Books: the dirty war against science

In Merchants of Doubt, Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway expose the right-wing scientists hell-bent on destroying the cause of environmentalism. Robin McKie says they’ve written 2010’s best volume on science.

Merchants of Doubt
Naomi Oreskes and Erik M Conway
Bloomsbury Publishing, 2010

Rachel Carson is generally viewed as an environmental heroine, a courageous campaigner whose book, Silent Spring, alerted the world to the dangers of the indiscriminate use of pesticides. Hers was a success story, the tale of a woman who highlighted a serious problem – that the anti-mosquito agent DDT was building up in the food chain where it was killing millions of birds and animals – and who helped introduce a global ban on use of the chemical.

At least that is the common appreciation of Carson. However, a brief search of her name on the internet today produces an unexpected response. According to many websites, Carson – by all accounts a pleasant, amiable woman – was a mass murderer who killed more people than the Nazis. This dramatic claim is based on her campaign against DDT, which, it is alleged, has led to the deaths of countless Africans from malaria.

“Millions of people around the world suffer the painful and often deadly effects of malaria because one person sounded a false alarm,” states one site set up by the Competitive Enterprise Institute. “That person is Rachel Carson.” Another site goes further: “Fifty million dead”, while a third claims: “More deaths likely". Others compare Carson to Hitler or Stalin.

As an appraisal of Carson’s achievements, this is a fairly shocking piece of revisionism and, as the authors of Merchants of Doubt make clear, it also is a false one. DDT was banned not just because it was accumulating in the food chain but because mosquitoes were developing resistance to it. The pesticide was losing its usefulness long before it was taken out of commercial production.

So why this hysterical vilification? Why these sudden denunciations of Carson? The answer – provided by Naomi Oreskes and Erik M Conway in this painstakingly assembled but nevertheless riveting piece of investigative reporting – is simple. The far right in America, in its quest to ensure the perpetuation of the free market, is hell-bent on destroying the cause of environmentalism.

According to this distorted view of life, environmentalists are watermelons – green on the outside, red on the inside – who want to impose regulation, "the slippery slope to socialism", on the use of tobacco, ozone-destroying chemicals and greenhouse gases. "And in the demonising of Rachel Carson, free-marketeers realised that if you could convince people that an example of successful government regulation wasn’t, in fact, successful – that it was actually a mistake – you could strengthen the argument against regulation in general," state Oreskes and Conway.

Hence the monstering of Carson’s reputation, an act of deliberate misinformation, say Oreskes and Conway, that has become the hallmark of a group of far-right institutions that are funded by businesses and conservative foundations and supported by a coterie of right-wing scientists who believe ecological threats are made up by lefty researchers as part of a grand plan to expand government control over our lives.

These are the villains of Merchants of Doubt, and the same names pop up throughout its pages: scientists such as Fred Seitz, Robert Jastrow and Bill Nierenberg — along with the institutes through which they and their kind have lent their services — to a range of right-wing, free-market foundations and institutions, including the Competitive Enterprise Institute, the source of that anti-Carson diatribe that I quoted earlier.

When not funded by the tobacco industry, many of these outfits often receive backing from fossil-fuel companies such as Exxon.

In these campaigns, a common strategy is evident: discredit the science, spread confusion and promote doubt. Such tactics were introduced in the 1970s to combat plans to limit smoking — whose links to cancer were by then becoming unambiguous – and which have been refined and used in battles to combat acid rain, ozone-layer depletion and greenhouse-gas emissions.

Real science is dismissed as "junk" while misrepresentations are offered in its place. Thus cancer is triggered by many different causes, not just smoke, it was argued – even though the tobacco industry was, by this time, admitting in private that there was indeed a definite link between smoking and serious disease. Similarly, acid rain was blamed not on its real cause, the by-products of burning fossil fuels, but on volcanic eruptions, which also were said to be the cause of the depletion of the ozone layer.

In each case, experts offered briefings to journalists and politicians and their claims were accepted, with little qualification, by an acquiescent media happy to establish the idea that there were real divisions among mainstream scientists where none actually existed. In short, we have been led by the nose and have meekly accepted the outpourings of a small, dedicated group of right-wing propagandists who have found themselves pushing, all too easily, at open doors.

As Oreskes and Conway point out: "Who among us wouldn’t prefer a world where acid rain was no big deal, the ozone hole didn’t exist and global warming didn’t matter? Such a world would be far more comforting than the one we actually live in. We may even prefer comforting lies to sobering facts. And the facts denied by our protagonists were more than sobering. They were downright dreadful."

Thus the tactics – the spreading of doubt and confusion – of a small group of cold-war ideologues have worked their way across America and have now crossed the Atlantic. The public in both the United States and the United Kingdom are more confused than ever about the truth on a series of key scientific issues — in particular, global warming — even though scientists have become more certain about the accuracy of their efforts.

In many ways, it is a tough message to stomach, though there is no doubt that Oreskes and Conway deserve considerable praise for this outstanding book and for exposing the influence of these dark ideologues. Merchants of Doubt – which includes detailed notes on all sources – is clearly and cleanly outlined, carefully paced and is my runaway contender for best science book of 2010.

Copyright Guardian News and Media Limited 2011