Lit Review: Merchants of Doubt

I recently finished “Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming” by Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway. This book was recommended to me by Anne W. If you’ve got some time, I’d definitely recommend picking this one up. It’s a relatively quick read (over half the book is citations), and shows how politics can hijack the scientific process, and not necessarily for the better.

The book weaves together the stories of smoking, secondhand smoke, DDT, the ozone hole, acid rain, and global warming to show how a small group of scientists-the same group-used their prestige and influence in Washington circles to discredit researchers and breed doubt in the minds of policy-makers and the public. They did this by taking the results of their “research” and their opinion articles directly to the press and the White House, circumventing the normal peer review process and putting their ideas in places where millions of people would see them. This tactic was wildly successful: in nearly all cases, it delayed regulation by 10 or more years (the United States still hasn’t signed the Kyoto Protocol).

This book reminded me of two things. The first was the film “An Inconvenient Truth”, and how I was asked over and over again if I thought “global warming was real”. As a newly-minted meteorologist (the film was released the year after I graduated), I didn’t have much of an opinion. After bogging down a hapless victim or two with discussion of radiative forcing, cloud cover, aerosols and albedo, I realised two things: 1. I needed a 30-second opinion, and 2. That opinion needed to answer that question, and not critique the film. I doubted-and still do–Gore’s use of Katrina as an example of global warming making a storm worse than it otherwise would be. So much of what made Katrina bad had to do with people, not with nature.

The second thing it reminded me of was trying to discuss environment with my ex-husband. He was a Tea Partyer before there was a name for them, and always had copies of National Review lying around. He wanted me to read them (to make me see the light, as it were), so I picked up a couple issues featuring global warming and gave it a go. I read along along, seeing how they progressed from reporting a study to drawing conclusions about the state of the environment as a whole. In the end, the study in question was never mentioned. No title, no author, no nothing. Just “a study”, some “facts”, and “expert commentary”. Not even the lead author, just an expert. The discussions with the ex were cut short when I returned his magazine and said “That’s great, honey. What article were they citing? I’d like to read that. There’s too much opinion and not enough fact to make sense of it.” Asking for sources isn’t apparently the done thing among National Review readers.

I’ll leave you with the authors’ closing pleas: to trust scientists, trust the peer review process, and realise that they’re not out for personal gain, as a group. Scientists are not let off the hook, either: make a greater effort to communicate your findings in a way that is simple and accessible. Speak up, and do your part to prevent the spread of misinformation. Trust works both ways.

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