Merchants of Doubt

Pundits have mused that Al Gore needs to produce an imperative sequel to his documentary, "An Inconvenient Truth." In this second version, he would explain why—given the great, even overwhelming, convergence among scientists on the primarily human caused global warming--so few people seem to register its dangers or respond to its potential challenges. I was asked just that question by a high school student last week when I gave a lecture on eco-justice and creation care. My response to her was threefold. First, the issue itself is so vast, so global, so complicated to address that ordinary people feel they have little to offer by way of any solution. They defer to the "experts." As Thomas Friedman seems to argue in his 2008 book, Hot, Flat and Crowded: Why We Need a Green Revolution, only large scale planning on an intergovernmental level can really address the massive scope of the climate issue.

Next, most scenarios about global warming tend to stress the dangers, indeed possible catastrophes, in not addressing the issue rather than Friedman’s alternative emphasis that a green revolution might actually be a potential boon for technological innovations and the production of new jobs. Even though we clearly know death and taxes are impossible to elude, we tend to be in denial about these realities which get painted in pastels of gloom and inevitable loss or failure.

But, I had just finished reading the excellent new 2010 book by Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway (both of them historians of science), Merchants of Doubt. Its subtitle throws some light on the skepticism (despite the scientific consensus) about global warming: “ How a handful of scientists obscured the truth on issues from tobacco smoke to global warming.” Oreskes and Conway document, through a series of case studies--about the health harms of tobacco and second-hand smoke; acid rain; the ozone hole caused by chlorofluorocarbons released by spray cans, air-conditioners and refrigerators; about the harmful effects of the insecticide, DDT; about global warming--how a handful of contrarian scientists (almost none of them, in fact, specialists on health or climate-issues) crop up again and again as skeptics about the harms of tobacco and second-hand smoke, about acid rain, the ozone hole, the effects of
DDT or global warming.

It is instructive to know who has funded these skeptics’ research. Over and over again, the names include Phillip Morris (on the tobacco issues), the right-wing Scaife, Olin, Adolph Coors Foundations, Exxon Mobil (which dispensed 8 million dollars to 40 different organizations to challenge the science on global warming), the Heritage Foundation, The American Enterprise Institute, The Heartland Institute, and the George Marshall Institute. Of the 56 environmentally skeptical books published in 1990, for example, 92% were linked to one or other of these right-wing foundations. Many of the scientists who became the skeptical voices against the need for some governmental regulations against environmental harms were old-style cold-warriors who had worked on nuclear weapons and the Star Wars Initiatives of the Reagan administration. Fred Singer, Fred Seitz, William Nierenberg, Robert Jastrow, Stephen Milloy show a decided pattern. Part of their argument appeals to normal scientific uncertainties to undermine the status of actual scientific knowledge.

For example, no one now doubts the scientific links between tobacco (directly inhaled or second-hand) and cancer. Yet, of course, not everyone who smokes gets cancer. There may also be some genetic predispositions to cancer, as well. This uncertainty why some may be immune does not really undermine a  striking statistical probability of the linkage between tobacco and cancer. Nor are the deleterious effects of DDT on the environment really in doubt.

When debate raged on the impact of acid rain from sulfur dioxide during the Reagan Administration, Fred Singer (an atomic physicist, not a climatologist) argued vigorously (an argument typical of the skeptics) that dealing with acid rain involved "a billion dollar solution to a million dollar problem.æ As it turns out, in 2003 the Environmental Protection Agency reported to Congress that the costs of air pollution control for the previous 10 years had been 8-10 billion dollars, with its benefits reckoned at 101-119 billion dollars. At the time of the ozone hole controversy, Fred Singer had argued that the science was incomplete and uncertain (science, by its nature, is almost always incomplete but that does not make it basically uncertain. There are always ordinary uncertainties in science which do not rule out some scientific sureties). Singer also contended that replacing chlorofluorocarbons would be difficult, dangerous and expensive (in the event, a cap and trade scheme proved very workable). His final claim was that the scientific community is corrupt and motivated by self-interest.

The scientific claims supporting the dangers to health from tobacco, DDT, acid rain, the ozone hole, global warming all appear in reputable scientific journals. The unscientific skeptical views appear in the mass media (for example, in The Wall Street Journal or on NBC). You could never, at present, publish an article in a peer-reviewed scientific journal claiming that there is no global warming or that it is not, fundamentally, based on human carbon footprints. Paradoxically, however, one impact of the 1949 "Fairness Doctrine" which demanded, on broadcasts and journalism, a sort of balance is that it is, then, applied to science. The Fairness Doctrine makes sense for politics but not for science. Science is about evidence and close peer scrutiny, not about mere opinion. As Oreskes and Conway argue, “Balance was interpreted by journalists and broadcasters as giving equal weight to both sides rather than giving accurate weight to both sides.” After all, just because I may believe the earth is flat, does not give me some right to equal-time with true science.

Many of the skeptics argue their case in terms of liberty. Singer, for example, sees the issue of environmentalism as close to a slippery slope to socialism. He resists, fiercely, any governmental intrusion on the workings of the free-market. But as Isaiah Berlin once
famously argued: “Liberty for the wolves means death to the lambs.”

Anyone who wants to know what science has to say about global warming (and the legitimate areas for uncertainties) should read James Hansen’s  2009 magisterial book, Storms of My Grandchildren: The Truth about the Coming Climate Catastrophe and Our Last Chance to Save Humanity. Hansen carefully documents why human green house gas is the culprit “forcing” climate change and , then, discusses, with great care, some remaining uncertainties about possible feed-backs  mechanisms which lead scientists to debate, somewhat, about timing, the amount of possible increases of greenhouse gas which can be absorbed , etc.

But as Oreskes and Conway argue, “the ideal of balance leads journalists to give minority views more credence than they deserve.” Nicholas Stern, chief economist and senior Vice President of the World Bank from 2000-2003 and the principal author of The Stern Review of the Economics of Climate Change (which was commissioned by the then British Prime Minister, Gordon Brown ) has called climate change “the greatest and widest ranging market failure ever seen." Right-wing foundations and some of their "scientific" hired guns can not stomach any talk about market failure and fear that governmental standards and regulations lead us down some slippery slope toward socialism. For them, as George Will once said, environmentalism is a green tree with red roots. Pity a world where forces of money and mere opinion undermine the legitimate counsel of science! Or, where the media, in the spurious name of "fair and free speech," actually contributes to skepticism about global warming!  

John Coleman, S.J.


6 years 8 months ago
Ah yes, dismiss your critics by suggesting any combination of the following: 1) they are corporate lackeys paid off by Big Business; 2) they aren't smart enough to get published in "peer-reviewed" journals, but have to stick to the decidedly low-brow "mass media"; & 3) they hardly count as true scientists, who do not bother peddling mere opinion, but only speak the truth.
I'm glad the Jesuits who taught me taught me to respect the skeptics!
Gregory Popcak
6 years 8 months ago
While the question of anthropogenic climate change continues to fuel debate, I was disappointed by the Gore's separation because one factor that has been shown to be a definitive detriment to the environment is separation and divorce.
According to the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The study found that "divorced households used 73 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity and 627 billion gallons of water that could have been saved had household size remained the same as that of married households. Thirty-eight million extra rooms were needed with associated costs for heating and lighting."  
Likewise, the number of rooms per person in divorced households (accounting for a greater use of construction materials, destruction to the environment cause by additional housing needs, and increased usuage of utilities) was between 33-95% greater than in married households.
All of this points to the inconvenient truth that the divorce between the social conservative and the social justice camps is counterproductive because one set of issues directly impacts the other.  Even more than remembering to turn off the lights or recycle, one of the best things we can do to protect the environment is to enact programs to preserve marriage and prevent the  use  of the excess resources in the first place.
James Lindsay
6 years 8 months ago
I have no doubt about global warming being caused by man - indeed, it probably got us out of what is known as the Little Ice Age. I am just not sure it is such a bad thing - it should certainly not be so controlled that we go back to the very cold summers we experienced in the 18th & 19th centuries. DDT science was right, however banning it has led to a malaria epidemic in Africa. Not good. Sometimes science is wrong - for example - eugenics. Skepticism on acid rain is justified given the natural acidity of lakes in the northeast - although taking sulfur out of coal or not burning it at all would help in the fight against asthma - as does health care reform. (If health care reform had existed when I was in Jr. High, I would not have had untreated asthma most of that time. Air pollution from an Ohio Edison coal plant also had something to do with the asthma as well).

I have no doubt that cigarette smoking causes cancer in smokers. The statistical analyses are pretty convincing that it does. The same level of statistical rigor is not there on second hand smoke - however second hand smoke is still rude when you are trying to have dinner and ex-smokers are particularly bothered by it. Since ex-smokers and non-smokers of a certain age seem to be the majority in middle aged society (and the vast majority of the elderly, since the smokers have pretty much died off), second hand smoking bans are no surprise.

Only Austrian economists would call government intrusion into these areas socialism. Marxian socialism would be for the government to simply seize and shut down these industries (along with the rest of the economy), not tax them.
James Lindsay
6 years 8 months ago
Allowing the divorced to easily remarry would certainly remit the environmental damage. I am not advocating that, but merely calling a cheap shot at Gore for what it is. Of course, since Gore is not Catholic, he can remarry anyway.
Martin Gallagher
6 years 8 months ago
I am a scientist who studies complex systems (albeit not climatology).  I cannot understand how the climatologists can be so certain about their conclusions which are based (as far as I can tell) solely on historical measurements and simplified models coupled with simulation.  It irks me that those who question their conclusions are assumed to have ulterior motives.  Ironically, I think it is the climatologists' certainty about their conclusions that drives the skepticism. 
I would be much more comfortable if the climatologists concluded that there was a danger (not a certainty) of significant anthropocentric global warming.  This danger, coupled with a myriad number of other valid reasons, should prompt us to substantially reduce our fossil fuel consumption (provided it is done in a way that is consistent with Catholic morality, of course).
6 years 8 months ago
Mr. (Dr.) Gallagher - I assume your check from (fill in the blank right-wing organization/corporation) will be arriving shortly?
I agree that it is the near-religious certainty & apolocalypticism with which this issue is discussed that is troubling.
6 years 8 months ago
There was a debate at MIT some time late last year about Global Warming.  There were six presenters.  The five arguments for global warming were emotional based.  The one dissenter was a climate scientist named Richard Lindzen who presented scientific facts.  When I saw that I knew what it was all about.  I do not know much about climate science but I know human nature. 
Does Hansen's book refer to the Hockey Stick''  I understand that it has been discredited and as such means that the current temperatures are not unusual.
Father Coleman's telling line in his post is ''only large scale planning on an intergovernmental level can really address the massive scope of the climate issue.''  This is what scares people more than anything.  It seems to imply that there should be a world government approach to this and leads people to think that this is what it is all about.  Is it not about climate science but about politics.
Also Father Coleman should read the discussion on Mr. Winter's post today about the use of the term ''right wing.''  It is a bogus concept and it is used here in the usual inappropriate manner.
Beth Cioffoletti
6 years 8 months ago
Ther are deceivers on both sides. Even scientists have agendas.
As far as I can tell, the climate crisis (which you may choose to deny) is moving in parallel to the economic crisis (which only Holocaust deniers and flat earth society members might deny). Environmental degradation, whether warming or just pollution, is linked to unsustainable unmanaged growth, built on lies as surely as mortgage brokers lied to home buyers, and buyers lied to themselves.
Broadly, the believers are folks who see a major sea change coming, as much economic as it is climate-related, and would try to temper collapse into a manageable, necessary, even healthy decline. I wish them luck; they are too few to effect the change they need to. Practice being poor; it will be a useful social skill in the future.
The nay-sayers are defending an unsustainable standard of living because they don't want to change. The standard of living is built on the backs not only of their invisible fellow citizens, but much of the rest of the world. 'American self-interest' is code for keeping 'em down where they are supposed to be. Except the jig is up. It is just laughable that we think we are going to tell the Indian and Chinese billions to slow their growth while 'I've got mine' America sits by with a 'who, me?' expression on her face.
Maybe in the big picture, the economic crisis is the world's way of cooling the planet.
Rick Drake
6 years 8 months ago
I don’t get it.

Why would Father Coleman mention the George C. Marshall Foundation in the same breath with any comment on global warming or climate change?

“It is instructive to know who has funded these skeptics’ research. Over and over again, the names include Phillip Morris (on the tobacco issues), the right-wing Scaife, Olin, Adolph Coors Foundations, Exxon Mobil (which dispensed 8 million dollars to 40 different organizations to challenge the science on global warming), the Heritage Foundation, The American Enterprise Institute, The Heartland Institute, and the George Marshall Foundation.”

The George C. Marshall Foundation is dedicated to preserving, protecting and promoting the legacy of George C. Marshall, a great contributor to the American Century. We have no position on climate change.

He must be confusing us the George C. Marshall Institute, which is located in Washington, DC and very much involved climate change discussions.

The misreference and the Institute both do the legacy of George Marshall a disservice.

Rick Drake

Don't miss the best from America

Sign up for our Newsletter to get the Jesuit perspective on news, faith and culture.

The latest from america

Although Ms. McCorvey was the plaintiff in Roe v. Wade, she later became a pro-life activist.
Deciding whether or not to #deleteUber or to boycott Ivanka is a luxury most Americans cannot afford.
The EditorsFebruary 17, 2017
The love and healing to be found in prayer and meditation are available to all.
Nathan SchneiderFebruary 17, 2017
Summit participants learned about mental health awareness, suicide prevention and pastoral wellness.
Wyatt MasseyFebruary 17, 2017