Friday, June 17, 2011

Merchants of Doubt, a book review

Merchants of Doubt by Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway is an important and eye-opening book. Many of us may have a vague, nagging feeling that there's still something wrong with the science on global warming or acid rain, or an idea that Rachel Carson's attack on DDT was somehow sloppy or overly emotional. It turns out that the reason these doubts play on our mind is that a small group of Cold War physicists and their associates have vigorously campaigned to promote these doubts. Tightly argued and copiously referenced, Merchants of Doubt shows how for this group of scientists, opposition to Communism became opposition to environmentalism because of their conviction that environmentalism would lead to socialist attacks on the free market and therefore on freedom itself.

A handful of scientists and a small but powerful network of funders and think tanks, from Phillip Morris to Exxon to the Competitive Enterprise and Cato Institutes, have orchestrated campaigns of doubt against emerging scientific consensus on a series of issues from the harms of smoking (and second hand smoke) to the ineffectiveness of the Strategic Defense Initiative (Star Wars) to depletion of the ozone layer to acid rain to global warming. Oddly, they have even tried belatedly to undermine Rachel Carson's work on the harmfulness of DDT, charging Carson with responsibility for the malaria deaths of a million African children -- ignoring the fact that insect resistance had already undermined the effectiveness of DDT before Carson wrote Silent Spring.

Oreskes and Conway demonstrate the common strategies used by these scientific contrarians. They begin by focusing on questions and controversies within the scientific community. They call for more research before any precipitate action. They meet with journalists and editorial boards and urge them to "report both sides" of an issue even if one side carries the weight of scientific consensus while the other side is supported only by a handful of professional doubters. They write articles for non-peer-reviewed (often industry-sponsored) publications and then quote these reports in the popular press as if they had equal weight with original peer-reviewed research or massive reports of scientific consensus. When necessary, they launch vicious attacks on the personal integrity of scientists they see as representing the wrong side.

This is scary stuff. It's important to read this book carefully, to keep an eye open for evidence of bias or exaggeration by the authors. At times they may state some conclusion a bit too strongly. At times they attribute motives to the sowers of doubt without real knowledge of what their motives are. But all in all, this is an important, disturbing book that shows how we can allow ourselves to be deceived by our own intellectual laziness and our preference for believing things aren't so bad that we have to change how we live. Too often we've allowed ourselves to be lulled into complacency by so-called experts wearing ideological blinders. Too often these experts are working for the benefit of those who have the most money to lose if the truth about negative environmental effects of certain industries becomes widely known.

This is a dense book, with hundreds of names, a good index, and 64 pages of notes. But it reads quickly, if not quite like a thriller. The science is well explained, although I might have wished for more detail in places. For me there was a bit too much repetitive writing about the nature of science - but maybe that's important for readers who have spent less time following scientific controversies over time. Fortify yourself against false doubt: read this book.

No comments:

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...