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Distorting Science While Invoking Science

Debating Science Shouldn’t Enable Antiscience Disinformation

Merchants of Doubt Book Cover SOURCE: Merchants of Doubt Book In their new book Merchants of Doubt, Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway document how the cast of characters peddling pseudo-science had been stunningly consistent over the years, from secondhand smoke skeptics to “Star Wars” missile defense proponents to modern climate science deniers.

Despite a two decades old consensus among climate scientists that the globe is warming, many people believe that there is still an active debate. This is due in large part to a direct and strategic public relations campaign being waged behind the scenes by free market-fundamentalists and funded by big polluters. Big industries such as tobacco, oil, and coal, aided by conservative foundations and the free-market ideologues who inhabit them, have spent hundreds of millions of dollars to undermine science and scientists. In doing so, they make it difficult, if not close to impossible, for ordinary people to get the information upon which reasoned public policy should be based.

This coalition, promoting disinformation while claiming to be dedicated to science, is nothing new. In fact, today’s climate deniers are using the same playbook used by supporters of Ronald Reagan’s failed “Star Wars” program in the 1980s, and by the tobacco industry to avoid regulation of secondhand smoke in the 1990s. Indeed, science denial, free-market fundamentalists, and big industries have a long and sorry past together.

Let’s start with secondhand smoke. In the 1950s, scientific evidence demonstrated beyond a reasonable doubt that the tars in tobacco smoke caused cancer. The tobacco industry responded by trying to get science on its side, pumping money into scientific and medical research that might show that tobacco was all right after all. It didn’t work. Despite decades of effort and hundreds of millions of dollars spent, the industry was losing the public relations battle, and, more important, customers. By the 1980s, smoking rates had decreased dramatically.

In the early 1990s, things got even worse for the industry, as science showed that secondhand smoke was deadly, too. Philip Morris executives decided then that science itself was their enemy. In 1993 they created an organization called The Advancement of Sound Science Coalition, or TASSC, and a website,, which claimed that the science surrounding secondhand smoke was “junk.”

Soon, TASSC was making that claim about the science related to the ozone hole and global warming as well, and Philip Morris was recruiting third parties—mostly libertarian think tanks and antitax groups, such as the Heartland Institute, Americans for Tax Reform, and National Empowerment Television, a conservative TV network—to join the effort.

It is perhaps not surprising that the tobacco industry found antigovernment groups willing to make common cause. But it is a bit more surprising that they found reputable scientists—indeed, some exceptionally distinguished ones—willing to help them. As we document in our new book, Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming—the tobacco industry and libertarian think tanks knew that to make their claims seem credible, they would need scientists to make them.

In the 1950s, the Tobacco Industry had recruited C.C. Little, a prominent geneticist (and one-time eugenicist) to direct a “research program” to challenge the mainstream scientific position that tobacco was deadly.

In the 1970s, after Little retired, R.J. Reynolds created its own Biomedical Research Program, and recruited former National Academy of Science president Frederick Seitz. From 1979 to 1985, Seitz (by this time retired from the presidency of Rockefeller University) ran a research program for Reynolds that served to generate results and experts that could be deployed to defend smoking.

How did Seitz segue from defending tobacco to attacking these other lines of scientific inquiry? Well, in 1984, Seitz had joined forces with Robert Jastrow, founder of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, and William Nierenberg, retiring director of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, to create the George C. Marshall Institute. The goal of the new organization was to defend President Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative (also known as “Star Wars”) from attack by the Union of Concerned Scientists, and in particular by the equally prominent physicists Hans Bethe, Richard Garwin, and astronomer Carl Sagan.

Between 1984 and 1989, the Marshall Institute focused on defeating communism by emphasizing the Soviet threat and the defensive possibilities of Star Wars. In hindsight it is clear that they greatly exaggerated both. One 1987 piece by Jastrow thundered that “America had five years left” before the Soviet Union became so superior it would achieve world domination without firing a shot. The collapse of the Eastern Block only two years later proved them wrong, yet the Marshall Institute didn’t go out of business for its inaccurate advocacy.

Instead, they found a new enemy to fight, an internal enemy they perceived as the next great threat to liberty—environmentalism and the science that supported it.

During the 1988 election, candidate George H. W. Bush had promised to address climate change—pledging to meet the “greenhouse effect with the White House effect.” But soon after Bush took office, Nierenberg presented a briefing to the White House staff that claimed global warming was caused by the sun, not greenhouse gases, and that as solar irradiance declined during the 1990s, the Earth would begin to cool.

Despite a complete lack of evidence that the sun actually had increased in brightness during the previous few decades, Nierenberg’s briefing was taken seriously. One White House staffer commented on the written report that accompanied it, “Everyone has read it.” And it strengthened a faction within the White House, led by Chief of Staff John Sununu, which opposed environmental regulation.

Alan Bromley, appointed a few months later as the president’s science advisor, realized how the White House staff had been misled. After some effort, he managed to restart discussion of the pros and cons of carbon taxes and cap and trade systems within the White House. In 1992 President Bush signed the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change despite continued opposition inside his own administration. But the Framework Convention was only a promise of intent—it set no binding limits on greenhouse gases. That was supposed to be done later, in what became the Kyoto Protocol, negotiated in the mid-1990s. By then, the Marshall Institute had forged links to the American Petroleum Institute and to Republican leaders who now controlled Congress.

Meanwhile, Seitz and Nierenberg had joined forces with another Cold War physicist, S. Fred Singer, one of the original rocket scientists of the late 1940s and 1950s. In 1990, Singer had established the “Science and Environmental Policy Project” in office space shared with the Washington Institute for Values in Public Policy, a think tank financed by the strongly anticommunist Unification Church. In editorials published by the Washington Times (owned by the Unification Church) and in many other venues, Singer now took on the issue of the ozone hole, insisting that the problem was being exaggerated, and that there was no scientific consensus on the issue, and it would be premature to regulate chlorofluorocarbons, or CFC’s.

Of course, in retrospect scientists from around the world decisively and conclusively determined CFC’s to be a major threat the ozone layer, which is the planet’s natural line of defense against cancer-causing ultraviolet radiation. Thankfully, world leaders listened to the urgency of the actual science, and in 1987 signed the Montreal Protocol, which set a declining cap on ozone-depleting pollution. Kofi Annan hailed the treaty as “perhaps the single most successful international agreement to date,” and thanks to swift political action, scientists believe the ozone layer will recover fully by 2050.

Undeterred by overwhelming scientific evidence, Singer also defended tobacco. In the mid 1990s, finding all avenues for legitimate scientific debate about the effects of second-hand smoke exhausted, he turned to   attacking the Environmental Protection Agency’s review process. His work was extensively cited in a handbook of antiscience circulated by the industry in 1993: Bad Science: A Resource Book. The two-hundred page collection of opinion pieces and quotations was designed to make mainstream science appear corrupt and unreliable. But legitimate scientific debate occurs in the pages of academic journals, not in op-eds or in industry-circulated handbooks.

Then, in 1996, Singer joined Seitz and Nierenberg in attacking a young scientist from the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, Benjamin Santer, over his leadership of one chapter of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Second Assessment Report.  In the opinion pages of The Wall Street Journal, they attacked Santer, and claimed that he had altered the report to fit U.S. climate policy (as if there even was one!). The attack on Santer in op-eds and other non-science fora presaged last year’s assault on climate science, the theft of email from the University of East Anglia, and subsequent media feeding frenzy.

The attack also presaged Oklahoma Senator James Inhofe’s recent threat to indict climate scientists, and the witch-hunt by Virginia Attorney General Kenneth Cuccinelli focused on climate scientist Michael Mann, who had previously taught at the University of Virginia, and who has been exonerated by four separate panels. All these events are consistent with a longer history of attempts to undermine science and scientists to prevent government regulation of harmful industrial products and activities.

The New York Times recently declared the East Anglia affair a “manufactured controversy,” but this is just the most recent in a pattern of manufactured controversies spanning decades, a product of the ideology that George Soros has called “free market fundamentalism.” It is an ideology that rejects the idea that government regulation is ever appropriate.

Over the past half century, science has demonstrated that many industrial activities and consumer products are damaging to the natural environment and to human health: tobacco, DDT, acid rain, ozone depletion, and the burning of fossil fuels. These activities have unintended consequences that the marketplace did not anticipate, and did not succeed in preventing. Because these unintended consequences are “market failures,” it is reasonable to conclude that something needs to be done, something that creates a “price” for bad behavior that markets can recognize.

That something could be a carbon tax, or it could be a cap and trade system, or it could be some other form of regulation or prevention. Yet some people have continued to insist—despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary—that all problems can and should be solved in the marketplace and no government action is needed. Because science suggests that government action is needed to protect the common good, free market fundamentalists have come to see science itself as their enemy.

The efforts of these free market ideologues to undermine legitimate scientific debate in the popular media helps to explain why, 18 years after President Bush signed the U.N. Framework Convention, people are still confused about the science of climate change. It also helps explain why the federal government has taken no action to reduce emissions while nearly every other major economy puts together climate action plans. Meanwhile, the ice caps continue to melt, the permafrost thaws, and weather events become more extreme.

Ironically, worsening climate change and the increasing risk that we are approaching irreversible tipping points make it more likely that the heavy-handed government intervention that conservatives dread will actually be required. The longer we wait, the harder the problem of climate change will become to solve—and the more likely it is that climate change will become not just inconvenient, but very destructive, and perhaps catastrophic.

Naomi Oreskes is a professor of history of science and provost of Sixth College at UC San Diego. Erik Conway is a historian of science and technology, living in Pasadena, California.

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