Tag Archives: naomi oreskes

Debunking Oreskes part 6: Is it all about the money?

← 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

Was industry money the driving force behind the events described in Merchants of Doubt? This is another one of those ideas that seem to be implied and widely believed but never explicitly stated in the book itself. Supposedly, (nowadays at least) there is a “Koch-funded denial machine” that makes people deny the evidence for catastrophic human-caused climate change in spite of overwhelming evidence. The idea is that vast resources make up for a lack of scientific substance.

But is that true? As I just said, Oreskes and Conway never make this explicit. The very concept of “merchants of doubt” hints at a profit motive, but could perhaps be dismissed as metaphorical. In the review I quoted earlier, though, it’s clear: “It’s not about evidence, in other words; it’s about satisfying corporate America’s lust for profits.”
There is surprisingly little mention of funding in Merchants of Doubt. The passages I quoted earlier are suggestive, though.

Continue reading

Debunking Oreskes part 5: Irrelevance to the current climate change debate

← Part 1: A wall of vagueness

← Part 2: The wicked “handful of scientists” 

← Part 3: The “tobacco strategy” 

← Part 4: Disinformation or debate? 

Part 6: Is it all about the money? 

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?

Continue reading

Debunking Oreskes Part 4: Disinformation or debate?

← Part 1: A wall of vagueness

← Part 2: The wicked “handful of scientists” 

← Part 3: The “tobacco strategy” 

Part 5: Irrelevance to the current climate change debate →

Part 6: Is it all about the money?

So far in this series, we’ve seen that the claim that “a handful of scientists obscured the truth on issues from tobacco smoke to global warming”, both because the scientists identified (the Handful, as I call them) were in fact not involved in all these issues, and because the claim that they “obscured the truth” does not hold water given Oreskes and Conway’s own idea of what that means. Also, there was no “tobacco strategy” connecting the issues. 

Given this, there seems to be no foundation for any claim of disinformation. And yet, they use the term rather emphatically in the book, speaking of “the creation of doubt and the spread of disinformation”.

But let us try to find out what Oreskes and Conway base their claims of disinformation on. Part of it is guilt by association with Big Tobacco as I have mentioned. But there is more.

Continue reading

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.

Continue reading

Debunking Oreskes part 2: The wicked “handful of scientists”

← Part 1: A wall of vagueness

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? 

As mentioned in part 1 of this series, the book Merchants of Doubt by Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway focuses on the allegedly sinister actions of a “handful of scientists”. According to the book’s subtitle, these scientists “obscured the truth on issues from tobacco smoke to global warming”. Trying to deduce what this might mean in more specific terms, I wrote:

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.

To investigate what truth there might be to this, we first need to know who “the handful of scientists” (let’s call them the Handful) are supposed to have been. There is no definitive, exhaustive listing in the book, but the main ones that tend to appear together in different chapters are Fred Seitz, Fred Singer, William Nierenberg and Robert Jastrow. (Since the book mentions a large number of other, less significant characters, it’s a research project in itself to discover who recurs and therefore hard to be absolutely sure who should be included.)

These are my principal findings from studying the book: Given these main “bad guys”, I find that the links between these individuals and the two main issues are weak at best. The link between the Handful and tobacco is practically non-existent. The link between the Handful and climate change is based on old information (only Singer is still living) and has questionable relevance to the current controversy. The idea that they were obscuring the truth about global warming is based primarily on the idea that they were attacking a scientfic consensus, but according to Oreskes and Conway themselves, the period during which they were active hardly overlaps the time during which there has been a consensus.

To get into the specifics, let’s look at each person in turn.

Continue reading

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?

Continue reading