Merchants of Doubt

In a previous blog post, we addressed the perplexing phenomenon that whereas the scientific community years ago reached a strong consensus regarding the fact of global warming and the very likely human contribution to global warming, the public continues to believe that there is significant uncertainty and disagreement in the scientific community.

For example, in a recent poll, only 56% of Americans agreed that there is solid evidence of warming, and only 32% agreed that this warming can mostly be attributed to human actions. Similar results were found in 2009. For details, see 2010 Pew poll; 2009 Pew poll. Similarly, in the U.K., skepticism about global warming appears on the rise, according to a BBC News poll.

Many have noticed parallels with previous instances of public denial of scientific findings, beginning in the 1960s with denials that tobacco usage was harmful, continuing in the 1970s and 1980s with the deleterious effects of second-hand smoke, acid rain, ozone depletion and its cause in human usage of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), and, ultimately, global warming.

In a thoroughly researched recent book, Merchants of Doubt, authors Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway point out that not only are there similarities between these “denialist” movements, but in fact that the same small group of people led the charge in each instance! The chief culprits are Fred Singer (former Director of the U.S. National Weather Satellite System), Fred Seitz (a solid-state physicist who had worked on various weapons programs, including the Manhattan Project), Robert Jastrow (a physicist involved in the Manhattan project) and Bill Nierenberg (a nuclear physicist and former Director of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography).

Each of these men were strongly pro-science and pro-technology, but also shared a distaste for environmentalism, which they felt was part of a slippery slope that would lead the U.S. to Soviet-style communism. In most cases they believed that the world of science had become corrupted with left-wing politics, and they strove to turn back the tide. They willingly accepted money from right-wing institutes and industrial sources, including tobacco companies and energy companies.

Unfortunately, in many cases they resorted to tactics utterly unbecoming of good scientists, including allowing their sponsors’ agendas to dictate their scientific conclusions, distorting scientific analysis and findings, and ignoring the strong consensus of other scientists. Sadly, they have been widely and repeatedly quoted by the press, which is always eager to entertain “opposing” viewpoints, even when those “opposing” viewpoints have long ago been refuted in the scientific literature.

Near the end of the book (pg. 262-265), the authors have some sobering advice for scientists. Here they address the question, “If the skeptical arguments pursued by our protagonists [Singer, Seitz, Jastrow, etc.] were not about science — if they were politics camouflaged as science — then why didn’t scientists recognize this, and say something? Why did the scientific community stand by while this was happening?”

In some cases, the authors conclude, individuals were reluctant to speak out by themselves, since they were a part of a large team. In other cases, pressures of project deadlines left little time for addressing nonsense in the news media. But in other cases, prominent individual scientists had been attacked by the denialists and their political allies, both in the press and even in congressional hearings. Some scientists even received death threats. Most of these scientists then reacted as predicted — they ceased making public comments. As the authors note, “Intimidation works.”

It is all too easy to just ignore such difficulties. Unfortunately, as the authors conclude, “garbage doesn’t just go away.” All scientists need to speak up more to address nonsense and pseudo-science. What’s more, “We all need a better understanding of what science really is, how to recognize real science when we see it, and how to separate it from the garbage.”

One article of interest along this line is a recent NY Times Op-ed piece by Gary Cutting. Cutting concludes:

[O]nce we have accepted the authority of a particular scientific discipline, we cannot consistently reject its conclusions. To adapt Schopenhauer’s famous remark about causality, science is not a taxi-cab that we can get in and out of whenever we like. Once we board the train of climate science, there is no alternative to taking it wherever it may go.

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