This immensely important and timely book demands attention from anyone determined to think critically and intelligently about the current interface of politics, economics, and science, which one might describe as the three gods of our time. The book is not flawless, to be sure. As a complete layman in such issues, I can detect certain ideological flaws, which I shall come to in due course, and it is hard not to think that the authors present a somewhat one-sided perspective on a highly contentious issue, and that their opponents would have rather more to say for themselves than Conway and Oreskes imply. Indeed, in such matters, it is always essential to keep Proverbs 18:17 in mind: “The one who states his case first seems right, until the other comes and examines him.” Nonetheless, from what I know of the world, and from the compellingness of the narrative set forth in this book, I am for now provisionally convinced that their basic picture is accurate.
This picture, it turns out, is considerably more complex and interesting than I had expected when I picked up the book. The basic gist I thought I knew: climate change denial is largely funded by Big Oil and industries with a vested interest in staving off any policy shifts in a green direction. The science is being corrupted by greed. And, should you be skeptical of such cynicism, just look at how Big Tobacco did the same thing in the 60s—and the 70s and 80s and 90s, for that matter; doubt is a highly durable product, it seems.
A sordid story, but alas, a somewhat believable one. Yet, such a story has the troubling consequence of making scientists look like they’re for sale to the highest bidder. If Big Tobacco and Big Oil could simply bribe scientists into distorting the facts, then why should the moral of this story be “Trust the scientists,” as it must be for climate change orthodoxy? Thankfully, Conway and Oreskes’s story is, as I said, considerably more complex, and on reflection, more disturbing.
The denial of climate change and the denial of the dangers of smoking do not merely share links to big business; they (and the denial of the ozone hole, of acid rain, of nuclear winter fears, of the dangers of DDT, etc., all covered in this book as well) share something more insidious—a blind faith in markets, technology, and progress. In each of the doubt-sowing narratives that Conway and Oreskes survey, they find a very small cast of lead actors, chief among whom are a cadre of high-profile Cold War physicists, Frederick Seitz, Fred Singer, and Bill Nierenberg. It was Frederick Seitz, at that time aged 84 and retired from active scientific work for 17 years, who penned the damning public slander of Ben Santer and his chapter of the first IPCC report on climate change in 1995, after having spent most of the 1980s supervising contrarian research on behalf of the tobacco industry.
Of course, the very fact that the same few names keep cropping up again and again, in radically different contexts, is enough to raise a few eyebrows as to whether we are dealing with real scientific opposition or some kind of conspiracy. (Admittedly, it may well be that the authors overemphasize somewhat these few main characters so as to make the contrarian community seem smaller than it really is; however, they do not seem to be incorrect in assigning a leading role to these figures.) How many solid-state physicists, after all, can claim to be experts on oncology, the effect of acidity on ecosystems, and the distribution of heat in the earth’s atmosphere? And indeed, part of the burden of the book is to show how just a few well-connected, sufficiently outspoken, and somewhat unscrupulous scientists can create the illusion of a whole community of scientific dissent. They note how a credulous and naive media and public is often willing to credit the testimony of any leading scientist as a relevant expert, even if his expertise is in another field entirely, as if an expert plumber could settle a controversy on the best way to construct the roof, just because he’s involved in the homebuilding industry.
Why is it that these physicists should be so determined to attack environmental concern wherever it should arise? It is here that Conway and Oreskes are at their best, subtly and insightfully introducing us to the Cold War mindset that drove these men. They were all formed within that black-and-white view of the world, capitalism vs. communism, freedom vs. statism. And for them, as for so many hawks of that era, superior technological innovation was the means by which freedom would triumph. Seitz and Nierenberg both got their start working on the Manhattan Project, and were heavily involved in subsequent weapons-development research in the early Cold War, as was Singer. Not only did this early work help set their ideological trajectory in a hard-right direction, but it also catapulted them to positions of remarkable political influence, which they maintained. (Oreskes and Conway wish to leave us in no doubt that when it comes to the charge that our politicians are being manipulated by influential insider climate change alarmists, the shoe is most definitely on the other foot.)
Since most of the rising concerns about the harmful effects of certain industries on health and environment necessarily implied the need for government regulation of those industries, men like Seitz, Singer, and Nierenberg thought they spotted a Red agenda at the heart of the Green movement. Dedicated as they were to the freedom of capitalist industry and to a confidence that technology was our savior, they bitterly resisted the implications that capitalist industrial technology might be harming the planet and might call for government intervention. In the Reagan era, such convictions easily won the day on issues such as acid rain, whatever the vast majority of the scientific community might say, and those who held them gained established footholds of influence.
Conway and Oreskes also draw close attention to the strategy behind all this anti-environmental science. The objective, most of the time, has not been to directly deny the various claims of harm being advanced. The tobacco industry spent little time trying to prove that smoking was fine for you, and Singer and Nierenberg did not try to claim that acid rain was harmless. Rather, their product was doubt. The point was always to persuade the public that, yes, there might be a problem, but there was so much we didn’t know that we couldn’t be quite sure what its origin was, how serious it was, and what the best solution might be. The downsides of our current course, then, were uncertain. Accompanying this was the argument that the upsides of our current course were obvious, or the downsides to changing our present course were quite clear and certain, and certain to be serious. As a delaying tactic, this argument served the tobacco industry astonishingly well. Would-be smokers could be reassured that, although they couldn’t be sure one way or another of the science surrounding the safety of cigarettes, at least they could be sure that they really enjoyed smoking them, and it was probably worth a little risk. Juries could be persuaded, for more than forty years after the extremely carcinogenic effects of smoking had been scientifically demonstrated, that there was still enough uncertainty to render the tobacco companies legally immune.
Again, Conway and Oreskes insightfully show how psychology can lead us astray here. We tend to fall prey to short-term thinking, willing to face future risks for the sake of present enjoyment, and disposed to always prefer the known (what we are already doing) to the unknown (any proposed change), assessing the latter as riskier than the former, even when the evidence clearly suggests otherwise. (Many of the contrarian scientists described in this book were clearly driven by this kind of thinking, particularly those with a particular interest in economics. The economic costs of environmental protection, they felt, were so high as to outweigh the evidence of future harms.) These psychological tendencies are if anything even more true on the social level than the individual. What this means is that anyone claiming that we must stop the enjoyable things we are doing in order to avert future or unseen calamities, and must start ordering our lives in different ways, has to meet a very high burden of proof indeed to be listened to. Our political leaders, who are supposed to take the future into account and thus make these difficult decisions for us, are unfortunately just as much the slaves of short-term thinking. Economic growth in the present, not environmental protection in the future, is what is likely to win them their next election. The merchants of doubt, then, have a comparatively easy task. All they have to show is that there is enough uncertainty in the science that perhaps we had better sit back and wait for more evidence before committing ourselves to a costly change of direction, or, heaven forbid, sacrificing our freedom to government bureaucrats.
Unfortunately, it is extraordinarily easy to prove uncertainty in the science, because all science is always uncertain. Conway and Oreskes are refreshingly upfront about this, and criticize the outdated positivistic view of science that imagines that science “proves” facts with logical certainty. Even when the basic facts are well-established (though never absolutely proven), there exist all sorts of details that still need to be worked out, and ongoing scientific work will of course be dedicated toward investigating these remaining areas of uncertainty. Anyone with a dedicated agenda of skepticism, then, will have no difficulty in finding evidence of uncertainty and debate in the current scientific literature, even when there is a firmly established consensus about the key points. Moreover, given that the front lines of scientific work are so far beyond the ken of the average citizen, it is easy for him to be duped into treating as equally authoritative the testimony of popularizers and think tanks with some kind of scientific credentials. When we look at this cacophony of voices and see evidence of widespread disagreement, we shrug our shoulders and say, “Who are we to believe?”
So what is to be done about this? Conway and Oreskes suggest some answers in their epilogue, pointing out how many areas of our day-to-day in which we recognize the need to trust experts and act on their advice, despite the inevitable uncertainty. They conclude
“So it comes to this: we must trust our scientific experts on matters of science, because there isn’t a workable alternative. And because scientists are not (in most cases) licensed, we need to pay attention to who the experts actually are—by asking questions about their credentials, their past and current research, the venues in which they are subjecting their claims to scrutiny, and the sources of financial support they are receiving. If the scientific community has been asked to judge a matter . . . then it makes sense to take the results of their investigations very seriously. . . . Sensible decision making involves acting on the information we have, even while accepting that it may well be imperfect and our decisions may need to be revisited and revised in light of new information. For even if modern science does not give us certainty, it does have a robust track record . . . modern science gives us a pretty decent basis for action. . . .
“Don’t get us wrong. Scientists have no special purchase on moral or ethical decisions; a climate scientist is no more qualified to comment on health care reform than a physicist is to judge the causes of bee colony collapse. The very fathers that create expertise in a specialized domain lead to ignorance in many others. . . . So our trust needs to be circumscribed, and focused. It needs to be very particular. Blind trust will get us into at least as much trouble as no trust at all. But without some degree of trust in our designated experts . . . we are paralyzed, in effect not knowing whether to make ready for the morning commute or not. . . . C.P. Snow once argued that foolish faith in authority is the enemy of truth. But so is a foolish cynicism. . . . We close with the comments of S.J. Green, director of research for British American Tobacco, who decided, finally, that what his industry had done was wrong, not just morally, but also intellectually: ‘A demand for scientific proof is always a formula for inaction and delay, and usually the first reaction of the guilty. The proper basis for such decisions is, of course, quite simply that which is reasonable in the circumstances.”
In other words, we need to accept that painful, costly public policy decisions will have to be taken on the basis of uncertainty. In fact, they always are, for economic projections about the future (perhaps the most frequent basis for public policy) are at least as uncertain as scientific ones. If the consequences of inaction appear sufficiently serious and probable, the prudent ruler (and the prudent society) will begin to undertake corrective action even while acknowledging the possibility that subsequent research will reveal such action unnecessary; better safe than sorry.
My one major misgiving about the book: despite their attempts to demystify the scientific enterprise, and acknowledge that it is human, all too human, not blessed with some special gift of infallibility, it is hard not to feel that the authors continue to speak of “the halls of science” in somewhat reverential tones. Scientists are repeatedly eulogized as pure uncorrupt seekers after truth, even while a few contrarian scientists are shown to be quite the opposite. But of course, if Seitz, Singer, Nierenberg, and others could let their ideology and the interests of their benefactors get in the way of doing honest and objective science, who’s to say that most other scientists are immune to this. Conway and Oreskes do enough to suggest, I think, that the accusations that climate alarmists are acting out of self-interest or political ideology are a case of the pot calling the kettle black; however, that doesn’t mean that the kettle may not be black as well. I have no doubt that most climate scientists are conscientious researchers who do their utmost to be objective and avoid unnecessary alarmism. But not all, and not always. The authors always speak of “peer review” the same way that Catholics speak of “Our Holy Father,” and it irks me just the same way. Peer review is certainly better than the lack thereof, but it’s no magic epistemological bullet. Scientists, like anyone else, are subject to the herd instinct, to confirmation bias, and sometimes to something as prosaic as mere laziness. After just a couple years in academia, I have seen enough of the failings of the peer review process in theological studies to be skeptical that it could work as perfectly in scientific studies as many seem to think.
So pardon me for still being something of a skeptic about the reliability of mainstream scientific opinion at any given time. That said, I concede the overall point Conway and Oreskes are trying to make—you can’t refuse to act just because there will always be grounds for skepticism. Mainstream science may be riddled with errors, but when the stakes are high enough, you’ve got to make decisions based on the best resources available to you, and until God deigns to issue an oracle telling us the truth about climate change and the best solution to it, we’d best pay attention to the scientists.