Thursday, July 19, 2012

Merchants of Doubt - A Review

A friend of mine grabbed me in a bookstore recently, put Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway’s Merchants of Doubt in my hands and said, “Here!  You’ve gotta read this!”

I’m grateful.  And now I want to second the motion.  It’s one of those books you want to recommend to everyone.  It makes the case that we are doing ourselves and future generations serious harm by allowing politics to get in the way of addressing global warming.  Specifically, that we have fallen prey to those on the political right who have figured out you don’t really need to engage in scientific debate on global warming; you only need to persuade enough people to believe there are two sides to the argument, and that means there is controversy, and that means inaction is warranted.

If Oreskes and Conway are right, the right has had the upper hand for some time now.  We have done precious little about global warming so far.  The political will isn’t there and the average American has yet to take it seriously.

My initial interest in the story told here comes from my interest in the sociology of knowledge, a set of philosophical questions about knowledge guaranteed to make most people’s eyes glaze over: What is knowledge?  How do we know what we know?  How do we spread knowledge?  Who controls knowledge and how?

Merchants of Doubt demonstrates that, in the proper hands, this theme can seed a story with the readability of a good detective novel.

We are at a serious disadvantage in dealing with the environment because most of us lack the scientific training to even ask the right questions, much less set up research projects and analyze the results.  We are at the mercy of those who do know, or who claim to.  And that means we are at the mercy of charlatans and others with a vested interest in persuading us to believe what it is in their interest to have us believe.  And, if that were not bad enough already, many of us embrace religious notions like “thinking makes it so” and other ways of giving in to our desire to believe what we want to believe.  Scientific method is a specialty field, not part of our universal education, unfortunately.  We’re a whole lot dumber than we need to be.

For some time now we have whittled away at the line between fact and opinion, with the result that when some political or religious leader comes along with a story, we ask first whether it suits us to believe it, rather than seek to separate fact from fiction, and to approach the information – and all knowledge – critically.

Oreskes and Conway have made a strong case that we have been duped by the political right into believing there is controversy over global warming when in fact there is not,  that if you line up the two sides you find scientists on one side and political hacks on the other.  They argue, further, that mainstream media have fostered the great American error of assuming there are two sides to every story, and what we should always do, first and foremost, is seek balance.  Give equal time, no matter how foolish the argument.

Jews died in concentration camps.   OK, so let’s listen to the Nazi side of the story.  Blacks were slaves.  But have you ever looked at it from the slaveowner’s perspective?

I’m not making cognitive and moral equivalency arguments here, but I am pushing this “balanced view” idea to the absurd extreme to make the point that balance is not always called for, and sometimes there are more important issues at stake than giving voice to people who don’t have a whole lot of valid information.  Leaving no stone unturned to make sure all views are heard is necessary when seeking a consensus – when a community has no choice but to close schools, for example, and has to decide which ones.

But when you want to build a bridge, you call in engineers.  You don’t invite librarians to do the math – unless maybe they’re retired engineers.

Our political system is lousy when it comes to the challenge of global warming.  It has no mechanism for processing content arguments.   All it can do is establish priorities.  What should come first, the environment or job creation?  Others have argued that we have given too much weight to the right wing argument that stopping pollution and protecting the environment generally comes at too great a cost, and that we have not really tackled the cost of inaction.  What Oreskes and Conway are arguing is that you can only have a meaningful debate when both sides are being honest – and the right is not.  We don’t actually know the cost of inaction because the cost is being deliberately withheld by interests vested in the status quo.

Not part of Oreskes and Conway’s argument, but worth mentioning, I think, is the additional burden we face in coming to terms with the environment – the fact that only government can make environmental protection happen.  Nobody else has the broad range of interests in view; nobody else has the clout.  And just as the right is casting doubt on global warming, they are at work dismantling the government’s power to take action.  Why should government tell me not to smoke, to exercise, avoid fat, drive at the speed limit? they ask.   Why isn’t that a question for each individual to decide?  Who is this Big Brother to tell us what to do and how to live?  It’s un-American.

Because Oreskes and Conway are both science historians, and not physicists or meteorologists, they tell their story as social scientists or reporters, and not as hard scientists with first-hand knowledge of climate research, and they will no doubt be dismissed as liberals with an agenda.  They don’t hide the fact they are going after the right wing.  This means that while they argue we should be listening to scientists, and not political hacks and other polemicists, their book itself is polemic.  They are making a case for getting politics out of the global warming issue, not making the case for global warming itself.

The case they make is that the right has figured out it can get lots of mileage out of simply casting doubt about scientists’ findings.  After corporate interests realize they can no longer refute the evidence of harm, they can still count on people’s natural inclination to want to not go off on some campaign half-cocked.  Ironically, while four out of ten people in the world have never heard of global warming, most Americans have.  This suggests it's timidity, not ignorance, that is to blame here.  Haste makes waste is a notion that is hard-wired in most of us.

Oreskes and Conway argue that the debate over global warming is less about the science of it all, less about the environment itself than over who gets to speak and who listens.   Proof of this is in the fact that the people arguing against climate control are the same people who argued against efforts to curb acid rain, and to protect the ozone layer. The same people who got their start working for tobacco companies trying to pooh-pooh the idea smoking was bad for your lungs and heart.  It’s not about evidence, in other words; it’s about satisfying corporate America’s lust for profits.

Oreskes and Conway name names.  They line up good guys and bad guys.  Chief good guy is Ben Santer, a recipient of a 1998 MacArthur “genius” award and atmospheric scientist at Lawrence Livermore Lab, and the IPCC – the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.  Bad guys include Frederick Seitz and Fred Singer, both hawks of the Reagan era obsessed with the Soviet threat, both associated with the George C. Marshall Institute, the conservative think tank founded for the purpose of defending Reagan’s Star Wars initiative.  Singer got his start working for big tobacco, casting doubt on second-hand smoke studies for the Alexis de Tocqueville Institution, another conservative institution.

Besides Seitz and Singer, Merchants of Doubt also singles out for reproach two other Cold War warriors, Robert Jastrow and William Nierenberg.  Their 1989 report questioning global warming got them into the Bush I White House and attracted a lot of media attention.  In fact, Oreskes and Conway argue, it was this early willingness by American mainstream media, including Newsweek, The New York Times and The Washington Post, to frame the Jastrow/Nierenberg argument as a side in an academic debate that has led to the frustrating situation we have today, where scientists are in virtually total agreement about the dangers of global warming, and the only real “other side” is made up largely of political appointees and ideologues.  

Readers of Merchants of Doubt, if Amazon reviewers are representative, tend to think as I do that Oreskes and Conway’s arguments are powerfully persuasive.  The book gets a 4.2 out of a 5-star rating.

Merchants of Doubt has generated considerable interest.  Google “Merchants of Doubt” – in quotation marks, to be sure you’re getting at the title – and you come up with nearly a million hits.  Also telling is the rich discussion among Amazon readers.  Pursue the debate, for example, among readers Leon G. Higley and John Mashey, Peter Brawley, and Lars Karlsson, and others.

Also valuable among these comments is the point made by Derek Grimmell, which I just made, that we should not judge Merchants of Doubt as a research study but as an argument such as one might make in a court of law.  This point is essential to a critical evaluation of the book.  Ultimately we are dependent on the integrity of researchers who ask the right questions about global warming and gather reliable evidence.  Few of us are in a position to do that ourselves.  The service that Merchants of Doubt performs is in framing the question: are we well served by the political leaders and the media who have a voice in this issue?  Oreskes and Conway suggest we are not.  They claim the sides are not equal, that for the most part scientists are on one side and political hacks on the other.
“Over the course of more than twenty years,” they write,

these men (Seitz, Singer, Nierenberg and Jastrow) did almost no original scientific research on any of the issues on which they weighed in.  Once they had been prominent researchers, but by the time they turned to the topics of our story, they were mostly attacking the work and the reputations of others.  In fact, on every issue, they were on the wrong side of the scientific consensus.  (Introduction, p. 9)

If the authors are right, it’s up to the politicians to explain their hubris in taking the side of non-experts and arguing against experts, and it’s up to the media to explain why they are trying to get us believe the sides are balanced.

One last word.  Although I made a point of stating that Merchants of Doubt is primarily polemical, and not an objective report of research evidence, Oreskes and Conway have done a powerful job of presenting that evidence as well.   Nor should the authors be dismissed simply as historians, as Erik Conway’s employment at the Jet Propulsion Lab and connections at the California Institute of Technology should make clear, for example.  There are over sixty pages of notes backing up the conclusions they reached in their years of research for the book and they have posted an impressive list of documents online.  How much those conclusions contribute to the debate itself is for others with the technical expertise I lack to determine.  When it comes to framing and clarifying the argument, however, I am persuaded Merchants of Doubt is a major contribution.

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