This is point of inquiry for Friday, June 4th, 2010.
Welcome the point of inquiry. I’m Chris Mooney point of inquiry is the radio show and podcast of the Center for Inquiry, a think tank advancing reason, science and secular values in public affairs. And at the grassroots. My guest this week is science historian Naomi Oreskes, coauthor with historian Erik Conway of the new book Merchants of Doubt How a handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues From Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming. Through extensive archival research, Oreskes and Conway have managed to connect the dots between a large number of seemingly separate anti science campaigns that have unfolded over the past decades. It all began with Big Tobacco and the famous internal memo declaring, quote, Doubt is our product. Then came the attacks on the science of acid rain and ozone depletion and the flimsy defenses of Ronald Reagan’s Star Wars program. And the same strategies have continued up to the present with the battle over climate change. Throughout the saga, a number of key scientific actors appear repeatedly leaping across issues, fighting the facts again and again. So it’s a great privilege to get this new glimpse behind the anti science curtain from Dr. Rescues. Naomi Oreskes is professor of history and science studies at the University of California, San Diego. Her research focuses on the historical development of scientific knowledge, methods and practices in the earth and environmental sciences, as well as on our understanding of scientific consensus and dissent, especially on the subject of climate change. Dr. Oreskes is the author of numerous noted books and papers, including a 2004 essay in science entitled The Scientific Consensus on Climate Change, which was widely cited, debated and referenced in Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth. Naomi Oreskes, welcome to Point of Inquiry.
Thank you. Nice to be here.
There’s been a lot of anticipation of your new book, Merchants of Doubt, written with Erik Conway. And I think one reason for that is here we have two historians of science getting into this game and looking at the so-called war on science, using the tools of their trade. And you write that you plowed through, quote, hundreds of thousands of pages of documents. Can you tell me how you originally stumbled on this story of a group of senior scientists who are involved in all these different campaigns to attack research on issues like tobacco and Star Wars and global warming?
Yeah, definitely. So I was writing a book on the history of oceanography. And Eric was writing a book on the history of atmospheric sciences. And to make a long story short, we both independently came across the same phenomenon, which was this phenomenon of scientists, people who were respected, well regarded scientists who were challenging the scientific evidence of not just global warming, but also the evidence of the ozone hole and acid rain. And we started talking we met at a conference in Germany some years ago. We started talking and we discovered, you know, the same people were in both of our stories. He had just finished a big project looking at the scientific evidence of ozone depletion. And I was working on the final chapter of a book on the history of oceanography that was looking at oceanographers work on climate change. And we realized that we had come across the same story and that it was pretty amazing. So we decided to join forces and write this book together.
Well, why don’t you tell us about some of the main characters you’ve got Fred’s sights, Bill Nierenberg. Robert Jastrow.
Right. So the book, in a way, is an origin story. We’re historians, so we’re always interested in not just why things are the way they are, but how they came to be the way they are. And so we were tracking back in time a group of scientists who were very prominent and played a very major role in challenging the scientific evidence of global warming, the ozone hole, acid rain. And then we discovered some other stuff, too, involving tobacco and DDT. And so we chased them back to the founding of a think tank in Washington, D.C., which is the George C. Marshall Institute. And in 1984, three scientists, Phil Nierenberg, Fred Sites and Robert Josh Zepps joined forces to create the Marshall Institute. And they were the founding directors and they did it originally to defend Ronald Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative. Well, most of us newest Star Wars, they were all physicists who had been active in the Cold War. They worked on Cold War weapons or rocketry programs or weapons delivery systems. And they were all very hawkish in their politics and believed adamantly in the severity of the communist threat. They believed adamantly the necessity of a muscular military. And they believed adamantly in the role of technology in keeping us safe from the Soviet threat. And that’s how they came together originally.
And then their cold warrior views on defense turn into also some sort of anti environmentalism, and then they start attacking environmental science as well.
Exactly. So this is kind of unpleasant transmogrification that takes place. The Cold War comes to an end. And you might have thought that they would be very happy that their life’s work had come to culmination that the Soviet threat had been contained. Soviet Union collapsed. The West won. The Cold War. All good things. And that they could have been happy and they might have retired to play golf, because at this point, they’re all they’re oh, you know, they’re mature people. They’ve you know, they’ve had very successful, very productive careers, really enviable careers. And most people would most people would be jealous of people who had had as much influence and power as these three men did and success in a real professional intellectual, an academic success both as scientists and as policymakers. So you might have thought that they would just be happy. But that’s not what happens.
Instead, it’s like they need to find a new enemy. They need to find a new threat. And the new threat they they turn against is environmentalism.
And you also talk about a strategy that they used that I guess he traced back to the tobacco industry. Some have called it manufacturing uncertainty, strategic sowing of doubt. Why is it so successful and why is it the approach they took?
Well, so one of the things we show in the book is we connect the dots between these men and the tobacco industry. And this was actually a key discovery for us. Is that so? Frederick Seitz, who was the original founding chairman of the board of the Marshman Institute. Very, very prominent scientists. He had been the president of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences in the 1960s, but he also had. Their job, which was from 1979 to 1985. He worked for R.J. Reynolds Tobacco and he ran for them a program, a biomedical research program to fund scientific research that could cast doubt on the harms of tobacco. And in the book, we call it distracting research because it’s real research. It’s not fake. It’s not lies. It’s real research. But it’s research on other causes of cancer that could be used to distract attention from tobacco or research on the uncertainties around tobacco. So the whole purpose is to cast doubt or we call it doubt mongering. We don’t call it manufacturing uncertainty. I don’t like that term because I think in a way it’s misleading. They’re not manufacturing uncertainty because uncertainty is a real feature of all scientific research.
And it’s important for people to understand that you never eliminate uncertainty completely in any form of scientific inquiry. But what they do is they exaggerated. They take it out of context. They blow out of proportion and they make the uncertainty seem much greater than they actually are. And they do it because they’ve demonstrated the tobacco industry has demonstrated already by this point that it’s an extremely effective strategy for delaying regulatory action. And that’s what this is all about.
It’s about delaying political action on these various issues and also about, I believe, protecting in some cases against litigation.
Yes, exactly. Well, that, too. Right. So the program that type’s was a part was very much involved in litigation.
And one of the purposes of his program was to develop from the expert witnesses. So by cultivating scientists, by supporting their research, the hope was and many of the documents say this explicitly. So we’re not just interpreting this. This is explicit in documents that some of these scientists who are supported by the tobacco industry then can serve as expert witnesses in litigation, where they will testify to the uncertainty regarding the harms of tobacco and indeed, some. We show in the book that several of the scientists that they funded did, in fact, either serve as expert witnesses or were on lists of expert witnesses for cases. They didn’t always come to trial. But in some cases, they did come to trial. And we did.
We document one particular important problem in case of a very famous researcher who served as an expert witness for the tobacco industry, the tobacco industry.
You do paint this as a story of origins and it goes back to the 50s. And indeed, many people think of tobacco as being the modern pioneers of anti science or sowing doubt. You write that in. In 1953 or so, quote, The modern era of fighting facts began. And I guess as a bit of a devil’s advocate, I’d ask you, how do we know historically that these tactics are, you know, without precedent? Because it seems like there might have always been reasons to to attack scientific information.
Yeah, well, that’s that’s a great question, Chris. And I think you’re right that there’s a longer history of people resisting scientific claims that make them unhappy or uncomfortable. So certainly if we go the 19th century, we see people being uncomfortable with the idea of evolution and we certainly see people raising questions about the scientific evidence there. That is best. This case is another interesting one where we see corporate attempts to question and challenge the science. But I guess the reason we say the modern era finding facts begun is because those previous ones are sort of isolated. They’re not very well organized and very systematic with the decision of the tobacco industry consciously and deliberately to fight the scientific evidence that they knew was correct. I mean, this is what’s really staggering about the documents. You don’t see the tobacco executives saying, hey, we’re not sure we believe this. Well, you see them saying, hey, this is incredibly worrisome for our business. We need to do something to fight this. And so they enlist public relations firms to give them advice about how to fight the scientific evidence. So it’s very systematic. It’s very continuous. It’s very organized, and it’s very, very clever. And I think that really sets it apart from some of the earlier episodes that we might think of.
And we also now have pages and pages of documents about it, which is which is great.
Well, correct, exactly. I mean, that some work about the asbestos industry. But again, this Bess’s industry does he was a little different, was more of an absolute cover up that they knew what the science was and they tried to suppress it, as opposed to this doubt mongering strategy, which is a little a little more subtle and harder to harder to counter.
Well, I’d like to let our listeners know that Naomi Oreskes, new book Merchants of Doubt, is available through our Web site, point of inquiry dot org. An interesting issue here also that I’d like to raise. As you know, one often thinks of a historian of science like yourself as being sort of part of the so-called academic left and tied to the science studies camp, which in turn has been accused of postmodernism, relativism, etc.. Yet here we have two historians of science pretty much taking incredibly the opposite stand, saying there are real facts about the world.
Science reveals them and they’re so important and so unequivocal that people want to deny them and attack them and pull the wool over your eyes. What’s going on here?
Yeah, well, that’s a great question. As you know, Chris, I raised this in my review of your book, The Republican War Science, that I think that in all the fussing about left wing criticism of science bigger. More important story was, in fact, missed, which was the systematic I don’t even like to call right wing, I certainly won’t call conservative because there’s nothing conservative about attacking science but a right wing, ideologically driven attack on science that was, in my opinion, far more consequential and far more damaging than a few postmodernists, you know, rattling around halls of academia. So I really think that the debate that took place, you know, back in that what was it, the 90s over science was really was missing a much more important story, which we think, well, you began to tell that story in your book and we think we’ve contributed some more here.
But also, I think it’s really important to point out we don’t want to say that scientific knowledge is absolute. And when you use the phrase real facts, you know, we’re not exactly arguing that. Right.
Which I argue saying which is a little bit more nuanced than that. And it’s the following. Science is uncertain. Life is uncertain. There are many things that we don’t know the answers to in any absolute sense. And party will never know the answers in an absolute sense. There are many questions about tobacco. We don’t know why. Two people can both smoke a pack a day and one gets lung cancer and the other doesn’t. We don’t know why one gets lung cancer and the other gets emphysema. There are many important, really significant scientific questions that remain unanswered. So we’re not saying that scientific knowledge is absolute or complete or certain in any naive 19th century sense. Right. And we would be upset if we got accused of that. And it would damage our academic careers. However, what we are saying is there is knowledge and there’s knowledge that’s based on evidence. And that’s really what science is all about. And that’s why we do science, because we’re interested in obtaining knowledge. And in many cases, we can come to a point where we can say this knowledge is secure. This knowledge is robust. This knowledge is warranted. It’s based on tremendous amounts of evidence that add up to a consistent picture. And when you reach that point of robust, warranted evidence, that’s the point at which society can say, yes, it is sensible, it makes sense, it’s rational, and it’s appropriate to move forward and take action on the basis of that knowledge. And that’s what we’re saying here.
Well, I think that’s putting it just absolutely incredibly well. And I mean that that is my view, too. I’m not a scholar, but certainly I didn’t think I was a naive positiveness when I wrote The Republican on Science. But I got accused of not understanding these nuances, even though I, I amply footnoted them. So I guess you’ll probably be safe because you have the credentials.
Well, I think, you know, one thing we both know from our experiences, there will be people who will accuse us and attack us no matter what we say. And there’ll be people who’ll be looking for ways to undermine our stories, including, you know, I recently found a small error in my book. That’s embarrassing. I want you to admit, ladies on the air, it’s too embarrassing.
And the on that. Yeah. OK, good. Somebody’s photo. And it’s a typo. And it’s something that I not only know, but I’ve known since I took college chemistry. But I’m sure someone will find it and they’ll make a big fuss about it.
And that’s part of the strategy, too. Part of the strategy is to undermine people by pointing out small errors, small inconsistencies, real uncertainties, real mistakes, all these things. It’s all part of the strategy. So I can say that up front. And to say, yes, people will attack me. People will look for mistakes in the book. We will put Arada on our Web page. Every book’s got some mistakes. No matter what you do, nobody is perfect. And of course, we aren’t either. But we’ve we’ve done the best we can to tell a coherent story and present the evidence. And we hope it’s convincing.
Yeah. And I think this book will definitely draw some attacks from the camps that are fighting science on a lot of the issues that you pulled together. So this is a good way of going into some of the case studies. I think a lot of people know or at least think they know the tobacco story. But one is that is probably less known is strategic defense or, you know, Reagan’s Star Wars initiative and the George C. Marshall Institute.
Tell us what they did on that on that topic.
Yeah, well, so that the book begins initially with a tobacco story, as you said, because that’s where we find the origins. But then the next thing we talk about is how the key players in the book cites. Joshua Nierenberg came together over strategic defense, and these three men already knew each other through their scientific and policy work, but had also served together on an advisory panel related to strategic defense. And all three were in agreement that SDI was a good idea and the United States should build a strategic missile defense system. And in taking that position, they were at odds with the vast majority of academic scientists who had organized a boycott of the SDI program on the grounds that it was both technologically feasible and politically destabilizing. And so the whole point of the Marshall Institute was to create a venue, sort of credible venue from which to oppose the academic opposition.
And one of the things that’s really important about the story is we begin to see the ways in which they begin to manipulate information to make claims that are not necessarily supported by factual evidence or to make. Names that are cherry picking, selecting some data at the expense of other data, also personalizing the debate, making this about Carl Sagan as a person trying to undermine Carl Sagan by attacking his work on nuclear winter. So a whole host of strategies and tactics that go outside the realm of what would be considered normal scientific practice.
And the Marshall Institute, of course, is still around. And then it now does global warming. You feel like it was one of the first of the think tanks that started fighting back against university based scientific information?
Well, exactly. I mean, because one of things we’ve shown the story is so then by nineteen eighty eight, eighty nine, the hold strategic defense thing is moot because the communist world is being to fall apart.
You know, you have the collapse of the Berlin Wall and then you have the Soviet Union disintegrating around 1990 91. So it’s just around that time that the Marshall issue turns its attention to the greenhouse question and they actually publish their first set about this. If memory serves, it’s 1988. And then I have right in front of me. The book that they post on this issue is called Scientific Perspectives on the Greenhouse Problem. And that was published in 1990. So just as the Cold War is coming to an end, Tajik defense is no longer necessary. They shift attention and start talking about global warming.
You also talk in-depth, a chapter piece in the book about acid rain and ozone depletion, which are both atmospheric science issues that are in some ways a dress rehearsal for the global warming fight, at least in the same broad area of expertize. So it does seem like all of this begins in the Reagan years in some ways.
Yes, that’s right. And actually, when we were writing the book, that was a conclusion that emerged very strongly for us. There’s been a lot written about attacks on science during the second Bush administration, and there was a lot of publicity given to the Bush administration altering EPA reports and hiring. What was it Phil Cooney? Was that the fellow you talked about in your book, right, who altered reports on global warming?
One of them, you know, certainly a lot of not very attractive. This took place in the Bush administration that related to science. But what we show is this is a much older story. And much of this story that we tell really can be tracked back to the Reagan administration and some rather bald faced attempt to pressure scientists or even alter scientific findings. And so in the third chapter of the book, we address acid rain. And I think the way you characterize it is exactly correct. It’s almost like a dress rehearsal because we see some of the same things beginning to happen. And in the chapter on acid rain, we document we found the documents that proved or demonstrated beyond a reasonable doubt that Bill Nurnberg, when he chaired a major acid rain peer review committee, altered, manipulated the peer review process and altered the executive summary of a report that the committee had already signed off on. So after the committee had signed off on the report and agreed on what it was going to say, Bill, no changed to the executive summary. And he changed it in a way to make the scientific conclusions seem less secure and more uncertain and to imply that it was possibly premature to take action, even though two previous academy reports in a major joint working group of the United States and Canadian governments had all agreed that the scientific evidence was clear that the causes of acid rain were known, and that therefore the remedies were pretty clear, too, that you had to control acid emissions from power plants. He changed the executive summary and we found the documents that showed that he did this in conjunction with the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. And the document we found, which was kind of, you know, one of those fall off huge moments in the archive where normally archives are pretty quiet, dusty places. But every now and again, you find something that makes you want to shout out that this document that had a list of changes that were being made to the executive summary and on top was written in Bill Brooks handwriting changes wanted by Keyworth and Keyworth was George Keyworth Warith, who was the science adviser to Ronald Reagan.
Wow. And as I recall from my own research, as Keyworth was one of the ones who had to stand up before Congress and I believe, defend Reagan on creationism, too. So he was a he was in a tough position being the solid estimate white by that week.
But the clear evidence of three of direction being given from the White House to this peer review committee, not to some not to let the chips fall where the science showed them falling, but to actually manipulate the peer review process, to get a report that was more compatible with the vague administration policy.
Wow. Well, and then the same thing on ozone.
Right. And then a similar pattern in ozone. Right. And there you get a somewhat more complicated story where, you know, corporate influences start to become part of the story as well. But again, the same sort of pattern, trying to challenge the scientific evidence, claim that it’s not as secure as scientists. They claim there isn’t a consensus, even though, in fact, there is.
And all this to try to avoid regulation of CFC chloride fluorocarbon.
Here’s the story that I think.
Is a little more surprising than these two, and that’s the you give a chapter to the attacks on Rachel Carson because there is an industry out there that now alleges that she’s responsible for millions of millions of malaria deaths in Africa, thanks to silence. I mean, its repercussions. And how did this one ever evolve?
Well, this was the hardest chapter to write because we try really hard not to be hysterical, because it doesn’t help your case, but it was really hard to write this chapter without getting hysterical.
The things that have gone are so appalling, so upsetting and so false, so just patently false. So as you said, this is going on right now. They’re kind of revisionist rewriting of history taking place involving the question of Rachel Carson and DDT. And the revisionist story is that DDT should never have been banned, that it wasn’t harmful, that it was very, very effective in fighting the mosquitoes that cause malaria, and that because it was banned, millions of people died unnecessarily. And therefore, depending upon whose version of the story you follow, Rachel Carson is a mass murderer. She was personally responsible for the deaths of millions of people. And this this is an example of how the whole environmental movement is based on a fallacy, the fallacy of the harms of chemicals and environment. Well, this story is false from top to bottom, and it’s false on so many levels that it’s hard to even know where to begin to try to start somewhere. First of all, it just isn’t true that DDT was extremely effective in stopping malaria. What is true is that it was very effective at first and there were some initial, very impressive successes that made people very optimistic that malaria could be eradicated using DDT. But what people found was that actually mosquitoes started developing resistance very quickly. And in fact, already by the late 1950s, insect resistance to pesticides was already beginning to develop. So DDT was starting to become less effective because of this issue long before it was ever banned. And in fact, the World Health Organization concluded that malaria eradication was a failure because of the development of pesticide resistance on the part of mosquitoes. So it’s actually a brilliant proof of evolution by natural selection. And it had nothing to do with the banning of DDT. However, it’s also true that there was very overwhelming evidence, scientific evidence, evidence that was reviewed by many independent committees, including the present Science Advisory Committee and the U.S. National Academy of Sciences. A great deal of independent evidence that showed that DDT was very damaging to the environment, that it did kill fish and birds and that it did accumulate in human tissues. Now, it is true that in the 1960s we didn’t know what the consequence of that accumulation would be and we didn’t know whether or not DDT would actually cause cancer in people. But we do know that now subsequent studies have shown have demonstrated beyond a reasonable doubt that DDT is implicated in human breast cancer and possibly some other cancers as well. So we do know that DDT was very harmful. And we also know that it was not a magic bullet to cure malaria that its advocates claimed. So the whole story is false from top to bottom. And so then you have to ask, why are people promoting this story?
That’s what I was going to ask you. Not hard to find.
The World Health Organization reports on malaria eradication there easily available on the Internet. So we conclude that it’s really an attempt to discredit the environmental movement sort of to court. Right. To claim that it was based on a fallacy and to take this hero of American environmentalist Rachel Carson and totally discredit her.
And if you could do that, if you could convince people that the whole thing was sort of hysterical and alarmist and unnecessary.
Well, the implication is then that our concern about global warming is hysterical and alarmist and unnecessary.
Also, that makes sense because it’s not like there’s, you know, today that accompany a DDT industry. Right. That needs to be protected somehow.
Right. And that’s a crucial point because that’s the point that sort of proves this isn’t just about corporate profits. Right. It’s actually bigger and deeper than that. It’s really about a deep seeded political ideology and a worldview, a way of thinking about things that transcends any particular corporation’s bottom line.
And so it all leads up to climate change.
The biggest one of which is the mother of all environmental issues. Right.
And you use this wonderful analogy. I don’t want to steal for you. I want you to reiterate it. But the banquet and getting the bill, could you.
Right. Yeah. So, so well. So I use this quote.
OK, so here’s another mistake. I come clean. So we we credited to John Maynard Keynes. Now some he are saying actually it wasn’t Keynes. Nobody knows who first came up with it. But the idea that there’s no free lunch.
Right. That everything has a cost. And so what we argue is that global warming is really the bill for 150 years of massive prosperity, that the industrial revolution and that everything that followed really did genuinely bring tremendous levels of prosperity, longevity and good health. To hundreds of millions of people in the developed world. And that’s a good thing. And we think it is a good thing and we don’t dispute that it’s a good thing. So we’re not opposed to industrial society. We’re absolutely not Luddites. I mean, Eric and I are both actually technophobic. We love our gadgets. You know, we’re not Luddites. But the point is, everything has a price. And so the metaphor we use in the book is imagine a gigantic banquet where hundreds of millions of people feast to their heart’s content and have the best food you could possibly imagine. Food, it was undreamed of in medieval Europe. But now the way it comes and brings the bill every shocked because nobody knew there was going to be a bill. And so they started haggling about whose responsibility is who should pay for it. And they even question whether or not the weight is really a waiter or just like, you know, fraudulently pretending to be a waiter so he can get the money for himself. So that’s the situation we think we’re in with respect to climate change, that global warming really is the bill. Hundred fifty years of prosperity based on burning fossil fuels, based on tapping that energy in fossil fuels. And now we have to pay the price. And honestly, the price is not that stupendously great.
There are studies that show it’s not as bad as some people want you to think it is. But it’s not nothing. It’s substantial. And so it’s not surprising that we’re a bit resistant to the idea that we have to pay for this thing that we didn’t actually know we were buying.
And the other thing about the analogy that I like is that you say in the book, the waiters in a white dinner jacket, in a sense, the waiter is really the scientist.
Right. Exactly right. So that was deliberate. Right. So the waiter at a white dinner jacket is our metaphor for the scientists in a white lab coat that scientists are delivering the news about the bill. And so now we see people attacking the scientists.
Right. Like attacking the waiter. It’s blaming the messenger rather than listening to the message.
Well, one of the awful aspects of the of many of these attacks on science and the global warming, one in particular is how they hurt individual careers and individual people. In fact, you start the book before you get into the deep, well warring chapter. But you tell the story of Ben Santer, a scientist who was mercifully attacked in 95 over charges that he that were false, that he tampered with a key report, the IPCC Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change 1995 report. And really, he wasn’t engaging in wrongdoing. He was just responding to peer review. Can you tell us a little more about what happened to him?
Yeah. So we use this example because we thought it was really crucial for answering a complaint or a defense that some people make, which is that sometimes folks who are skeptics or contrarians, whatever you like to call them, I like to call them resisters because they resist the evidence. Sometimes they’ll say, well, you know, we just want to make science better or we just want to make sure that that policy is based on sound science. And this is what the Marshall Institute says. They say they just want to make sure that policy is based on robust sound science. But this story tells us that there’s something more than that going on because it’s so unprincipled what they do, and because if you really care about science, you would not do what they did to Ben Santer.
So Fred and a few of the other people, this story launch an attack on Ben. And they claim that he has fraudulently altered the IPCC report and forcibly altered the chapter that he is the lead author of. And it’s a crucial chapter, and it’s not a coincidence that they go after Ben Santer. The crucial chapter is the chapter on what’s known as detection and attribution. So how do we know that global warming is really happening? And how do we know that it’s really caused by human activities? The attribution piece and this was in 1995. This is the second IPCC report. And this is really crucial because this is the point at which the consensus begins to coalesce over not just the reality of global warming, which had already been argued by Jim Hansen and others before 1995. But the reality that we can tell that it’s caused by human activities and then had done some crucial work called fingerprinting, looking at characteristics of the warming that were distinctive features of human induced warming as opposed to natural causes, and had written this up for the 1995 report. And so Fed sites launched an attack on him that was very personal, very unprincipled and wrong, unsupported by evidence in which he claimed that Ben had fraudulently altered the report to make the science more certain than it really was. In other words, in a way accusing Ben of the opposite of what he himself was doing. Science is trying to make the science seem more uncertain than it is. And he accuses Ben of making it seem more certain than it really is. But in reality, Ben had made changes, but they were changes in response to peer review. So in other words, Ben Sanders is doing exactly what any good scientist is expected to do, what he is required to do, which is to have the chapter be peer reviewed, take those peer review comments seriously and make adjustments in response to peer review and sides takes that out of context. And of course, Science is a former president of the National Academy. He knows what peer review is. So we don’t think it’s plausible that he was confused, you know.
And this is important for our story to a person who didn’t understand science, might have been confused by that.
It’s not plausible that Fred Seitz was confused about this. So he accuses Ben of doing this maliciously with fraudulent intention. And then he publishes an op ed piece in The Wall Street Journal making this accusation. And from there, it gets picked up by lots and lots of other people. And it’s still on the Internet today. If you Google Ben Santer IPCC, you will find these accusations still being quoted today, claiming claiming that Fred Seitz proved that the IPCC report had been altered for political reasons. And there was never a shred of evidence to support that claim. And there still isn’t today.
And you write of Santer’s case, quote, No scientist starts his or her career expecting things like this to happen.
And yet things like this have happened to a lot of scientists. And Ben Santer is not the last. Anna, we actually had Michael Mann as one of the guests on this show. And if anything, he’s been attacked more systematically and for much longer than Ben Santer.
Well, that’s right. It’s gotten it’s gotten even worse. And that’s one of the things I think is important for people to understand. So these recent attacks, as you said, Mike, man, this business with the attorney general of Virginia going after him. Ed, James Inhofe of Oklahoma with his list of scientists who he is accusing of criminal activity and then the whole affair of the stolen e-mails in East Anglia. You know, it’s more of the same pattern of trying to discredit the individual scientists when you can’t, in fact, successfully discredit the science.
And you write in the book that scientists have not been traditionally equipped to fight back.
And yet I would argue that this is perhaps changing, that they are at least trying harder and trying to think about how they might be more equipped to fight back, whether they’re actually actually really doing it yet. I’m not sure. But would you agree that there is a bit of a change?
Yes, definitely. Especially the last year. I think you’ve definitely seen a change. And I think that change reflects this. Nation that scientists feel that a recent letter to science was a good example of this, that scientists are realizing that they need to speak up.
But, you know, that letter is an interesting case in point, because 255 members of the National Academy of Sciences signed a letter protesting the recent attacks on science and pointing out there’s a kind of McCarthyite quality to some of what’s been going on, character assassination accusations without evidence, accusing scientists of criminal activity when what they’re actually doing is science. Right. And Peter Gleick told me I spoke to him about it. Puplick was the first author of that letter that they, in fact, tried to get that published as an op ed piece in The New York Times and The Washington Post, both of whom turned it down. I don’t know why. I guess you’d have to ask them. And so they ended up publishing it in science.
And that, too, is a pattern. We show in the book that there’s a consistent pattern where often these accusations are made against science appear in mainstream media.
So sites that can bend science. Ben Santer was in the Wall Street Journal. The whole stolen e-mail thing has been everywhere. Right. I mean, there’s a major newspaper in America that hasn’t reported on that. But when scientists try to defend themselves, often, they find it very difficult to get their response published in mainstream media. And we showed us how this happened in Ben’s case and we know how it happened in some other cases as well. And so they end up defending themselves in the pages of scientific journals who do accept their defenses. But the net result of that is an extremely unlevel playing field where the public sees these accusations. But the response, the defense, the setting the record straight is published in some obscure scientific place where the vast majority, the public will not see it. And so, you know, if you think about the whole e-mail thing, I said every single major newspaper in America published the story of the stolen e-mails and the assertion of the allegations that they showed some kind of wrongdoing on the part of science. There’s been a major review now by the United Kingdom House of Commons in which they concluded that there was actually no wrongdoing on the part of any scientists. And yet, how much publicity has that exoneration got?
Much, much less than the original allegations, sort of like with the weapons of mass destruction, you know, lots of attention to all the claims that they exist. And then the reports would sort of quietly come out from the U.N. saying we didn’t find anything. Right. It doesn’t get any attention. You say actually in the book, I was gonna quote you, the press could have acted as gatekeepers throughout this history of attacks on science. But, quote, if they have tried, our story shows that at least when it comes to science, they have failed. I think maybe there’s a case for giving up on the media on these kind of topics because it’s only getting worse. The science journalists are now not even working at major publications anymore most of the time. I mean, this is less expertize there, not more.
So you’re proposing we go to the Internet instead. Or what?
I’m proposing that we lower our expectations and I’m proposing that we’d be sad.
Well, I’m definitely sad and frustrated for sure. And I think a lot of scientists are, too. And I think you’re right.
I do think that one mistake the scientific community has made is to rely too much on journalists, that the scientific community has, in a sense, expected journalists to set the record straight. And it is not really their job to do that. And as you said, I think that’s changed. I think scientists are starting to realize, well, if they don’t explain science and if they don’t defend science, who will? And that when scientists are silent in the face of these accusations, many people, rightly or wrongly, will take that silence is acquiescence. We’ll take science as being an admission of guilt. So I think the scientific committee does have to be much more assertive about getting its message out. And if the scientific committee can’t do it to the mainstream media, then they do need to figure out alternatives. So Web sites and blogging may, in fact, be an important mechanism.
But I also think scientists could do a lot more to just get the word out. I mean, most scientists who I’ve talked to and I’m sure you had the same experience, they really don’t think that communicating to the public is their main job. I mean, you talk about this in your in your more recent book. They really think their job is just to do the science. And it’s somebody else’s job to communicate it. But the problem with that is that it isn’t really anybody else’s job, you know?
So it falls through the cracks.
And so that space between the laboratory research of the fieldwork and the communications, the public, it needs a lot more attention.
Absolutely. And, you know, I think I want to wrap up the interview with another question that that sort of is the way that you end the book. You argue that if this sort of pattern of doubt mongering about relatively established science is ever going to stop being so effective, it may be that will first have to have a different view of science. And that would be a view that doesn’t claim that science delivers certainty or is tantamount to it, because that’s still a problem. If we think that science conveys certainty, then uncertainty will undermine it. But if we think that science is a human endeavor perpetuated by scientific institutions and individuals who work toward.
A very human consensus than we won’t overestimate how powerful it is, and then we won’t fall prey to the misleading attacks. But the problem is that that transformation in our thinking strikes me as incredibly difficult to achieve.
Yes. What I’d say is I’m still a little optimistic by all the depressing things I’ve worked out.
I mean, you have to be optimistic in the end if you can bear to live in the world, in my opinion.
Right. So it’s like the old joke. An optimist is someone who thinks this is the best of all possible worlds and a pessimist is someone who fears that it is.
So I’m still China’s away from fear.
I do think that not a small task to change the way we think about science, but we have to start. And I think it is crucial. And it gets back to the question you asked earlier.
People think there’s a dichotomy, that either there’s absolute truth on the one hand or there’s absolute complete collapse into relativism. On the other hand. And it’s that dichotomy zation that makes it vulnerable then to this sort of either. We know for sure or we know absolutely nothing. But the reality is this enormous middle ground in between those two extremes. And the reality is that science does produce a lot of very robust knowledge, but it’s not absolute. And we need to accept that so that we don’t fall prey to this idea that we can undermine it just by raising some little question about the details on the edges.
A book like yours, I think helps us do that because it’s it’s very rich about the history of science and how we need to think about it and also about the misinformation campaign. So it’s been great to have you on the air.
Thank you very much. It’s great talking to Chris.
This is Ron Lindsay president and CEO of the Center for Inquiry. I’m delighted to announce that we are once again sponsoring Camp Inquiry, a unique summer camp for young skeptics from ages seven to 16. Camp Inquiry encourages children to think for themselves free from the constraints of religious dogma and the myths of pseudoscience. I should let Dr. Andrew McQuaig, director of the camp, tell you more about it.
We are proud to announce this year’s camp inquiry theme. Young Minds, Big questions. Who am I and why am I here? What can I know? And what I can do? Once the domain of theological and speculative thought, these questions are now increasingly being addressed by the sciences and by kids. Young minds. Big questions serve as the Center for Inquiry Central Mission of elucidating the philosophical, moral and cultural implications of the scientific outlook. Cameras will engage in Hands-On philosophy this summer, including games, team activities, dialog, outdoor exploration and arts projects to explore where we fit in the cosmic narrative offered by the natural sciences. Young Minds. Big Questions also serves as the title of a short feature documentary that campus will produce as the capstone of their summer experience and parents. You’re invited to join us for dinner with Dale McGowan, coauthor of Parenting Beyond Belief and Raising Freethinkers, in a very special evening with the amazing James Randi, the world’s leading investigator. And Demystify the paranormal and pseudoscientific claims. Camp inquiry will be held at Camp Seven Hills in Holon, New York, between July 18th and 24th. For more information or to register, please visit Camp Inquiry dot org.
I want to thank you for listening to this episode of Point of Inquiry. For updates throughout the week on the subject of the show, please check out my blog at blogs, DOT. Discover magazine dot com slash intersection. Also to get involved in a discussion about Naomi Oreskes, new book, Merchants of Doubt. You can visit our online discussion forums by going to center for inquiry, dot net slash forums and then clicking on point of inquiry. The views expressed on point of inquiry aren’t necessarily the views of the Center for Inquiry, nor of its affiliated organizations. Questions and comments on today’s show can be sent to feedback at point of inquiry. Dot Dawg.
The inquiry is produced by Adam Isaac and Hamer’s New York in Our Music, is composed by Emmy Award winning Michael Whalan. Today show also features contributions from Debbie Goddard. I’m your host, Chris Mooney.