From Tobacco to Climate Change: How Doubt-Mongers Systematically Undermine Public Policy

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Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global WarmingIn a videotaped lecture (see below), Naomi Oreskes discusses the upcoming book, Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming (Bloomsbury USA),  which she has coauthored  with Erik Conway. Oreskes is a professor of history and science studies at the University of California, San Diego. 

According to the publisher's spring catalog [PDF], the book tells "the troubling story of how a cadre of influential scientists have clouded public understanding of scientific facts to advance a political and economic agenda."  It continues:

"The U.S. scientific community has long led the world in research on such areas as public health, environmental science, and issues affecting quality of life. Our scientists have produced landmark studies on the dangers of DDT, tobacco smoke, acid rain, and global warming. But at the same time, a small yet potent subset of this community leads the world in vehement denial of these dangers.

Merchants of Doubt tells the story of how a loose-knit group of high-level scientists and scientific advisers, with deep connections in politics and industry, ran effective campaigns to mislead the public and deny well-established scientific knowledge over four decades. Remarkably, the same individuals surface repeatedly—some of the same figures who have claimed that the science of global warming is “not settled” denied the truth of studies linking smoking to lung cancer, coal smoke to acid rain, and CFCs to the ozone hole. “Doubt is our product,” wrote one tobacco executive. These “experts” supplied it.

Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway, historians of science, roll back the rug on this dark corner of the American scientific community, showing how ideology and corporate interests, aided by a too-compliant media, have skewed public understanding of some of the most pressing issues of our era."

From Merchants of Doubt: “For half a century, the tobacco industry, defenders of the Strategic Defense Initiative, and those skeptical of acid rain, the ozone hole, and global warming strove to ‘maintain the controversy’ and ‘keep the debate alive’ by fostering claims that were contrary to the mainstream of scientific evidence and expert judgment. We have seen how they promoted claims that had already been refuted in the scientific literature, and how the media became complicit as they reported the controversy as if it was a legitimate debate. Often the media did so without informing readers, viewers, and listeners that the ‘experts’ being quoted had links to the tobacco industry, were affiliated with partisan think tanks funded by industries, or were simply habitual contrarians who perhaps enjoyed the attention garnered by outlier views.”  

The presentation on 2 March 2010 was part of the University of Rhode Island's Spring 2010 Vetlesen Lecture Series, People and Planet Global Environmental Change.

Oreskes read a passage from her book, including the following (starting at 38:10 in the video):

"Imagine a gigantic, colossal banquet. Hundreds of millions of people come to eat. They eat and drink to their hearts' content, eating food that is better and more abundant than at the finest tables in ancient Athens, or Rome or even in the palaces of midieval Europe. Then one day a man arrives wearing a white dinner jacket."

It is, Oreskes explains, the waiter -- and he is holding the bill. She continues:

"Not surprisingly the diners are in shock. Some begin to deny that this is their bill. Others deny that there even is a bill. Still others deny that they partook of the meal. One diner suggests the man is not really a waiter, but is only trying to get attention for himself or to raise money for his own projects. Finally the group concludes that if they simply ignore the waiter, he will go away.

This is where we stand today on the question of global warming. For the past 150 years, industrial civilization has been dining on the energy stored in fossil fuels and the bill has now come due. Yet we have sat around the dinner table denying that it is our bill, and doubting the credibility of the man who delivered it.

The great economist John Maynard Keynes famously summarized all of economic theory in a single phrase: "there is no such thing as a free lunch." And he was right. We have experienced prosperity unmatched in human history. We have feasted to our hearts' content. But the lunch was not free.

So it is not surprising that many of us are in denial. After all we didn't know that it was a banquet -- and we didn't know that there would be a bill. But now we do know. The bill includes acid rain, and the ozone hole and the damaged produced by DDT. These are the environmental costs of living the way citizens of wealthy developed nations have lived since the industrial revolution. Now we either have to pay the price, change the way we do business, or both.

No wonder the merchants of doubt have been successful. They've permitted us to think we could ignore the waiter, while we haggled about the bill. The failure of the United States to act on global warming as well as the long delays between when the science was settled and when we acted on tobacco, acid rain and the ozone hole are prima facie empirical evidence that doubt-mongering works."

 

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