Manufactured Ignorance

MERCHANTS OF DOUBT: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming. Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway. x + 355 pp. Bloomsbury Press, 2010. $27.

Historians a thousand years from now may wonder what went wrong: How, after scholars had so thoroughly nailed down the reality of anthropogenic climate change, did so many Americans get fooled into thinking it was all a left-wing hoax?

Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway give us some very good—if disturbing—answers in their fascinating, detailed and artfully written new book, Merchants of Doubt. In it they show how a small band of right-wing scholars steeped in Cold War myopia, with substantial financing from powerful corporate polluters, managed to mislead large sections of the American public into thinking that the evidence for human-caused warming was uncertain, unsound, politically tainted and unfit to serve as the basis for any kind of political action.

Their story begins with what they call the “Tobacco Strategy,” the campaign launched in the mid-1950s by cigarette makers to refute and ridicule the evidence linking smoking to mass suffering and death. One might suppose the strategy is connected to global-warming denial purely by analogy—a case of yet another powerful industry trying to stave off regulation by obfuscating—but Oreskes and Conway show that key climate-change denialists actually became masters at doubt-mongering while working for the tobacco industry.

Frederick Seitz, for example, a former president of the National Academy of Sciences and ex officio member of the President’s Science Advisory Committee, in 1979 was hired by the R. J. Reynolds Tobacco Company, makers of Camel cigarettes, to head their Medical Research Committee. A solid-state physicist with Manhattan Project credentials, Seitz was assigned the task of handing out $45 million in research grants to buttress the prestige of tobacco—grants that, as he would later admit, steered clear of anything that might impugn tobacco. “They didn’t want us looking at the health effects of cigarette smoking,” he said in a 2006 interview. Seitz was paid hundreds of thousands of dollars over the six years during which he served in this capacity. It was not long thereafter that he and a crew of Cold Warrior colleagues also began denying the reality of human-caused climate change.

And deny they did, with a vengeance. In 1984 Seitz, Robert Jastrow and William Nierenberg founded the George C. Marshall Institute, which basically did for climate change what the Tobacco Institute had long been doing for cigarettes. Seitz and his colleagues claimed that global warming was caused by natural variations in solar flux, just as acid rain was caused by volcanic eruptions. They argued that any warming caused by greenhouse emissions is swamped by natural climate variations. The Marshall Institute on its Web site claims even today that there is no global climate-change consensus, and that there may actually be “benefits” from having more CO2 in the atmosphere (higher agricultural productivity is one fantasy). Seitz and his cohorts, joined by another Cold Warrior physicist, Fred Singer, gained enormous media attention from journalists taken in by the bluster. Their claims also found sympathetic ears among higher-ups in the Reagan and Bush administrations.

Why were Seitz and company so adamant in their opposition to the reality of global climate change? Oreskes and Conway show that climate change was really a surrogate for larger fears of a regulatory state—a state seen as increasingly willing to curtail free-market liberties in the name of environmental protection. To counter an imagined Soviet missile threat, Seitz and his clique had defended President Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative, a multibillion- dollar effort to weaponize space. In fact, the original purpose of the Marshall Institute was to defend Reagan’s hawkish—and much criticized—plan to erect a high-tech missile shield in orbit. When the Soviet empire collapsed in 1989, these Cold Warrior physicists moved on to attack a new enemy, environmentalism, which they saw as furthering the same anti-American agenda. Environmentalism (and in particular climate science) was conjured up as the latest in a long line of threats to liberty—“a green tree with red roots,” as conservative journalist George Will once put it.

All of which helps explain why these free-market fundamentalists, steeped in Cold War oppositions (market economies versus command economies, the individual versus the state, the free world versus Big Brother), attacked any and all efforts to trace environmental maladies back to corporate chemicals. Chlorinated fluorocarbons were not really eating away at the ozone layer, and the sulfates being belched from coal-fired plants were not causing forest-harming acid rain; even secondhand cigarette smoke was not causing any provable harm. This tobacco connection is significant. Oreskes and Conway show that Singer, Seitz and a number of other climate-change denialists served as advisors to the Advancement of Sound Science Coalition, a Philip Morris front run by APCO Associates to challenge the evidence linking secondhand smoke to disease.

Of course, efforts of this sort don’t come cheap. Oreskes and Conway describe an elaborate network of extremist scientists, all with links to well-endowed “think tanks” such as the Heritage Foundation, the American Enterprise Institute and the Competitive Enterprise Institute. Trade associations such as the Electric Power Research Institute, the Global Climate Coalition and the Tobacco Institute have provided funding as well. Denialists also have at their disposal polluter-friendly media outlets such as the Washington Times, Fox News and the National Review. Additional assistance comes from libertarian talk radio and Web sites fronting for one or another well-oiled interest.

Oreskes and Conway lament the fact that climate-change denialists have been so successful in getting their message out. Legitimate climate scientists publish corrections or refutations, but these usually appear in publications read chiefly by other scientists. The doubt-mongers, however, are often able to effectively exploit the “balance bias” of the mainstream media. Newspapers often take the position that a good story has “two sides.” Controversy sells, which makes it easy to overlook settled facts. In one study of U.S. media, Max and Jules Boykoff found that more than half of all stories on global warming from 1988 through 2002 gave equal time to denialists, with another 35 percent giving space to them while recognizing the consensus view. This helps explain why the U.S. Senate in 1997, only three months before the Kyoto Protocol was finalized, resolved to block its adoption by a vote of 97 to zero. Oreskes and Conway put it grimly: “Scientifically, global warming was an established fact. Politically, global warming was dead.”

Oddly enough, that ignorance seems to be continuing, or even growing, despite the presence of a more science-friendly president in the White House. A number of national polls indicate an increase in public disbelief in the reality of global warming in recent years. Oreskes and Conway lay part of the blame on the Internet, which they describe as “an information hall of mirrors” where disinformation can flourish without hindrance—“pluralism run amok.” A particularly snowy winter seems to influence public opinion, but so do the utterances of some media ideologues. Glenn Beck, “the second most popular television personality in America” according to a 2010 Harris poll, often regales his viewers with gems like this: “I see the issue of global warming as nothing but trying to entangle us and the rest of the world into one world government.”

There is much in this book to outrage anyone who cares about the future of the planet, human health, or scientific integrity. We find an excellent account of revisionist attacks on Rachel Carson (now blamed for deaths from the banning of DDT), and a good explanation of the links between recent authors of antienvironmentalist screeds and right-wing think tanks. There is an interesting discussion of the politics of type I error (thinking an effect is real when it is not) versus type II error (missing effects that are really there). Some statisticians say that the latter are not really errors at all, just “missed opportunities.” Lots of tobacco-industry conniving is exposed, and the science and politics behind the discovery of ozone depletion, acid rain and climate modeling are clearly explained.

The authors also point to a certain irony in the fact that libertarians are now using tricks once pilloried by one of their traditional heroes—the great George Orwell. Orwell’s is one of the most powerful literary voices ever to speak out against fact-crushing authoritarianism. He coined such expressions as “memory hole” and “newspeak” to designate the means by which totalitarian regimes suppress the truth. Oreskes and Conway point out that the “right-wing defenders of American liberty” have resorted to similar tactics, seeking to ambush facts judged inconvenient for their corporate paymasters.

There are other books treating the history of manufactured ignorance: Think of David Michaels’s Doubt Is Their Product (2008), Ross Gelbspan’s The Heat Is On (1997), James Hoggan’s Climate Cover-Up (2009), Chris Mooney’s The Republican War on Science (2009), David Rosner and Gerald Markowitz’s Deceit and Denial (2002), my own book Cancer Wars (1995), and a book I coedited with Londa Schiebinger—Agnotology: The Making and Unmaking of Ignorance (2008). But Oreskes and Conway’s book is the most powerful exploration to date of how climate-change denialists managed to infiltrate high ranks of the Republican establishment and to block the translation of scientific facts into intelligent action.

Of course what’s really at stake in most environmental science defiance is the proper role of government in limiting the right to pollute. The Seitz-Singer-Nierenberg crew are not so much antiscience as antigovernment and pro–unfettered business. Ever since the “Reagan Revolution” of the 1980s, libertarian ideologues have managed to convince large numbers of Americans that government is inherently bad—worse even than carcinogens in your food or poisons in your water. So for followers of this line of thinking—expressed in some recent Tea Party activities but more potently in many of the trade associations and “think tanks” established by major polluters—the view seems to be that if science gets in your way, you can always make up some of your own. The foolishness of such myopia is now evident in the oil spreading throughout the Gulf of Mexico—vivid proof that, as Isaiah Berlin once observed, liberty for wolves can mean death to lambs.