Earlier this week Oreskes appeared in an interview in the New York Times. She spoke about her new book about the future in a world that has warmed. It would be an interesting read and builds on what she wrote about in Merchants of Doubt. If you are interested, you can check out her interview here.
In 1965, our 36th president Lyndon Johnson delivered a special message to Congress. He said “This generation has altered the composition of the atmosphere on a global scale though…a steady increase in carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels.” These powerful words portrayed how many have known about this issue for a while now. But what has truly been done about it?
Science historians Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway introduce us to this special message in the beginning of the book “Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issue from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming.” Throughout the book, you can see how environmental issues have been just swept under the rug because of other pressing issues at hand that needed to be tended to. Newsflash! There will ALWAYS be pressing issues that need to be tended to! How much longer will we keep our lovely planet waiting?
Oreskes and Conway also point out that the media is responsible for how information is represented or should I say… misrepresented. Information is put out in an exciting way by journalists, which is not wrong. That captures people and engages them. However, somewhere along the lines of “exciting” the truth gets lost. Scientists depend on journalists to get it right because they honestly do not have time to deal with public relations. When information is tampered with, it is the public who goes and knocks on doubt’s door, enters and remains there until further information is released. Climate change and media have a very difficult relationship.
Two of the most important features of a liberalized nation are the right to free speech and freedom of the press. Freedom of speech gives all citizens of a nation the right to voice an opinion or idea using their body or property. Freedom of the press allows the freedom of communication and expression of ideas through various media without state intervention. These two rights enable people to obtain information from a diversity of sources, make decisions, and communicate those decisions to the government, which in turn contributes to progress within a nation and in the world at large.
These two rights are probably the two cornerstones of a liberal society, but nonetheless, these freedoms can still be abused. Take the cases discussed in Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway’s book Merchants of Doubt for example, about a loose-knit group of scientists and scientific advisors who worked to mislead the public on various issues, such as the effects of tobacco smoke on the lungs, the effects of CFCs and the effect humans and technology have on global warming.
This group of scientists worked with large industries to oppose new research that damaged the public perception of said industries. Journalists, in their constant drive for true objectivity, portrayed both sides as being two equal, legitimate arguments. This is seemingly what the idea of free press is about; an argument is formed around an issue, and the media gives equal and neutral coverage to both sides. But the problem with this was that the scientists on the side of large industries were not doing science, but instead merely drawing attention to various uncertainties in the true research on the other side. The two arguments were not equal; while one side was doing truthful, legitimate and objective research, the other was merely finding uncertainties in this science and drawing attention to them, hence creating doubt in the public.
This brings to light an interesting question: Where do we draw the line between objective research and disinformation?
In the age of the Internet, anyone with access to a computer has a way to disseminate his or her opinion to the public. In a sense, this is a big step forward for the freedom of speech, because the discussion of local, national and international issues is opened to more people, ensuring that no one is censored. But on the other hand, this means that the opinions expressed might hold no truth, as is the case with the group of scientists discussed in Merchants of Doubt.
There are a lot of ideas out there that one might not necessarily agree with, but this does not mean they are disinformation. They still deserve to be covered with the same journalistic integrity as the ideas that one does agree with, but the line between objectively researched information and disinformation seems to be very thin. Where do we draw the line between the two without censoring any arguments? How should a journalist decide what to and what not to cover? To be honest, I have no solution to these questions. It seems to me that both journalists and consumers of journalism need to take a better look at the credibility of the information that they are reading. I predict, as widespread Internet use continues to grow, this is a problem that will more and more become an important political issue.
Current political conservative rhetoric typically bashes the government’s regulatory role and promotes a completely free market economy. This view, which became very popular with Ronald Reagan, fails from the perspective of negative externalities and a lack of full cost consideration. If the US had a completely free market, business would be able to rape and pillage land to access mineral reserves, such as fossil fuels to feed our growing population and economy. Fortunately, for the environment, the US government has put in place a series of laws, which protect people, air, land and water. However, these laws and regulations are the very reason why we have climate deniers. Any group (governmental, non-profit, or business) which has a cost presented to it, through legislation or possible action, has a vested interested (benefit) from not having that action completed, this is why corporations have hired people like Seitz, Singer, Nierenberg and others to spread doubt.
These people such as Fred Seitz and Fred Singer (as described in Merchants of Doubt) are essentially climate hit-men, old reputable scientists working to promote the interest of corporations looking to profit from resource extraction or products that damage personal/environmental health (ie. Cigarettes or DDT). These corporations have a vested interest in avoiding the added externalities of their products, and thus are willing to spend millions of dollars to prevent any kind of environmental or health governmental action. This is where the media begins to unfairly represent climate change. Journalists are used to presenting two sides of any argument from neighborhood parks to health care, journalists attempt to cover both sides of the story. They are mistaken then when they attempt to do the same with climate change or scientific issues in general. Seeing as the public does not read scientific journals, Seitz, Singer, and others are able to insert their propaganda into the mass media. This leads to bias in the media in how climate change deniers are presented to the public. Deniers are typically given equal time and reputation for a factually incorrect viewpoint. This is the first step that must change in order to help the public understand the degree of certainty that we have (as scientists) in the current research on climate. (See John Oliver’s show here for a more accurate, and comic, representation of a debate)
In the end, it is the responsibility of those of us who have contributed most to the pollution to take action now to prevent future devastation. Climate change is like second-hand smoke. Those of us in the developed world (the smokers) have been polluting for decades and have raised levels of greenhouse gases to unsafe atmospheric levels. In this analogy the citizens of the developing world are the ones who are now faced with a problem in which they did not contribute (received all the costs without any benefits). The developed world still faces these issues, if not more so, because we must find an alternative way to run our economy.
Merchant-of-doubt-scientists do not follow scientific practices regarding climate change. At first glance it seems if they do because they claim to represent larger scientific institutions and coordinate with other acclaimed scientists. With a little more research, as Oreskes and Conway did in Merchants of Doubt, their scientific processes are proven fraud and filled with deception. One National Academy report on carbon dioxide avoided the standard cooperation and peer-review process by splitting up the chapters in the report so committee members did not have to agree on one answer. Thus, even though it was published through the National Academy, the assessment did not include the standard scientific peer review practiced by most academy members. Furthermore, the splitting up of chapters resulted in conflicts with the science of global warming pointing to action and the economics of global warming pointing to inaction, with the final chapter concluding to follow the economic path. Thus, scientific evidence was disregarded, a practice unacceptable in the credible scientific community.
The merchants of doubt are also responsible for creating a global climate change debate. Through the Marshall Institute, three scientists distributed an unpublished paper which they later published into a booklet, asserting that science points to the sun causing global warming, not anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions. First, an unpublished paper means that it never went through peer-review process, the process vital to the credibility of science. Readers may have overlooked this, seeing that the article was written by three acclaimed scientists, never mind they had no expertise in the field. In fact, the Marshall Institute itself was created to defend President Reagan’s “Star Wars” against scientists’ claims that the strategy was unrealistic. Thus, it was created to defend policy decisions from questioning scientists. The three authors of the booklet represented merchants of doubt, faking scientific credibility in order to avoid regulation to mitigate global climate change. Sadly, their plan worked to convince White House members that global climate change was natural and raised no need for action. Merchants of doubt are the reason anthropogenic global climate change has just recently been acknowledged by the U.S. president even though the idea was first researched and accepted by the scientific community over half a century earlier.