Merchants of Doubt

Recommendation: Purchase for annoying relatives 

Where to read: Nowhere near breakables

Read with: Capital Wines “The Backbencher” Merlot

In brief: Feel the rage, revel in the rage and then scream impotently about the mendaciousness of a bunch of arseholes who fucked our future about thirty years ago. 


Full disclosure, I picked this up because I wanted to fuel my rage – a bunch of morons on Facebook (arguably implied) responded to an article about bonkers weather by quoting that trite Dorothea Mackellar “of droughts and flooding rains” line as if it was a valid argument about climate change. It wasn’t quite the stupidest thing I’ve ever seen but it was close.**

I’ve read this before so the ideas weren’t entirely new but I don’t think this book loses its power to shock and anger, even those who already know the story.

Conway and Oreskes begin by outlining the tactics adopted by the tobacco industry when faced with mounting evidence that their products were fucking killing people. It’s a playbook adopted by special interests before and since, from the radium industry to asbestos producers to oil and gas miners today:

  • create neutral-seeming lobbying and “scientific” organisations
  • fund any study which could provide an alternative explanation or cloud the issue
  • create a body of friendly “experts”, reporters and newspapers ready to disseminate your message
  • shift blame onto literally anything else (loose morals, syphilis, genetics, volcanoes, anything really)
  • scream really loudly about how expensive the problem would be to fix (if there is indeed a problem) and, when all else fails,
  • jerk the Republicans off with lots of talk about freedom and free markets (apparently the two are synonymous).

Having set out the basic strategy, they chart a course through the debates about acid rain, “Star Wars”, the ozone layer, DDT and finally climate change, peeling back a pattern of obfuscation, dishonesty and manipulation. What’s particularly astounding is the constant reappearance of a couple of names – Fred Singer and Fred Siegtz in particular. It’s all straight out of central casting really. They’re mostly physicists, all Cold Warriors, all with fairly reactionary views about the increasingly progressive scientific community, all harbouring a pretty solid antipathy for so-called “watermelons” and all completely unqualified to offer expert commentary on anything other than nuclear physics. Also implicated, and interrelated, are conservative think tanks such as The Heritage Foundation, the Competitive Enterprise Institute and the George C. Marshall Institute. 

What remains astounding is the gap between scientific consensus and public perception – the science on climate change was in decades ago and we’re still fucking around pretending there’s debate, conspiracies, uncertainty and exaggeration. 

It’s come in for some criticism, probably fairly, for being a tad oversimplistic but don’t let that put you off. 

See here for more information. 

**on a related note, can we ban climate change deniers (and anti-vaxxers) from using technology and modern medicine since they clearly don’t have much use for science????

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