Debunking Oreskes Part 4: Disinformation or debate?
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.
When reading the book, it starts out relatively bland. As I was reading the historical part of the Merchants of Doubt, I was most struck by how unremarkable the events described seemed. With the exception of the tobacco lobby, the political use of science by the Handful and other “bad guys” is mostly unsurprising and doesn’t strike me as unusual even though I probably don’t share their political convictions. So how do Oreskes and Conway make the case that this is particularly nasty behavior, deserving of labels like “disinformation”?
They don’t. They simply fail to connect the facts and the labels. Labels are replaced by stronger labels with no discussion of whether they might actually have different meanings. Doubting an alleged scientific consensus (whatever its strength) is described as “denying the facts”, “fighting facts” or “fighting science” and then later on escalated further to “disinformation”. And most importantly, the disconnect between the weak and the strong labels is hidden, since the strongest words are mostly reserved for the summary chapters near the end, making it hard to see how they relate to the historical facts presented earlier. Even a critical reader will have trouble seeing the problem.
The word “disinformation” occurs only few times in the main historical account in the early chapters of the book, and as far as I can tell it is never specifically attributed to any member of the Handful. But in the summary chapters at the end, much stronger language is introduced. Here, they explicitly claim that the earlier stories involved deliberate disinformation, as if that were the undeniable and unequivocal conclusion from those chapters:
The stories we’ve told so far in this book involve the creation of doubt and the spread of disinformation by individuals and groups attempting to prevent regulation of tobacco, CFCs, pollution from coal-fired power plants, and greenhouse gases. They involve fighting facts that demonstrate the harms that these products and pollutants induce in order to stave off regulation.
And somewhat later:
As we’ve seen throughout this book, some “sides” represent deliberate disinformation spread by well-organized and well-funded interests, or ideologically-driven denial of facts.
The casual reader, armed only with a blurry recollection of what happened 50 or 100 pages earlier, is defenseless against this trick. Even I, the critical and hopefully vigilant reader, had to go back, check and double-check before I could understand what had happened.
The early chapters have the superficial appearance of an exaggeration-free, judiciously factual account. If you read them critically, you may see that they are one-sided, featuring “dirt” in the form of controversies told from the point of view of the Handful’s adversaries, innuendo and guilt by association. But if you’re not critical, you’re not likely to notice. The mass of detail and the number of different characters makes it hard to keep track of who did what, and makes it easy to attribute the tobacco industry’s fraudulent tactics to the Handful. All of this leaves the impression that we have been introduced to some unsavory characters working for ethically dubious industries. So we, the readers, arrive at the above quotes “primed” and ready to believe them.
I am not claiming that there was never any deliberate disinformation in any of the cases Oreskes and Conway discuss. There may have been on either side of the various controversies. It’s just that they have not provided evidence to support that claim, except in the familiar case of the tobacco industry.
Is the political use of science typical of the political right wing?
Are right-leaning scientists more inclined to use scientific arguments for political purposes than left-leaning scientists? This is another idea that many or most readers take from Merchants of Doubt. How would we know if that were the case? To approach the question scientifically, we could (theoretically, at least) find a way to gather an unbiased sample of controversial scientific subjects and an objective way to measure the political use of science, and test the results for statistical significance.
This not what Oreskes and Conway have done. In fact, there is no trace of any method whatsoever, nor even an indication that they have considered the idea.
This is, of course, elementary. You might wonder how they can get away with it. But there is nothing to get away with, technically. If challenged, they can simply say that they have made no particular claim about this. And they would be right, they haven’t. In fact, they have made statements that might seem non-committal about this question. For example the passage I quoted earlier:
All science exists in a social context, but that doesn’t prove that the relevant scientific work is skewed by that context in any particular direction. After all, a conservative scientist might have wanted to downplay nuclear winter just as much as a liberal one might have sought to highlight it.
The reason the book is perceived to confirm a general tendency of right-wing scientists to use science politically is the sum of examples that fit a particular pattern and the lack of counterexamples. In fact, from reading the book, you might think there have never been any exceptions to this “rule”. This, of course, is not the case. I’m not going to collect counterexamples here and now, but for some specific ones, try Roger Pielke Jr’s provocatively titled Obama’s war on science.
Since Oreskes and Conway have not told us what method they used to choose their examples, we can only speculate how they were selected. A phrase that recurs in media coverage of the book is “Oreskes sees a pattern”. This suggests that they have simply looked for examples that fit the pattern, in which case there would be no need to deliberately ignore counterexamples.
Compare their own definition of cherry picking : “Cherry picking, suppressing evidence, or the fallacy of incomplete evidence is the act of pointing to individual cases or data that seem to confirm a particular position, while ignoring a significant portion of related cases or data that may contradict that position.”
Interestingly, Oreskes and Conway have included what might be considered a counterexample to their “pattern”, but use a fascinating rhetorical device to “neutralize” it. They mention that Carl Sagan was criticized for his conduct in the nuclear winter issue. A little later they write, “why blame the entire scientfic community for the misdeeds of Carl Sagan?” “Misdeeds” stands without quotation marks, implying that what he did was in fact blameworthy.
It’s potentially a source of balance, but the quoted sentence subtly introduces a double standard. If scientists on the political right use science for political purpose, they are seen as representatives of the political right wing, so we can blame the right wing. If scientists on the other side, such as Sagan, acts similarly, he is seen as a representative of the entire scientfic community, so no blame can be assigned.
The end result is an overall impression of a clear-cut battle between good and evil. On the one hand we have “the good guys” represented by (relatively speaking) left-leaning environmentalists. These are (almost) always right and represent scientific integrity and consensus. On the other hand, there are “the bad guys,” right-wing anti-environmentalists who disinform the public and use doubt and uncertainty for short-sighted political purposes. Heroic, selfless idealism and scientific integrity versus greed, corruption and disinformation.
One particular example looms a bit larger. Oreskes and Conway devote a long section to a controversy surrounding the publication of the IPCC Second Assessment Report (SAR) in 1995. Since there have been many similar controversies, one might ask why this should be of any interest beyond the historical. I can only guess that it’s been chosen in order to make a point. In other words, evidence to support their theory. Nicolas Nierenberg has discussed this on his blog.
Oreskes devotes pages 197-213 to the “IPCC Chapter 8 Controversy.” This was, in my opinion, a tempest in a teapot over the revision history of the 1995 IPCC chapter on attribution. The whole thing comes down to a few editorials in the Wall Street Journal, as well letters in the Journal of the American Meteorological Association.
According to Oreskes the attacks on the IPCC were an important event, and part of a long time conspiracy by a few scientists to distort the science on warming.
Interestingly Myanna Lahsen, who Oreskes references, wrote an entire paper on the Chapter 8 issue. Unlike Oreskes, Lahsen saw it as evidence of group thinking on all sides of the issue. She also felt that in the end it wasn’t at all clear whether IPCC procedures were followed or not, but that in her opinion it didn’t seem to change the meaning all that much. Also the attacks on the IPCC had little or no policy impact.
In other words, this is not the damning evidence that Oreskes and Conway make it out to be.
In the next part of the series, we will consider the question of whether or to what extent any of what we have seen so far is relevant to the current controversy over global warming and climate change.