2010, Books, Non-Fiction

Merchants of Doubt (2010) by Naomi Oreskes, Erik M. Conway

This is a thorough and damning account of the so-called “Tobacco Strategy” and the “improvements” upon it, in which larger corporations fund think tanks and pay real scientists to discredit the work of other scientists which threatens their products.

Oreskes and Conway go to great lengths to show when and why scientific consensuses on these issues were (mostly) settled and how large corporations, and select group of scientists, threatened by these bodies of research fought back. If anything, you could criticize them for being too thorough in a book meant for popular consumption, though I think that would be an unfair criticism. (I mean, some people do need the facts laid out this bare in order to believe them. Still others won’t accept even this level of evidence.) But the book can get a bit repetitive since they have to lay out this evidence for each case study, and it’s very similar (usually involving the same people making similar claims).

As the authors outline, the “Tobacco Strategy” began as an emphasis on the doubt within the world of science, in this case around the causes of cancer. It works because science takes its time to get entirely settled but the general public doesn’t understand that. They then outline the changes to the strategy that occurred in the battles over various environmental issues – the most common change to it going forward being to argue that the scientists in general could not be trusted.

It’s very tempting to just get mad at the corporations behind these fake controversies. But, at least at some level, you can understand why they did what they did. In some cases, scientific research was an existential threat to their profits. So it’s understandable.

It’s less understandable why these scientists went along with it. Oreskes and Conway’s thesis isn’t entirely convincing and I will say that’s one of my few points of criticism. I understand that maybe it was impossible for them to get their hands on more detail about the money – and they do have a lot of information about that – but focusing primarily on the argument of “old Cold War Warriors fighting a new battle against the Reds” isn’t quite as compelling an argument to me as they seem to think it is. Yes, there’s some proof. But something else had to be motivating these people, right? Certainly, the funding they got for their institutes – essentially their raison d’etre for many of them once they were retired – has to have played as substantial a role. Anyway, I still think you can look at these scientists and understand why, at least to some extent, they sold their souls to the devil. (And some of them probably legitimately didn’t think they were doing that. Maybe even all of them, which is where the thesis makes the most sense – in justifying this behaviour.)

It’s frustrating that media outlets like The Washington Times exist, but they have a right to exist and they’re going to exist. They’re also not the real problem here. People are going to say stupid shit and someone is going to publish it.

For me, the real problem here, and arguably the villains of the piece, are the Mainstream Media, most notably The Wall Street Journal, but clearly The New York Times and other major publications as well. (After reading this book I’d say that you should never read the WSJ‘s op-ed pages on science, ever. They have done way too much to discredit themselves, including refusing to publish or drastically editing rebuttals. I mean, you shouldn’t be reading newspaper op-eds anyway, but especially this paper on this subject.) The failures of the United States’ major journalism institutions – at least their Op-Ed sections – when it comes to these issues is absolutely immense. Now, it may not be entirely or even mostly on the science journalists. At least according to this book, a good deal of the damage was done on the editorial page.

But it does seem like a combination of a failure of good enough scientific journalism – especially in the early days of the strategy – with a huge failure at the level of editors and publishers, who appear to have been determined to either air “both sides” or, worse, side with the rich and powerful over the truth tellers. (Which feels like it should be the last thing the Fourth Estate should be doing.) Routinely, these outlets decided that a couple of physicists and economists were just as reliable or, far worse, much more reliable than the scientists in the field itself. (One of the most frustrating things about the book is how it’s the same physicists and economists regardless of the issue. Surely, at some point, some editor thought “Hey, maybe this guy, who doesn’t specialize in any of these fields, shouldn’t be the expert we seek out on this latest subject.” Right?!?!)

There are many things that people get mad at the MSM about that are stupid. This is not one of them. We should all be extremely upset that at this failure by the major media institutions of the United States. And we should be extremely wary every time we read or listen to a science op-ed, especially by a columnist or pundit. (Honestly, I’d love to see a world in which such columnists and pundits have to put their educational credentials next to their opinions.)

Once you read this book, you will see “The Tobacco Strategy” literally everywhere. 70 years of “the experts haven’t made up their minds yet” and 40 or more years of “the experts can’t be trusted” seems to have had a major effect on our politics and societies. I am a firm believer that humans make ideas rather than ideas make humans. But it’s still hard not to believe these disinformation campaigns haven’t had an effect. The Right in the English-speaking world (and other places) has outright embraced not just the rejection of experts but, at times, the rejection of reality. And some on The Left have too, especially when it comes to genetics and education and areas like that. It’s certainly likely that we would have ended up where we are without these disinformation campaigns, but they absolutely did not help.

And we’re fighting the same stupid battles as were fought about the issues in this book about seemingly every single issue now, regardless of how important. (I think you could argue that a huge chunk of “The Culture Wars” are just a bunch of people yelling that the other side’s experts can’t be trusted.)

A must read.


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