Finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize
"Important and timely. We ignore this message at our peril."Elizabeth Kolbert
Merchants of Doubt has been praisedand attackedaround the world, for reasons easy to understand. This book tells, with “brutal clarity” (Huffington Post), the disquieting 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. The same individuals who claim the science of global warming is “not settled” have also denied the truth about 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. Merchants of Doubt rolls back the rug on this dark corner of American science. Now with a new Foreword by former Vice President Al Gore, and with a new Postscript by the authors.
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About the Author
Erik M. Conway has published five previous books, including Atmospheric Science at NASA: A History and Exploration and Engineering: The Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the Quest for Mars. Merchants of Doubt was their first book together. In 2014, they published The Collapse of Western Civilization: A View from the Future, and they are currently working on The Magic of the Marketplace: The True History of a False Idea.
Read an Excerpt
Merchants of DoubtHow a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming
By NAOMI ORESKES ERIK M. CONWAY
Bloomsbury PressCopyright © 2010 Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway
All right reserved.
IntroductionBen Santer is the kind of guy you could never imagine anyone attacking. He's thoroughly moderate-of moderate height and build, of moderate temperament, of moderate political persuasions. He is also very modest-soft-spoken, almost self-effacing-and from the small size and non ex is tent décor of his office at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, you might think he was an accountant. If you met him in a room with a lot of other people, you might not even notice him.
But Santer is no accountant, and the world has noticed him.
He's one of the world's most distinguished scientists-the recipient of a 1998 MacArthur "genius" award and numerous prizes and distinctions from his employer-the U.S. Department of Energy-because he has done more than just about anyone to prove the human causes of global warming. Ever since his graduate work in the mid-1980s, he has been trying to understand how the Earth's climate works, and whether we can say for sure that human activities are changing it. He has shown that the answer to that question is yes.
Santer is an atmospheric scientist at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory's Model Diagnosis and Intercomparison Project, an enormous international project to store the results of climate models from around the globe, distribute them to other researchers, and compare the models, both with real- world data and with each other. Over the past twenty years, he and his colleagues have shown that our planet is warming-and in just the way you would expect if green house gases were the cause.
Santer's work is called "fingerprinting"-because natural climate variation leaves different patterns and traces than warming caused by green house gases. Santer looks for these fingerprints. The most important one involves two parts of our atmosphere: the troposphere, the warm blanket closest to the Earth's surface, and the stratosphere, the thinner, colder part above it. Physics tells us that if the Sun were causing global warming-as some skeptics continue to insist-we'd expect both the troposphere and the stratosphere to warm, as heat comes into the atmosphere from outer space. But if the warming is caused by green house gases emitted at the surface and largely trapped in the lower atmosphere, then we expect the troposphere to warm, but the stratosphere to cool.
Santer and his colleagues have shown that the troposphere is warming and the stratosphere is cooling. In fact, because the boundary between these two atmospheric layers is in part defined by temperature, that boundary is now moving upward. In other words, the whole structure of our atmosphere is changing. These results are impossible to explain if the Sun were the culprit. It shows that the changes we are seeing in our climate are not natural.
The distinction between the troposphere and the stratosphere became part of the Supreme Court hearing in the case of Massachusetts et al. v. the EPA, in which twelve states sued the federal government for failing to regulate carbon dioxide as a pollutant under the Clean Air Act. Justice Antonin Scalia dissented, arguing that there was nothing in the law to require the EPA to act-but the honorable justice also got lost in the science, at one point referring to the stratosphere when he meant the troposphere. A lawyer for Massachusetts replied, "Respectfully, Your Honor. It is not the stratosphere. It's the troposphere." The justice answered, "Troposphere, what ever. I told you before I'm not a scientist. That's why I don't want to deal with global warming."
But we all have to deal with global warming, whether we like it or not, and some people have been resisting this conclusion for a long time. In fact, some people have been attacking not just the message, but the messenger. Ever since scientists first began to explain the evidence that our climate was warming-and that human activities were probably to blame-people have been questioning the data, doubting the evidence, and attacking the scientists who collect and explain it. And no one has been more brutally-or more unfairly-attacked than Ben Santer.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is the world's leading authority on climate issues. Established in 1988 by the World Meteorological Organization and the United Nations Environment Program, it was created in response to early warnings about global warming. Scientists had known for a long time that increased green house gases from burning fossil fuels could cause climate change-they had explained this to Lyndon Johnson in 1965-but most thought that changes were far off in the future. It wasn't until the 1980s that scientists started to worry-to think that the future was perhaps almost here-and a few mavericks began to argue that anthropogenic climate change was actually already under way. So the IPCC was created to evaluate the evidence and consider what the impacts would be if the mavericks were right.
In 1995, the IPCC declared that the human impact on climate was now "discernible." This wasn't just a few individuals; by 1995 the IPCC had grown to include several hundred climate scientists from around the world. But how did they know that changes were under way, and how did they know they were caused by us? Those crucial questions were answered in Climate Change 1995: The Science of Climate Change, the Second Assessment Report issued by the IPCC. Chapter 8 of this report, "Detection of Climate Change and Attribution of Causes," summarized the evidence that global warming really was caused by green house gases. Its author was Ben Santer.
Santer had impeccable scientific credentials, and he had never before been involved in even the suggestion of impropriety of any kind, but now a group of physicists tied to a think tank in Washington, D.C., accused him of doctoring the report to make the science seem firmer than it really was. They wrote reports accusing him of "scientific cleansing"-expunging the views of those who did not agree. They wrote reports with titles like "Green house Debate Continued" and "Doctoring the Documents," published in places like Energy Daily and Investor's Business Daily. They wrote letters to congressmen, to officials in the Department of Energy, and to the editors of scientific journals, spreading the accusations high and wide. They pressured contacts in the Energy Department to get Santer fired from his job. Most public-and most publicized-was an op-ed piece published in the Wall Street Journal, accusing Santer of making the alleged changes to "deceive policy makers and the public." Santer had made changes to the report, but not to deceive anyone. The changes were made in response to review comments from fellow scientists.
Every scientific paper and report has to go through the critical scrutiny of other experts: peer review. Scientific authors are required to take reviewers' comments and criticisms seriously, and to fix any mistakes that may have been found. It's a foundational ethic of scientific work: no claim can be considered valid-not even potentially valid-until it has passed peer review.
Peer review is also used to help authors make their arguments clearer, and the IPCC has an exceptionally extensive and inclusive peer review pro cess. It involves both scientific experts and representatives of the governments of the participating nations to ensure not only that factual errors are caught and corrected, but as well that all judgments and interpretations are adequately documented and supported, and that all interested parties have a chance to be heard. Authors are required either to make changes in response to the review comments, or to explain why those comments are irrelevant, invalid, or just plain wrong. Santer had done just that. He had made changes in response to peer review. He had done what the IPCC rules required him to do. He had done what science requires him to do. Santer was being attacked for being a good scientist. Santer tried to defend himself in a letter to the editor of the Wall Street Journal-a letter that was signed by twenty- nine co- authors, distinguished scientists all, including the director of the U.S. Global Change Research Program. The American Meteorological Society penned an open letter to Santer affirming that the attacks were entirely without merit. Bert Bolin, the founder and chairman of the IPCC, corroborated Santer's account in a letter of his own to the Journal, pointing out that accusations were flying without a shred of evidence, and that the accusers had not contacted him, nor any IPCC officers, nor any of the scientists involved to check their facts. Had they "simply taken the time to familiarize [themselves] with IPCC rules of procedure," he noted, they would have readily found out that no rules were violated, no procedures were transgressed, and nothing wrong had happened. As later commentators have pointed out, no IPCC member nation ever seconded the complaint.
But the Journal only published a portion of both Santer and Bolin's letters, and two weeks later, they gave the accusers yet another opportunity to sling mud, publishing a letter declaring that the IPCC report had been "tampered with for political purposes." The mud stuck, and the charges were widely echoed by industry groups, business-oriented newspapers and magazines, and think tanks. They remain on the Internet today. If you Google "Santer IPCC," you get not the chapter in question-much less the whole IPCC report-but instead a variety of sites that repeat the 1995 accusations. One site even asserts (falsely) that Santer admitted that he had "adjusted the data to make it fit with political policy," as if the U.S. government even had a climate policy to adjust the data to fit. (We didn't in 1995, and we still don't.)
The experience was bitter for Santer, who spent enormous amounts of time and energy defending his scientific reputation and integrity, as well as trying to hold his marriage together through it all. (He didn't.) Today, this normally mild- mannered man turns white with rage when he recalls these events. Because no scientist starts his or her career expecting things like this to happen.
Why didn't Santer's accusers bother to find out the facts? Why did they continue to repeat charges long after they had been shown to be unfounded? The answer, of course, is that they were not interested in finding facts. They were interested in fighting them.
A few years later, Santer was reading the morning paper and came across an article describing how some scientists had participated in a program, organized by the tobacco industry, to discredit scientific evidence linking tobacco to cancer. The idea, the article explained, was to "keep the controversy alive." So long as there was doubt about the causal link, the tobacco industry would be safe from litigation and regulation. Santer thought the story seemed eerily familiar.
He was right. But there was more. Not only were the tactics the same, the people were the same, too. The leaders of the attack on him were two retired physicists, both named Fred: Frederick Seitz and S. (Siegfried) Fred Singer. Seitz was a solid- state physicist who had risen to prominence during World War II, when he helped to build the atomic bomb; later he became president of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences. Singer was a physicist-in fact, the proverbial rocket scientist-who became a leading figure in the development of Earth observation satellites, serving as the first director of the National Weather Satellite Ser vice and later as chief scientist at the Department of Transportation in the Reagan administration.
Both were extremely hawkish, having believed passionately in the gravity of the Soviet threat and the need to defend the United States from it with high- tech weaponry. Both were associated with a conservative think tank in Washington, D.C., the George C. Marshall Institute, founded to defend Ronald Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI or "Star Wars"). And both had previously worked for the tobacco industry, helping to cast doubt on the scientific evidence linking smoking to death.
From 1979 to 1985, Fred Seitz directed a program for R. J. Reynolds Tobacco Company that distributed $45 million to scientists around the country for biomedical research that could generate evidence and cultivate experts to be used in court to defend the "product." In the mid- 1990s, Fred Singer coauthored a major report attacking the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency over the health risks of secondhand smoke. Several years earlier, the U.S. surgeon general had declared that secondhand smoke was hazardous not only to smokers' health, but to anyone exposed to it. Singer attacked this finding, claiming the work was rigged, and that the EPA review of the science-done by leading experts from around the country-was distorted by a political agenda to expand government control over all aspects of our lives. Singer's anti- EPA report was funded by a grant from the Tobacco Institute, channeled through a think tank, the Alexis de Tocqueville Institution.
Millions of pages of documents released during tobacco litigation demonstrate these links. They show the crucial role that scientists played in sowing doubt about the links between smoking and health risks. These documents-which have scarcely been studied except by lawyers and a handful of academics-also show that the same strategy was applied not only to global warming, but to a laundry list of environmental and health concerns, including asbestos, secondhand smoke, acid rain, and the ozone hole.
Call it the "Tobacco Strategy." Its target was science, and so it relied heavily on scientists-with guidance from industry lawyers and public relations experts-willing to hold the rifle and pull the trigger. Among the multitude of documents we found in writing this book were Bad Science: A Resource Book-a how-to handbook for fact fighters, providing example after example of successful strategies for undermining science, and a list of experts with scientific credentials available to comment on any issue about which a think tank or corporation needed a negative sound bite.
Excerpted from Merchants of Doubt by NAOMI ORESKES ERIK M. CONWAY Copyright © 2010 by Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway. Excerpted by permission.
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Table of Contents
1 Doubt Is Our Product 10
2 Strategic Defense, Phony Facts, and the Creation of the George C. Marshall Institute 36
3 Sowing the Seeds of Doubt: Acid Rain 66
4 Constructing a Counternarrative: The Fight over the Ozone Hole 107
5 What's Bad Science? Who Decides? The Fight over Secondhand Smoke 136
6 The Denial of Global Warming 169
7 Denial Rides Again: The Revisionist Attack on Rachel Carson 216
Conclusion: Of Free Speech and Free Markets 240
Epilogue: A New View of Science 266