Debunking Oreskes part 3: The “tobacco strategy”

← Part 1: A wall of vagueness

← Part 2: The wicked “handful of scientists” 

Part 4: Disinformation or debate? →

Part 5: Irrelevance to the current climate change debate →

Part 6: Is it all about the money? 

So far in this series about the book Merchants of Doubt, we’ve seen (in part 1) that it’s surprisingly hard to divine what the authors (Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway) are actually trying to tell us, and that this lack of clarity matches their own definition of “bad science”. In part 2, investigating the claim in their subtitle, that a “handful of scientists obscured the truth on issues from tobacco smoke to global warming”, we found that the link between the scientists identified as “the Handful” and the tobacco issue was practically non-existent. We also saw that the claim of “obscuring the truth” rests on the premise that they were contradicting a scientific consensus, and that they haven’t documented even that. The Handful’s activity in the climate change controversy as chronicled in Merchants of Doubt happened during a period when there was no consensus according to Oreskes and Conway themselves.

In this part, I am going to tackle claims 2 and 3 both. As before, the claims are are not direct quotes, but educated guesses about what they mean, since there are no clear conclusions to quote. But I have tried to extract what seems to be implied or what the readers of the book seem to believe are its main messages.

Claim 2: In each case, the deliberate purpose of the Handful was to defend the “offending substance” (tobacco, CO2, acid rain, etc).

This is about the motivation of the players, and it’s hard to ascertain what people’s motivations are without asking them. And asking them is expressly what Oreskes and Conway have not done. I will hazard a guess that, if asked, they would have said they were mostly trying to defend good science and rational science-based political decision-making.

Also, there is nothing inherently bad about scientists taking sides in an issue involving both science and politics. It’s only if they start distorting the science that we should be skeptical of their motivation. We might be suspicious if there were some substance to the claim that they had “obscured the truth”, but as I have shown, there isn’t. Their behavior, even as chronicled by Oreskes and Conway, seems fairly normal for scientists engaging in a controversial issue.

Regarding tobacco, specifically, there doesn’t seem to be any evidence that they were trying to defend tobacco or the tobacco industry. From what we’ve seen so far, there is no evidence that Seitz was motivated by a desire to do so. And certaintly not that it was the primary motivation for his involvement with the tobacco industry. In fact, Oreskes and Conway seem to concede this.

However, they seem to be saying that Singer was doing it in the context of second smoke:

By 1993, [Singer] was helping the industry to promote the concept of sound science to support science they liked and to discredit as “junk” any science they didn’t.

It sure looks as if they claim that his intention was to defend tobacco, but this does not ring true, given his previously quoted anti-tobacco sentiments.

I am a nonsmoker, find SHS [second-hand smoking] to be an irritant and unpleasant, have certainly not been paid by Philip Morris and the tobacco lobby, and have never joined any of their front organizations.  And I serve on the advisory board of an anti-smoking organization.  My father, who was a heavy smoker, died of emphysema while relatively young.  I personally believe that SHS, in addition to being objectionable, cannot possibly be healthy.

Are Oreskes and Conway mistaken or lying? Or is this another case of tricky wording? Probably, because “helping” doesn’t necessarily imply an intention to help (google “inadvertent help”).

This quote seems to be is another case of a not-quite-explicit allegation.

Claim 3: In each case, these scientists followed a specific strategy that was orginally developed to defend tobacco. (Stronger version: they themselves invented the “tobacco strategy”).

Did  a “tobacco strategy” even exist? Yes, the tobacco companies and their PR folks had one (at least in a trivial sense: the sum of all the tactics they used to defend their products). What is missing is evidence that this strategy, or parts of it, was deliberately used as a template for later campaigns. The similarities between the cases are not specific enough to make that point. From the book, it is not even clear that the tobacco companies’ specific strategy was known to any of the Handful except through public sources. This is in stark contrast to the impression from the book that a specific group of people personally created the strategy to defend tobacco and later applied it to other issues.

So what exactly does the book have to say about the “tobacco strategy”? A pertinent passage is this one:

Millions of pages of documents released during tobacco litigation demonstrate these links. They show the crucial role that scientists played in sowing doubt about the links between smoking and health risks. These documents—which have scarcely been studied except by lawyers and a handful of academics—also show that the same strategy was applied not only to global warming, but to a laundry list of environmental and health concerns, including asbestos, secondhand smoke, acid rain, and the ozone hole. Call it the “Tobacco Strategy.” Its target was science, and so it relied heavily on scientists—with guidance from industry lawyers and public relations experts—willing to hold the rifle and pull the trigger.

What does this mean? At face value, it seems to imply that the documents from the tobacco companies also contain detailed and revealing information about asbestos, acid rain, the ozone hole and climate change. That seems bizarre to put it mildly, and we would expect Oreskes and Conway to document these details if the existed. If they had hard evidence to support their assertion that “the same strategy was applied”, presumably they would want to share it with us. But no.

It seems that, as is often the case with this book, we have to search for an interpretation that makes sense. Let’s assume that what they actually mean is that uncovering the details of the strategy used by the tobacco companies allows us to see the similarity with other cases.

But what is the precise definition of “the tobacco strategy”? What elements does it contain? It’s not at all clear from this quote. And this paragraph may be as close as they get to a definition. Of course, as a reader, you are implicitly invited to read the whole chapter on tobacco and get an intuitive feel for what it means, and then you can read the other chapters and get an intuitive sense that the strategy used in the other cases was somehow similar to strategy used by the tobacco companies.

It was similar in one respect. Doubt was expressed in all those cases. But there is nothing unusual or special about doubt, so the similarity cannot be considered evidence that the same strategy was somehow re-applied or re-used as inspiration.

Assuming that similarities are not coincidental, but rather the result of a deliberate strategy, is a mode of thinking that is typical of conspiracy theorists. But Oreskes and Conway are better than your average conspiracy theorist at making the theory seem plausible. The achieve this by pointing out that the tobacco companies had a strategy, that what happened in the other cases was similar, and that the “same individuals” were involved. The casual reader will not see the weaknesses in this argument, that none of the Handful were knowing participants in the tobacco companies’ game plan and that the similarities are too weak to establish a causal link.

The concept of “doubt-mongering”

The demonization of doubt is normally the province of dogmatic religious zealots. The scientifically minded embrace doubt and skepticism, or at least they are supposed to do so. This is a paradox for those who claim that climate skepticism is not an acceptable mode of thinking.

Several strategies are used to deal with this problem. One is to claim that doubt expressed by climate skeptics is not doubt at all; that instead it is dogmatic, stubborn, closed-minded insistence on a fixed contrarian point of view. At the Merchants of Doubt home page, they say that “a small yet potent subset of this community leads the world in vehement denial of these dangers.” You may reasonably ask how it’s possible to have both doubt and vehement denial about the same thing. The are mutually exclusive as far as I can tell.

Perhaps fortunately, the “vehement denial” angle doesn’t seem to be prominent in the book. Oreskes and Conway do acknowledge that they are dealing with doubt, at least in a superficial sense, but they portray this doubt as insincere. Doubt in their story is primarily a deceptive trick used for political purposes or to protect profits. This is an even less flattering view of climate skeptics. Instead of being merely misguided, skeptics are seen as representatives of a greedy, ruthless, self-serving corporate machinery.

But what is doubt? It is a basic part of our thinking process. When we change our minds, we typically start by doubting what we originally believed. If I think I left my keys on the kitchen table, after looking for a while, I may start to doubt they are even there. After I find them in the living room, I now realize I was mistaken in my belief that I left them in the kitchen table, and so I’m no longer in doubt. Without doubt as an intermediate step, I would have to change my mind abruptly, an typically I don’t. More often, doubt is the first step towards changing a belief, whether true or false. That means it’s also a natural part of persuasion in general.

As Oreskes and Conway themselves point out, doubt is good for science as well.

Doubt is crucial to science—in the version we call curiosity or healthy skepticism, it drives science forward—but it also makes science vulnerable to misrepresentation, because it is easy to take uncertainties out of context and create the impression that everything is unresolved.

In other words, doubt is good, but like almost anything else, there can be too much of it, or it can be inappropriate in specific situations. However, it does not follow that it should not be expressed, nor that those who express it should be condemned. In an ideal world, sincere doubt can be expressed and discussed among sincere and rational people, and everyone will learn from the discussion. If the doubt is based on ignorance or misunderstanding, it can be resolved.

On the other hand, if people are not sincere and open to change their minds, this might not happen. What’s missing for Oreskes and Conway, then, is to make a case that Handful were insincere in their doubts. That they were deliberately trying to mislead by introducing doubt, even though they knew it was unwarranted. They quote the tobacco industry.

“Doubt is our product,” ran the infamous memo written by one tobacco industry executive in 1969, “since it is the best means of competing with the ‘body of fact’ that exists in the minds of the general public.”

This seems to indicate insincerity driven by a need to protect profits. Thus the title of the book and phrases such as “doubt-mongering”. It seems clear in the case of Big Tobacco. But Oreskes and Conway have not established that this is true of the other controversies they discuss. All they have is guilt by association.

The above quotation is from an industry executive, not a scientist. It’s the executive’s job to protect the profits of the company he works for. Scientists with high academic achievements are less likely to be financially dependent on a specific industry. They can be influenced by their sources of funding. But it cannot automatically be assumed in a specific case without specific evidence. And in the case of the Handful, that evidence is absent.

In summary, there are two unsubstantiated imputations contained in the phrase Merchants of Doubt. One is the insinuation of insincerity. The other is the notion that doubt, rather than being ubiquitous in persuasive speech, is somehow distinctive enough to allows to identify the “tobacco strategy” as something extraordinary that’s been used and re-used by a specific group of people as opposed to everyone else.  Thus is generated the “tobacco strategy” as a spurious link between the scientific controveries they discuss. “They all raised doubt” is like saying “the suspects all wore shoes; there must be a connection”.

Or as Jo Nova puts it, “The skeptics seed doubts by questioning the evidence and pointing to contrary results (isn’t this known as “discussion”?).”

One thought on “Debunking Oreskes part 3: The “tobacco strategy”

  1. Jack

    Fred Singer’s tenuous connection to tobacco is summarized here. As you surmised, it had to do with the “science” involved, specifically, the blatant misuse of statistics by the EPA to reach an obviously predetermined conclusion.


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