Merchants of Doubt: A Review

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.


A Prayer for Insight

Composed for St. Paul’s and St. George’s Church, March 4, 2012
Sermon Passage: 1 Cor. 11:2-16, 14:34-35 (“Women in the Church”)

Lord, we thank you for this difficult passage that we have studied this morning, and for the call it presents to us to wrestle anew with your Word, the much-needed reminder that we cannot take Scripture for granted, but must be prepared to be confused, surprised, and even alarmed by it at times.  We pray that we would embrace such opportunities; instead of accepting the temptation to shut the Bible and shove it away when it says something unpleasant, or to retreat immediately to the stronghold of our preconceived paradigms and interpretations, help us to study its words with faith and love, opening our hearts to the guidance of your Spirit.  We pray this not only for us today, but for your whole Church, especially in Britain and throughout the West, where passages such as this have bitterly divided churches and congregations over the question of the role of women in the church. Lord, we repent for this division, for the stubbornness and the impatience that have provoked rifts, the unwillingness to listen to others and the pride that makes us imagine that we speak with the voice of God when we utter our opinion or interpretation.  Lord, bless the churches with fresh light from your Word that may help resolve this and other issues of debate, and grant us the grace and charity, even in the midst of ongoing disagreement, to unite in the common work of the gospel.

We thank you for the immense blessings and gifts that Christian women have brought to your Church throughout the centuries, and which, in today’s world, they are more able than ever to contribute.  We thank you for the many ways in which this church, Ps & Gs, is sustained and enriched by their enormous contributions to its life and work.  Lord, the fields of Britain today are white unto harvest, and we pray that you would raise up a multitude of laborers, both men and women, to serve the Church in their different gifts and callings.

During this time of Lent, we come to you, Lord, especially mindful, as the Prayer Book says, of our “manifold sins and wickednesses.”  We pray that you would enable us to, with holy grief, lament the great burden of our sins, and with holy joy, to rejoice in your gracious forgiveness of them.  Remind us that penitence is no time for gloom, for the greater our sins, the more overwhelming is the realization that you have removed them as far as the East is from the West.  As the days lengthen and the air beguiles us with the hints of spring, let us press forward with hope toward Easter, yearning for the Resurrection of all things when sin shall darken our hearts no more.  We thank you for the gift, this past week, of the 24/7 Prayer, for the hundreds of half-formed but heartfelt appeals whispered in that basement room of 40 York Place.  Thank you that your Spirit helps us in our weakness when we do not know how to pray, thank you that you hear our prayers; and we ask that you would hear all those brought before you this week.  Make us people of 24/7 prayer every week, eagerly coming before you in joyful thanksgiving every time we have cause to rejoice, beseeching you for aid whenever temptation assails us, sharing with joy our needs and desires and receiving the comfort of your presence in return.  

Lord, many of us this past week no doubt laid before you the sufferings of our world, asking for your healing power to be poured out on places like Syria and neighboring countries.  For the innocent who suffer in that nation, we beg your protection; for the guilty, your forgiveness but also that you would act to overturn their plots and thwart their violent agendas; for those who stand by on the sidelines, unsure how to act, your wisdom.  We pray also for the thousands of lives and livelihoods shattered this week by a different kind of violence—the violence of storms and tornadoes.  Lord, we ask for your mercy upon those communities in the Midwest and Southeastern US torn apart on Friday by these terrifying forces of nature: for the injured, healing; for those left destitute, sustenance; for the bereaved, that comfort which only you can provide; for rescue teams, skill and perseverance.  Remind us at times like this that, in a world where we might seem to have gained power over the earth itself and all its secrets, we remain very much at the mercy of forces outside our control.  Teach us humility, but remind us also of the need to do what we can to maintain the equilibrium of our climate.  Give wisdom to scientists and politicians who must make projections and plans, and then fight the long battle of persuading their opponents on this contentious issue.  

Finally, we pray more broadly for our political leaders and our political process in a time when democracy seems increasingly to be an idle word, replaced in reality by demagoguery and deception.  For many of us, we are now too cynical expect any honesty or constructive action from our political leaders, and yet so many of the problems that face us—economic inequality and instability, environmental degradation, wars and rumors of wars, social breakdown—demand meaningful political action.  Give us leaders who will speak the truth and act on it, and in the absence of such leaders, give us the courage to do what we can in our own communities, and through churches here and around the world, to tackle these problems and transform lives.  Above all, give us revival, that hearts long grown cold may turn to you and hear the word of your Gospel, and live new lives in the power of your Spirit.   

Through Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen.

 

Note: This prayer posed a particular challenge inasmuch as I had no idea in advance what the sermon was going to say about the passage, except that it was sure to, in some form or other, argue in defence of women’s ordination.

More thoughts about the sermon and this passage to follow later this week.


Worst Weather in Two Centuries

If it has seemed like we’ve been hearing an awful lot in recent months about extreme weather, about record this and record that, it’s because the weather has, as a matter of fact, been extremely extreme.  How extreme?  Well, on his Wunderblog, Jeff Masters has just posted an astonishing summary of 2010’s top twenty extreme weather events, in which he documents the most wild and unusual weather in decades.

“Every year extraordinary weather events rock the Earth. Records that have stood centuries are broken. Great floods, droughts, and storms affect millions of people, and truly exceptional weather events unprecedented in human history may occur. But the wild roller-coaster ride of incredible weather events during 2010, in my mind, makes that year the planet’s most extraordinary year for extreme weather since reliable global upper-air data began in the late 1940s.”  

At the end of the post, he goes further, and suggests that in the last year and a half the world may have experienced its the most wild and unusual weather since 1816, the famous “Year Without a Summer” caused by the eruption of the Tambora volcano.  Only this time, of course, there’s no volcano to blame.


Hurricanes in a Warming World

Eh, what the heck…I’ll come out of the closet and spice up this theology-heavy blog.

As I recently posted on my old blog (which I falsely predicted would be resurrecting), the much-touted link between climate change and more frequent and more intense hurricane turns out to be much trickier than you would think.  The catastrophic and hyperactive 2004 and 2005 Atlantic hurricane seasons naturally led people to fish about for an explanation for the chaos, and it wasn’t hard to find a few scientists ready to line up and point the finger at global warming.  It stood to reason, of course, that if hurricanes fed on warm ocean water, and the world was getting warmer, including the oceans, then hurricanes would get more numerous and stronger.  At least, that was the bastardized form of the argument that was repeated often enough in the media to become accepted fact.  The actual scientists recognized that other factors would come into play and the relevant papers generally projected an actual decrease in number of tropical cyclones, with a slight increase in average intensity, and a marked increase in maximum potential intensity (which depends largely on water temperatures).  

This summer, other possible complicating factors emerged, as I discussed in that old post.  Coming into this season, projections were for a hyperactive Atlantic hurricane season–one of the most active on record.  What materialized instead from June 1st to August 20th was almost complete inactivity–sure, Alex spun up into the second most intense June hurricane recorded on June 30th, but after that, there were only two feeble and short-lived tropical storms, Bonnie and Colin.  Most remarkably, this inactivity coincided with well below-average eastern Pacific activity and historically low western Pacific activity, so that, on the whole, the Northern hemisphere was on track for record lows.  

Now, what else was going on at this time?  Well, much of the planet, particularly Asia, was baking–in eastern Europe’s case, under temperatures without equal in the historical record.  It was theorized that the super-heated landmasses caused a pattern of sinking air over the oceans, reducing atmospheric instability and putting a lid on cyclone development.  So global warming might actually suppress cyclone development?  Sure enough, no sooner did the Great Russian Heat Wave break in mid-August than the Atlantic saw a period of truly remarkable hurricane activity, producing over the next four weeks 9 named storms and five hurricanes–all five of them major hurricanes and four of them Category 4s–and breaking or challenging several interesting records in the process (for more on these, see below).  This pushed Atlantic hurricane activity from half the normal to date on August 20 to double the normal to date on September 20.

However, this shift did not occur in the Pacific Ocean, which remains at the lowest levels in the 30-year data period, thus the heat wave correlation thesis may not work so neatly after all.  The inactivity in the Pacific basin indeed is so pronounced that it seriously calls into question the thesis about climate change and hurricane activity.  See, while Atlantic hurricane activity gets much more press than cyclones in the rest of the world (for obvious reasons), it in fact only comprises only about 1/10 of global tropical cyclone activity on average.  And if the whole planet (more or less) is warming, and a warming planet means more cyclones, then it should mean more cyclones the world over.  But in fact, global tropical cyclone activity has collapsed in half since 2005, and has been sitting for a couple years now at record lows (with the records again going back 30 years)–and the highest years were back in the mid-90s. 

Why do we in the Anglo-American world labor under the delusion that we are living in a time of dangerously active and ever-worsening hurricane seasons?   Simply because the North Atlantic is in the midst of one of its well-documented twenty-year cycles of elevated activity–meanwhile, the rest of the world enjoys relative placidity.  So let’s hear the end of this careless pseudo-science, until there’s data to support it.

 

Of course, it’s not that simple either–it never is.  While these statistics are based on Accumulated Cyclone Energy measurements, probably the best way of comparing overall cyclone activity (and which does take intensity into account), they hide the curious fact that most of the cyclone basins in the world have recorded their most powerful storms on record in the past few years.  Other apparent anomalies have emerged that provide plenty more grist for the mill of those pushing hyping the effects of climate change on hurricanes.  In the Atlantic, at least, we have seen in recent years several records fall for speed of intensification, which is perhaps the scariest kind of record to be broken, and more and more storms seem to be pushing the envelope of what were thought to be plausible intensification rates.  Likewise, we have seen storms forming and strengthening in parts of the ocean unaccustomed to strong hurricanes.  Just in the past week, for instance, we had by far the furthest east Category 4 on record (Hurricane Julia), the first ever major hurricane in the Bay of Campeche (Hurricane Karl), and Hurricane Igor slammed into Newfoundland as its worst-ever hurricane, not to mention capturing the record for the largest Atlantic hurricane ever (in size).  Are these proof that something scary is happening over our oceans as a result of climate change, something that may make these already enigmatic storms even more unpredictable?  Or does this just mean that we don’t have enough data yet to accurately understand and compare what’s going on?  

Whichever is the case, science needs to be just a bit more humble in the claims it makes about these mysterious monsters.