Q&A with science historian Dr. Naomi Oreskes about “Merchants of Doubt”

Dr. Naomi Oreskes, Professor of History and Science Studies at UC-San Diego, is one of the world’s leading historians of science. Her research focuses on consensus and dissent in science, highlighting the disconnect between the state of scientific debate and the way it is presented in mass media and perceived by the American people. Her 2004 essay “The Scientific Consensus on Climate Change” was a landmark in the public debate on global warming. In their new book, Merchants of Doubt, Oreskes and fellow historian Erik Conway explain how a loose–knit group of high-level scientists with extensive political connections have run effective campaigns to mislead the public and deny well-established scientific knowledge over the past four decades. Addressing the dangers posed by tobacco, DDT, the ozone hole, acid rain and global warming, Oreskes uncovers a dark corner of the American scientific community that has skewed public understanding of some of the most pressing issues of our era.

Before delivering the Michael Polanyi Lecture in the History and Philosophy of Natural Science at UNC-Chapel Hill on March 30, sophomore Stewart Boss sat down with Oreskes to discuss her new book and the significance of scientists who manufacture doubt to manipulate American politics.

Q: How are the dangers of tobacco, DDT, the ozone hole, acid rain and global climate change all related? How did this group of dissenting scientists evolve into what it is today?

A: Well that was, in a way, the question we posed when we first discovered this. We thought it seemed, in a way, strange, because on the face of it these are really different issues, especially like tobacco versus global warming – totally different science, totally different scientific expertise that you would need to be able to understand these issues. What we came to understand through the research was that it was really about regulation and the role of government. In every single case, the issue at stake was really whether or not the government should intervene to regulate dangerous products. In each case, these people thought the answer to that question was ‘no,’ that if we allowed government to intervene then it would lead to expansion of tyrannical and oppressive government, and therefore they opposed regulation. But they didn’t just honestly oppose regulation and say, “Look, I’m worried about encroachment of the government on my personal rights.” Instead, they shifted the issue to the science, to say we really don’t know about the science, because what they knew and what they had learned through the tobacco industry was that the most effective way to avoid regulation was not to fight it head-on and say, “No, we don’t want to be regulated.” The most effective way was to undermine the science, because lots of studies showed, and they did market research to support this, that if people thought the science was unsettled, then people would think it would be premature for the government to regulate the product. So the whole strategy was to challenge the science in order to avoid regulation.

Q:  In your book you quote one tobacco executive saying, “Doubt is our product.” What are the implications for the role that science plays in our democracy?

A: So that’s part of the whole point of the book, is to help people understand that. So the strategy was a conscious and deliberate strategy to sow doubt in order to make people think that we didn’t really know for sure and therefore it would be inappropriate for the government to regulate the product. And that’s the strategy that they use over and over again. So it’s really important for the public to understand this, to know that if you hear somebody saying, “Oh, well, we don’t really know, the science is not really settled, there’s a lot of questions about it,” then a little antenna should go up that this might be a doubt-mongering campaign designed to undermine the science to avoid action.

Q: Who are the major players right now in this effort to deny scientific consensus?

A: In the book, we were trying to track the whole denial campaign to its origins, and we tracked a very significant part of the campaign to this one particular think tank, the George C. Marshall Institute, which was founded by three physicists in 1984: Robert Jastrow, William Nierenberg and Frederick Seitz. They created the Marshall Institute originally to defend “Star Wars,” the Strategic Defense Initiative, but then moved into these other areas. And of course, that was part of the story too — why would people who believed in a strong defense as part of the Cold War defense against the Soviet Union, why would those people become anti-environmentalists? And so the answer to that question is that when the Cold War ended, they had to find a new enemy, and the new enemy were the “reds under the bed,” and those “reds” were environmentalists, who they saw as “watermelons” — green on the outside, red on the inside — and they thought that environmentalism was a kind of slippery slope to socialism that would lead to increasing government encroachment. And these are men, you have to realize, who have dedicated their whole lives to fighting the Cold War. These men were already in their 70s by the time this took place, and previous to that they had worked on all kinds of different Cold War weapons and rocketry and space programs. So their whole life meaning is really tied up in fighting this Soviet threat and preserving Western democracy, and they can’t give that up, even after the Soviet Union is gone.

Q:  Many politicians were firmly committed to seeing climate and energy legislation passed in the 111th Congress, but the failure to realize that goal in 2010 seems to have dissolved support for serious action on climate change. Did the environmental movement underestimate its opposition? In your opinion, what went wrong?

A: Everything. One of the things Bill McKibben said about our book is that it explains the paradox that is the science has gotten stronger, but the opposition has gotten stronger too. But I actually don’t think it’s a paradox, I think it’s actually what we should have expected because so much is at stake. I don’t know if environmentalists were naïve, but I think scientists were really naïve. Scientists thought if they just explained it clearly and they just got politicians to understand what was at stake, then of course politicians would act. They could have taken Political Science 101 and known that wasn’t true. This is a huge issue, right? The entire economy of the world rests on burning fossil fuels, so we have to take that very seriously and realize there’s going to be enormous opposition. I think we have underestimated the power and the strength of the opposition. And then combine that with the general inertia of people. This story isn’t just about the fossil fuel industry, although of course they play an important role, but it’s also about all of us, about how none of us want to be told that the way we live is bad, nobody wants to be told, “You’re a bad, evil person because you drive a car.” We need an exit strategy, we need a plan for what it looks like going forward, and I don’t think we’ve been very effective in that. I think we’ve spent too much time focusing on the science and fighting back against these doubt-mongering campaigns when what we should have just said is: “Look, we know the science. The real question is, what does the energy profile for the future look like, and how do we get there?”

Merchants of Doubt

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