Debunking Oreskes part 2: The wicked “handful of scientists”
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.
Fred Seitz and tobacco
The book describes Seitz’ involvement with the tobacco industry in this way:
From 1979 to 1985, Fred Seitz directed a program for R. J. Reynolds Tobacco Company that distributed $45 million to scientists around the country for biomedical research that could generate evidence and cultivate experts to be used in court to defend the “product.”
This could be interpreted to mean, first, that the only motivation for the research program was to defend tobacco, and second, that this also was Seitz’ motivation for his participation.
A little later, they say:
All of the chosen studies addressed legitimate scientific questions, some that mainstream medicine had neglected—like the role of emotions and stress in somatic disease. All the investigators were credentialed researchers at respected institutions. Some of the work they were doing was pathbreaking. But was the purpose simply to advance science? Not exactly.
In other words, the research was valid in itself. But then they discuss evidence that seems to indicate that defending the industry was the primary motivation for Reynolds in funding these research projects. That may be true, but what is missing is evidence that Seitz was aware of or approved of it. Did he believe that the research he supported was important to the campaign to defend tobacco? Did he sympathize with the campaign? Was he aware of its deliberately deceptive aspects? Oreskes and Conway devote three pages to speculations about his possible (and mostly benign) motives, but answer none of these questions. As the Marshall Institute article puts it:
Was Reynolds interested in discrediting the links between tobacco and human health effects? Certainly, but that is irrelevant to the question of whether Seitz and his colleagues believed that or saw the research they were supporting as contributing to that goal. What Reynolds hoped the research would produce is not the same as proving that Reynolds forced Seitz and his colleagues to do anything untoward. In fact, the documents cited by Oreskes-Conway suggest the opposite — that Seitz and his colleagues operated independently and supported worthy research. And there is little question of the worth of the research. It supported work which eventually produced a Nobel Prize by Dr. Stanley Prusinerfor his work on prions.
Fred Singer and tobacco
In this matter, Singer can speak for himself.
No matter what the environmental issue — ozone depletion, acid rain, pesticides, etc. — any and all scientific opposition based on objective facts is blamed [by Oreskes and Conway] on an imagined involvement with tobacco companies. None of this is true, of course. Oreskes and Conway claim to be academic historians, yet they have consistently ignored factual information, have not bothered to consult primary sources, have never interviewed any of the scientists they try to smear, and generally have operated in a completely unprofessional way.
The ultimate aim of these attacks, at least in my case, has been to discredit my work and publications on global warming. 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.
Clearly, if the information in the latter paragraph had been included in Merchants of Doubt, it would have seriously weakened its insinuation that the main characters in the book were intentionally working to defend the tobacco industry.
Robert Jastrow, William Nierenberg and tobacco
As for the two other members of the Handful—Nierenberg and Jastrow—Oreskes and Conway do not even suggest a link to tobacco.
In addition, there are any number of other players described in the book that were involved with the tobacco industry, but not with the other controversies, and certainly not the climate change issue.
The Handful and climate change
All the members of the Handful participated actively in the scientific debate on climate change. However, most of this happened at least 20 years ago. As mentioned, Singer is the only one of them who is still living. The others were involved mainly around 1990, at least from the account in the book. What does this imply for Oreskes and Conway’s claims that the Handful “obscured the truth”? Their concept of obscuring the truth is based primarily on the idea that they were attacking a scientfic consensus.
This gives them a problem with the timing of the events. And uf they are aware of this problem, they are not telling us about it. Oreskes and Conway themselves say there was a consensus since “the mid-1990s”.
In 2004, one of us showed that scientists had a consensus about the reality of global warming and its human causes—and had since the mid-1990s. (Page 215.)
This means that they date the consensus to the period from the mid-1990s until today. In contrast, 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. In other words, it hardly overlaps the “consensus” period.
But the idea that the Handful obscured the truth about climate change is essential to the book’s overall (implied) message. How can Oreskes and Conway make it seem that way when there was no “truth” (consensus) available at the time the Handful were operating? Part of the answer is that the chapter on climate change leaves a misleading impression which is at odds with the explicit admission that the consensus existed from the mid-1990s.
The account of climate change starts in 1979 and quotes statements that may give the impression that even at that point there was a consensus on anthropogenic global warming. But we are not given what is perhaps the most important background information we need in order to understand the situation then. The world had not warmed significantly in four decades.
Among other things, we are presented with the following quote from a report published in 1979:
The report concluded, “if carbon dioxide continues to increase, the study group finds no reason to doubt that climate changes will result and no reason to believe that these changes will be negligible.” (Page 173.)
It’s easy to think that this is almost the same as what the IPCC claimed in 2007 or 2013, or possibly in the 1990s. But the context makes all the difference. It’s fairly obvious that it was difficult to gain support for a theory of man-made global warming when there had been no global warming for decades. Scientifically speaking, the problem was that some of the most important data the theory is based on today, the surface temperature record from the last three decades of the 20th century, did not yet exist. A reader who is not aware of this may think that those who did not believe in human-caused global warming at the time should have known better. While Conway and Oreskes reviews objections this report met at the time, and admits that there was tremendous uncertainty, the overall impression is misleading.
How else do Oreskes and Conway foster the impression that skepticism about global warming was somehow shady even before 1990? Part of it comes from attributing motives to the skeptics. Conservative politics is one of these. Another example is their recounting of the response to James Hansen’s relatively strong claims about global warming in the late 1980s.
Some colleagues, uncomfortable with all the media attention—and maybe a bit jealous, too—attacked Hansen for going too far, thinking he had discounted the significant uncertainties that still remained.
A more unbiased and scientifically-minded way to refer this would been to report that some scientists disagreed and to cite the arguments they used. Instead, Conway and Oreskes choose to attribute motives such as envy, subtly implying that their reaction was irrational, although they also say that “Hansen’s claim of detection was unexpected and seemed perhaps premature”.
The contemporary article Oreskes and Conway themselves use as a reference, Hansen Vs. the World on the Greenhouse Threat, is more sympathetic to his critics.
The article states that Hansen “irked practically everyone in the field when, in the midst of a drought, he told Congress that the greenhouse warming is here. It was this sort of unconditional claim from Hansen and his group that had prompted this meeting. The greenhouse community was determined to set the record straight with hard facts, but now, even as they got their meeting under way, Hansen was at it once more on Capitol Hill.”
It looks as if Hansen was the “contrarian” at this point if judged by the standards and evidence available at the time; in other words, challenging a consensus representing the majority of scientists. And the Handful appear more like the defenders of the consensus, making them heroes rather than villians in the Merchants of Doubt dramaturgy. The same behavior that in the previous quote is called “setting the record straight with hard facts” could probably have been labeled “fact fighting” by Oreskes and Conway.
There may be a slight rhetorical twist here. According to the dictionary, consensus simply means unanimous agreement. But Oreskes and Conway use it preferentially to mean agreement about certainty and knowledge rather than about uncertainty and ignorance, implying a value judgment that uncertainty is less important than certainty.
Consensus is central concept in the book, but with very little discussion of what it actually means. So how can we understand it?
Consensus, what’s the point?
Oreskes has been nominated for unflattering titles like “queen of smear”, or “conspiracy queen”. She herself seems to aspire to be the “queen of consensus”. Having researched and written extensively about it, you would think she would be able to provide at least a good definition, somewhat precise information about what it is and why it’s important. But no. As with many other ideas in the book, there is no clear and coherent exposition of the notion of scientific consensus in Merchants of Doubt. The best we can do is educated guessing. The book’s messages about consensus appear to be:
- Scientific consensus is an important and valuable concept.
- It’s a bad thing to oppose it.
- The Handful did just that, opposing the scientific consensus on climate change.
I have already shown that they have not demonstrated the truth of statement 3. To comment only briefly on statement 1, how do we know that a consensus is even desirable? The idea that scientific consensus is valuable is a unquestioned premise throughout the book. But it is not clear why and how it has value. It’s easy to see that it’s politically convenient to have simple answers, but from a scientfic point of view, is it a good thing to deliberately foster consensus? Or does it simply impede progress by making it harder to ask tough questions? Judith Curry offers the following opinion:
The manufactured consensus of the IPCC has had the unintended consequences of distorting the science, elevating the voices of scientists that dispute the consensus, and motivating actions by the consensus scientists and their supporters that have diminished the public’s trust in the IPCC.
Similar sentiments were expressed and developed in the debate on “the 97% consensus”.
But in the context of Merchants of Doubt, my key point is a different one: the fact that statement 2 does not follow from statement 1. However good, useful and important a consensus might be, it does not mean that it should never be challenged. On the contrary, challenging it can be an opportunity for the consensus to be adjusted, improved or even strengthened.
In general, Oreskes and Conway supply only rudimentary reasoning supporting their assumptions about consensus. We are never told clearly and logically how, when and why questioning a scientific consensus is a bad idea. However, there are some stray passages that touch on it. The reasoning rests primarily on blurring distinctions and conflating concepts. Superficially similar ideas are treated as if they were exact synonyms. In one case, they give the impression that a consensus is almost by definition final and infallible:
Research produces evidence, which in time may settle the question…After that point, there are no “sides.” There is simply accepted scientific knowledge. There may still be questions that remain unanswered—to which scientists then turn their attention—but for the question that has been answered, there is simply the consensus of expert opinion on that particular matter. That is what scientific knowledge is.
Here again, we find the idea of “settled science” which Gavin Schmidt and RealClimate has told us is not an accurate description of the current state of climate science. If consensus is “what scientific knowledge is”, it implies that if you challenge a consensus you are challenging “scientific knowledge” as such. But of course, this is not the case. Scientific knowledge is above all the body of evidence on which a consensus, if any, rests. And when scientists challenge a consensus, typically their argument is that the evidence does not support the consensus position.
The political use of consensus has been characterized as “consensus as proxy for truth”. Using consensus as a proxy for truth might be useful in a specific situation, but they are not the same, and attacking the consensus is not the moral or intellectual equivalent of attacking the truth.
And yet this is precisely what Oreskes and Conway imply. “Settled science” and “the consensus of expert opinion” are portrayed as indistinguishable. And as we have just seen, the consensus is equated with scientific knowledge as such. Knowledge, evidence and expert opinion are used interchangably in a way that makes them seem to be identical. Challenging a consensus then becomes “fighting facts” or even “disinformation”.
And although they posit a clear distinction between a consensus and a pre-consensus situation (in the previous quote the questions are either answered or unanswered), there is no discussion of where they want to draw the line. How strong a consensus is needed to ensure that a question is “settled”, and how do we measure the strength of that consensus? Oreskes and Conway never discuss any of this.
The next quote blurs a different distinction, this time between the issue and the people representing it.
Once [the Handful] had been prominent researchers, but by the time they turned to the topics of our story, they were mostly attacking the work and the reputations of others. In fact, on every issue, they were on the wrong side of the scientific consensus.
Again, different concepts are being treated as if they were equivalent. Being “on the wrong side of the scientific consensus” apparently involves, not simply disagreeing, but attacking both the work and the personal reputations of other scientists.
And since attacking a consensus means attacking good people, it’s only natural that the people attacking it are bad people:
And it especially does not make sense to dismiss the consensus of experts if the dissenter is superannuated, disgruntled, a habitual contrarian, or in the pay of a group with an obvious ideological agenda or vested political or economic interest. Or in some cases, all of the above.
In other words, the degree to which a challenge to the consensus makes sense depends on the person proposing it. Again, this is clearly not the case. Scientific ideas, theories and hypotheses make sense or not depending on the evidence and the arguments given for or against them. At least that is how science is supposed to operate. Science is about what’s objectively verifiable, and the motivations of individuals typically aren’t. This is especially so if you choose not to ask the individual in question, and rely on the opinions of people who may have their own reasons for misinterpreting the person’s motives.
Of course some people question a scientific consensus for the “wrong” reasons. But people can be right for the wrong reasons and wrong for the right reasons. And of course, they can accept a consensus for the wrong reasons as well. Habitual people-pleasing biases you as much as habitual combativeness and is probably much more common, although combativeness may be more conspicuous. Turning their quote on its head, we might say that accepting a consensus “makes no sense” if those who accept it are…
…inexperienced, complacent, habitually servile or in the pay of a group with an obvious ideological agenda or vested political or economic interest [in favor of the consensus].
Oreskes and Conway never delve deeper into the discussion of these matters. Concepts such as groupthink and confirmation bias are absent in their analysis. And when we don’t consider the matter explicitly, we tend to fall back on our knee-jerk reflexes. All to often, that means prejudice and an almost instinctive dislike of disagreement. Any intolerant majority will tell the minority that their opinions are just an expression of an excessive and obsessive belligerence. And their personal problems and troubled feelings, of course.
What does this mean for the alleged link between tobacco and climate change?
We have seen that the link fails at both ends. There are only two among their Handful that they even try to link to tobacco, and only Seitz has an actual link to the tobacco companies.
Furthermore, they have not demonstrated that any of the Handful challenged an established consensus on climate change.
For the sake of completeness, even though they haven’t shown this, it is probably true in the case of case of Singer, since he is still an active climate skeptic. But the impression that these men are have somehow conspired to create current climate skepticism is clearly false.
So even if we accept their premise that challenging a scientific consensus as defined by them always implies “obscuring the truth”, there is no way we can make the number of people that have “obscured the truth on issues from tobacco smoke to global warming” more than one or two. A bit small for a handful.
In other words, even from Oreskes and Conway’s own perspective, given all their bias, rhetoric, value judgements and dubious assumptions, they have failed to demonstrate what is arguably their strongest message.