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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A Different View of Science

The time has come to re-evaluate unexplainable and “unscientific” discoveries and disciplines with radically new paradigms that better reflect the needs of modern man. The current principles of technological science must be examined to see if they still function in Humanities best interest. To apply Newtonian concepts and three dimensional logic to disciplines like Astrology of discoveries like ESP, neutrinos and black holes is going to cause science to blunder into a philosophical cul-de-sac where it will have to draw useless and ridiculous conclusions that will make good Sci-Fi plots but will retard human evolution.

Our needs at this point in Humanity’s evolution are not for more and more sophisticated missiles, computers, and electronic gadgets but rather for a purpose and reason for man to continue to evolve on earth. The main paradigm of science since Newton has been to dominate and control out total environment for our own needs and desires. The fact that these desires were usually selfish, nationalistic and petty has not stopped science (and its handmaiden technology) from pushing humans to the brink of extinction. It is apparent that science in its 200 year quest to create a world of good and plenty has neglected to set any conceptual goals of limits in its search.As the myth of man’s superiority over his environment crumbles, science has neglected to look for a replacement, and consequently it continues to use the same old solutions for an entirely new set of problems.

As the 20th century comes to an end, the scientific community is being confronted with more and more discoveries and theories that ate totally incompatible with the three dimensional five sense world that was defined scientifically over three hundred years ago.In order for science to face this confrontation over the next twenty-five years it will have to do three things:1. Discard if necessary, any three dimensional sense based paradigms that are no longer relevant to mans total evolution.2. Develop new paradigms that will make the apparently incomprehensible discoveries and disciplines of today more meaningful so that they might give us a renewed perspective on our world.3. Use this perspective to build a broader, more relevant myth so that will enable humanity to define a renewed purpose and goal for its evolution. Point one looks simple, but, it is really quite difficult. Over the years, science has made a lot of assumptions that it accepts as fact. To convenience scientists otherwise is extremely difficult due to a smug assumption of their own intelligence and wisdom.One of the first ideas of science that will have to for is that if a theory cannot be proved analytically by some sort of empirical means, it is of no value and should be ignored.

Potentially valuable disciplines like Yoga, Astrology, and acupuncture are discarded using this logic.This thought is further reinforced by a corollary principle that says if something does not have the potential to either make someone rich of fulfill a paranoid need for collective protection it is not worth pursuing. Solar energy suffers under the former and the Pentagon thrives on the latter.A more esoteric and obsolete principle of science that is rarely defined is the assumption that present knowledge is the culmination of a long trail of experimentation and error. The scientists of Galileo’s time felt that the earth was the center of the solar system. They “proved” it according to their subjective notions, and felt that the idea was “right”.We smugly look back and consider the acceptance of the heliocentric solar system as a naive but necessary step in our attempt to understand the solar system, which we now consider completely understood. It is obvious if you think about it that our current knowledge is no more complete in an absolute sense than that of Copernicus. His theory was a big step above Galileo just as Galileo was a big step above Cro-Magnon’s.

There is no real reason to believe that a different model of the solar system might not be discovered which will make our present knowledge seem just as naive as Galileo.Another paradigm that is obsolete is the statement that an observable fact is more valid than a subjective one. The word valid in this context is defined as being useful for social or personal growth enhancement.One fact that comes to mind that is not particularly valid is that the earth is round. We all know it’s round, but subjectively, seeing it as flat is just as valid. Deep down we do not believe that is round anyway, otherwise we would be afraid of going to Australia; as we might fall off into space. Considering the world subjectively as flat has no disadvantages and in fact is more useful for our functional conception of the world.Another related fact that has no practical meaning to our everyday life is that the sun is the center of the solar system and the earth revolves around it at 17,000 mph. A moments thought will convince anybody that we are forced by our senses to deny this as we see the sun revolving around the earth and consider the earth as being stationery.Any fact has to be looked at in this manner. As the meaning of facts is relative to our sense of reality. Considering the earth as the relative center of the solar system enabled humanity to utilize the earth’s biosphere in a functional practical manner, as the concept of day, month, and growing season are easier to conceptualize assuming the sun revolves around the earth. It turns out that the only use a heliocentric conception of the solar system has is in esoteric technological abstractions such as launching space ships and satellites.

It must be stated that I am not advocating the re-acceptance of the geocentric solar system, rather, I am presenting the idea that both views are valid for different things, and for science to totally disregard the subjective aspects of observable phenomena is not in humanities best interest.Another attitude of science that is no longer functional is that present knowledge is always valid and anything new must be subjected to years of proving and analysis to be accepted. The introduction of antiseptic procedures and anesthetics into medicine are two of the most famous examples.The paradigms that I have mentioned are not all inclusive, as science has many more that could be changed. It must be understood that I am not advocating the examination and editing of every scientific axiom, but rather a change of perspective about scientific discoveries that would put the accent on what humanity needs a opposed to what it wants.The elimination of these various principle and axioms automatically implies establishing new ones.

The ones I just mentioned were relevant and useful in their time frame, and grew out of the experience of humans during different periods that make this period ideal for reformulating our most basic scientific concepts.The first new principles I propose is that a discovery of theory will be accepted and disseminated if it shows a definite potential to fulfill a social need. Society as an entity often asks questions in its own way. The answer to these questions is best met by the symbol. A theory should be judged by its symbolic power to either alter humanities perception or to fulfill a collective need. The idea of ” proving” it should be secondary. As a corollary to this principal, I propose that a scientific discovery or theory be submitted to other disciplines for analysis. If artists and philosophers could have had a say in the use of napalm, a lot of human suffering might have been avoided.Another principle that I feel would enable science to arrive at more valid conclusions to today’s phenomena would be to accept the idea that our three dimensional world is real, but does not encompass reality. This statement has been accepted as fact for years by all occult societies, some religions, and many philosophers. The scientists have dealt with it by ignoring it.

The physics of sub-atomic particles would be the obvious place for this principle to be applied. Two of the established conclusions of this discipline already postulate that atoms, which compose ” solid” objects are mostly space, and are moving rapidly and that matter is not an actual substance but rather a particular form of energy.Throughout history, visions, ideas, and dreams, although not ” real ” have altered the world and its people. Concepts like the Jewish state, Christianity, and Communism are three of the best examples. If science could accept ideas like ESP and telepathy without insisting on three dimensional proof, our world might progress differently.A companion to the above principle is that phenomena that is experienced by senses other than the obvious five be considered to have an equal potential for becoming valid and useful. Carl Jung’s dream analysis and the ideas of Robert Assagioli offer tremendous potential for improving psychology’s usefulness if they could be applied with a more pragmatic attitude.These new principles of science would only be a start. Using them would cause a weakening of the uniqueness of the scientific method.

The positive aspects would be to make science more closely aligned with the other evolutionary disciplines of art and philosophy. The potential of such a synthetic discipline formed from the best aspects of art, philosophy, science and mathematics would be tremendous. Such a discipline could be called homosynthesis and would be ideal for humanities apparent future needs.As things stand now, the implications of today’s discoveries will become more and more unreal and fantastic if we continue using present phenomena, the further examination of such ” scientific” discoveries as black holes and quarks must be done within a less rigid framework in order for them to ever become meaningful for humanity. At present, the conclusion that ” modern science” has drawn from them sounds ridiculous. Black holes imply a disappearance of time, matter, and space itself out of the universe possess a quality so exotic that it is referred to as “charm”, for want of a better word. Neutrinos have no mass, no charge and do not leave a trail in a bubble chamber, yet science admits their existence.

Using some of the principles I have postulated would be a good start to make some sense out of the apparent nonsense described above.People look to science for many of the myths we use to give subjective meaning to our existence. The myth that humans have the wisdom and ability to distort natural processes without any negative effects has strongly defined our reality over the last fifty years. Another one is that humans have an infinite capacity for wisdom, and that the rapid application of every scientific discovery, regardless of our understanding of the affects of the implications, is in our best interest.The new principles that I have proposed could lead to new myths. The idea that an individual is part of something beyond his comprehension can lead to an intellige

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