I’d heard that companies like Exxon paid PR flacks at right-wing think tanks like the Heartland Institute to attack climate scientists and try to discredit their work. But I didn’t know that actual scientists also participated in the effort, funded by the fossil fuel industry, to cast doubt on climate science.
Merchants of Doubt leaves no doubt that, while real physicists and other leading scientists did in fact argue in public that climate change was not much of a threat or that it wasn’t really caused by human activity, that these men (yes, climate science “skeptics” tend to be white males over the age of 50) were acting more as PR flacks themselves than in their capacity of researchers.
The first three quarters of the book offers exhaustive detail on the many public health and environmental issues — from cigarettes and cancer to acid rain to strategic defense — since the 1950s in which the same handful of scientists took a position against science and for the “free market.” That is, in favor of polluters and big business.
And if you’re a fan of the history of science, as the authors are, you might enjoy all the detail of scientists vs scientist battling it out in academic journals and at conferences. No longer in contention today, these battles do set a pattern for today’s debates about climate change. Even attacks on Rachel Carson thirty years after DDT was banned (and half a century after Carson’s death) serve a purpose today.
So-called skeptics actually claim that Carson is responsible for millions of deaths, because banning DDT prevented this powerful insecticide from being used in Africa to control malaria.
Talk about crocodile tears, to imagine that Carson’s critics really care much about deaths in Africa than about discrediting science in America.
Oreskes and Conway answer this silly charge with convincing facts. First, the US ban on DDT didn’t apply abroad. Second, even before the US ban on DDT, African governments had already reduced their use of DDT or dropped it altogether because over the years it had gotten less and less effective.
Such “skeptic” attacks on mainstream science challenge the overall validity of science and the need for governmental regulation to protect health and the environment.
The most interesting part of this book for me comes at the end, where the book’s protagonists, atomic bomb physicists Frederick Seitz, Fred Singer, William Nierenberg and others plow their Cold War anti-Communism into a new fight against environmentalists, who they saw as the latest enemies of their beloved free market.
The authors make good points about how you can’t helpfully debate science in the media as you can debate politics or other matters of opinion because science is different — it needs to be settled by experts in peer review, not by the most convincing loudmouth in a popular vote.
And science deserves to be protected, because it offers a valuable corrective to politics:
And not surprisingly, for if science is about studying the world as it actually is — rather than as we wish it to be — then science will always have the potential to unsettle the status quo. As an independent source of authority and knowledge, science has always had the capacity to challenge ruling powers’ ability to control people by controlling their beliefs. Indeed, it has the power to challenge anyone who wishes to preserve, protect, or defend the status quo.
Lately science has shown us that contemporary industrial civilization is not sustainable. Maintaining our standard of living will require finding new ways to produce our energy and less ecologically damaging ways to produce our food. Science has shown us that Rachel Carson was not wrong. (237)
— Erik Curren