Interesting, tough to get through at parts. It’s very “this happened, then this happened, then this happened…” Disturbing to see how few people could have such a large negative impact on the public understanding of science and health, though.
Not only were the tactics the same, the people were the same, too. The leaders of the attack on him were two retired physicists, both named Fred: Frederick Seitz and S. (Siegfried) Fred Singer.
From 1979 to 1985, Fred Seitz directed a program for R. J. Reynolds Tobacco Company that distributed $45 million to scientists around the country for biomedical research that could generate evidence and cultivate experts to be used in court to defend the “product.”
Among the multitude of documents we found in writing this book were Bad Science: A Resource Book—a how-to handbook for fact fighters, providing example after example of successful strategies for undermining science, and a list of experts with scientific credentials available to comment on any issue about which a think tank or corporation needed a negative sound bite.
In the early years, much of the money for this effort came from the tobacco industry; in later years, it came from foundations, think tanks, and the fossil fuel industry. They claimed the link between smoking and cancer remained unproven. They insisted that scientists were mistaken about the risks and limitations of SDI. They argued that acid rain was caused by volcanoes, and so was the ozone hole. They charged that the Environmental Protection Agency had rigged the science surrounding secondhand smoke. Most recently—over the course of nearly two decades and against the face of mounting evidence—they dismissed the reality of global warming. First they claimed there was none, then they claimed it was just natural variation, and then they claimed that even if it was happening and it was our fault, it didn’t matter because we could just adapt to it. In case after case, they steadfastly denied the existence of scientific agreement, even though they, themselves, were pretty much the only ones who disagreed.
Over the course of more than twenty years, these men did almost no original scientific research on any of the issues on which they weighed in. Once they had been prominent researchers, but by the time they turned to the topics of our story, they were mostly attacking the work and the reputations of others.
German scientists had shown in the 1930s that cigarette smoking caused lung cancer, and the Nazi government had run major antismoking campaigns; Adolf Hitler forbade smoking in his presence. However, the German scientific work was tainted by its Nazi associations, and to some extent ignored, if not actually suppressed, after the war; it had taken some time to be rediscovered and independently confirmed.
The industry made its case in part by cherry-picking data and focusing on unexplained or anomalous details. No one in 1954 would have claimed that everything that needed to be known about smoking and cancer was known, and the industry exploited this normal scientific honesty to spin unreasonable doubt.
The industry had realized that you could create the impression of controversy simply by asking questions, even if you actually knew the answers and they didn’t help your case. And so the industry began to transmogrify emerging scientific consensus into raging scientific “debate.”
Balance was interpreted, it seems, as giving equal weight to both sides, rather than giving accurate weight to both sides.
The American Cancer Society and American Lung Association in 1981 devoted just under $300,000 to research; that same year, the tobacco industry gave $6.3 million. It was time to do even more.
While the idea of equal time for opposing opinions makes sense in a two-party political system, it does not work for science, because science is not about opinion. It is about evidence. It is about claims that can be, and have been, tested through scientific research—experiments, experience, and observation—research that is then subject to critical review by a jury of scientific peers. Claims that have not gone through that process—or have gone through it and failed—are not scientific, and do not deserve equal time in a scientific debate.
One reason the industry’s campaigns were successful is that not everyone who smokes gets cancer. In fact, most people who smoke will not get lung cancer. They may suffer chronic bronchitis, emphysema, heart disease, or stroke, and they may suffer cancer of the mouth, uterus, cervix, liver, kidney, bladder, or stomach. They may develop leukemia, suffer a miscarriage, or go blind. The children of women who smoke are much more likely to be low birth weight babies than the children of women who don’t, and to suffer high rates of sudden infant death syndrome. Today, the World Health Organization finds that smoking is the known or probable cause of twenty-five different diseases, that it is responsible for five million deaths worldwide every year, and that half of these deaths occur in middle age.126 By the 1990s, most Americans knew that smoking was generally harmful, but as many as 30 percent could not tie that harm to specific disease. Even many doctors do not know the full extent of tobacco harms, and nearly a quarter of poll respondents still doubt that smoking is harmful at all.
Jealousy does not always cause quarrels, but it very often does. Smoking does not kill everyone who smokes, but it does kill about half of them.
Doubt is crucial to science—in the version we call curiosity or healthy skepticism, it drives science forward—but it also makes science vulnerable to misrepresentation, because it is easy to take uncertainties out of context and create the impression that everything is unresolved. This was the tobacco industry’s key insight: that you could use normal scientific uncertainty to undermine the status of actual scientific knowledge. As in jujitsu, you could use science against itself.
“No proof” became a mantra that they would use again in the 1990s when attention turned to secondhand smoke. It also became the mantra of nearly every campaign in the last quarter of the century to fight facts.
But Seitz had found other allies, and by the mid-1980s a new cause: rolling back Communism. He did this by joining forces with several fellow physicists—old cold warriors who shared his unalloyed anti-Communism—to support and defend Ronald Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative. SDI (Star Wars to most of us) was rejected by most scientists as impractical and destabilizing, but Seitz and his colleagues began to defend it by challenging the scientific evidence that SDI would not work and promoting the idea that the United States could “win” a nuclear war.
By the end of the decade, they had destroyed the idea of peaceful coexistence, justifying a major new arms buildup during the Reagan years. This attack was mounted in very similar ways to the effort to protect tobacco: opponents of détente cast doubt on the official intelligence assessments prepared by the Central Intelligence Agency and created an alternative body of “facts”—which often weren’t. They planted their claims in American minds by using large-scale publicity campaigns in the mass media, campaigns that relied on the demand for equal time for their views.
Then astronomer Carl Sagan and his colleagues threw a spanner in the works, arguing that any exchange of nuclear weapons—even a modest one—could plunge the Earth into a deep freeze that would devastate the whole planet. If that were true, then no nuclear war was winnable. The SDI lobby decided to attack the messenger, first attacking Sagan himself, and then attacking science generally. Just as the tobacco industry had created an institute to foster its claims, so did they: the George C. Marshall Institute, promoting “science for better public policy,” with Frederick Seitz as the founding chairman of the board.
The members of these panels came to be known as “Team B.” While they were supposed to provide an objective review of the NIE, their composition ensured otherwise: the membership was composed entirely of foreign policy hawks who already believed that the CIA was underplaying the Soviet threat.
“The absence of a deployed system by this time is difficult to understand,” they wrote. “The implication could be that the Soviets have, in fact, deployed some operational non-acoustic systems and will deploy more in the next few years.”
“The very lack of evidence is thus treated as evidence; the absence of smoke proves that the fire is very carefully hidden.” Such arguments are effectively impossible to refute, as Lewis noted. “A belief in invisible cats cannot be logically disproved,” although it does “tell us a good deal about those who hold it.”
The “Soviet Union is” they repeatedly wrote, rather than “might be” or “appears to be.” They understood the power of language: you could undermine your opponents’ claims by insisting that theirs were uncertain, while presenting your own as if they were not.
Several Team B members—including Wolfowitz and Perle—became advisors to Ronald Reagan’s 1980 presidential campaign; Reagan’s victory made them the “A Team.” Their views became the basis for Reagan’s confrontational foreign policy during his first term in office, and, most famously, his decision to pursue the Strategic Defense Initiative—better known as Star Wars.
The crux of the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) was to install weapons in space that could destroy incoming ballistic missiles. This would “shield” the United States from attack, making nuclear weapons obsolete.
Why did scientists react so strongly to SDI? One reason was that they had a charismatic spokesman in the person of Cornell University astronomer Carl Sagan.
No weapons system—indeed, no technological system—is ever perfect, and an imperfect defense against nuclear weapons is worse than worthless. It’s a matter of arithmetic. If strategic defense is 90 percent effective, then 10 percent of the warheads still get through. The Soviets had an arsenal of about two thousand ballistic missiles capable of delivering over eight thousand warheads, 10 percent of which would more than suffice to destroy a nation.
SDI would fuel the arms race, not stop it.
To properly test SDI, we’d have to shoot a substantial fraction of our own missile inventory at ourselves.
Team B, Jastrow, and Moynihan had all overestimated Soviet capabilities, and greatly exaggerated the certainty of their claims. But their alarming arguments had the desired effect, providing “evidence” that the United States needed to act, and fast. It also demonstrated that you could get what you wanted if you argued with enough conviction, even if you didn’t have the facts on your side. The Strategic Defense Initiative and its successor, the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization, were approved by Congress, at a cost of more than $60 billion.
But on another level, many scientists were unhappy with the way the whole thing had played out. Sagan’s behavior—publishing in Parade and Foreign Affairs before the peer-reviewed TTAPS paper had appeared in Science—was a violation of scientific norms. Moreover, the Parade article presented the TTAPS worst-case scenarios and omitted most of the caveats, so to some scientists it didn’t appear as an honest effort in public education. Some saw it as outright propaganda. Some decided it was appropriate to complain.
Federal Communications Commission license was thought to come with an obligation to serve public purposes, one of which was “fairness.” But does fairness require equal time for unequal views? After all, sixty-five hundred scientists had signed the petition against SDI, and the Marshall Institute—at least at this early stage—consisted of Robert Jastrow and two colleagues.
He insisted that nuclear winter was not science at all: it was left/liberal/environmental politics dressed up as computer code. “No one who is familiar with the malleability of computer projections can be surprised at the result.”
Working scientists were finding more and more evidence that industrial emissions were causing widespread damage to human and ecosystem health. The free market was causing problems—unintended consequences—that the free market did not know how to solve. The government had a potential remedy—regulation—but that flew in the face of the capitalist ideal.
If science took the side of regulation—or even gave evidence to support the idea that regulation might be needed to protect the life on Earth—then science, the very thing Jastrow, Nierenberg, Teller, and Frederick Seitz had spent their working careers trying to build up, would now have to be torn down.
While the debate over strategic defense and nuclear winter was playing out, another rather different issue had come to the fore: acid rain. While the science of nuclear winter was entirely different from that of acid rain, some of the same people would be involved in both debates. And as in the debate over tobacco, opponents of regulating the pollution that caused acid rain would argue that the science was too uncertain to justify action.
This is a characteristic pattern in science: first there is scattered evidence of a phenomenon, published in specialist journals or reports, and then someone begins to connect the dots.
Herbert Bormann, at this point teaching at Yale, thought that ambiguity arose from confusing different types of uncertainty. There was no question that acid rain was real. Rainfall in the northeastern United States was many times more acidic than it used to be. The uncertainty was about the precise nature of its cause: tall smokestacks—dispersing sulfur higher in the atmosphere—or just increased use of fossil fuels overall?
In 1983, the technical working groups established under the 1980 Memorandum of Intent affirmed that acid rain caused by sulfur emissions was real and causing serious damage. The solution was to reduce these emissions—the necessary technology already existed—and if reductions were not made, damage would increase.31 At the last minute, however, the U.S. representatives seemingly backpedaled. When the working group results were summarized, the U.S. versions were much weaker than the Canadians expected.
The panel began by noting a common problem among scientists: the tendency to emphasize uncertainties rather than settled knowledge. Scientists do this because it’s necessary for inquiry—the research frontier can’t be identified by focusing on what you already know—but it’s not very helpful when trying to create public policy. The panel wished that the working group scientists had begun with a “clear statement of what is known.”
The U.S. version saw far greater uncertainty than the Canadian one. It did not accept that cause and effect had been established, on the grounds that the relative importance of different contributing factors had not been quantified, and potentially offsetting processes had not been fully investigated.
This was like saying that we know that both cigarettes and asbestos cause lung cancer, but we can’t say either is proven, because we don’t know exactly how much cancer is caused by one and how much by the other, and we don’t know whether eating vegetables might prevent those cancers.
The problem then, as it largely remains today, is that it is easier to calculate the cost of a pollution control device than the value of the environment it is intended to protect: who can calculate the benefit of a blue sky?
So now there were two different versions of the problem. One, written by the panel, acknowledged the uncertainties but insisted that the weight of evidence justified significant action. The other, written by Singer (perhaps with help from the White House), suggested that the problem was not so grave, and that the best thing was to make only small adjustments and see if they helped before considering anything more serious. These were not the same view at all. Which one would prevail?
Singer was effectively insisting that if the scientists couldn’t prove the value of things (like bacteria), then they had no value. It was a foolish argument, and no one on the committee accepted it, not even Bill Nierenberg.
Documents show that the panel report was forwarded to the White House in April, it was ready to be released in June, and it was not actually released until August (albeit with a July date). The record also shows that changes had been made to the text. In fact, it shows that two sets of changes were made—one set in the spring, and a second set in the summer. Fred Singer had played a role in these changes—and so had Bill Nierenberg.
In Bill Nierenberg’s files, there is a second copy of the telecopied Executive Summary from May 21, but this time dated, by hand, 7/10/84—and the note next to the date reads: “Changes wanted by Keyworth.” Nierenberg had changed the Executive Summary, and it was the science advisor to the president who had asked him to do so.
In 1985, Nierenberg was considered once again for the position of science advisor to the president. One referee described him as “a strong, loyal, and vocal supporter of the Administration’s policies … a [real] team player.”
Likens tried to set the record straight with an article in Environmental Science and Technology entitled “Red Herrings in Acid Rain Research.”156 But in a pattern that was becoming familiar, the scientific facts were published in a place where few ordinary people would see them, whereas the unscientific claims—that acid rain was not a problem, that it would cost hundreds of billions to fix—were published in mass circulation outlets. It was not a level playing field.
The ozone layer protects us from that UV radiation. If ozone depletion did occur, then skin cancer incidence would increase. Indeed, McDonald believed there was a sixfold magnification factor: each 1 percent reduction in ozone concentration would produce a 6 percent increase in skin cancer occurrence. McDonald testified to this effect before Congress in March 1970.5.
Congress financed $21 million for a Climate Impact Assessment Program (CIAP, pronounced sy-ap), to answer them.
CIAP was controversial, because after enormous amounts of work by scientists around the world, the Department of Transportation tried to whitewash the findings. The program’s scientists had found that a fleet of five hundred Boeing-type SSTs was likely to deplete the ozone layer by 10 to 20 percent. More important, there would be vastly worse depletions over the highly traveled North Atlantic routes. Harold Johnston might have been right.
But that admission would only be read by the scientists who read Science; once again, scientific claims were being published in scientific journals, where only scientists would read them, but unscientific claims were being published in the mass media. The public was left with the impression that the ozone layer was fine, and the “alarmists” had got it wrong.
Lovelock had calculated that given the known concentration of CFCs in the atmosphere virtually all of the billions of pounds that had been manufactured were still in the atmosphere. If Lovelock was right—there were no chemical processes, or “sinks,” that could remove CFCs from the lower atmosphere—then eventually the atmosphere’s circulation would move them into the stratosphere.
Billions of pounds of CFCs were produced every year for use in spray cans, air-conditioners, and refrigerators. In comparison, the four shuttles’ exhaust would be utterly trivial.
The aerosol industry responded almost immediately to Rowland and Molina’s work. They already had two trade associations, the Chemical Specialties Manufacturers Association and the Manufacturing Chemists’ Association, which responded with research on chlorofluorocarbon effects of their own. The Manufacturing Chemists’ Association established a subpanel to dispense $3 million to $5 million in research grants, which largely went to university scientists.20 The industry then established two more organizations for public relations purposes: the Aerosol Education Bureau and the Council on Atmospheric Sciences.21 A little later, a group of aerosol can fillers formed the Western Aerosol Information Bureau. Their job was “defense of the product” in the public sphere. If you had followed the tobacco story, it would have been déjà vu all over again.
Meanwhile, the Ford administration established an interagency task force on so-called Inadvertent Modification of the Stratosphere (IMOS) in January 1975.
The chlorine monoxide was there. It was the smoking gun they’d been waiting for.34 ClO had been detected in the stratosphere, and there was no explanation for its presence except that it was caused by CFCs reacting with ozone to produce it. In effect, it was a fingerprint—a telltale sign that CFCs had been there.
Meanwhile something very interesting had happened: American people had already started to change their habits. By the time Food and Drug Administration head Donald Kennedy announced regulations, in 1977, CFC propellant use had already dropped by three quarters. The public had realized that that there were many (often less expensive) substitutes for CFCs, such as roll-on antiperspirants and pump sprays for kitchen cleansers.
One aspect of the effort to cast doubt on ozone depletion was the construction of a counternarrative that depicted ozone depletion as a natural variation that was being cynically exploited by a corrupt, self-interested, and extremist scientific community to get more money for their research. One of the first people to make this argument was a man who had been a fellow at the Heritage Foundation in the early 1980s: Fred Singer.
Singer also recycled the old tobacco tactic of refutation by distraction, noting that there are many causes of skin cancer, including “viruses, genetic predisposition, environmental carcinogens, population shifts to the Sun Belt, changes in life style, earlier detection of melanomas, and even diet.”63 All true, but beside the point: the point was that if ozone depletion continued, it would lead to additional skin cancers, on top of those already generated by other causes.
It was the beginning of a counternarrative that scientists had overreacted before, were overreacting now, and therefore couldn’t be trusted.
Maduro had concluded that the ozone depletion theory was a “fraud” after interviewing Reid Bryson for an article on the “hoax” of global warming. Bryson, an expert on paleoclimate studies using pollen and tree rings—nothing to do with ozone—had told Maduro that Mt. Erebus erupted more chlorine into the atmosphere in a week than CFCs released in a year.
Ray had apparently confused chlorine emission to the atmosphere and chlorine concentration in the stratosphere.
In the 1970s, industry researchers had found that sidestream smoke contained more toxic chemicals than mainstream smoke—in part because smoldering cigarettes burn at lower temperatures at which more toxic compounds are created. So they got to work trying to produce less harmful sidestream smoke by improving filters, changing cigarette papers, or adding components to make the cigarettes burn at higher temperatures. They also tried to make cigarettes whose sidestream smoke was not less dangerous, but simply less visible.
You could make general claims about “smoky” environments, but to make a scientifically robust causal claim, you should, ideally, measure exposure levels and show that the more exposure, the more risk. This is known as a “dose-response” curve. A second study provided it.
The study was long-term and big—540 women in twenty-nine different health care districts studied over fourteen years—and showed a clear dose-response curve: the more the husbands smoked, the more the wives died from lung cancer. Spousal drinking had no effect, and the husbands’ smoking had no impact on diseases like cervical cancer that you wouldn’t expect to be affected by cigarette smoke. The study did exactly what good epidemiology should do: it demonstrated an effect and ruled out other causes. The Japan study also explained a long-standing conundrum: why many women got lung cancer even when they didn’t smoke. Hirayama’s study was a first-rate piece of science; today it is considered a landmark.
It was one thing to say that smokers accepted uncertain risks in exchange for certain pleasures, but quite another to say that they were killing their friends, neighbors, and even their own children.
Sylvester Stallone was paid $500,000 to use Brown and Williamson products in no fewer than five feature films to link smoking with power and strength, rather than sickness and death.
The industry promoted the idea of “sick building syndrome” to suggest that headaches and other problems suffered by workers in smoky atmospheres were caused by the buildings, not smoke.
In 1991, Philip Morris executives outlined four objectives specifically related to secondhand smoke. One was to fight bans on smoking in workplaces and restaurants. A second was to maintain smoking areas in transportation facilities like airports. A third was to promote the idea of “accommodation”—that smokers (like the disabled?) had the right to be accommodated. So “Objective #1”—on which all else hinged—was “to maintain the controversy … about tobacco smoke in public and scientific forums.”
The tobacco industry had promoted the use of the phrase “environmental tobacco smoke” in preference to passive smoking or secondhand smoke—perhaps because it seemed less threatening—but this proved a tactical mistake, because it virtually invited EPA scrutiny. If secondhand smoke was “environmental,” then there was no question that it fell under the purview of the Environmental Protection Agency. And this meant the prospect of federal regulation—what the industry most dreaded.
What was his style? A full-frontal assault, claiming that the science done at the EPA was “junk.” The headline of the article he prepared for APCO read: junk science at the epa. The EPA was taking “extreme positions not supported by science,” he asserted. Claiming that they “could not rule out other factors … such as diet, outdoor air pollution, genetics, prior lung disease, etc.,” he charged that the EPA had “rig[ged] the numbers” by accepting the 90 percent confidence level instead of a 95 percent one.
Consider a handbook the tobacco industry distributed that same year, which drew on Singer’s work. Bad Science: A Resource Book was a how-to handbook for fact fighters. It contained over two hundred pages of snappy quotes and reprinted editorials, articles, and op-ed pieces that challenged the authority and integrity of science, building to a crescendo in the attack on the EPA’s work on secondhand smoke. It also included a list of experts with scientific credentials available to comment on any issue about which a think tank or corporation needed a negative sound bite.
This was the Bad Science strategy in a nutshell: plant complaints in op-ed pieces, in letters to the editor, and in articles in mainstream journals to whom you’d supplied the “facts,” and then quote them as if they really were facts. Quote, in fact, yourself. A perfect rhetorical circle. A mass media echo chamber of your own construction.
“Junk science” quickly became the tag line of Steven J. Milloy and a group called TASSC—The Advancement of Sound Science Coalition—whose strategy was not to advance science, but to discredit it. Milloy—who later became a commentator for Fox News—was affiliated with the Cato Institute and had previously been a lobbyist at Multinational Business Services (MBS)—a firm hired by Philip Morris in the early 1990s to assist in the defense of secondhand smoke.
Meanwhile, Milloy wrote articles for the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Times, and Investor’s Business Daily, and created a Web site, JunkScience.com, that freely attacked science related to health and environmental issues. It didn’t matter who had done the work—the EPA, the World Health Organization, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, or distinguished scientists at private universities. If the results challenged the safety of a commercial product, Milloy attacked them.
Singer and Jeffreys argued that the EPA should have assumed a “threshold effect”—that doses below a certain level would have no effect. Citing the old adage “the dose makes the poison,” they insisted that there might be a threshold value below which no harm occurred. Since the EPA had failed to provide proof that this wasn’t so, the linear-dose response assumption was “flawed.”
Conferences are usually less strict, which is why conference papers are generally not considered serious—and generally do not count in academic circles for promotion and tenure—until published in peer-reviewed journals. (This is also why the industry could exploit an apparent loophole by sponsoring their own conferences and publishing their proceedings.)
The reviewers of the draft EPA report did request more discussion of certain matters: the uncertainties and confounding effects, the limits of using spousal exposure as a surrogate for total ETS exposure, and the recent work on ETS and respiratory disorders in children. But they did so not because they thought the report had overstated the case. On the contrary, their major concern was that the report had understated the risks. Its conclusions were not too strong, but too weak.
But as a rule of thumb, if a little of something is known to be bad, a lot is probably worse, and if a lot of something is known to be bad, then a little is probably not great either.
By the 1970s, the threshold concept was being used by all sorts of people to defend all sorts of hazardous materials. This was illogical, because the threshold argument was about natural hazards—like background radiation and trace metals that occur in soils—but that didn’t stop some people from using it to defend unnatural ones, too.
Mrak was pulling a rhetorical switcheroo because it wasn’t environmentalists who argued everything was harmful; it was the tobacco industry. The industry insisted that everything from crossing the street to riding a bicycle was harmful, so tobacco should be viewed as just one of the routine risks that people accept by living life.
There’s also a world of difference between the idea that evolution has equipped humans with some immunity to natural hazards and the idea that we somehow have immunity to something we’d never been exposed to in two million years of evolution. The secondhand smoke debate was crucial precisely because the risk wasn’t a choice and it wasn’t natural. It was a man-made risk that was being imposed without consent.
Seitz suggested that the U.S. government should figure out how to remove the smoke from cigarettes. “Only one-tenth of one percent of a cigarette is nicotine, and it should not take a rocket scientist to devise a means to volatilizing that small drop of active ingredient without generating a thousand times its weight in burning leaves.”
There are many reasons why the United States has failed to act on global warming, but at least one is the confusion raised by Bill Nierenberg, Fred Seitz, and Fred Singer.
One Jason recalls being asked by colleagues, “When you go to Washington and tell them that the CO2 will double in 50 years and will have major impacts on the planet, what do they say?” His reply? “They … ask me to come back in forty-nine years.”
Climate change wouldn’t produce new kinds of climate, Schelling argued, but would simply change the distribution of climatic zones on Earth. This suggested an idea that climate skeptics would echo for the next three decades: that we could continue to burn fossil fuels without restriction and deal with the consequences through migration and adaptation.
How quickly could such a disaster occur? Total disintegration of that ice sheet would take a long time, perhaps two hundred to five hundred years, but smaller effects might begin much sooner. If temperature increases of 2°C to 3°C were achieved by midcentury, thermal expansion alone would produce seventy centimeters of sea level rise, to which one could add another two meters by 2050 or so if the ice sheet began to fail. Whether fast or slow, “disintegration of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet would have … far-reaching consequences.”
Schelling’s attempt to ignore the cause of global warming was pretty peculiar. It was equivalent to arguing that medical researchers shouldn’t try to cure cancer, because that would be too expensive, and in any case people in the future might decide that dying from cancer is not so bad. But it was based on an ordinary economic principle—the same principle invoked by Fred Singer when discussing acid rain—namely, discounting. A dollar today is worth more to us than a dollar tomorrow and a lot more than a dollar a century from now, so we can “discount” faraway costs. This is what Schelling was doing, presuming that the changes under consideration were “beyond the lifetimes of contemporary decision-makers.”
The central claim of the Marshall Institute report was that the warming that Hansen and others had found didn’t track the historical increase in CO2. The majority of the warming had been prior to 1940—prior to the majority of the carbon dioxide emissions. Then there was a cooling trend through 1975, and a return to warming. Since the warming didn’t parallel the increase in CO2, it must have been caused, they claimed, by the Sun.
Then they asked, What cause or combination of causes best explains the observations? The answer was all of the above. “CO2+volcanoes+Sun” fit the observational record best. The Sun did make a difference, but greenhouse gases did, too. The observed climate of the twentieth century was a product of all three forcings, but since Jastrow, Seitz, and Nierenberg had shown their readers only the top portion of Hansen’s figure, they’d made it appear as if only the Sun mattered.
Criticizing Gore’s new book, Earth in the Balance, Easterbrook sniffed indignantly that Gore had failed to mention that “before his death last year, Revelle published a paper that concludes, ‘the scientific base for a greenhouse warming is too uncertain to justify drastic action at this time.’”94 Those were Singer’s words, not Revelle’s.
Two of Revelle’s closest colleagues at Scripps, oceanographer Walter Munk and physicist Edward Frieman, agreed with Hufbauer that Revelle’s views were being misrepresented. They wrote a letter to Cosmos, but the journal declined to publish it, so they published it in the journal Oceanography, along with the text of Revelle’s AAAS paper.
Like the Vienna Convention for the Protection of the Ozone Layer, the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change had no real teeth: it set no binding limits on emissions. It was an agreement in principle. Real limits would be determined later, in a protocol that would be eventually signed in Kyoto, Japan. And with the threat that real limitations would soon be enforced, the merchants of doubt redoubled their efforts.
Wigley was right. The IPCC had not described global warming as the “greatest global challenge facing mankind.” The words Singer attributed to the IPCC don’t appear in either the Working Group I Report or in its Summary for Policymakers. Singer was putting words into other people’s mouths—and then using those words to discredit them.
We’ve noted how the notion of balance was enshrined in the Fairness Doctrine, and it may make sense for political news in a two-party system (although not in a multiparty system). But it doesn’t reflect the way science works. In an active scientific debate, there can be many sides. But once a scientific issue is closed, there’s only one “side.” Imagine providing “balance” to the issue of whether the Earth orbits the Sun, whether continents move, or whether DNA carries genetic information.
Nobody can publish an article in a scientific journal claiming the Sun orbits the Earth, and for the same reason, you can’t publish an article in a peer-reviewed journal claiming there’s no global warming. Probably well-informed professional science journalists wouldn’t publish it either. But ordinary journalists repeatedly did.
Fast-forward to 2007. The Internet is flooded with the assertion that Carson was a mass murderer, worse than Hitler. Carson killed more people than the Nazis. She had blood on her hands, posthumously. Why? Because Silent Spring led to the banning of DDT, without which millions of Africans died of malaria.
In the demonizing of Rachel Carson, free marketeers realized 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.
Spraying DDT in New Brunswick to save evergreens from a budworm infestation destroyed the bugs upon which local salmon relied, and the fish starved. DDT also killed useful insects, vital to pollinating flowers and food crops.
Because it was so long lasting, it continued to be concentrated in the tissues of the animals and insects that it didn’t kill—long after spraying campaigns were over—so when those animals were eaten, the effects rippled through the ecosystem. One of its most alarming effects—interference in the reproductive systems of eagles and falcons—occurred not by direct exposure, but by those predators eating small rodents that had eaten things with DDT in or on them.
All of us who were children in the Cold War learned in school how the Soviet Union routinely engaged in historical cleansing, erasing real events and real people from their official histories and even official photographs. The right-wing defenders of American liberty have now done the same. The painstaking work of scientists, the reasoned deliberations of the President’s Science Advisory Committee, and the bipartisan American agreement to ban DDT have been flushed down the memory hole,
To acknowledge this was to acknowledge the soft underbelly of free market capitalism: that free enterprise can bring real costs—profound costs—that the free market does not reflect. Economists have a term for these costs—a less reassuring one than Friedman’s “neighborhood effects.” They are “negative externalities”: negative because they aren’t beneficial and external because they fall outside the market system. Those who find this hard to accept attack the messenger, which is science.
This is the common thread that ties these diverse issues together: they were all market failures. They are instances where serious damage was done and the free market seemed unable to account for it, much less prevent it. Government intervention was required. This is why free market ideologues and old Cold Warriors joined together to fight them. Accepting that by-products of industrial civilization were irreparably damaging the global environment was to accept the reality of market failure. It was to acknowledge the limits of free market capitalism.
Why did this group of Cold Warriors turn against the very science to which they had previously dedicated their lives? Because they felt—as did Lt. General Daniel O. Graham (one of the original members of Team B and chief advocate of weapons in space) when he invoked the preamble to the U.S. Constitution—they were working to “secure the blessings of liberty.” If science was being used against those blessings—in ways that challenged the freedom of free enterprise—then they would fight it as they would fight any enemy. For indeed, science was starting to show that certain kinds of liberties are not sustainable—like the liberty to pollute. Science was showing that Isaiah Berlin was right: liberty for wolves does indeed mean death to lambs.
The result is plain to see. A third of all Americans think that Saddam Hussein was behind the attacks on September 11. Nearly a quarter still think that there’s no solid evidence that smoking kills. And as recently as 2007, 40 percent of Americans believed that scientific experts were still arguing about the reality of global warming. Who can blame us? Everywhere we turn someone is questioning something, and many of the important issues of our day are reduced to he said/she said/who knows? Any person could be forgiven for being confused.
Whatever the explanation, it is clear that the media did present the scientific debate over tobacco as unsettled long after scientists had concluded otherwise. In 1999, researchers Gail Kennedy and Lisa Bero at the University of California, San Francisco, examined newspaper and magazine coverage of research on passive smoking and found that 62 percent of all articles published between 1992 and 1994 concluded that the research was “controversial.”6 Yet, as we saw in chapter 5, the scientific community had by that point reached consensus, and the tobacco industry had known the degree of danger even before that.
Even Milton Friedman acknowledged that there may be external costs that markets fail to account for—and pollution is the clearest example. Regulation is needed to address external costs, either by preventing them or by compensating those who are saddled with them.
Cornucopians—along with historians of science and technology—recognize that Malthus’s dire predictions did not come true in large part because he failed to appreciate that technological innovation can make it possible to do more with the same resources (or in some cases even less). Even though the world is far more populous today than it was when Malthus wrote, we manage to feed many (if not all) of these mouths in large part to the technological innovations of the green revolution.60 However, Cornucopians go one step further than historians, arguing that this will always be the case, so long as human creativity and innovation are not circumscribed.
What this all adds up to—to return to our story—is that the doubt-mongering campaigns we have followed were not about science. They were about the proper role of government, particularly in redressing market failures. Because the results of scientific investigation seem to suggest that government really did need to intervene in the marketplace if pollution and public health were to be effectively addressed, the defenders of the free market refused to accept those results. The enemies of government regulation of the marketplace became the enemies of science.
Rome may not be burning, but Greenland is melting, and we are still fiddling. We all need a better understanding of what science really is, how to recognize real science when we see it, and how to separate it from the garbage.
If we read an article in the newspaper presenting two opposing viewpoints, we assume both have validity, and we think it would be wrong to shut one side down. But often one side is represented only by a single “expert”
Then consider signing up for my Monday Medley newsletter. It's a collection of fascinating finds from my week, usually about psychology, technology, health, philosophy, and whatever else catches my interest. I also include new articles, book notes, and podcast episodes.