Review From User :
About a week ago, Not and I were browsing in a Melbourne bookstore when I noticed Merchants of Doubt. "Should we buy it" I asked, after glancing at the back cover. Not was unenthusiastic. "It'll be one of those books," she said - by which, as I immediately understood, she meant that it would be another partisan book about a hot topic, which dishonestly reported one side of a complicated and unclear debate while ignoring the other side.
"So what kind of book would you buy" I asked. "The kind I'd write," said Not promptly: this time, meaning a book that was carefully researched, fact-based, unbiased, and written primarily from a historical perspective. It was a perfectly reasonable reply, and I considered putting the book back on the shelf. But I'd heard good things about it and thought I'd leaf though it bit more first. "You know," I said after a while, "I think this is the kind of book you'd write. One author is a professor of history and the other is a climate scientist. It seems pretty sensible. And it's got a lot of stuff about Robert Jastrow. I want to find out more about him." I'd been interested in Jastrow ever since I'd read God and the Astronomers a few years ago; as far as I was concerned, this was the decisive argument. We added it to the already considerable pile of books we'd decided to purchase and went over to the cash desk.
I've now finished Merchants of Doubt; despite Not's impressive ability to judge a book by its cover, acquired from decades of work in the book business, I'm prepared to say that this is one of the rare occasions where I got it right and she got it wrong. Oreskes and Conway live up to their advance billing and have produced a worthwhile addition to the climate change debate which doesn't just recap all the pro-climate-change books you've already seen. If you're the least bit interested in these matters, you're strongly advised to read it.
Why Well, let's cut to the chase and address Not's sensible question: what reasons do we have for assuming that it isn't seriously biased There are now a good many books out arguing both sides of the story, with some saying that climate change is a proven fact and others saying that it's mistaken alarmism. There are basically three positions you can take: either the pro-climate-change people are right, or the climate change skeptics are right, or we don't really know. Given that it's all about complex science that only a few experts really understand and there seems to be a great deal of disagreement, there's a strong temptation to go for the third alternative. Oreskes and Conway, however, come down unequivocally in favor of the first one. Why should we trust them
Most of the pro-climate-change books I've previously seen argue it in terms of the science, and you can indeed make a good case there; but, unfortunately, the skeptics also seem to be able to make a good case, at least if you're not an expert. Oreskes and Conway talk a good deal about the science, which is of course essential, but they focus at least as much on the history and the people. Where, exactly, do the climate skeptic arguments come from Who has been advancing them Do the people concerned have any obvious reason for advancing them
It turns out that this is a fruitful line of investigation, and the results of following it up systematically are both interesting and rather horrifying. The core opposition to the notion of climate change comes from a small group of influential American scientists, of whom the most important were Robert Jastrow (the guy who first attracted my attention), Fred Seitz, William Nierenberg and Fred Singer. They had extremely good contacts at the highest levels of the US military-industrial-political complex, right up to Presidential level. What makes the evidence against them so damning is that they pursued a consistent, well-documented pattern of behavior in blocking and obfuscating government intervention in a number of contentious issues. They began with links between smoking and cancer, where they successfully delayed anti-smoking legislation for decades, both with regard to active and passive smoking. Later, they shifted to other, more explicitly environmental questions: acid rain, damage to the ozone layer and most recently climate change.
Their modus operandi was all cases substantially the same. In an area where there was an overwhelming scientific consensus in favor of a particular conclusion (smoking causes cancer; CFCs are destroying the ozone layer), they raised spurious doubts to make it appear that there was disagreement. They were often the only person in a committee disagreeing with an otherwise unanimous conclusion. They used their power and influence to rewrite reports so as to give undue weight to their views, which were then further amplified by the right-wing press. The newspaper accounts were often so distorted that the original scientific findings had almost disappeared. Corrections and retractions were published in scientific journals and websites, but the public did not read them; when angry letters were sent to the newspapers that presented the incorrect reports, they were not accepted for publication. It turns out that it's quite easy to present the appearance of a scientific debate when in fact there is none. Oreskes and Conway say that most journalists they've talked to have initially been unwilling to believe that they could been fooled so easily into thinking they were being fair in presenting both sides of a debate, where one side is in fact an artificial fabrication. They've been shocked to see the comprehensive documentary evidence the authors spent five years collecting; all of this is on record if you know where to look. There are dozens of pages of footnotes for people who wish to track down the sources themselves.
Why would anyone do such a thing What was the motivation Here, again, Oreskes and Conway have a depressingly plausible answer. Jastrow, Seitz, Nierenberg and Singer weren't evil. They didn't do it primarily for money, even though they did receive a fair amount of money from various interested parties. Mostly, it seems, they were driven by ideology. They had a strong, unreasoning faith in the importance of free market economics, which led them to believe that any government interference was bad and that anyone promoting government interference was bad. When this began to include scientists who discovered things that made government inference necessary, they concluded that those scientists were bad. In the end, when almost the whole scientific community was ranged against them, they logically took the last step: science itself had become bad, since it opposed the free market.
The ultimate irony is that the scientists in question, who so strongly believed in the power of the free market, themselves spent nearly their whole careers working for the government; they were employed by NASA, the nuclear weapons program or other US government agencies. They said that every important technological advance had come from free enterprise in response to market forces, when a brief study of the relevant history would have immediately shown them they were wrong. Modern machine tools, which gave the US its technological lead, were painstakingly developed over fifty years by a government program. The nuclear and space technology they themselves worked on was all created by the government.
Once again, we see a variation on the central theme of the 20th century: powerful people with fanatical, non-evidence-based beliefs are very dangerous. Read this book, it'll help you understand what's actually going on.
The rogerebert.com review of the movie suggests both that it's very good and that it contains a lot of material not in the book. I look forward to seeing it as soon as I get an opportunity - so far, it hasn't been playing anywhere we've been.
[Update, Apr 21 2017]
I just read a scary article from Scientific American. This passage was particularly memorable:House Science Chairman Lamar Smith (R-Texas) has routinely accused federal agencies of fraud if he does not like their scientific conclusions. Smith told the crowd, to a raucous cheer, that he would be open to crafting legislation that would punish scientific journals that publish studies that don't meet his standards of peer review, which he did not define.
"The days of trust-me science are over," Smith said.
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