“Doubt is our product, since it is the best means of competing with the ‘body of fact’ that exists in the minds of the general public. It is also the means of establishing a controversy.”
—from an internal memo written in 1969 by a tobacco company executive
When you put yourself out there writing a daily blog on global warming and climate change, you open yourself up to attacks from skeptics and deniers and I get them all the time. A few of them are reasonably-framed questions from people who are intelligent and well-read, but who choose to accept certain theories that are far from mainstream. Most, however, are simple attacks with no basis in facts, science, or evidence. How do you respond to someone who writes “Environmentalists are going to destroy the economy with their left-wing agendas.” Whether in blog comments or tweets, I’ve gotten used to these and have developed a thick skin.
Many deniers make the argument that people who promote alternate energy sources have a hidden agenda. Namely, to push socialist, left-wing policies, advocating bigger government, greater regulations, and higher taxes. (This, of course, flies in the face of some simple reality. Behind these arguments are individuals ultimately connected to the fossil fuel industry who obviously have their own agenda: to protect profits.)
But it’s more complicated than that. Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway have written a brilliant book entitled “Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming.” Through their exhaustive research, they have been able to dissect exactly how doubt is used to sway people away from science and facts. The book reviews how various groups in the last fifty years have done their best to maintain their own agendas (which are typically motivated by profits) and denigrate scientists and science. This has happened a number of times:
- the tobacco industry argued that tobacco doesn’t cause cancer, that science hadn’t answered the question definitively, and that enough doubt was present such that enforcing any regulations would be premature and costly.
- big business argued that their emissions containing sulphur dioxide didn’t cause acid rain to any harmful extent, that science hadn’t answered the question definitively, and that enough doubt was present such that enforcing any regulations would be premature and costly.
- the chlorofluorocarbon (CFC) industry argued that CFCs don’t damage the ozone layer, that science hadn’t answered the question definitively, and that enough doubt was present such that enforcing any regulations would be premature and costly.
Sound familiar? How many groups out there—with misinformation that can always be traced back to the fossil fuel industry—have made the same argument today regarding global warming? “Greenhouse gases don’t contribute significantly to global warming, science hasn’t answered the question definitively, and enough doubt is present such that enforcing any regulations would be premature and costly.”
One of the most interesting parts of the story is that many of the players involved in sowing the seeds of doubt make repeat performances in these events. Bill Nierenberg, Fred Seitz, Fred Singer, and a few other scientists set themselves apart from their peers and allied themselves with political parties, conservative think tanks, and private corporations. These three men were involved in more than one of these travesties. As Oreskes and Conway point out: “Small numbers of people can have large, negative impacts, especially if they are organised, determined and have access to power.”
A point that comes through loud and clear from these historical examples is how the doubt is created. Since science relies on doubt—scientists don’t focus on what is known, but rather what is unknown and uncertain—those wanting to attack the science emphasize this very small level of doubt and exaggerate it to imply that everything about the issue is uncertain. That theme comes up repeatedly, and Nierenberg, Seitz and Singer are masters at this technique. In every one of the examples I list, the mainstream scientists acknowledged that some aspects of the story had not been elucidated completely, but that more than enough information was known so little doubt remaining that recommendations for change and regulation could be made.
Every time something comes out to support the reality of global warming or refute the denialists, there is usually a strong backlash trying to discredit it. Interestingly, although there are a few who have been negative about “Merchants of Doubt”—Fred Singer himself being one of them—there is very little criticism of the book. This isn’t all that surprising though, because the information the authors describe has all been verified and documented, with thorough references to back them up. The facts speak for themselves. The only thing you can perhaps criticize is the conclusion regarding the motives behind why these scientists did what they did. (It doesn’t really allow much room for criticism, though; any reasonable person comes to the same conclusion.)
One thing that gives me optimism and hope from “Merchants of Doubt” is the following: in all of these historical examples, eventually the science won out and the sowers of doubt lost. Tobacco causes cancer and is regulated; sulphur dioxide causes acid rain and is regulated; CFCs damage the ozone layer and are regulated.
It’s only a matter of time before this planet comes to grip with carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, and what they are doing to our atmosphere. Until then, we’ll have to contend with the Nierenberg/Seitz/Singer wannabes and their efforts to attack the facts, the science, and the evidence.