Debunking Oreskes part 1: A wall of vagueness
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.
- 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.
- 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”).
- The tactics used in most or all of these cases can reasonably be characterized as disinformation.
- These alleged facts are highly relevant to the current climate change debate.
- 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.”
- 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.