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Merchants of Doubt

The professional obfuscators behind climate change denial

by Philip Kitcher


Oreskes & Conway provide hard evidence for a disturbing thesis
Opposition to scientifically well-supported claims about the dangers of cigarette smoking, the difficulties of the Strategic Defense Initiative (“Star Wars”), the effects of acid rain, the existence of the ozone hole, the problems caused by secondhand smoke, and—ultimately—the existence of anthropogenic climate change was used in “the service of political goals and commercial interests” to obstruct the transmission to the American public of important information. Amazingly, the same small cadre of obfuscators figured in all these episodes.

Oreskes (University of California, San Diego) and Conway (NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory) painstakingly trace the ways in which a few scientists, with strong ties to particular industries and with conservative political connections, have played a disproportionate role in debates about controversial questions, influencing policy-makers and the general public alike. Typically, these scientists have obtained their stature in fields other than those most pertinent to the debated question. Yet they have been able to cast enough doubt on the consensus views arrived at by scientists within the relevant disciplines to delay, often for a substantial period, widespread public acceptance of consequential hypotheses. They have used their stature in whatever areas of science they originally distinguished themselves to pose as experts who express an “alternative view” to the genuinely expert conclusions that seem problematic to the industries that support them or that threaten the ideological directions in which their political allies hope to lead.

The extraordinary story of deliberate obfuscation
It begins with the delight of the tobacco companies in recruiting Fred Seitz and with Seitz’s own connections to “scientists in their twilight years who had turned to fields in which they had no training or experience.” It moves through the forging of a network of industrial and political alliances, and the creation of a variety of institutes and think-tanks devoted to challenging various forms of expert consensus, to a brilliant chapter in which the authors analyze the reasons why, as of 2009, a significant percentage of Americans (43%) continued to dissent from the minimal claim that there is “solid evidence the Earth is warming.”  As Oreskes and Conway conclude:

There are many reasons why the United States has failed to act on global warming, but at least one is the confusion raised by Bill Nierenberg, Fred Seitz, and Fred Singer.

This apparently harsh claim is thoroughly justified through a powerful dissection of the ways in which prominent climate scientists, such as Roger Revelle and Ben Santer, were exploited or viciously attacked in the press. None of this would have been possible without a web of connections among aging scientists, conservative politicians, and executives of companies (particularly those involved in fossil fuels) with a short-term economic interest in denying the impact of the emission of carbon into the atmosphere. But it also could not have produced the broad public scepticism about climate change without help from the media. As Oreskes and Conway point out,

“Balanced coverage” has become the norm in the dissemination of scientific information. Pitting adversaries against one another for a few minutes has proven an appealing strategy for television news programs to pursue in attracting and retaining viewers. Nor is the idea of “fair and balanced” coverage, in which the viewer (or reader) is allowed to decide, confined to Fox News. Competing “experts” have become common on almost all American radio and television programs, the Internet is awash in adversarial exchanges among those who claim to know, and newspapers, too, “sell” science by framing it as a sport (preferably as much of a contact sport as possible).

Oreskes and Conway identify the ways in which the Washington Times and the Wall Street Journal have nourished the public sense that anthropogenic climate change is a matter of dispute, how they have given disproportionately large space to articles and opinion pieces from the “merchants of doubt,” and how they have sometimes censored the attempts of serious climate scientists to set the record straight. Even the New York Times, the American newspaper that takes science reporting most seriously, typically “markets” scientific research by imposing a narrative based on competition among dissenting scientists.

For half a century, since the pioneering work of Thomas Kuhn, scholars who study the resolution of major scientific debates have understood how complex and difficult judgments about the probative value of data or the significance of unresolved problems can be. The major transitions in the history of the sciences, from the 16th and 17th centuries to the present, have involved intricate debates among competing research programs, among well-informed scientists who gave different weight to particular sorts of evidence. It is an absurd fantasy to believe that citizens who have scant backgrounds in the pertinent field  can make responsible decisions about complex technical matters, on the basis of a few five-minute exchanges among more-or-less articulate speakers or a small number of articles outlining alternative points of view.

Democratic ideals have their place in the conduct of inquiry, for it is arguable that there should be more communication between scientists and outsiders in the construction of research agendas, in the discussion of standards of acceptable risk, and in the articulation of policies based on scientific consensus. Genuine democracy, however, requires a division of labor, in which particular groups are charged with the responsibility of resolving questions that bear on the interests of individuals and societies. Other groups, those covering such questions in the media, have the duty to convey the results so that citizens can cast their votes as an enlightened expression of freedom, justifiably aimed at the outcomes for which they hope. Staging a brief disagreement between speakers with supposedly equal credentials, especially when it is not disclosed that one of them is answering to the economic aspirations of a very small segment of the society, is a cynical abnegation of that duty.

Because it is so thorough in disclosing how major policy decisions have been delayed or distorted, Merchants of Doubt deserves a wide readership. It is tempting to require that all those engaged in the business of conveying scientific information to the general public should read it. And that science journalists should abandon the obfuscating practice of presenting alternatives with inferior justification as if they were on a par with the scientific consensus.

The above was adapted from The Climate Change Debates, a review essay in Science, June 2010, The illustration shows the 1953 lithograph by M.C. Escher, Relativity.

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