:: Article

The Good, the Bad & the Ugly

By Anna Aslanyan


Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming, Naomi Oreskes & Erik M. Conway, Bloomsbury 2011

The year of 1993 saw two publications that, although fundamentally different, both presented science in a somewhat unflattering light. One was John Horgan’s Scientific American article ‘The Death of Proof’, the other ‘Bad Science: A Resource Book’. We shall return to the latter below; the gist of the former is that in our day and age, when scientific arguments have become extremely complex and mostly incomprehensible outside a narrow circle of specialists, it no longer matters what you have proved, but rather whom you have proved it to. If this was the case, it would make science the epitome of democracy at its highest: the majority decides what’s true. Can democratic principles be applied to science? The authors of Merchants of Doubt answer this question starkly: “… it does not work for science, because science is not about opinion. It is about evidence.”

Evidence is what Oreskes and Conway are eager to give in their account of several controversial issues, on which the public has been kept misinformed – partly thanks to the efforts of certain groups that set out to diminish the value of serious research and promote unjustified opinions. Their claims that they are acting in the name of liberty sound sinister and ironic at the same time. The authors refer to assorted “evidence” provided by those who “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 book itself uses convincing discourse to refute the opinions of its protagonists; as for the facts, the readers have to pay attention to get them straight.

The book analyses the phenomenon labelled as ‘Tobacco Strategy’, after the reaction of the US tobacco industry to post-war research showing links between smoking and lung cancer. ‘Doubt is our product’ has been the mantra of cigarette executives since the 60s, “the perfect slogan for [the] industry’s disinformation campaign.” After the first studies indicating the dangers of smoking emerged, the tobacco companies were quick to hire unscrupulous scientists, whose job it was to sow the seeds of doubt, shutting up those researchers who would not compromise their integrity. This is where ‘Bad Science: A Resource Book’ came in handy – fact-fighters used it as their manual “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 needed a negative sound bite.”

Similar stories, often involving the same cast of lead characters – most notably, the high-calibre US physicists Fred Seitz, Fred Singer, Robert Jastrow and William Nierenberg – unfolded in other areas: the book dwells on Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative, the consequences of industrial pollution, the use of pesticides, and the denial of global warming. The scientists held responsible for misleading the public move from one episode to another with ominous swiftness, advising governments, charming the media, publishing glib articles and generally promoting dubious causes. In the process they turn into bureaucrats, plain and simple, but their opinion still counts as that of world-class experts. The same old conundrum: those who do research have no time for PR, and vice versa. This universal contradiction may have been the source of Horgan’s pessimism, which allowed him to declare not just ‘The Death of Proof’, but also, in 1996, The End of Science.

The questions of discovering and obscuring the truth are central to the book. Here lies another old paradox: the truth is often unattainable, the fact every scientist should acknowledge before embarking on a quest for it; some even take it one step further and dismiss problems which are known to have a solution as not worth their time. Leaving aside the practicality of this approach, one has to give credit to its courage – and to that of the authors who are fully aware of the possibly unsolvable nature of the problem they are attacking.

Much of the book’s material is the legacy of the Cold War. The scientists who play a crucial role in advocating the Star Wars campaign are, naturally, anti-Communist, their reputation built on the work designed to stop the Soviet threat. When a Third World War no longer looks unavoidable, the same people proceed to deal with other enemies, sometimes using the same methods and even the same terminology. As soon as environmentalists raise their heads they are called “watermelons”: green on the outside, red inside. If the goal of the arms race was, in the words of its proponents, to free the Soviet people, the defense of capitalism is served as nothing but the struggle for liberty. One of the chapters in the book, ‘Of Free Speech and Free Markets’, talks about freedom of the press as a double-edged sword: “Clearly, people have a right to speak; the question is, to whom should we be listening?” Again, the rules of democracy, when every speaker is given equal time, have no place in scientific debates.

Choosing between strictness and accessibility in a science-related book intended for a mass readership is never easy, and here the two are combined with a varying degree of success. “Peer review is a topic that is impossible to make sexy, but it’s crucial to understand, because it is what makes science science,” admit the authors, as if apologising for numerous descriptive passages that, although informative, lack in sexiness and require some concentration from the reader. To lighten the mood, they put in anecdotes that sometimes read as absurdist dialogues in a play:

“Fred, you’re saying that lakes aren’t valuable. They are economically valuable. Let me give you an example. Let’s say every bacterium is worth $1. There are [ten thousand to a million] bacteria in every milliliter of water. You do the math.” […] “Well, I just don’t believe a bacterium is worth a dollar.” […] “Well, prove that it isn’t.”

Such digressions from top boffins are entertaining, but also alarming: if this is what they are discussing behind closed doors, we’d better rely on ourselves for our knowledge of natural phenomena, however limited. Is nobody to be trusted?

The reliability of publicly available information and the importance of evidence as the cornerstone of science are recurring themes in the book. When talking about the various attempts to justify “phony facts” (in another Cold War example where it was assumed that “the Soviets must have deployed something and covered it up”) the authors quote C. S. Lewis: “The very lack of evidence is thus treated as evidence; the absence of smoke proves that the fire is very carefully hidden.” Many of the arguments the book seeks to expose are constructed along these lines and therefore prove irrefutable, which never prevents the authors from getting on with their task. They clearly belong to the school whose speciality is solving the unsolvable.

Oreskes and Conway try not to overstep the line with their main culprits; far from portraying them as pure evil, the authors, both science historians, aim to give a balanced, well justified view, almost always successfully. Having “plowed through hundreds of thousands of pages of documents,” they are certainly qualified better than most to judge the validity of statements made by their subjects. Writing for layman audiences, they cannot help resorting to soft arguments and popular explanations (“Scientists love isotopes”). Their arguments, according to their own logic, may be contestable – “In scientific research, there is always doubt” – but are supported by the sources they cite; they are objective and have the right to be heard; at the very least, they prompt the reader to find out more about the problems they address. Those of us who have a scientifically attuned ear should be able to learn true facts about, say, global warming, although it would be impossible without relying on experts (unless you do a degree in a relevant subject yourself). This notion of trust, touched upon in the book, is what makes science a controversial and at the same time democratic enterprise – democratic in the sense that it can be shared by all who are ready to make an intellectual investment. The rumours of its death, it seems, have been greatly exaggerated.


Anna Aslanyan is a translator and journalist living in London. She regularly contributes to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and writes for the TLS and a number of online publications. Anna’s translations into Russian include works of fiction by Tom McCarthy, Martin Amis, Peter Ackroyd, Mavis Gallant and Zadie Smith.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, May 27th, 2011.