Tag Archives: tobacco

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.

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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.

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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.

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