How to Distort Truth and Neglect Facts

There is always a choice. Right now it is an incredibly important choice; the shift away from a the self-destructive habits that have been formed over the years of our development in order to preserve our global society. The petroleum-based ways of life we have come to know so well has reached a precipice. The planet’s atmosphere is filling with greenhouse gasses at an alarming rate; gasses that the industrialized world are mostly responsible for. That means me,, that means President Obama, that means Aunt Alice in Ithaca. We need to change the way we as a global society operate. For too long have we dumped our waste into the atmosphere. Part of this was due to ignorance. However, as of late, it has been due to inaction.

Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway’s Merchants of Doubt explains how several scientists in combination with several think tanks have been able to warp truth and distort facts since the mid-20th century. From tobacco smoke and its link to cancer to the denial of global warming, no chance has been missed by these “merchants” to benefit from regulatory inaction and the misdirection of the public. The authors explain that the merchandising of scientific doubt was seen around the 1970s when scientists began to find links between tobacco smoke and higher rates of cancer. Sensing a possible hit to their revenue, the large tobacco firms began to work together, looking for a way to ensure that no such link was ever seen by the public. They found their answer in a few willing scientists who, through some questionable decisions, were able to temporarily keep the public from completing understanding the dangers of tobacco smokes. It is obvious now that what they did was in vain, as the Surgeon General’s warning is very obviously placed on all tobacco products.

Now these groups are turning to climate change denial. The George C. Marshall Institute, an essential part of keeping alive the possibility of Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative, found a fresh voice in the climate change discussion. Scientists working within the institute wrote a report that essentially pointed to the sun’s increased solar output as the culprit of a warming Earth. It is also now known that they were wrong. There is now a consensus within the scientific community that anthropogenic greenhouse gases are causing the enhanced greenhouse effect that is currently being experienced. This consensus may not have existed years ago when the denial began, but scientists knew that the chance of an anthropogenic climatic shift was possible. The Marshall Institute was criticized heavily for the report, but they made their way through and the denial still exists today.

Why do this though? Why deny facts and push doubt unto the public? Personal agendas are partly to blame. The scientists at the heart of the doubt-mongering reports- Fred Seitz, Fred Singer, Bill Nierenberg, and Robert Jastrow- were anti-communist and therefore willing to do anything to keep government powers to a minimum, as well as destroy environmentalist who were seen as potential “cousins” to the communists. The think tanks that funded the research received their funding from massive corporations in the concerned industries. These agendas have led policy astray and lended a hand to the inaction experienced today on climate issues. While the debate may still rage on in some corners and inaction still runs rampant, the planet is warming rapidly and everything and everyone is implicated. We have a problem. We know about it. We need to work together to solve it. That starts by agreeing on reality.

A New Narrative of Change

I come from an incredibly liberal household in a very progressive area of the country. So, growing up I was always very aware of climate change and what it might mean for my future. I was raised to care about environmental issues and taught to make the connections between them and other issues in society, politics and the economy from an early age. Coming from this background I was always shocked and put off to hear how the issue of climate change challenged by unbelieving Americans. Until reading Merchants of Doubt, my first reaction was to blame their own ignorance and be angry with what I perceived as their apathy. However, I have come to see a different side of the story, one in which they were instead misguided by people they trusted to have the facts. I am still stunned and outraged by the people who spread misinformation as a tool for their own personal agenda but it is unfair to always accuse the listener.

Earlier this summer I read a booklet entitled Organizing Cools the Planet: Tools and Reflections to Navigate the Climate Crisis, and in it I found a quote that resonated. It said that too often, “Activists assume that because something is true, it will be meaningful to the people [they are] trying to reach. But In fact, the opposite is often the case: if something is meaningful, people believe it to be true” (26).  The merchants of doubt in otherwise settled scientific matters were successful because they could tell a story that was easy to listen to and believe. However, going forward it is important for us, who know the facts, to give meaning to them in an accessible way. Climate change clearly cannot be tackled with only a handful of people and a few simple cures. The importance of giving the crisis a face and a narrative is crucial to create positive change, especially going forward into COP20.


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Where the free market fails

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.

When Self-Interest Trumped Truth: The Politicization of Climate Change

global warming science fiction

John Charles Polanyi, the winner of the 1986 Nobel Prize in Physics, said that “scholarship – if it is to be scholarship – requires that the truth take precedence over all sectarian interests, including self-interest.” Two years after Polanyi received his award, global warming entered into the general lexicon and public discussion after Dr. James Hansen’s testimony to the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee declaring that, with 99% certainty, that “the warming trend was not a natural variation but was caused by a buildup of carbon dioxide and other artificial gases in the atmosphere.” Climate science immediately became a “political football”, as fossil fuel and big industry scrambled to scour the truth in order to defend their self-interest. Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway, in Merchants of Doubt, warned that “small numbers of people can have large, negative impacts, especially if they are organised, determined and have access to power.” And their efforts changed the global warming discussion forever for that very reason.

While a large body of climate scientists genuinely and honestly pursued impartial and unbiased research on global warming, a small critical mass of individuals, known as “merchants of doubt”, published reports to the contrary, saying that there was actually a cooling trend, and that not enough was known about the climate to act one way or the other. Backed by abounding resources from fossil fuel companies, conservative think tanks and media outlets, their efforts turned global warming from being indisputably correct scientifically to a flimsy theory to provoke fear, and even a referendum on American government itself; cap-and-trade measures to tame down carbon emissions, as they argued, were a government intrusion into the market economy, an interference in personal rights, and indicative of the burgeoning size of the government.

What lied beneath the surface of the campaign of doubt and misinformation was the preservation of the bottom line for the fossil fuel industry for another generation, not the pursuit of scientific truth or the common good. In order for any measurable mitigation or adaptation progress to be made, self-interest must be dropped for the prospects of future generations, financial gain for environmental preservation, and negligence for stewardship. Bob Inglis, former Republican Representative from South Carolina, made the following analogy:

“Your child is sick, 98 doctors say treat him this way, two say, ‘No, this other is the way to go.’ I’ll go with the two. You’re taking a big risk with those kids.”

How long are we willing to take such a big risk and pass the buck off to our children and grandchildren? For their sakes and ours, the time for decisive action is now.


Quote by John Charles Polanyi found on

Quote by Dr. James Hansen found in NYT article, “Global Warming Has Begun, Expert Tells Senate”, 24 June 1988.

Definition of “political football” (to cause a political football is to “thrust a social, national security, or otherwise ostensibly non-political matter into partisan politics”) found in Safire’s Political Dictionary.

Quote from Merchants of Doubt found on page 270.

Quote by former Rep. Bob Inglis found on transcript for PBS Frontline’s program titled “Climate of Doubt,” aired 23 October, 2012.


The News of Climate Change: Is it Fair and Balanced?


By: Maeve Hogel

Upon googling “Is climate change real?”, I was presented with a whole slew of articles and websites that give a wide range of responses to what seems to be a yes or no question. The first two links, a government website and Wikipedia, agree that climate change is in fact real. However, the third article, from Fox Business, argues that there really is no significant consensus on climate change. So how can we, as readers and Google searchers, distinguish what is true from what is not? Living in an era with a high reliance on the Internet and powerful search engines, such as Google, we have access to massive amounts of information at the touch of a button. But should we believe that all of this information is correct?

In Merchants of Doubt, authors Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway argue that a handful of scientists, with the assistance of the media, have created doubt about many significant scientific findings. Currently, we can all agree that tobacco is linked to cancer and that smoking is bad for your health (after all, it says so right on the cigarette box). However, Oreskes and Conway show that it took years after scientists first discovered tobacco’s harmful effects on health to convince the world of this fact. After the media began reporting these significant findings with catchy slogans like “Cancer by the carton”, the tobacco industry decided to refute these discoveries by hiring their own public relations firm (Oreskes, 22).

The decision to hire a PR firm, in a business sense, was genius. We heavily rely on the media, through the Internet, the TV, the newspaper, to learn about new information. By presenting different facts or showcasing data in a different way, the tobacco industry could easily show the American public a different story about the harms of smoking, just as Steven Tobak does with the data on climate change in Fox Business’ Article mentioned before.

Oreskes and Conway in their book often discuss how science is never exact. It is impossible to ever say for sure, 100% of the time, that a finding or discovery is correct. It is only true until the next discovery proves that it isn’t. This doesn’t mean we should never believe a new scientific discovery. It does however mean, that in a country with freedom of the press, there will always be someone looking to capitalize on that little sliver of doubt that exists in the field of science. Much responsibility falls on us, as we read an article or Google a question, to recognize what is reliable information and to filter out those who just trying to create doubt. It is in no way an easy task, but as climate change becomes an even more pressing matter and there continues to be many powerful naysayers, it’s a very important one.

Sabotaging Progress with Global Climate Change- Merchants of Doubt

The MVP in the Merchants of Doubt Arena
The MVP in the Merchants of Doubt Arena


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.