Tree Huggers: Enemies of the People

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Title: Merchants of Doubt

Rating: 3 Stars

Merchants of Doubt was an interesting read on how a small number of scientists thwarted the general scientific consensus on several issues that were critical to our health / future.

The same names crop up in discussions regarding tobacco, acid rain, hole in the ozone, and global warming.

In all cases, a similar pattern is followed.

  • A scientist discovers a potentially alarming fact
  • Many scientists (in some cases, thousands of scientists) perform numerous studies / experiments validating / illuminating the situation
  • Their work gets rigorously examined via peer review before ultimately publishing their results in respected science journals
  • Over a period of many years (in most cases over a decade), a scientific consensus emerges
  • Pressure is mounted on the government to take action, which is usually a set of laws to change the behavior of private enterprise

And then…

  • Someone with an economic interest in maintaining the status quo starts up a research institute for the stated purpose of providing a ‘balanced’ view
  • They hire a set of known (usually retired, no longer actively researching, usually not experienced in the subject at hand) scientists with a known contrarian or political bias
  • These scientists cherry pick findings to make the situation as benign as possible
  • They accuse the other scientists of attacking private enterprise
  • They pressure media to present ‘both’ sides of the argument, even though the other side is a small set of privately funded scientists that do not publish original research, let alone peer reviewed research
  • These scientists testify as congressional experts. In the resulting confusion, legislation is delayed, sometimes indefinitely

The template for this was tobacco. It was the late 1940’s / early 1950’s when studies first started showing the danger of smoking. Instead of facing the consequences of their actions, the tobacco firms hired a PR firm. Out of that came the patterns of things to come.

I’m fascinated by the contrarian scientists. These people are not hacks. A good example is Frederick Steitz. He was involved in the making of atomic weapons. He was President of United States National Academy of Sciences. He was president of Rockefeller University. He was not a lightweight. He came out against the dangers of smoking, believed in the effectiveness of Star Wars (SDI), and was a climate change denier.

Again, I want to stress how extreme these views were. By the time that he came to battle against these beliefs, there were literally thousands of peer reviewed case studies that, from a scientific point of view, proved the science. It was not as if he had conducted independent peer reviewed studies or had in his mind some brilliant, secret fact that no one else in the community had. By the time that he had taken these beliefs, he had stopped publishing original peer reviewed scientific papers years before.

So, why? Why did a man who’d spent a lifetime working in science end up spending his retirement actively fighting science?

Possibilities:

  • He was compensated well. The tobacco companies paid him well. The energy companies paid him well. In his retirement years, he decided he wanted to cash in on his reputation and maybe enjoy a little of the good life.
  • He liked the power. Having such a corporation-centric philosophy gave him influence and respect among the corporation elite, and especially in the 80’s and beyond, from the Republican leadership. He held  senior government posts in the Reagan / Bush adminstrations and was probably looked upon as a valued adviser.
  • A lifetime fighting the Cold War skewed him. As a physicist involved in atomic weapon systems, an argument can be made that he was on the front lines of the Cold War. He definitely had a hatred of Socialist governments and their economic philosophy. The United States and its capitalist system was the only thing keeping the world from descending into the madness of Socialism. Anything that criticized the United States or its economic system was, in his mind, an existential threat. Environmentalists, when they tried to pass laws curtailing private enterprise behavior in the name of the ‘common good’, was, in his eyes, just one step on the very slippery slope to Socialism. Therefore, environmentalists were the enemy that should be fought with every tool in your disposal.

The third point, to me, makes the most sense. What also holds it together is that the other primary scientists involved in this also came out of a Cold War mentality.

The final thing that I found interesting is that the authors tried to say that this was somehow a new development.

The reason why I found it interesting was that many years ago, I’d read Ibsen’s play, An Enemy of the People.

In the play, a doctor discovers that the town baths are contaminated. In the beginning, the consensus is that he’s done a great thing and he is congratulated. However, after the town government and the main business leaders come to understand the damage that the news that the baths are contaminated will do to the town, the doctor is heavily pressured to retract his findings. He refuses, and ultimately, he is fired, his family is ostracized, and he is declared an enemy of the people.

The play was written in 1882.

I wonder how many environmental scientists today can relate to this play?

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