By Marc E. Fitch
Perhaps you've heard of the book "Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming." More likely you've heard of the film directed by Robert Kenner of "Food, Inc." fame, which has been receiving high praise in critic circles and among the climate-scientist forums. The book is quite readable, well-documented and penned by two historians of science, with credentialed pedigrees, that work in the university system. It also is the literary equivalent of my favorite "Simpsons" openings in which the evil Republicans of Springfield get together and decide it's time to wreck some havoc, eliminating all pollution regulations and thus spawning six-eyed fish and acid rain.
The authors use the factual story of how the tobacco industry hired scientists to obscure the truth that smoking is harmful and the techniques the industry and its hired guns employed, to make the case against any skepticism over global warming. They move on from the tobacco industry to the issues of acid rain, DDT, the ozone hole and the grand-daddy of them all, the impending global warming apocalypse. They make the case that the same scientists – primarily Fred Singer and Fred Sietz – employed by Big Tobacco to cast doubt on the fact that smoking increases the risk of lung cancer were the same men who cast doubt on acid rain, second-hand smoke, DDT and the ozone layer – all in defense of industry and at the behest of evil Republicans.
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"Merchants of Doubt" makes a moral valuation of the actors involved, namely, "these are the good guys and those are the bad guys, and when we're done telling you about them you will finally see the black and white of it." It is unsurprising to find that the black and white are divided along political lines and vilified. Indeed, their "bad guys" are constantly and incessantly making "attacks" (could they mean "criticisms") on the "good guys." In doing so, the authors tend to miss the broader points their work illustrates and why there is doubt among the public. Namely, that the public has been duped before by some of the same people the authors claim as the good guys and in pursuit of many of the same goals, such as greater regulation of industry by the government.
Paul Ehrlich is mentioned briefly in "Merchants of Doubt" as an early advocate regarding anthropogenic climate change, but the authors do not address his "Population Bomb" hypothesis, which was a major media story in the '70s, sparked legislation around the world and then fell flat. Then there were the scientists and experts that warned the Carter administration the world was running out of oil, which also turned out to be wrong. In light of some of these apocalyptic scenarios, the public may have grown wary about forcing policy that affects their lives in the here and now to potentially stave off something that might happen in the future. Thus, we have to balance warnings about what might happen and the range of risks it might entail with what we know we need to have a functioning economy and society. Global warming might be the apocalypse, but it also might be rather benign. So how do we as a society and government balance risk in the future with the real demands of the present? Those economists the authors list in the work who asked these questions are summarily dismissed.
The main argument in "Merchants of Doubt" is that well-credentialed scientists, such as Singer and Sietz, were so overcome by their Cold War experience and anti-communist ideology that they rejected solid science. In essence, we are told that despite being the best and brightest, ideology and politics had trumped science and objectivity. Yet, if science is for sale, then is it not for sale to everyone, including the government and environmental activist organizations? While the authors take plenty of time to dissect and psychologize two or three men, they do not turn their gaze upon anyone with whom they agree. This is fair enough for a book that espouses a political ideology, but perhaps not for one that is claiming to be making an objective inventory of how politics and industry have infected scientific research and rendering doubt where there should be none.
Their main issues – acid rain, DDT, the ozone – were addressed by Republican administrations. Protections were put in place due to the warnings regarding DDT, acid rain and the hole in the ozone. According to Hubbard Brook's report on acid rain, the Clean Air Act Amendment has caused a decrease in sulphur dioxide emissions with positive results; however, they recommend further scaling back the rates of emissions. This kind of information can help to lessen the effect of politics in science, noting that legislation passed by evil Republicans has had some positive effect. Their narrative creates the very divisiveness that has cast doubt on the science behind global warming. Rather than drawing the public together based on science, Oreskes and Conway drive a wedge to further separate people based on politics.
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Evil Republicans also banned CFCs in the United States and were integral in pushing such changes in the rest of the world as well. The hole in the ozone layer over Antarctica remains large – roughly the size of North America – but it is showing signs of improving.
These three achievements were accomplished even with the merchants of doubt, Singer and Seitz, mounting opposition against the new regulations. So, one must wonder, what sets these issues apart from global warming? Indeed, it would appear that these merchants of doubt have a pretty poor track record having been bested in the fight over tobacco, acid rain, DDT and the ozone layer. Perhaps the idea of them being all-powerful wizards of manipulation is not all its cracked up to be, and perhaps the public and political doubts about global warming may be rooted in something else, such as the fanatical ravings in scientific circles and "journalism." In the end, science wins out because science is a reflection of reality. The authors almost seem to have lost faith in that fact.
Marc E. Fitch is the author of "Paranormal Nation: Why America Needs Ghosts, UFOs, and Bigfoot" and, forthcoming from WND Books, "Shmexperts: How Ideology and Power Politics are Disguised as Science." He is a recipient of the 2014 Robert Novak Journalism Fellowship, and his nonfiction work has appeared in The Federalist, American Thinker and WND. Marc E. Fitch works in the field of mental health and can be reached through his website, www.marcfitch.com.