Merchants of Doubt

Issue section: 
(353)

Naomi Oreskes and Erik M Conway, Bloomsbury, £25

This year began with the failure of the Copenhagen talks. Many world leaders were happy to have a get-out clause from meaningful action over climate change. In part, they were given that get-out clause by the response of the world's media to the leaked emails from climate scientists, dubbed "Climategate". Climate change sceptics once again seem to have triumphed in derailing crucial climate talks and raising doubts about scientific questions which have been widely settled since the first climate talks in Rio in 1992.

This book is not a direct response to these events, but it is timely and useful for understanding how and why science which has been overwhelmingly understood can be ignored and rejected by those in authority, with huge consequences for society.

In this instance the focus is on the role of key scientists in using their positions of influence and authority to obscure the truth. A small group of scientists, well-respected physicists Fred Seitz, Fred Singer, Robert Jastrow and William Nierenberg, motivated by ideology rather than money, organised with powerful people in business and government to challenge the growing scientific consensus on a range of issues, from cigarette smoking to global warming.

These were men who were committed to the ideology of the Cold War and free markets. Over a wide range of issues their ideological perspective put them at odds with the facts and scientific evidence. The evidence which linked smoking to cancer became seen by these scientists as the output of a scientific establishment hell-bent on regulating private areas of life. Evidence of acid rain indicated for them scientists who had a lack of confidence in the achievements of modern society and wanted to turn the clock back. Consequently, this small group of "Cold War warriors" set to work in "manufacturing doubt" about these established scientific understandings.

The methods have been the same in each case. There is a denial of the existence of scientific agreement, although this small group have often been the only ones who have disagreed. They have created the idea of controversy where none has existed, ably supported by a compliant press. Uncertainties which always exist in science are taken out of context to create the impression that everything is unresolved.

This is reinforced by the use of industry-funded think-tanks which publish non-peer-reviewed papers restating the artificially created "scientific controversies". It is this work which invariably gets front page treatment by an uncritical press.

When the Cold War ended these men looked for a new great threat. They found it in environmentalism. Problems such as the pollution caused by unrestricted commercial activity required solutions based on regulation. Given such a choice, these scientists preferred to deny the problem over supporting such measures.

It is this ideological commitment to the free market that has led to the ferocity with which climate scientists have been attacked. Naomi Oreskes and Erik M Conway, the authors of this book, argue, "Global warming becomes the most charged of all environmental debates, because it is global... If the rules of economic activity are the central concern of contemporary conservatives, then global warming has to be central, too, because it stems from how we produce and use energy, and energy is involved in all economic activity."

This book makes a major contribution to understanding why climate scepticism is a cause around which the right wing are rallying and the lengths they will go to in order to ensure that the science that can inform the need for change in society is deliberately obscured.

It identifies free market ideology as the crucial obstacle to change, and hopefully it will encourage readers to draw the obvious conclusions about capitalism and the environment.