The title of a 2010 book by Naomi Oreskes (Professor of history and science studies at UC San Diego) and Erik Conway, Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming, pretty much tells the grim tale contained therein. Starting with the tobacco industry’s decades-long fight to combat and obfuscate the science that they knew to be true—that cigarettes cause a host of diseases including lung cancer; and that even second-hand smoke causes the same suite of diseases to those who breathe the smoke from others’ cigarettes—Oreskes and Conway provide the details of how all other industries took their cue from the tobacco companies and tried (with alarming success) to cast doubt on the real facts scientists had unearthed about the dangers of acid rain, CFCs causing the ozone hole, second-hand smoke, and most recently global warming from the human-caused buildup of CO2 in the atmosphere. Here was the tobacco industry’s key insight: that the normal uncertainty that is crucial to science could be used
to undermine the status of actual scientific knowledge…. “Doubt is our product,” ran the infamous memo written by one tobacco industry executive in 1969, “since it is the best method of competing with the ‘body of fact’ that exists in the minds of the general public.” (34).
And what the industry and administrations like those of Ronald Reagan and both Bushes have been able to do is to recruit scientists themselves—including some distinguished ones—to undermine the conclusions of the scientific majority who have been establishing the dangers in some of the prime environmental hazards of our time. This undermining work has led to doubt, delay and constant attack on the government agencies that have tried to regulate these environmental hazards. As to why legitimate scientists would want to smear the work of their colleagues, the reasons are probably legion, but Oreskes and Conway identify what is probably the major one: Find a scientist who sees environmental regulation as the road to Socialism and/or Communism, and you can probably find a scientist who will figure out clever ways to undermine what most other scientists agree are established facts.
The “scientists” who have played a major role in such nasty work are clearly identified by Oreskes and Conway, and they include Fred Seitz, a physicist and onetime president of the National Academy of Sciences who had worked on the A-bomb project during WWII and who opposed everything from arms control to peaceful coexistence with the Soviets; Fred Singer, also a physicist developing Earth observation satellites and later a chief scientist in the Reagan Administration and prime proponent of SDI or “Star Wars”; William Nierenberg, also a physicist who had worked on the bomb and later served in the Reagan White House; and Robert Jastrow, an astrophysicist who had worked on the space program. All four were once termed “my scientists” by President George H.W. Bush. Together, and with a few other colleagues and millions from corporate coffers, they have managed to create the impression that there is a raging debate about such established scientific facts as the harm done by tobacco smoke, the devastation caused by the sulfur emissions that cause acid rain, the ozone depletion caused by CFCs (chlorofluorocarbons), and the global warming caused by CO2. The harm and the probable deaths they have caused by sowing the doubt that gives corporations cover is thus incalculable.
Merchants of Doubt tells us not only how this has been done, but why it has been done, and it is a story that will grey your hair if you care about the planet we live on and the health of the humans who live on it with us. The main outlines, though, are fairly simple and in many ways familiar. These guys are zealots, most of whom ended their original scientific work years ago, and spent their ‘twilight’ years cozying up to the power elite by attacking colleagues whom they saw as threatening the American system of ‘free market capitalism’ through research that would lead to regulation. Government regulation was, for most of these true believers, the great socialist sin and anything or anyone that called for it was little more than a subversive undermining the American way. They hated the EPA in particular, but all environmentalists and regulatory agencies in general, as well as anyone who opposed military preparedness (hence their fondness for SDI or ‘Star Wars’). Here is what Fred Singer wrote in 1989, for example, when he was arguing against measures to eliminate CFCs from the atmosphere. First, he slandered the scientists who agreed on it (virtually all of them) as “corrupt and motivated by self-interest and political ideology” (a perfect description of Singer himself). Then he added that
“..there are probably those with hidden agendas of their own—not just to ‘save the environment’ but to change our economic system…Some of these ‘coercive utopians’ are socialists, some are technology-hating Luddites; most have a great desire to regulate—on as large a scale as possible.” (134).
In another article in 1991 concerning global warming, Singer reinforced this idea about the “hidden” agenda of environmentalists, and the scientists who gave them their data: to destroy capitalism and replace it with some sort of worldwide utopian Socialism or Communism. It was to counteract this nefarious plot that Singer and Seitz and their cronies in 1984 established the George C. Marshall Institute, primarily to promote the so-called science of the Strategic Defense Initiative even then being attacked by main line scientists as pie-in-the-sky nonsense, a waste of money, and probably an incentive to a new and more dangerous arms race. Of course the new Institute was touted as “promoting science for better public policy,” but like the better known Team B of the Reagan Administration (boasting such luminaries as Richard Perle, Richard Pipes, Paul Wolfowitz, and other hawks), it was really designed to promote SDI and the underlying right-wing view that “The Soviet Union is preparing for a Third World War as if it were unavoidable..” (40).
To understand how Singer and company operated, consider his efforts to undermine the science on acid rain. You may remember that acid rain comes about when sulfur and nitrogen emissions from electrical utilities, cars, and factories mix with moisture in the atmosphere, and then fall as precipitation to poison lakes, rivers, soils, and wildlife far from the polluting source. Twenty years of meticulous studies led to a 1974 article in Science magazine that summed up the danger: “Acid rain or snow is falling on most of the northeastern United States” (68). The article went on to identify acid rain as the product of burning coal and oil in tall smokestacks designed to remove particles from the smoke in the Midwest—the unintended consequence being that since the particles tended to neutralize acid, “removing them inadvertently increased the acidity of the remaining pollution.” In short, tall smokestacks had transformed local soot into the far more damaging and widespread acid rain. In addition to falling in New England, that is, acid rain generated in the Midwest was also falling in Canada, and the Canadian government had concluded that most of its acid rain came from the United States. President Carter agreed, and signed the Acid Precipitation Act of 1980, which established a ten-year monitoring program to determine the impact of acid rain on both the environment and human health. But then—Ronald Reagan was elected, and “his” scientists began to pump up the doubts. In 1984, Congress simply rejected a joint pollution control program with Canada. At about the same time, the Reagan White House’s Office of Science and Technology (OSTP) commissioned its own panel to review what the EPA had already concluded about acid rain, i.e. that it was caused by coal-fired Midwest plants. Bill Nierenberg was made chair of this commission, and managed to have some of the major scientists who had already worked on acid rain included. They, not surprisingly, concluded the same thing as the EPA: acid rain was caused by man-made sulfur dioxide (SO2) emissions. This might have concluded the story, but for the fact that the White House had pushed for Fred Singer to be on the Commission, and after the Executive Summary was generated, insisted not only that Singer contribute an appendix, but also that the strongest paragraphs of the summary, dealing with soil damage that could set off devastating effects in the food chain, be deleted and that several other paragraphs be presented in a different order. As Oreskes summarizes it:
Rather than start with the fact of the 25 million tons of SO2 emissions per year, the White House wanted to start with a statement that earlier actions taken under the Clean Air Act were a “prudent first step,” and then proceed to the discussion about incomplete scientific knowledge.” (87)
Fred Singer’s revisions were even more damaging. He started by claiming that acid deposition was “a serious problem, but not a life-threatening one.” He then summarized the main points from his point of view, i.e. that the science was uncertain, that more research was needed, that the economic consequences of controlling acid rain, even if it did exist, would be too great, and that acid rain might be cause by natural sources after all. In short, Singer and the White House had drastically altered the conclusions of the scientific experts who had written the original draft, and they had done it without ever consulting those scientists—who were, almost to a man, outraged. The most authoritative scientist on acid rain, Gene Likens, wrote to Bill Nierenberg that “My understanding is that these unapproved changes in the Executive Summary originated with the White House/OSTP. Frankly, I find such meddling to be less than honest and extremely distasteful” (99), an objection that may not sound like much, but which, from a scientist, is devastating.
The damage was done however. As the report began to surface, a House subcommittee considering legislation on acid rain voted in May 1983: the vote was 10 to 9 against the legislation, thus killing congressional action. Nor would there be any legislation addressing acid rain during the rest of Ronald Reagan’s terms in office, as the administration continued to insist that not only were the causes unknown, but the proposed fixes were too expensive: “a billion-dollar solution to a million-dollar problem.” The George H.W. Bush administration would finally, under pressure, amend the Clean Air Act to set up emissions trading (cap and trade), resulting in a 54% decline in SO2 levels between 1990 and 2007. But further research, especially by Gene Likens and his colleagues, determined that the problem had not been solved at all. Writing in 1999, Likens said: “Acid rain still exists, and its ecological effects have not gone away.” In fact, things had gotten worse: not only had the forest stopped growing, but it was in fact shrinking. He predicted that the legendary sugar maple was “dying…[and] scientific research suggests that by 2076, the 300th birthday of the United States, sugar maples will be extinct in large areas of the northern forest” (104). Thus, this first use of ‘cap and trade’ to stop an industry-caused environmental threat failed utterly to even stabilize things.
Fred Singer and his diabolical cronies went on to attack the EPA, the damage to the ozone by CPCs, the dangers of second-hand smoke, and even Rachel Carson (for the alleged deadly damage to world health done by getting DDT banned, thereby sparing malaria-carrying mosquitoes and causing 50 million unnecessary deaths!), as well as the threat from global warming. Regarding global warming, for example, the first Marshall Institute report on this subject blamed global warming on the sun, which was changing and sending more heat our way.
What Oreskes concludes, however, is that far from accomplishing their aim to ridicule and delegitimize environmentalists out to ‘destroy free markets and capitalism,’ the merchants of doubt have in fact led even former allies to consider more seriously the fact that “free enterprise can bring real costs—profound costs—that the free market does not reflect.” Such ‘externalized costs,’ imposed by the damage done by DDT and a host of other pesticides and herbicides, SO2 in rain, cigarette smoke, CFCs eating the ozone, and CO2 creating the greenhouse effect, are
all market failures. They are instances where serious damage was done and the free market seemed unable to account for it, much less prevent it. Government intervention was required. This is why the market ideologues and old Cold Warriors joined together to fight them.
As more and more people, including former free-marketeers, begin to realize this, argues Oreskes, they become less able to deny that major changes are required in how governments, regulators, and corporations conduct their business. Thus the final irony: the one thing that the merchants of doubt dreaded most—what they saw as the advance of bleeding-heart socialist regulation—must increasingly, under the pressure of real science and looming environmental calamity, come to pass. If it does not, if the merchants of doubt prevail for much longer, we will all go down with their badly-leaking free-market Titanic.