Smoke is discharged from a chimney at a coal-fired power plant in Jilin city, northeast China's Jilin province, 28 October 2015.
President Donald Trump announcing the US’s withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement. Reuters/Kevin Lamarque
The best defence is a good offence. This is the credo of a small band of ideologically driven scientists with strong political and corporate connections who for more than 40 years “deliberately distorted public debate, running effective campaigns to mislead the public and deny well-established scientific knowledge” (p. 241) to undermine public health, the environment, and public faith in science.
They are the “merchants of doubt,” the central characters in the book Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues From Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming, first published in 2010 by Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway. This is a masterful, highly engaging, yet chilling nonfictional thriller that exposes four decades of corporate malfeasance. In seven compelling chapters, the authors double as forensic historians and artful storytellers. They take us through the strategies and tactics these scientists used to undermine national and international responses to seven key areas of public health and the environment.
These areas are the harms of tobacco smoking, the strategic defence initiative and nuclear arms proliferation, production of acid rain, depletion of the ozone layer, harm from second-hand smoke, anthropogenic climate change and the use of DDT.
The art of war
In magnificent detail the authors reveal the relentless, unethical, deceitful, cold-blooded, yet often highly innovative tactics these merchants have employed. But they are not simple merchants. They are the 20th- and 21st-century corporate equivalents of the generals in Sun Tzu’s The Art of War.
Oreskes and Conway do not skimp on the evidence backing their arguments – five years of painstaking research fills 65 of the book’s 343 pages.
The authors highlight the essential issues at play: the role of the market, the role of government, and the role of regulation.
They further explain how science has shown consistently that governments do need to intervene in the market to protect the environment and public health. Yet, they point out:
the defenders of the free market refused to accept those results. The enemies of government regulation of the market place became the enemies of science (p. 262).
The merchandising of doubt has become their central strategy to forestall legislation, regulation and litigation. Exposed and threaded through each of the chapters are six recurring and interrelated tactical themes the merchant generals have developed over the past 40 years to undermine science in the name of their battle against regulation.
These include attacking legitimate science and funding, what we could now call “alternative” science; attacking the scientists; creating front groups; manufacturing false debate and insisting on balance; framing the issue in a highly creative way; and creating lavishly funded industry disinformation campaigns.
The science comes under attack by the merchants of doubt claiming that:
there is not enough proof to justify regulation, and thus there is insufficient evidence to act,
insisting the science is uncertain or is junk science,
emphasising true but irrelevant facts,
cherry-picking facts out of context, or
claiming the science is being manipulated to fulfil a political agenda.
And character assassination and intimidation of scientists has become a staple strategy. Ulterior motives are alleged, and groups and individuals smeared. A classic tactic has been the naming of environmentalists as watermelons (green on the outside and red on the inside) to transfer the hate and fear of communism to the environmental movement.
Another approach the authors repeatedly cite is the creation of front organisations, which are kept at arm’s length from the industries involved. In these cases, funding can be provided via prestigious public relations agencies and legal firms.
Through these organisations, “alternative” science is generated via the establishment of research institutes to carry out or sponsor research, conferences, workshops, and so-called independent newsletters, reports, and journals (never peer reviewed, of course). In this reviewer’s opinion, the authors uncover a pervasive form of information laundering.
This is where alternative science is “cleansed,” just as money is, to create the appearance that the claims being promoted were scientific (p. 244).
As Oreskes and Conway demonstrate, an essential ploy of these merchants in creating doubt is to manufacture debate in a way that gives rise to the impression of controversy.
The tobacco, energy, arms, and chemical industries work to make sure debate is kept alive by developing false dichotomies. Once established, they insist that the media cover both sides of the debate with balance. This is justified using the so-called fairness doctrine, even though, as we know with climate change, the number countering what is now accepted scientific fact is very small indeed.
Over many years the corporate players and their scientific generals have used myriad highly creative framing techniques. These include insisting that the problem is very complex and so cannot have a simple solution; assuring the public that technological advances will obviate the need for regulation; claiming that the marketplace is the only way to solve the problem; diminishing the perceived severity of the problems; and insisting other problems are more important.
Holding all these approaches together are industry-funded disinformation campaigns (run through arm’s-length front organisations) using co-opted and paid expert witnesses and celebrities as well as sponsored conferences to challenge scientific consensus.
The role of science
As they take us through these intriguing and discomforting stories, Oreskes and Conway provide illuminating discussions on the nature of science; the role of uncertainty, evidence, peer review and the consensus of experts; the role of scientific institutions and academics and informative short expositions on the economic positives of regulation; the role of market failure; the origin of the fairness doctrine; the power of fear to drive nonsensical policies; and the influence of economists who simply do not believe in prevention.
Over the past months, George Orwell’s 1984 and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaiden’s Tale have shot to the top of bestseller lists. It would be welcome if Merchants of Doubt experienced the same rise in sales.
This is an edited version of a book review that appeared in the July edition of the American Journal of Public Health Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues From Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming, by Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway New York, NY: Bloomsbury Press; 2010. _