BEWARE: “Merchants of Doubt” is a Recurring Theme

by S. Tom Bond on May 10, 2016

Book & Movie about spreading doubt unethically

“Merchants of Doubt” — How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Public Issues

Book Review by Jim Guy, Concerned Citizen, Oldtown, Maryland

I just finished reading “Merchants of Doubt” and found it really interesting.  It has helped me understand the basis for the difference between liberal and conservative; between Republican and Democrat; between environmentalist and business people.  After I explain it you’re going to think “he had to read a book to understand that?”  Well not exactly but the book took me down to the atomic level, where ambiguity stops.

The book was written by a historian, Naiomi Oreskes at UCSD and Erik M. Conway, a technical historian for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.  They spent five years reviewing thousands of documents and lead the reader to several conclusions that are hard to deny.  Actually one of the things that was so impressive was the amount of research they did.  They even interviewed some of the people involved.  What’s more they imply some changes that will make most of us very uncomfortable.

The book studies seven contentious battles between science and industry.  Strangely enough the combatants were mostly scientists.  That is the scientific community was on one side and industry employed scientists to support their interests on the other side.

The battles were: Tobacco, Strategic Defense (Nuclear Winter), Acid Rain, Ozone Hole, Second Hand Smoke, Global Warming, and Rachel Carson (this attack occurred in 2007).

Industry was able to use the efforts of some scientists who had very prestigious reputations to create doubt on the findings of the scientific community.  The doubt then made it difficult for people (citizens, politicians, the military, judges, and others) to know what to believe.  The strategy was very effective because by casting doubt on the conclusions of the scientific community, leadership didn’t know what to do and so nothing was done.  Industry kept casting doubt and operating as it chose to do.  The method they used was pretty much all the same.  Interestingly, even though the scientific community consensus is clear and final, several of these debates are still ongoing.  Tobacco is a good example of how industry casts doubt.

In the early 1950’s tobacco company’s technologists started to realize that smoking was making people sick, causing people to die, and was addictive.  Not long thereafter medical professionals started realizing the same thing.  They started trying to get the government involved.  The tobacco industry fearing negative effects for their industry got several scientists involved.  The scientists were not from the medical field.  They were physicists.  They used the scientific process against the scientific community.

One of the surprising things about this is that these same men were involved in almost every controversy.  The men, Frederick Sietz, Fred Singer, Robert Jastrow, and Bill Nierenberg made their reputations in the early 1940’s in work related to the atomic bomb.  They were smart and understood science.

They also were men who felt that regulation would limit our freedom via free market capitalism.  That is for them, the free market was a significant expression of the freedom upon which America is based.  Regulating the free market would be a huge step in limiting our freedom.  This is kind of like the way that the NRA see’s any kind of regulation of firearms.  For them that was all that mattered and that concept is something that has escaped me all these years.  I never understood that protecting the free market would and could drive people to do the kinds of things they did; the things the tobacco industry did; and the Oil & Gas industry is now doing.

I thought it was all about money and power.  There probably is a lot of that driving people too.  But the idea that the free market is the representation of our constitutional rights just makes me nuts.  I can’t understand how really intelligent people get to that point.  That’s what I was saying earlier about finally understanding the distinction between liberal and conservative.  I’m probably overstating here.  I suppose there are probably many liberals who feel that a free market is critical to America’s ability to function.  What confuses me is that I don’t think there’s been a free market ever since the first tariff was passed.

“A free market is a market system in which the prices for goods and services are set free without consent between vendors and consumers, in which the laws and forces of supply and demand are free from any intervention by a government, price-setting monopoly, or other authority.“

So it doesn’t appear that we have a free market and our basic constitutional rights seem to be intact.  Yes things seem to be working according to the manifest destiny.   They continue to work as our manifest destiny was adjusted to include the entire globe.  I guess I don’t see their problem.  I digress.  So how did these men accomplish what they did?

What they did was take advantage of the misunderstanding most of us have regarding science.  Things in science are not binary; black or white; at least initially.  Usually a discovery is made, somebody thinks of something new, or maybe something is invented.  At this point the scientific community gets engaged and starts taking a hard look.  Data is collected.  Analysis is done.  People start writing papers.  The best are peer reviewed papers that are published in scientific journals.  That is people with expert knowledge review a paper and comment.  The author incorporates the comments into the paper.  At some point, after lots of discussion, consensus is reached.  That is consensus within the scientific community.

I should also make this point.  As I’ve been researching fracking to understand the truth about it I’ve only seen one industrial reference to a peer reviewed journal.  That reference was deceptive because it stated something in the paper that was good for fracking.  What the reference didn’t do was state that the paper negated that comment later.  All the other information I found from industry were articles written in the news media.  So if you want the best information, read peer reviewed papers published in prestigious scientific journals.

The scientific community decided that smoking was going to make us sick or kill us.  The opposition however knew what that conclusion was based upon.  It was based upon a great big pile of data that when analyzed stated that people who smoked had a higher chance of getting sick and dying than people who didn’t.  What it didn’t say is that if you smoke you will get sick and/or die.  Scientists will say that if you fire a loaded gun, point blank at your temple, you will die.

With something like tobacco, where the effects take many years and other factors influence things, scientists will say that smoking will significantly increase the probability of getting sick and/or dying.  The tobacco industry was able to use that fact for about 40 years before they started getting hammered in court.  They may not have had a problem at that point except an industry insider provided the government with documents that provided the evidence.  You may be asking yourself why I’m spending so much time on this.

The answer is because industry is still using this technique to confuse us.  I think they will use this to discredit the studies that are being done and will be done that draw conclusions about fracking and our health.  A couple of letters ago I included a “Reader Commentary” to the Cumberland Times.  The lobbyist made several statements one of which was about health.  He was talking about well water contamination and said “there is very little, if any, direct evidence of actual occurrence of well contamination.”

We all know there is a mountain of evidence that suggests that fracking contaminates well water; so much evidence that we accept that as fact.  However, the evidence is mostly circumstantial.  That is it’s very difficult to say that company A’s fracking contaminated a well.

Part of the reason we can’t say that is because of the Cheney or Halliburton Loophole.  Companies don’t have to reveal the components of their chemical mix* and consequently it’s very difficult to say that it’s company A’s fault.  It may not be possible to say it was company A even if we knew what chemicals they used.  Company B may use some of the same chemicals and since no one knows how water moves beneath the surface it could be Company B.  So that’s the card that industry plays.  It creates doubt because it’s very difficult for science to say “definitely”.  Mostly science says “probably”.

(*This policy is state by state and there may be states that require companies to disclose fracking chemicals.  I didn’t do the research to find out what each state requires.)

Another interesting point is the extent to which industry went to create doubt.  Think tanks were created whose mission was to create doubt.  Here are some mission statements from several of these think tanks:

>>> The Cato Institute, founded in 1977, is a public policy (libertarian) research organization — a think tank – dedicated to the principles of individual liberty, limited government, free markets and peace. Its scholars and analysts conduct independent, nonpartisan research on a wide range of policy issues.  Fred Singer was a fellow in the 1980’s at the Cato Institute.

>>> Founded in 1973, The Heritage Foundation is a research and educational institution—a think tank—whose mission is to formulate and promote conservative public policies based on the principles of free enterprise, limited government, individual freedom, traditional American values, and a strong national defense.  Fred singer was affiliate with this foundation.

>>>  The George C. Marshall Institute was established in 1984 as a nonprofit 501(c)(3) corporation to conduct technical assessments of scientific issues with an impact on public policy.  Frederick Sietz was the founding chairman of the board.

I’ve only mentioned these three but there are many.  You should read their mission statements to see what they’re about. I really recommend reading the book. I really am glad I read the book although it made me realize how hard it’s going to be to maintain this moratorium.  The only way we’re going to be able to do it is to get America informed.  I read somewhere that 59% of the citizens in Maryland don’t know what the word “fracking” means.  We have to change that.  Try to get people involved.

Sony Pictures made a movie “Merchants of Doubt” based on the book.  This would be a very worthwhile movie for showing in your area. This can lead to a much needed discussion of the impacts and risks of horizontal drilling and slick-water fracking without reasonable controls and regulations!

Here is a link to chapter 6 of the book “Merchants of Doubt.”  This chapter is titled “The Denial of Global Warming.” Give it a read. You may want to borrow a copy from the library or purchase a copy. The movie may also become available in your area.

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