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Unmasking disinformation, from tobacco to climate

It’s no secret that many climate skeptics have ties to the fossil fuel industry, or are ideologically opposed to the policy implications of mainstream climate science, which holds that emissions of greenhouse gases are causing global temperatures to increase. This has been explored in numerous books, most notably in Ross Gelbspan’s “The Heat is On” and “Boiling Point,” as well as the more recent work by James Hoggan, “Climate Cover-Up: The Crusade to Deny Global Warming.”

What’s been missing from these accounts, however, are details regarding how the climate issue stacks up against major scientific controversies in the past, such as the debate over links between tobacco and cancer. Now a new book — “Merchants of Doubt” — by science historians Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway finally explores such territory, creating a devastating portrayal of organized scientific disinformation campaigns that makes clear just how gullible the press, scientific community and the public have been (and to a large extent, continue to be).

Author Naomi Oreskes discusses her new book “Merchants Of Doubt.” Also, see this video of a lecture Oreskes gave on American skepticism on climate science.

Through the use of original documents and other source material, Oreskes and Conway trace the history of organized scientific disinformation campaigns back to the 1950s. Although the book does not focus solely on climate change, it is highly relevant to anyone who follows the climate issue, from avid consumers of climate information to casual observers. The book demonstrates what many commentators, such as myself, have stated for years: that attacks on climate science and individual scientists are motivated more by a hostility to the proposed policy solutions to the problem than by clear scientific evidence showing that greenhouse gas emissions do not cause climate change after all.

I sat down with Oreskes at a New York cafe late last month to discuss the book and its implications for present-day climate science communication. She said the key finding contained in the book is that the pattern of purposeful obfuscation of scientific evidence is repeated from one issue to the next, including not just climate change and tobacco but also debates related to acid rain, the ozone layer and Ronald Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative.


“The pattern is actually hugely important to our claim. We’re trying to show that the same strategy has been used over and over and over again and it’s kind of amazing that we keep getting fooled by this,” Oreskes said.

On climate science specifically, she said the pattern is essentially the same as it was in the tobacco wars: certain climate skeptics attack the science and individual scientists to make the science look far less certain than it actually is. “This is not about gaps in climate science… it’s about a strategy to undermine the science whenever the science logically leads to need for government regulation. That’s the pattern, that’s what people need to understand. This really is about regulation.”

In reading “Merchants of Doubt,” what I found so staggering is the degree to which the current debates about climate science resemble the tobacco/cancer arguments, and the acid rain discussions. Scientists still have not developed an effective counterpunch to organized disinformation efforts that are designed to undermine public trust in scientific research, and the media still struggles to accurately communicate climate science. Perhaps nowhere was this continued struggle more evident than with the media frenzy over “climategate,” a fracas that erupted after several prominent climate scientists had their emails stolen from a British university server and posted online late last year. Climate change skeptics used the emails to make the case that the consensus view on climate science has been manufactured, and is eroding.

Oreskes called the climategate coverage “unabashedly hideous,” because many reporters jumped to the conclusion that scientists were guilty of manipulating scientific evidence for personal gain, and have not followed up on the allegations by reporting on the official inquiry reports, which to date have all vindicated the researchers of wrongdoing.

“You can accuse people of all kinds of horrible stuff, and the press is all over it, and then you find out that actually these accusations are without grounding, and that is not interesting to the media,” she said.

“… The press also covered it as if it undermined the science, and that to me was the more egregious part,” she continued.

Overall, the book serves as a definitive account of scientific disinformation campaigns, and what motivates their participants. It also amounts to an urgent cry for reforming science communication in order to limit the effectiveness of misinformation. As for how to do that, Oreskes suggested that scientists play a more active role in calling out bogus claims, something which they have done to a greater extent since climategate.

“If the scientific community doesn’t explain why it’s garbage, then how is anybody else supposed to know?” she said.

The views expressed here are the author’s alone and do not represent any position of the Washington Post, its news staff or the Capital Weather Gang.


By Andrew Freedman |  June 9, 2010; 11:00 AM ET Books , Climate Change , Freedman , Media
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