The reason Merchants of Doubt has received so much attention is clear: It is seen as evidence that climate skepticism is a disinformation campaign driven by dubious scientists working for dubious interests with dubious motives. Therefore it is seen as highly relevant to current controversy on climate change. If it weren’t, if it were only of historical interest, most of us would probably never even have heard of it even if it were factually accurate and perfect in every other respect.
But is it really relevant? Does it make the connection between the alleged machinations of “the handful of scientists” (the Handful as I call them) and the climate change issue today?
As mentioned, the book’s account of the climate change issue is historical, focusing primarily on the period around 1980 to 1995. In fact, the main narrative on climate change ends in 1995, with an addtional three sentences about events in 1997. There is very little coverage of recent events. From this fact alone, it should be clear that the authors have not provided strong evidence of relevance to the current situation.
Furthermore, the book itself contains no clear, explicit claim that all, most or even many current climate skeptics are involved with, or influenced by, the Handful. We are not told whether the Handful are influential in global climate skepticism. That is to say: We are invited to believe that they are, Oreskes suggests it, and most of her fans seem to believe it. Fred Singer is the only one of them still living, but he is only one among many . Matt Ridley lists some of the best known skeptics in his lecture on scientific heresy:
By contrast scientists and most mainstream journalists risk their careers if they take a skeptical line, so dogmatic is the consensus view. It is left to the blogosphere to keep the flame of heresy alive and do the investigative reporting the media has forgotten how to do. In America, Anthony Watts who crowd-sourced the errors in the siting of thermometers and runs wattsupwiththat.com; In Canada, Steve McIntyre, the mathematician who bit by bit exposed the shocking story of the hockey stick and runs climateaudit.org. Here in Britain, Andrew Montford, who dissected the shenanigans behind the climategate whitewash enquiries and runs bishop-hill.net. In Australia, Joanne Nova, the former television science presenter who has pieced together the enormous sums of money that go to support vested interests in alarm, and runs joannenova.com.au.The remarkable thing about the heretics I have mentioned is that every single one is doing this in his or her spare time. They work for themselves, they earn a pittance from this work. There is no great fossil-fuel slush fund for sceptics.
Of the names Ridley lists here, McIntyre is the only one mentioned—once—in Merchants of Doubt. The rest are absent.
In other words, the book’s relevance to climate skepticism today is loose conjecture at best. In contrast, it’s being used as if it were more than just relevant. Many seem to consider oil-funded disinformation to be not just a partial explanation, but the explanation for climate skepticism. This seems to be the premise behind the decision by Popular Science to shut off comments.
A politically motivated, decades-long war on expertise has eroded the popular consensus on a wide variety of scientifically validated topics. Everything, from evolution to the origins of climate change, is mistakenly up for grabs again. Scientific certainty is just another thing for two people to “debate” on television. And because comments sections tend to be a grotesque reflection of the media culture surrounding them, the cynical work of undermining bedrock scientific doctrine is now being done beneath our own stories, within a website devoted to championing science.
There is a logical leap here that may not be apparent. The idea that the evil disinformation machine, represented by the Handful or others, has influenced the growth of climate skepticism is one thing. The belief that all doubt in climate science is an expression of a “war on expertise” is something else entirely. from “there is an enemy” to “the enemy is everywhere”. The latter is common in the clinically paranoid as well as extreme conspiracy theorists who believe that secret societies (such as the illuminati) control banks, corporations and governments.
In this case, there is no indication that the editors of Popular Science have specific information about the motives of the climate skeptics among their readers, and yet they assume that those readers are part of a “war on expertise” based on a cynical political agenda. It seems that they cannot imagine that their readers might be thinking for themselves and finding the case for the orthodox scientific view of climate change unpersuasive.
The article (by Adam Frank) that Popular Science uses as support for their decision is interestingly confusing: “Meanwhile, climate deniers, taking pages from the creationists’ PR playbook, have manufactured doubt about fundamental issues in climate science that were decided scientifically decades ago.” So Frank has a competing theory of climate skepticism. It’s the creationists, stupid. Oreskes and Conway said it was the tobacco lobby, but never even mentioned creationism. This is the kind of thing that should matter if facts matter. And facts should matter in science, even when they don’t in poltics.