Deception, Distortion, and Misinformation about Climate Science

Book Review:
By Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway –
Bloomsbury Press, New York, 2010 –
Reviewed by David M. Freedman –

Published in 2010, Merchants of Doubt tracks the relentless, ideologically driven (and industry-funded) efforts of physicists Frederick Seitz, S. Fred Singer, Bill Nierenberg, Robert Jastrow, and a “handful” of other scientists (none of them climate scientists), to discredit well-established scientific consensus on the anthropogenic causes of climate change. To accomplish this mission they did very little original scientific research. They mainly cherry-picked, distorted, and falsified existing research.merchants-of-doubt

In addition to clouding up the field of climate science, they tried to deceive the public about the health hazards of tobacco smoke and the environmental damage caused by acid rain and CFCs. In the process, this handful of men shamelessly tried to tarnish the reputations of distinguished climate scientists like Benjamin D. Santer, an atmospheric scientist at Lawrence Livermore National Lab, and F. Sherwood Rowland, who won a Nobel Prize in chemistry.

The underlying objective of these “merchants of doubt” was to insulate certain industries — tobacco, pesticide manufacturers, carbon-based energy producers, etc. — from regulation.

The authors Oreskes and Conway, science historians, show in stunning detail how politically motivated scientists can create the illusion of two-sided debate in a fairly settled area of science, and then compel the news media to present “both sides of the debate” as though it were in the interest of fairness.

Toward the end of their book, Oreskes and Conway get a little preachy: “Rome may not be burning, but Greenland is melting, and we are still fiddling.”

The last couple of chapters include a superficial discussion of free-market capitalism, free-market fundamentalism, and Cornucopianism (the opposite of Malthusian economics) as they relate to science and science denial. This raises a few questions in my mind:

  • Can we depend on technological innovation to solve potentially catastrophic problems related to global climate change, as the Cornucopians hope?
  • Will there always be a technological solution to every problem?
  • Can technological innovation thrive in a judiciously regulated economy, or must we deny and discredit any scientific discovery that might lead to new regulatory restrictions on exploitation, production, and emission?

Now in 2016 the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Science, Space, and Technology is conducting its own campaign of climate change denial. Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions, maybe our next attorney general, calls climate change a conspiracy theory. A new contingent of politically motivated science distorters and deceivers are at work, including hydrologist Jay Lehr, who has spent time in prison for fraud and is the science editor of the Heartland Institute, which has been funded by Philip Morris, Exxon, and the Charles G. Koch Foundation. The Heartland Institute currently claims that the U.S. EPA’s 1972 ban on DDT in the United States has resulted in the deaths of a million Africans, Asians, and Latin Americans. Never mind that DDT was not banned outside of the USA, and in fact, certain insects have developed resistance to DDT as a result of overuse in some African countries.

By the way, I’m not a scientist; I have a bachelor’s degree in geography from the University of Illinois at Chicago.

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