At the end of each edition of the journal, which comes out six times a year, PT publishes scholarly book reviews. We cannot possibly do all that we would like, so I am going to make it a feature of this blog that we make some comments about the books we are reading.
This week I have finished reading Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming. Written by two eminent historians of science, Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway, the book details in depth what many have long suspected, that there is a veritable industry of bamboozlement, funded by the business community, which has undermined the findings of legitimate science in order to further the ideological goals of political conservatives and pad the bottom line of the businesses mostly likely to benefit.
From the 1950s to the 1970s there arose a cluster of foundations, institutes, and think tanks whose task it was to influence policy from a conservative perspective, particularly in areas in which government regulation threatened to erode corporate profits. The first “big” issue that these organizations attacked was the rising concern, beginning in the 1950s, that smoking was a primary factor in the rise of cancer rates in the US. Arising out of the fight against the government to beat back regulations as long as possible and the concurrent battle to win the hearts and lungs minds of the American smoker and their offspring, there developed a methodological approach to obfuscation that was followed again and again for the next fifty years. A small cadre of politically well-connected scientists who had cut their teeth in the nuclear program of the 1940s, whose names crop up again and again in the book no matter the issue under consideration, be it smoking or global warming, aided by organizations like the American Enterprise Institute, the Competitive Enterprise Institute, the George C. Marshall Institute, and the Heritage Foundation, to name just a few, have been able to stymie both regulatory reform as well as policy formation and implementation on a whole range of issues that greatly effect the well-being of the average citizen.
The tactics are the same no matter what the issue. Attack the messenger by whatever means possible. Focus attention on what is NOT known about the problem, drawing away people’s attention from what is settled science, so as to make it seem like more questions remain than actually do. But above all, make the issue one of politics rather than science, so that the matter looks to the public like just another instance of partisanship, rather than fact. Since scientists are not organized for political activity and don’t usually have the skills or the means to argue in nine second sound bites in 24 hour news cycles, keeping the argument on the home field of the industry-backed institutes with virtually unlimited PR budges has meant that the nation has increasingly fallen under the sway of profit-driven junk science.
Anyone interested in either the science or policy angles of any of these issues over the last fifty years, or how the business community has managed to silence modern science in favor of its own agenda would benefit greatly from reading this book.