Monday, June 2, 2014

Merchants of Doubt

H-Environment recently re-posted its 2011 Roundtable Review of Naomi Oreskes & Erik M. Conway, Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming (Bloomsbury, 2010). Reviewer Mark Carey writes:
The handful of scientists the book identifies as the "merchants of doubt" in this half-century history are mostly retired physicists who played prominent roles in the development of the atomic bomb, nuclear weapons, or other aspects of U.S military defense during World War II and the early Cold War years.... These doubters repeatedly sought to obscure scientific consensus on a range of issues unrelated to their backgrounds and training. They used the prestige they earned and the political connections they developed as notable physicists not only to get recognition and attention, but also to gain access to influential policymakers. In most cases, these scientists joined with--and were funded by--private industries and conservative think tanks, particularly the George C. Marshall Institute.
merchantsofdoubtThe merchants of doubt argued persistently and loudly over time that tobacco smoking (and later second-hand smoke) was not bad for people's health, even though scientists and the tobacco companies themselves knew otherwise. They promoted strategic defense initiatives (popularly known as Star Wars) in the 1980s by suggesting in contrast to specialist scientists that nuclear winter was an unlikely possibility that should not deter increased arms production. They argued (falsely) that scientific conclusions about acid rain, the ozone hole, and global warming were inconclusive and could not be linked to anthropogenic causes. And most recently, some have contended that Rachel Carson was wrong, that her impassioned fight against DDT has actually resulted in the death of millions of African children from malaria that could have been prevented with DDT. 
Oreskes and Conway argue that the main motive driving these merchants of doubt was the quest for free markets. As eminent Cold Warriors, the doubters opposed communism and sought to ensure the unbridled rights and activities of private companies. Oreskes and Conway call the doubters "free market fundamentalists," who saw the regulation of private industry as a blow against national security and an infringement on their rights as Americans. The doubters opposed solutions to health and environmental issues if they believed such regulations might curb freedoms of private industry, reduce the U.S. ability to win the Cold War, or otherwise erode free market capitalism. This is why Oreskes and Conway believe the doubters frequently asserted that solutions were too costly, regardless of the scientific evidence pointing to health or environmental impacts—a "billion-dollar solution to a million-dollar problem" they quipped, wrongly it turned out, in their fight against acid rain regulations (p. 101). 

Naomi Oreskes & Erik M. Conway,

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