“Merchants of Doubt” Traces Roots of Denial

smokeA new book asserts that the very same group of Cold War ideologues who banded together to spread doubt about the link between tobacco and cancer also spearheaded the first efforts to discredit climate scientists as they began warning about the effects of anthropogenic global warming.

In “Merchants of Doubt,”  science historians Naomi Oreskes of UC San Diego and Erik Conway of the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory at CalTech, argue that the seeds of the current groundswell of climate change “denial,” and an assault on science in general, were planted decades ago.

The authors say it started with a handful of respected scientists, who, motivated by free-market political ideology and funded by the tobacco industry, worked to cast doubt on well-established scientific knowledge.

Conway discussed the book last Friday with Greg Dalton of Climate One at the Commonwealth Club of San Francisco.

“One of the strategies the tobacco companies decided to pursue in the early 1990’s is the undermining of science, broadly,” said Conway. “They began to use their PR apparatus not just to undermine the science of tobacco and cancer and health effects, but…to attack all regulatory sciences in general.”

That strategy was one of the motivations for the book, said Conway.  “We wondered, ‘What effect will this have on science when it’s being under continuous corporate assault, especially in a society that is very dependent on science and engineering?”

According to Conway, one of the scientists central to the tobacco industry’s efforts was Fred Seitz, a physicist and former president of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences.   Others were the prominent physicists Fred Singer, Robert Jastrow, and William Nierenberg, who was once the director of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego.  All were associated with a conservative think tank, the George C. Marshall Institute.  In the 1990’s, said Conway, “the Marshall Institute decided to make its main issue the effort to cast doubt on global warming.”

Conway said that the scientists were motivated by their experiences during the Cold War and the political beliefs they developed during that time.

“Really, this is about opposition to government regulation,” he said. “We don’t think the scientists were in this for the money. They were working for the tobacco industry, to defend Star Wars (the Reagan administration’s space defense plan), to prevent acid rain and global warming regulation.” Conway says these “merchants of doubt” were pursuing “a political ideology to defend market fundamentalism and their political beliefs, not because they were in the pay for big money.”

The authors argue that the legacy of this Cold War ideology lives on in today’s climate change “denial” discourse.  The seeds planted then continue to sprout, they contend, despite the fact that today’s “merchants” are far less influential within the scientific community.

“There is a second generation, but one that is not nearly as respected,” said Conway. “The think tank network  now exists and has been institutionalized and is self-perpetuating. They simply hire their own people who have some credentials, rarely actually climate scientists, who continue to do that kind of thing.  But they don’t have nearly the kind of stature that Nierenberg did or that Fred Seitz had.”

A 2008 study also makes a link between conservative think tanks an climate skepticism.  The report, published in the journal Environmental Politics, found that of 141 English-language, “environmentally sceptical” books published between 1972 and 2005, 92% have links to conservative think tanks, 90% of which, the report found, “espouse environmental scepticism.”