundamentalism as an attack on their ideology. But the facts and references contained within
Merchants of Doubt are so compelling that it cannot be dismissed with a mere “talk to the hand.” The facts cannot be denied any longer – no free markets can address clearly market failures like acid rain and global warming, and ignoring reality only works for so long before reality finally does something that simply cannot be ignored.

Seitz and the others claimed that the world had time to address all these things, but time is running out to address global warming without major social and economic upheaval. But there is a little hope to be had in Merchants of Doubt. While addressing tobacco took about 50 years, it took only about 30 years to address secondhand smoke. The MX missile and SDI were ultimately shut down, even though the government wasted billions on each program. Acid rain is being addressed, albeit slowly and inefficiently with a cap-and-trade system. And the attacks on Rachel Carson’s DDT legacy don’t appear to be taking hold in the wider public mind.

If you start with the Jasons in 1977, we’re 33 years into the global warming battle. If you start with James Hansen’s testimony before the House of Representatives in 1988, we’re only 22 years in. That we’ve come so far already means we may actually be learning how to counter the anti-science arguments created by Seitz, Jastrow, Nierenberg, and Singer.

(Update: There were a couple of places where I didn’t make it clear that the four scientists were opposed to regulation of acid rain, instead saying that they were “opposed to acid rain.” I’ve added some language to clarify the distinction.)

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