Merchants of Doubt

I wrote in a previous post that I don’t know why the editorial staff of the Wall Street Journal adopts an ignorant, anti-science stance about anthropogenic climate change. We know that many people in the U.S. have been influenced by a well-funded, right-wing campaign to undermine people’s trust in science. Perhaps the editors have also been influenced by that campaign.

Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway wrote a great book about this campaign, called Merchants of Doubt. The book documents how a small group of people and foundations intentionally set out to manufacture doubt about research on the harmful health effects of tobacco. (The government later proved a conspiracy by tobacco companies and others to cover up research showing harm.) The book also documents the financial and intellectual threads that tie together the fostering of skepticism about a variety of scientific topics: the effects of tobacco, the depletion of the ozone hole by chlorofluorocarbons, acid rain, global warming, and other topics. The same group of people and foundations have tried multiple times, and often succeeded, in sowing doubt about scientific consensus.

For example, a man named Fred Singer objected to research showing that acid rain on the east coast was caused by smokestacks in the Midwest. In 1990 he started the Science and Environment Policy Project to promote ‘sound science’ in environmental policy. By ‘sound science’ you should understand that phrase to mean his views about science and his distrust of scientific consensus. Of course, the overwhelming scientific consensus was proved correct in the case of acid rain, as it was also for the harmful effects of tobacco.

But that didn’t stop Fred Singer from claiming that the overwhelming scientific consensus about climate change was not sound science. Nor did it stop the Wall Street Journal from publishing and promoting Singer’s skepticism about human-caused climate change.

Reporters must learn which sources are trustworthy and which are not. Apparently senior editors at the Wall Street Journal writing about global warming put their faith in the same people who doubted research on the harmful effects of tobacco, the causes of acid rain, threats caused by the ozone hole, and other important scientific issues. The WSJ evidently finds them credible sources. How many times must the merchants of doubt be wrong before supposedly intelligent people stop listening to them?

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