If you asked people, “do you believe in gravity?” most of the would look at you curiously. Gravity, we all know, is not a matter of belief. But, is you ask someone about their belief in evolution, they will happily tell you whether or not they believe in the science.

As I understand it,the main reason that people don’t want to believe in evolution is that it conflicts with their deeply held faith in the bible’s story of creation. Although I “believe” in evolution, that conflict has always made sense to me. On the other hand, I’ve never understood why some people refuse to believe in the evidence on climate change in a similar way- as though the science threatened their deeply help personal convictions. I never understood what worldview climate science threatened. Obviously, the evidence of anthropogenic climate change threatened the profitability of oil companies, so it makes sense that they would resist the evidence. But everyday, educated Americans without a financial stake in fossil fuels?

The Merchants of Doubt cover. Credit: Amazon.com

I found the answer to this question when I read “Merchants of Doubt” by Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway. The subtitle of the book is “How an handful of scientists obscured the truth on issues from tobacco smoke to global warming,” and Oreskes and Conway, both science historians, tell a meticulously researched tale of cold-war era rocket scientists who turned against scientific evidence. Although the well documented How the book presents makes for a great read, I found the Why to be even more important.

I highly recommend reading the book, because Oreskes and Conway’s conclusion is far more powerful after more than 200 pages of supporting evidence than I can recreate here. The basic plot is that the public doubt in scientific evidence on controversial topics from the health risks of smoking to environmental issues like acid rain, the hole in the ozone layer, and climate change did not arise by accident. Several key characters– influential, well-connected rocket scientists– actively worked to obscure the scientific evidence and raise doubts in the minds of policymakers and the public. Their techniques worked so well for the tobacco industry that the same men used the same playbook in most of our country’s major scientific controversies of the past forty years.

How did they do it? The Mechants of Doubt gives you the play by play. Read it. Long story short, they used their scientific credentials to criticize research in which they had no expertise, they emphasized and magnified the uncertainty that is a natural part of the scientific process, bullied people, suggested that the problems were too small and the solutions too expensive, and used journalists’ practice of “balance” to make sure their side of the debate got as much, if not more, press than the scientific consensus. It’s no wonder the public was left with a lasting impression that the science on this issues wasn’t settled, that we didn’t know enough to act… long after there was clear information in place.

It’s pretty scary stuff. But the most interesting part of the story is the why. And Oreskes and Conway save that for the end. It wasn’t just the money. They argue that all of their central characters who came to power in the cold war era were staunchly anti-communist, free markets were the key to their world view. What all of these controversial scientific issues, secondhand smoke, acid rain, carbon dioxide, have in common is that the problem requires a regulatory solution. From a perspective that prioritizes free markets above all else- environmentalism seems to be just a step away from socialism. Oreskes and Conway call it “Market Fundamentalism.” Fears about the evils of regulations and the slippery slope of government power lead these scientists into denying scientific evidence of mounting environmental problems with near religious fervor.

For me, this was an epiphany. As a child of the 1980s, cold-war era anti-communism feels antiquated to me, but this book is an important reminder of the impacts of history on present day problems. I had never really understood why environmentalism was less common among conservatives (who seem like they should be natural candidates for conservation) except for the basic resistance to expensive government projects. But it makes sense to me now that since problems like pollution require regulatory solutions, if you don’t want to see more regulations, you’d need to dispute the nature of those problems. And, as this book carefully demonstrates, that denial, accomplished through doubt-mongering, can lead to some scary consequences.

Seriously, read the book.

Share →

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *