Book Review: Merchants of Doubt, by Naomi Oreskes and Erik M Conway

The irony about the science of global warming is that there is a broad consensus of opinion amongst scientists that it is happening, that it is an empirically proven fact. Yet the population at large thinks that controversy still rages in the scientific community as to whether the climate is changing as a direct result of humans pumping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Merchants of Doubt, by science historians Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway, seeks to explain how the science on major issues like acid rain, tobacco smoke, holes in the ozone and the dangers of DTT, has been distorted once it leaves the science academies and is regurgitated in mainstream media.

The most instructive aspect of Merchants of Doubt is the long historical perspective the book gives, demonstrating a pattern of information distortion and manipulation by a small group of the ideologically driven. In the scientific controversies that Oreskes and Conway cover, such as the deleterious effects of second hand cigarette smoke on human health and the holes in the ozone caused by the use of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), the authors show how complex and highly nuanced science can be picked apart and virtually re-written to sow major doubts in the public’s mind.

How Science is Rigorously Tested by Peer Review

Importantly, Merchants of Doubt offers a crash course in the scientific process. Oreskes and Conway show that science is very much a collaborative effort, with a lot doubts and caveats built into the process. The information and conclusions drawn from scientific reports and papers generally lean to the conservative side. Rigorous checks and balances are built into the system of peer review. Any scientist wanting to submit their work for publication to an established journal must have their paper reviewed by a panel of scientists, disciplined in the area of study. During this peer review process errors are picked up, comments are made, ideas and theories are challenged. Science is therefore not opinion, but proven by critical testing.

All of the scientific ‘controversies’ that are described in Merchants of Doubt were subjected to this rigorous process. Yet all of the science we now take for granted, like the links between cigarette smoke and cancer, were hotly contested even after they had been established by a process of peer review. How did this happen, when the science on things like global warming and acid rain had a clear scientific consensus?

Cold War Warriors Confuse the Science

Now here’s the bit that will confuse even further. A small group of scientists worked against the peer reviewed science to try and sow doubt and confusion in the public’s mind. Why would a scientist do that? For the most part, this group of wrecker scientists were physicists who’d done most of their work during the cold war era, being heavily involved in the development of nuclear war technology. They saw the lean towards any sort of environmentalism as a slippery slope to Socialism and Communism.

In a larger sense, the argument between these cold war physicists and the peer reviewed science on such environmental problems as global warming and acid rain, was one about money and power. They saw the environment as a cash cow that could be exploited ad infinitum, with no deleterious effects. At a nationalistic level, they wanted this large slice of the environmental pie for America, to maintain economic power. The peer reviewed science, however, showed that by pumping so many pollutants into the environment, that damage was being done. This put the American economic model under question.

The cold war physicists were dishonest in trying to cloud over the truth of the peer reviewed science, and the world is much the worse for it. If the peer reviewed science, through the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, has settled the question of climate change, then any delay in taking action is madness. If the IPCC claims that on balance, the science is 90 per cent certain that global warming is under way, then surely taking action constitutes a prudent insurance policy against disaster that is highly likely.

With its long historical perspective and stunning detail, Merchants of Doubt demonstrates in clear and accessible language for the lay reader how mass confusion and obfuscation has been created by a small group of determined cold war ideologues. For those seeking clarity over the scientific debates of the past fifty years or so, then Merchants of Doubt is the book

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