Debunking Oreskes part 1: A wall of vagueness

Part 2: The wicked “handful of scientists” →

Part 3: The “tobacco strategy” →

Part 4: Disinformation or debate? →

Part 5: Irrelevance to the current climate change debate →

Part 6: Is it all about the money? 

There are few critical examinations of the book Merchants of Doubt on the Web. I myself wrote a series of blog posts in Norwegian. There is an article from the Marshall Institute. Jo Nova has written a somewhat longer blog post on the subject. And Nicolas Nierenberg and Fred Singer have also written about it. Still, the volume of critical material is dwarfed by the book itsefl, which runs to 368 pages.

That is an interesting paradox in itself. The authors of Merchants of Doubt claim (or imply, see below) to have exposed a powerful, well-funded effort to mislead the public on climate change. Since the book is frequently used as a trump card in climate debates, you would think these alleged vested interests would try more actively to discredit the book. It should be worth the effort. As Judith Curry has remarked, “In the U.S. anyway, the Oreskes’ merchant of doubt meme seems to remain predominant.”.So why is there no full-scale counterattack? Supposedly, we are dealing with resourceful and ruthless disinformers who have successfully “obscured the truth” about several scientifc issues and smeared brilliant scientists. Such people should be both willing and able to attack the book with heavier artillery than what we’ve seen so far. Even if Merchants of Doubt were a paragon of erudition, logic and rock-solid evidence, why should they be deterred?

Since they have failed to do this, I’ve decided to do my part of the job, even though I don’t consider myself an evil genius. I’ve investigated the main claims in the book more closely and tried to verify or falsify them in turn. But when I did, I ran into an unanticipated obstacle: the difficulty of ascertaining exactly what those claims are.

If we’re going to make judgments about the truth value of Merchants of doubt,we need to understand what the authors are trying to tell us. It should be easy if the book lives up to its own standards for how science should be conducted. Oreskes and Conway summarize “bad science” as follows:

Bad science is where data have been cherry-picked—when some data have been deliberately left out—or it’s impossible for the reader to understand the steps that were taken to produce or analyze the data. It is a set of claims that can’t be tested, claims that are based on samples that are too small, and claims that don’t follow from the evidence provided. And science is bad—or at least weak—when proponents of a position jump to conclusions on insufficient or inconsistent data.

This is excellent and easy to agree with. We don’t want “claims that can’t be tested”, and for claims to be testable, for us to be able to tell whether the conclusions are based on sufficient data, we have to know exactly what those claims and conclusions are. We need clear, explicit statements and testable hypotheses couched in well-defined terms.

Unfortunately, the main conclusions of Merchants of Doubt are far from clear and unequivocal. There is no section of the book that lays them out systematically. Nor have I found them elsewhere. There are plenty of specific claims about isolated facts, but no clear summary of the overall messages.

But given the book’s prominence, it seems appropriate to try to make some sense of it. Interestingly, the blurbs seem to be more helpful than the book itself. So let’s look at some passages that may express its overall message. Here is one from the book descriptionon Amazon:

The same individuals who claim the science of global warming is “not settled” have also denied the truth about studies linking smoking to lung cancer, coal smoke to acid rain, and CFCs to the ozone hole.

Taken literally, “the same individuals” might seem to mean “all the same individuals”. On the other hand, it should be fairly obvious that not every single climate skeptic in the world has also “denied the truth” about all of these other issues. Also, what are we to make of the idea that it’s sinful to claim that the science of global warming is “not settled”, when Gavin Schmidt of the web site RealClimate, a key player on the “consensus” side of the climate change controversy, has said just that?

Then there is the book’s subtitle “How a handful of scientists obscured the truth on issues from tobacco smoke to global warming”. Obscuring the truth is a somewhat vague concept, but it seems to imply that these scientists been quite influential, and that their communication with the public has been untruthful and probably deliberately deceptive.

So let us assume that they intend to say that a “handful” (presumably three or more) of scientists have “obscured the truth” on both tobacco, climate change and other issues. Tobacco and climate change are by far the most relevant of these. Tobacco, since it’s a well-documented case of deliberate fraud; climate change, since it’s the only one over which there is still a strong active controversy.

This is about as far as we get in capturing the book’s main message. Beyond that, though, it’s frustrating to try to examine the book critically in a systematic way, since many of the apparent conclusions are rhetorical mirages. Seemingly substantial at first sight, they dissolve on close examination and are seen to be vague, confused, implicit or incomplete.

I can’t prove that, of course. There is no way to know for sure what’s not in the book. I can only say that I’ve read most of the book two or three times searching for something solid. And I can quote the passages that seem to be closest to making the messages clear, showing how they’re always slightly ambiguous. I shouldn’t have to do that, though. A more reasonable way of dealing with it would be for anyone who makes a claim based on the book to provide a quote from the book to substantiate it.

The lack of clarity may be convenient for the authors. If necessary, many criticisms can be rejected as straw men, since they didn’t really say what the critic thought they said. For example, when Oreskes was confronted with the claim that she was a conspiracy theorist, she dismissed it, saying that they had not accused any of the main characters in the book of doing anything illegal.

That is true, they didn’t. They just said that the tobacco companies committed fraud, and then claimed that “the same strategy was applied” to other issues. Thus, they implicitly link the “bad guys” in their book to the criminally fraudulent tactics used by the tobacco industry, but never make that claim explicit.

Besides that, of course, not all conspiracies are illegal. This is also a recurrent pattern in the book: treating concepts that are only somewhat similar as if they were synonymous. In a sane world, pointing out the lack of clarity and precision should be enough for everyone to agree that Oreskes and Conway haven’t done their job properly. “Return to sender” should be the response. Tell us what you really mean.

But since that seems wildly unrealistic in the heat of the climate wars, we will have to make some educated guesses. My list is below. The first one could possibly be considered obvious from the earlier quotes. The following ones are not quite as clear, but from reading the book, they seem almost explicit.

  1. A handful of scientists (the same handful, not just a shifting group having some members in common from case to case) were actively involved in all or at least many of these controversies. In particular, tobacco and climate change controversies had a “handful” of scientists in common.
  2. In each case, the deliberate purpose of these scientists was to defend the “offending substance” (tobacco, CO2, acid rain, etc).In each case, these scientists followed a specific strategy that was orginally developed to defend tobacco. (Or even: they themselves invented the “tobacco strategy”).
  3. The tactics used in most or all of these cases can reasonably be characterized as disinformation.
  4. These alleged facts are highly relevant to the current climate change debate.
  5. Right-wing scientists are especially inclined to use scientific arguments for political purposes. As one reviewer said, “The case they make is that the right has figured out it can get lots of mileage out of simply casting doubt about scientists’ findings.”
  6. Industry money has been an important motivating factor behind the story, not just in the case of tobacco, but with the others, too. The same reviewer put it this way: “It’s not about evidence, in other words; it’s about satisfying corporate America’s lust for profits.”

In later posts, I will examine each of these claims and check whether there evidence in the book that supports it.

Part 2: The wicked “handful of scientists” ➡

7 thoughts on “Debunking Oreskes part 1: A wall of vagueness

  1. Rodney Nichols

    Keep it up. Excellent piece. Have been a long time colleague of one of the so-called “merchants of doubt,” I welcome this review of the evidence and of the purveyors of slurs.

    Reply
  2. dagfinn Post author

    Thank you very much. And sorry if it took long to approve your comment. This blog is quite new, and yours was the first non-spam comment. 😉

    Reply
  3. Ted Horoschak

    I’d like to offer some criticism. Let me say first, I’ve not read the Oreskes book, and I haven’t read your entire series on it here, though I intend to. I’ve not followed the meme, I have no stake in it, and the first I’ve encountered it was on Judith Curry’s website which led me here.

    Now, my criticism. If you’re going to offer to “debunk” some idea or other, it would seem to me to be a good idea not to begin by committing a series of fallacies from the get go. Though you may rally true-believers, which if that is what you want, great, but you will discurage anyone who is actually open on the topic from reading.

    You might ask, what fallacies?

    Let’s start with the paragraph that begins “That is an interesting paradox in itself”… what claim are you making? Given your next criticism, one might think you’d take pains not to be vague about your own claims, but try as I might, I can find not definite claim. It SEEMS you are suggesting that the lack of a response somehow calls the book into question. It could just be that you want to point out the paradox… yet, truly, there is no paradox to point out. Not every criticism draws a response, and there are a thousand reasons that this may be the case. So, I can only conclude that what you are doing it suggesting that “hey there is something fishy going on here”, which, to me, is cheating in the world of “debunking” something.

    The next thing that gave me serious doubts about your approach was this:
    “I can’t prove that, of course. There is no way to know for sure what’s not in the book. I can only say that I’ve read most of the book two or three times searching for something solid. ”

    Very plainly, either you are working off of a principle that is demonstrably false, or what? Of course there is a way to know that something is not in a book … read the book! I can’t even understand why you would make such a claim…. this alone, makes me think that nothing else of value will appear in this series…

    Reply
    1. dagfinn Post author

      Ted Horoschak:

      “It could just be that you want to point out the paradox… yet, truly, there is no paradox to point out. Not every criticism draws a response, and there are a thousand reasons that this may be the case. So, I can only conclude that what you are doing it suggesting that “hey there is something fishy going on here”, which, to me, is cheating in the world of “debunking” something.”

      Good point. I suppose I can only say that I agree with you. What I call a paradox in this case is something that seems odd, but as you point out, there could be many reasons for it. My intention was not to claim that it proves anything.

      “Of course there is a way to know that something is not in a book … read the book! I can’t even understand why you would make such a claim…. this alone, makes me think that nothing else of value will appear in this series…”

      I may have expressed myself poorly. I’m only saying that there is no way for me to prove to you the absence of anything in the book. I can quote what’s there, but I have no way of demonstrating what’s not there.

      Reply
      1. Ted Horoschak

        You are right that you have no means of demonstrating to me that its not there. But, I would think, saying “I’ve read the book and its not there” suffices because your reader can always go read the book to verify your claim. This isn’t any different really, than giving a quote from the book. That doesn’t prove to me that it’s in the book, but I can always read the book for myself, especially if you give me a page number making my job easier to verify for myself.

        The problem here, of course, is that you didn’t exhaustively read the book yourself, as you stated:
        ” I can only say that I’ve read most of the book two or three times searching for something solid.”
        I’m not sure what “most” is in this context, though it’s probably fair to say at least half the book plus one page. That however, would leave me with sufficient doubt as to whether, really, it’s not in the book, and so, somewhat undercuts your argument. And, I’m forced to ask myself, is reading the whole thing really too much to expect before -debunking- something? For, criticizing half an argument seems, well, likely to produce a bunch of good points which upon closer inspection aren’t good points at all…

        Yet, it may be that I am being too harsh here. But, I am seeing a trend of “debunkers” who make bad arguments and rely on fallacies, rendering everything called “debunking” just so much more noise. Even the term itself, “debunking” is being to suggest to me a certain kind of bias a-priori. Ah, that idea, it’s been “debunked”… can’t you not see that article over there “debunking the idea”… why would there be that article over there with that name if it weren’t true. So the one debunks the other, as if accumulating debunking titles in anticipation of a patent war…

        If “debunking” is to be real debunking, then we ought at least hold the debunkers to some tighter standards.

        Anyway, I digress. I don’t mean to lay all debunker’s fallacies at your feet. And I promise to read the rest of your atrticle series 🙂

        Reply
  4. dagfinn Post author

    I can see that I didn’t express myself clearly. I have read all of the book, of course. And the most relevant parts two or three times. Some chapters are less relevant to the main points. The discussion of DDT, for instance. (The may even be mostly correct about DDT; I haven’t studied the matter closely.)

    Also, I share your concern about the term “debunking”. It’s often very cheap.

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *