Now is the Time to Read Merchants of Doubt

It’s no worse than a cold, he said. “One day, it’s like a miracle, it will disappear.” Take this random medicine, he said. Or, if you can’t, it seems like maybe injecting disinfectant might work. Anything but a mask – that’s going too far. These suggestions, made by a President who, let’s not forget, challenged his own Secretary of State to an IQ contest, are easily dismissed.

But let’s forget Trump. Let’s look at Mike Pence, who was chosen as vice president for the vapid nothingness that so perfectly counterpoints Trump’s extravagance. You can fill Pence in with whatever you like. The stern evangelicalism of his dad-demeanor has led in the minds of many to a timely analogue: Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, where women’s bodies are controlled by a fundamentalist Christian theocratic regime. But this is fantasy. The right framework to understand Pence is the Grand Old Party itself. It is too easy to forget that.

“There isn’t a Coronavirus ‘Second Wave.’” Pence’s op-ed, published in the Wall Street Journal on June 16, 2020, is, like Pence himself, maliciously banal. But then, it was published in the Journal. Its existence is conditioned as much by the history of science denialism on the political right – a history much longer than Trump’s presidency – as it is by the exigent public health (not to say public relations) crisis to which it responds. The global coronavirus pandemic is unprecedented (a word I am ready to retire) in almost every way. But not in this way, because Pence’s response, which has been proven laughably, tragically wrong in the weeks since, recalls many similar instances of partisan hackery: the editorial pages of the Journal have consistently sown doubt about issues for which there is scientific consensus.

It is always a good time to read Naomi Oreskes’s and Erik M. Conway’s Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming (2010). But Oreskes and Conway’s stellar work of historical research is particularly salient in this moment when conservative politicians and the conservative media muddy the waters once again, when, as the Washington Post reports, an academic study found “that infection and mortality rates are higher in places where one pundit who initially downplayed the severity of the pandemic – Fox News’s Sean Hannity – reaches the largest audiences.”

Merchants of Doubt unsparingly details how a diminishingly small number of scientists –cold warriors and anti-communists all – drummed up “controversies” over entirely uncontroversial science. Their goal: to avoid any environmental regulations. Why? Because it’s a slippery slope from being told where you can and can’t smoke cigarettes to being controlled by a nefarious government in ways various and sundry. That’s the argument, anyway, and for the protagonists of this story it’s more important to protect the free market than it is to protect children from second-hand smoke, a known carcinogen. Oreskes and Conway name this ideology “free market fundamentalism,” but, as Oreskes explains in a recent interview with Public Books, it bears all the characteristics of what we now call neoliberalism. The smooth flow of unregulated capital above all else.

The “playbook” is maddeningly simple. Cast doubt on the scientific evidence – doubt that is, as the authors are at pains to point out, a necessary component of the scientific process that generates consensus – in order to forestall regulation. “This was the tobacco industry’s key insight,” they write, “that you could use normal scientific uncertainty to undermine the status of actual scientific knowledge. As in jujitsu, you could use science against itself.” We can’t know for sure, they say, so the price of regulation is way too high. This is bad faith skepticism, but it is comforting to hear that you bear no responsibility for children’s disease, or for the changing climate, so it works.

The central figures of this campaign – Fred Seitz, Fred Singer, Robert Jastrow, and William Nierenberg, although they are accompanied by a wider cast of characters – were all respected scientists. But they were not environmental scientists, and their objection to environmental science involved very little of any kind of expertise. They slang their mud in non-scientific publications: Commentary, that bastion of neoconservatism, the Washington Times, and the Wall Street Journal foremost among them. This is another reason their strategy worked – works – so well: because while the legitimate science is published in specialist journals that often exist behind a paywall, the rebuttals are read much more widely.

Merchants of Doubt convincingly demonstrates that this “playbook” was developed by the tobacco industry in the mid-twentieth-century and has been replicated, with little to no change, to address a variety of regulatory issues: the possibility of a nuclear winter, acid rain, the deterioration of the ozone layer and, most familiarly for all of us, climate change. The chapters are densely citational. The research is unimpeachable, and often shocking. As I read, I often exclaimed and felt the need to share the most recent outrage. They uncover internal memos from the Tobacco Institute, for example, that demonstrate that they knew second-hand smoke causes cancer and denied it anyway. One of my personal favorites is a British lobbying group called FOREST, which you might reasonably think has something to do with forests or trees: it stands for Freedom Organization for the Right to Enjoy Smoking Tobacco. Or the Alexis de Tocqueville Institution, designed to “promote democracy”: “in 1993 the Institution decided,” the authors write, “to promote democracy by defending second-hand smoke.” The worst kind of troll: trolls with influence.

Oreskes and Conway are historians, and though this is not an academic book, their prose carries academic authority. But, as above, their sense of humor breaks through regularly. One needs a sense of humor to handle this material. For example, in one passage they describe the shortcomings of the Regan Administration’s Strategic Defense Initiative, a Cold War escalation that was popularly known as the Star Wars Initiative: “The crux of the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) was to install weapons in space that could destroy incoming ballistic missiles. This would ‘shield’ the United States from attack, making nuclear weapons obsolete.” But “SDI was…untestable…Its satellites would have to be put in orbit, and then to test them we’d have to shoot large numbers of missiles at ourselves…And one or two missiles wouldn’t do, because a system that’s perfectly capable of shooting down one missile could very well fail in the face of ten, let alone thousands. To properly test SDI, we’d have to shoot a substantial fraction of our own missile inventory at ourselves.”

There is something of Kubrick in this passage, a sense of the absurdity of nuclear weapons and those who argue for their proliferation. There is something of Trump in what they describe: go ahead, inject disinfectant, nuke yourself. There is an illogic that runs through much of this line of thinking: tobacco smoke is good for you; nuclear weapons are agents of peace; fossil fuels will give our plants more carbon and thus be good for earth; masks will give you CO2 poisoning, or whatever.

In each chapter, however, Oreskes and Conway reveal the precise places in which such arguments break down. This is most exquisitely done in the chapter detailing the right’s revisionist attacks on Rachel Carson, whose now classic book Silent Spring elegiacally demonstrated the environmental consequences of heavy pesticide use, especially DDT, which was used during the second world war and likely prevented many deaths from insect borne illness. For anti-regulation commenters on the right, then, when the United States banned DDT in 1972 it caused a proliferation of preventable deaths, especially from Malaria in the global south. The author’s quote a 2004 article from the New York Times Magazine: “Silent Spring is now killing African children[.]”

One’s guard should immediately rise when the neoliberal right stakes its flag with African children, and indeed, Oreskes and Conway show, the arguments against Rachel Carson and for DDT were in extraordinary bad faith. There are two demonstrable reasons for this: first, by the time Silent Spring was published in 1962, mosquitoes were developing resistance to DDT. It no longer worked as it had in the 1940s. Malaria had been eradicated – where it had been eradicated – by other means. Second, and more ridiculously still, the DDT ban didn’t prevent U.S. companies from manufacturing the pesticide and sending it overseas. The regulation had no bearing whatsoever on African children. Rather, the DDT ban is likely the clearest instance of successful environmental regulation, and so to discredit Rachel Carson is to discredit all other regulation, past and future.

The longest chapter of Merchants of Doubt is about the relationship between burning fossil fuels and climate change. It is worth getting the book for this chapter alone. The story it tells about the discovery of the greenhouse effect and its complex political history is necessary reading for anyone with a stake in American politics – and who doesn’t have a stake in American politics? The chapter includes one of the more haunting section headings I’ve ever read: “1979: A Seminal Year for Climate.” The historical irony is too much. I feel like screaming. A highly respected group of scientists – called the Jasons, for some reason – released a report making clear to policy makers that global warming is dangerous and caused by human activity. Some kind of meaningful political action seemed possible. But then came the 80s. The delay tactics kicked into gear. Ronal Regan happened.

The chapter on global warming also depicts some of the more despicable tactics of the political right. Ben Santer – an eminent climate scientist and lead author for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change whose research has demonstrated the human fingerprint on global warming – was loudly and spuriously denounced. The Wall Street Journal published a letter from Fred Seitz, accusing Santer of fraud. Oreskes and Conway write: “Santer immediately drafted a letter to the Journal, which forty of the other IPCC lead authors signed…At first the Journal wouldn’t publish it. After three tries, Santer finally got a call from the Journal’s letters editor, and the letter was finally published on June 25 [two weeks after Seitz’s letter]. Santer’s reply had been heavily edited, and the names of the forty other cosigners deleted.”

These days, it is easy to forget how ruthless “normal,” “respectable” conservatives have always been. How did Rex Tillerson, the former CEO of Exxon Mobil, become a sympathetic figure? The tactics of the Journal, the Washington Times, Commentary; of the George C. Marshall Institute, the Cato Institute, the Heartland Institute; of the Regan and the many Bush administrations are worthy of our contempt. Merchants of Doubt – which was published, after all, long before 2016 – serves as a potent reminder that the electoral defeat of Donald Trump is not enough.

Which is not to say that it’s defined by partisanship. In fact, Oreskes and Conway work hard for their academic neutrality. They point out, somewhat defensively, that most climate scientists are not socialists or communists. This, I’m sure, is true, and yet it leads them to certain less sophisticated denunciations of left politics that replicate the Cold War mentality of their subjects (e.g. “Communism, or some other form of totalitarianism”). And it’s also not to say that American Liberals or the Democratic Party or the New York Times are obvious heroes. The Times’s recent publication of Tom Cotton’s op-ed – arguing that peaceful protesters should be met with military force – should remind us that the issue is more complex than a simple left/right binary. It’s worth acknowledging that the far left is the only faction in American politics that seems to be taking the threat of climate change seriously – and that, so far, there’s no evidence of left totalitarianism, despite what the right may say.

There are many good reasons to return Merchants of Doubt in the Trump and covid era. We should all be reading more about climate change and environmental politics, and this book is certainly a good place to start. But, for me, this book is most useful in exposing the tactics of the right for what they are. In one of the most insightful – and savage – sentences in the book, Oreskes and Conway write: “Robert Jastrow, Fred Singer, and Dixie Lee Ray—along with political propogandists such as George Will and Rush Limbaugh—routinely accused environmentalists…of being Communists, Socialists, or fellow travelers.” I’m not sure how George Will would feel about his casual association with Rush Limbaugh, but that parenthetical says it all. Even respectable conservatives with a higher degree of journalistic integrity – even the Journal – have a great deal to answer for.