By Michael Mobbs

29 April 2011 – Merchants of doubt: how Earth is sold out

What if someone said to you at dinner: “Scientists are divided about whether the Earth orbits around the Sun, you know.”

Would you reply? If you did, what would you say?¬

May I invite you to join such a dinner, and to imagine there’s six billion of us at the one table to answer such questions? (Yes, that’s a lot of chairs and you may end up sitting on the floor, sorry.)

The table is Earth.

Since December 1953, when the tobacco industry hit on a plan to generate doubt in the media as a tactic by which they could buy time to keep selling cigarettes they knew killed their customers, merchants of doubt have controlled the politics of managing Earth’s resources and pollution.

A new book, Merchants of Doubt, gives their names, details of funding, their tactics and history.

Naming and shaming

Authors Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway name key scientists, companies and lobbyists, and many less pivotal ones, who have sold doubt to the media and politicians. Here are some of the scientists and lobbyists who sold or sell doubt (some are deceased)

  • Frederick Seitz
  • Russell Seitz
  • Fred Singer
  • William Nierenberg
  • Kent Jeffreys
  • Robert Jastrow

Let’s be clear: companies with household names knowingly sell products that kill people, ruin natural resources, cripple forests, waterways, soil and oceans, and cause climate change. Doubting science extends the life and income of  damaging businesses by creating doubt about the science.

Merchants of doubt are the stones, dropped into ponds of media and bodies politic around Earth, whose ripples have, for 60 years, dominated the choices we make about how we treat that one big pond, Earth.

This book is a careful analysis of who, why and how doubt is sold.

Some companies and lobbyists in the business of buying and promoting doubt make record profits from their killing fields of commerce, say Oreskes and Erik Conway. Here’s some:

  • The Heritage Foundation
  • R J Reynolds
  • Brown and Williamson
  • American Tobacco
  • Benson and Hedges
  • Phillip Morris
  • US Tobacco
  • Hill and Knowlton
  • George  C  Marshall Institute

How doubt-makers work

Almost every paragraph of this book gives facts and examples or references of how our media and politicians find, understand or act on scientific facts. Think: New York Times, Washington Post, The Sydney Morning Herald, The Australian Financial Review, The Australian, the ABC, and other mainstream media.

The media says things that science refuses to say because they’re very different creatures, serving very different ethics.

Scientists don’t expect to see articles published in scientific journals questioning facts sufficiently proven by science.

If a scientist contested facts that science accepted as proven and submitted a paper for publication in a peer-reviewed journal it would only be published in extraordinary circumstances and would need to be based on extraordinary new research.

Not so with media or politicians. There’s no peer-review hurdle for them. They don’t serve truth or facts, just themselves.

Examples of some facts about which doubting articles are unlikely to be published in scientific journals with peer-review hurdles, but which have been regularly published in mainstream media are:

  • Tobacco smoking kills smokers and the children, partners and others who breath in the smoke of smokers.
  • Some chemicals cause acid rain that kills soil, water, fish, food crops and forests.
  • Some chemicals cause the ozone layer around Earth – a precious barrier that protects us and plants and animals from harmful rays from the sun – to disappear.
  • DDT kills more people and animals and insects and birds than it saves.
  • Some climate change is caused by humans and such activities as coal mining, burning coal, oil, petrol, driving cars, growing and wasting food.

Scientists, scientific journals and conferences would no more think of publishing, giving publicity to or a hearing for, articles questioning these things than they would say that pigs fly.

But flocks of pigs fly every day on the airwaves, TV screens and pages of mainstream media.

Why do they do it?

Why do mainstream journalists and senior politicians parrot doubt when there is none except that contrived by the manipulating hands of unpublished scientists or companies that seek money won by the delay that doubt brings to prevention of the damage being caused?

Because they can.

What may be freely said at our dinner table may be freely ignored. So, too, may media, churches, politicians, companies and your dinner guests freely assert doubt, or ignore it.

As this book demonstrates, there’s no doubt by the companies mentioned about the damage they cause. Their own research shows it.

What would today’s Sydney Morning Herald, ABC, Financial Review, The Australian and other media have said if they’d been in the room when Galileo, weary from a church’s “scientists” having inserted hot pokers in his anus, hung him by ropes, and other doubt-causing techniques, changed his public testimony about the sun, agreeing at last with the then-Pope (who fancied himself as a scientist) that it revolved around the Earth?

They’d go for “balance”: “Pope and Galileo agree Sun orbits Earth”, sounds like a “fair” headline.

Thirteen years ago, in 1997, the science of global warming, or climate change, was complete. Scientists accepted it was an established fact. (p215)

But in that year, when two US Senators, Robert Byrd and Charles Hagel, obtained a 97-0 vote for their regulation blocking adoption of the international treaty to take action to stop climate change (the Kyoto Protocol), the political potential for taking action was about nil.

It’s remained about nil since.

The merchants of doubt won the politics of climate change in 1997. Their doubt-driven delay dominates the media and the politics around Earth. The public is bored by climate change now.

Looking back in the book at the history of doubt-making it’s clear why the public is bored.

In 2007, Australian and overseas media – as if they’d come down with the same virus – suddenly started to write as one about a long dead author and her work (Rachel Carson and Silent Spring) – and to write columns fiercely critical of her book published in 1962, even though the science upon which the book was based has been consistently accepted as fact in peer-reviewed journals.

Carson said DDT kills more things than it saves because over time it accumulates to levels that are toxic to many things – from humans, to eagles to critters in the Antarctic far from where the DDT was sprayed.
The sudden concert of local and international media seemed bizarre to me then. This book identifies the composers for whom the mainstream media performed. It explains who, how and why they orchestrated their cacophony of media parrots:

In the 1950s the tobacco industry realised that they could protect their product by casting doubt on the science and insisting the dangers of smoking were unproven. In the 1990s they realised that if you could convince people that science in general was unreliable, then you didn’t have to argue the merits of any particular case, particularly one – like the defence of second-hand smoke – that had no scientific merit. In the demonising of Rachel Carson, free marketeers realised that if you could convince people that an example of successful government regulation wasn’t, in fact, successful – that it was actually a mistake – you could strengthen the argument against regulation in general. (p217)

The merchants of doubt funded research, books, web pages, conference papers accusing Carson of killing more people than Hitler:

The Competitive Enterprise Institute – whom we encountered in previous chapters defending tobacco and doubting the reality of global warming – now tells us that “Rachel was wrong”. “Millions of people around the world suffer the painful and often deadly effects of malaria because one person sounded a false alarm,” their site asserts. “That person is Rachel Carson” (pp 216, 217)

The book asks why some scientists sell doubt.

It answers that, depending on the scientist, it was a mix of a dominant political agenda, resentment or prejudice. For example, the gifted scientist and doubt merchant, Fred Singer, wrote of his fellow scientists:

“And then there are probably those with hidden agendas of their own – not just to ‘save the environment’ but to change our economic system … Some of these ‘coercive utopians’ are socialists, some are technology-hating Luddites; most have a great desire to regulate – on as large a scale as possible …” and so on. (p134)

Singer is an example of how a gifted scientist sows doubt. As the book shows, when young, and having done and had published his peer-reviewed scientific research (about physics), and having left primary research, he was later persuaded by his political views to work for money to create doubt. He spent the balance of his life working for tobacco, chemical and other businesses and their lobby groups to write, speak and lobby against controls over the damage being done by tobacco and chemicals – even though primary research by equally gifted scientists, and published in peer-reviewed journals, supported the controls.

Some justification

Of course there is justification for the media giving voice to doubts about science.

It’s a tradition of the law, the media and politics that if someone disagrees with a proposition, or finding, or an assertion of fact, they should be heard.

But if that person is a scientist who has been heard and been unable to have their views published because their scientist peers, having considered the “science” or research of that person, have refused publication, why would the media or politicians give them a voice?

In the attacks cited in this book, scientists attacking scientists did no research at all on the topic, had worked in a different field of research decades before or, worse, apparently seemed clearly to be motivated by jealousy or politics and mostly retainers from industry, not facts.

Following are examples of some tactics used by merchants of doubt, for which the book gives thousands of examples, articles and references. The doubters:

  • Insist on “balance” and threaten to sue, or sue.
  • Ask questions, raise issues unrelated to the science, and divert the media from the peer-reviewed science publications.
  • Set up a research body, fund it and then quote its research – which will not be peer-reviewed – for the media to parrot.
  • Have paid scientists make assertions but misquote or distort the sources. This tactic has been critical and the most successful; it doesn’t matter if the truth later seeps out as the headline or politician has usually won delay for the doubters. (Anyway, in the past 60 years, respected scientists have rarely engaged in these media games and so the media space has been dominated by the distorting scientists.)
  • Seduce politicians and journalists with rorts, money, whatever…
  • Create fear about the ulterior motives of respected scientists.

How to confront a doubt-maker

The book’s weak point is it doesn’t assay solutions to defeat doubt-makers. That’s understandable as its focus is to make a convincing history of a pattern of creating doubt by people, companies and politicians we’re supposed to trust.

Here are some things I have done to beat doubt merchants and suggestions you may want to carry out yourself:

Send a lovely card by a local artist to the chief executive officer of an organisation selling doubt.  Result? A reply, personally signed. Yes, it regurgitated the public lies of the company but I wonder whether, at the moment the hand signed the paper, a little doubt may have been created inside the author’s mind about their ethics?

  • Write your own message that appeals to the part of the doubter that may wish to support their reputation, or family. For example: “Dear John Doe AO, I admire the focus and energy and profitability of your company. It does a lot of good. Thanks for that. What I don’t understand, though, is why your company damages the air and soil and waters of the Earth that you, your family and mine share. Why do you fund false science and lobby to create doubt to prevent political action to stop that [name the pollution and damage]? It’s your Earth, too. Could you stop your company doing this, please? Thanks, Fred.”
  • Invest your money in ethical businesses and shares of companies named in the book.
  • Grow and buy local food. Why do I say that? Spend your money to grow your own food or to a farmer who you know doesn’t buy chemicals or fertilizers that are killing soil, air, and forests of Earth – and then your money will not support companies causing climate change – and it bypasses the chainstores that sell their food.
  • If you go to only one thing at The Sydney Writer’s Festival this May go to one of the events where one of the authors of the book, Naomi Oreskes, is speaking.  (https://www.swf.org.au/component/option,com_events/Itemid,242/task,view_writer/writer_from,O/writer_to,P/)
  • Read the book, buy copies for your children, friends, enemies, councillors, MPs, Council managers.

Doubt has won these last 60 years. It’s doing vast, global damage. We have only ourselves to look to now.

May I suggest we fight doubt by choosing different battlefields, by ignoring mainstream media and politics? Let’s make those irrelevant.

There are exceptional, scrupulous, talented and striving journalists in mainstream media to whom we owe many debts for the truths they’ve published, the pressures they’ve withstood, the difficult path they tread; I honour them here. But they are outnumbered. No matter. For whatever reason, less and less people trust mainstream media or use it. Those media, dominated by doubt merchants, mostly serve companies that do vast human and environmental damage.

And, may I suggest that, as we fight and choose places where we’re more likely to win, we do so with love, compassion, humour and patience. Let’s be non-violent, like Gandhi. Nimble, unpredictable.

Be like the native stingless bees in my backyard. For the two to three weeks of their life they fly hither and thither with a determination and generosity that increases the productivity of flowers, fruit and other trees in about 12 of these dirty, polluted inner-city blocks where I live. Doubt-free, I guess.

Don’t buy mainstream media. Treasure the Net’s chaos. And, especially, treasure our most important media, the music, books, conversations and meals where we live and work.

How do we complete that conversation at our dinner party, then?

Would this work?

Ignore what’s been said to you about the sun. It’s an attempt to create doubt where there is none, a waste of your time.

Say something like, “Could you pass the salad, please? Did you know that Fred, our host, grew it in the backyard and some is from out in the street. Try it – it’s a delight to your tastebuds and the little critters in the soil from which it was grown and picked, don’t you agree?”

Talk, that is, about things you do and see and are certain of. Ignore doubt merchants; they cause you harm. (Remain curious, of course.)

Imagine that.

Salad growing can be our revolution.

Michael Mobbs is a sustainability coach and author (of Sustainable House now in its second edition) who advises, teaches and speaks on sustainability issues. He works with developers, governments and communities to design and obtain approvals for houses, units and subdivisions. He is based in the inner Sydney suburb of Chippendale, where in 1996 he pioneered the conversion of his inner city terrace into a sustainable house, which has now been disconnected to mains water and sewerage and is powered by solar energy. See www.sustainablehouse.com.au