Oreskes, N. & Conway, E. Merchants of Doubt

Merchants of Doubt, Oreskes, N. & Conway, E. London, Bloomsbury, 2010

As the scale of the disaster bearing down on humanity and its world becomes ever clearer, so people in many places – especially the poor and underprivileged – will soon be crying ‘how did it come to this?’ ‘who is responsible?’ and ‘what can we do?’ Yet such desperate calls may well come too late to avoid man-made catastrophes that include runaway global heating, the collapse of large parts of the once-natural world and the consequent rise of ever more lethal conflicts. [1]

In truth, this future was never inevitable. It had been anticipated many times over during the last couple of centuries, rising to a crescendo in the late 20th and early 21st Centuries. But, on the whole, humanity averted its gaze. Even – one might say ‘especially’ – the well heeled simply did not want to know, really know, what was going on. They preferred the cornucopian fantasy world of endless indulgence to the real world of non-negotiable limits and associated responsibilities. They cared more about the secondary human economy than they did about the primary Earth economy on which it was founded. Understood as an abstract category ‘the future’ could be endlessly deferred – and for most people in most places it simply was. Homo sapiens, only part way along its long journey from pre-historic darkness to world-spanning master race, could not cope with the realities of the world it had itself created. Nor could it respond to the ever more urgent signals from the global system that all was not well. What E. O. Wilson called its ‘Paleolithic obstinacy’ along with ‘species exceptionalism’ would take it to the edge of disaster and very likely beyond. [2]

At this point it’s vital to be clear. These are characteristics that, in a profound sense, are owned by every single human being. Which means that all were and are complicit in whatever follows. That said, there are some who are more complicit than others and this impressive book by Oreskes and Conway makes it clear who some of the key players are. The point is not to demonise these people whom history will certainly condemn. No doubt had their own reasons for acting as they did. But to understand what happened and why clears away at least some of the obstacles that, as I’ll suggest below, still stand in the way of effective action.

The authors trace back the lines of responsibility for what might be called ‘structural denialism’ over several decades and through a number of well known and highly publicised issues. These include the hazards of smoking, the so-called ‘strategic defence initiative,’ acid rain, ozone depletion and culminating with the denial of global warming. Along the way careers were made and others ruined – some quite deliberately – along with a still unknown proportion of humankind’s best hopes for a viable future. Very large sums of money were poured into a number of purpose-built right wing organisations that ended up being far more subversive than anything the CIA or its clones could have imagined. For example one 2005 report documented how ‘in just a few years Exxon Mobile had channelled more than $8 million to forty different organisations that challenged the scientific evidence of global warming.’ [3]

The book details how, over an extended period, a tiny coterie of influential men were able to insinuate themselves into the very structures of US administrative power and influence and, from there, to cast darkness, doubt and at times, confusion, over well-established facts painstakingly gained through scientific enquiry. The book takes its title, in fact, from the classic admission that ‘doubt is our product.’ The rationale for creating doubt was to protect the profits of a small but powerful group of companies and an associated view of the world commonly known as the ideology of free market fundamentalism. The tobacco industry, for example, was ‘implacably hostile to regulation.’ The latter was ‘the road to Socialism – the very thing the Cold War was fought to defeat.’ [4]

The war on science, scientists, truth and reason was under way as early as the 1970s when concern over global warming began to emerge. The link between increasing CO2 and rising global temperatures was already clear to those who’d studied it. But, as the authors point out ‘what matters in science is not the same as what matters in politics.’ [5] So, to cut a longer story short, when the assessments of the National Academy of Sciences were produced in the early 1980s they were watered down and made more tentative and equivocal than justified by the then known facts. This occurred partly because some of the contributors were economists and had employed the familiar tactic of future discounting. Others suggested that there was ‘no need for alarm’ since ‘technology will ultimately be the answer to the problems of providing energy and protecting the environment.’ Not long afterward ‘an organised campaign of denial’ took place that ‘ensnared the entire climate science community.’ [6]

This pattern continued during the 1990s. For example, when the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) delivered its first assessment on the state of climate science in 1990 it was immediately subjected to a ‘full frontal attack.’ The location of this attack was none other than the World Petroleum Congress in Buenos Aires that year! Here Bill Nierenberg insisted that ‘global temperatures would increase at most by 1 degree centigrade by the end of the twenty-first century.’ [7] The same combination of misrepresentation, denial and obfuscation continued with an organised attack on climate scientist Roger Revelle whose belief that temperatures could increase by as much as 3 degrees was deleted from a paper he was supposed to have co-written. This is the kind of detail that takes the reader to the heart of climate denialism and the diminished values and sense of responsibility that seem to operate there. How else to explain the production of a quarterly newsletter called the World Climate Review which purported to be something it was not? In fact was ‘funded at least in part by fossil fuel interests, and used … as a platform to attack mainstream climate science.’ [8]

The more details of this story that emerge the more the role of the mass media comes into prominence. According to these authors ‘the mass media became complicit.’ By 2004 ‘scientists had a consensus about the reality of global warming – and had since the 1990s. Yet throughout this time period, the mass media presented global warming and its causes as a major debate.’ (Emphasis added.) [9] Even today some of the largest media organisations remain equivocal about the huge challenges ahead. The defence of market fundamentalism relied on denying the public access to reliable information and substituting a series of fictions designed to protect particular interests. Yet in the long run everyone loses. As the authors note ‘by denying the scientific evidence – and contributing to a strategy of delay – these men helped to create the very situation they most dreaded.’ This includes recognising that ‘contemporary capitalism is profoundly flawed and that ‘long-term solutions must seek transformative change in (its) key features.’ [10] It is a conclusion echoed by other credible observers. [11]

The book concludes with a chapter on the nature of science. Here the authors point out that the strategy of creating unreasonable doubt worked because the pubic believed that science provides certainty. Where there’s a lack of certainty science can be made to appear faulty or incomplete. But the old positivist dream that science provides truth is wrong. ‘History shows us clearly that science does not provide certainty. It does not provide proof. It only provides the consensus of experts based on the organised accumulation and scrutiny of evidence.’ Science is, however, ‘a collective enterprise’ and, as such, it is based on trust. Importantly, however, the latter ‘needs to be circumscribed and focused. It needs to be very particular.’ The authors add that ‘blind trust will get us into at least as much trouble as no trust at all.’ But if we don’t trust those whose task it is to ‘sort out the tough questions about the natural world we live in’ then we will risk becoming paralysed. [12] And, despite the partly encouraging news to emerge from the UN climate conference in Durban, that’s not very far from where we are now.

Not long before writing this review I chanced upon an essay by Australian academic Robert Manne about the nation’s main national daily paper, The Australian. For some years I’ve struggled to understand how the latter could operate out of a right wing, market fundamentalist, strongly anti-environmental and, essentially, future-denying stance. [13] Then came Manne’s essay which is an empirically based in-depth analysis of how that paper deals with a number of issues, including global warming. One of the facts that surfaced is that, rather than taking a ‘fair and balanced’ view of climate change the paper’s ‘news items and opinion columns opposed action on climate change by a ratio of about four to one.’ [14] Then, in the following Quarterly Essay, a response to Manne’s essay identified denial as ‘the key to understanding’ the parent company of The Australian, i.e. Murdoch’s News International. [15] What these examples show is that the effects of a decades-long campaign of misinformation, evasion, character assassination and denial of science have had pervasive effects. Moreover they have spread around the world and are still operating many years later. This should surely concern everyone.

To conclude, Oreskes and Conway have provided us with an immensely valuable account of the specific and various ways that the virus of market fundamentalism incubated in the USA has exerted widespread effects both within and beyond that country. Effects that continue to threaten the future of every person living today and countless numbers who may live tomorrow. For a nation born in idealism it reveals some of the dysfunctional aspects of an over-commercialised culture that allowed some of the most venal human and mercantile values to grow and expand a very long way beyond what might be called a ‘reasonable’ place.

From an Integral point of view what the book challenges us to do is to conceive of a new project to review this, and other related material from an Integral perspective. That is, to look in some depth and detail at how factors within the individual and collective interiors both contributed to the situation we’re in and, hopefully, how a better understanding of each can help point the way beyond it.

Richard Slaughter, Foresight International, Brisbane, December 2011


[1] See Parenti, C. Tropic of Chaos, New York, Nation, 2011.

[2] Wilson, E.O. The Future of Life, London, Abacus, 2003, p 23.

[3] Oreskes, N. & Conway, E. Merchants of Doubt, London, Bloomsbury, 2010, p 246.

[4] Ibid p 162.

[5] Ibid p 172.

[6] Ibid p 182-3.

[7] Ibid p 189.

[8] Ibid p 203.

[9] Ibid p 215.

[10] Ibid p 255.

[11] Jackson, T. Prosperity Without Growth, London, Earthscan, 2011.

[12] Oreskes & Conway, op cit, p 268-73.

[13] I took particular exception to its large format glossy monthly Wish Magazine. The latter exists to suggest that everyone should aspire to a lifestyle characterised by extreme affluence – diamonds, fast cars and sleek motor yachts, exotic holiday destinations and the like. All of which serves to drive consumption by the already rich to levels that are both inequitable and unsustainable.

[14] Manne, R. Bad News. Murdoch’s Australian and the shaping of the nation, Quarterly Essay 43, 2011, Melbourne, Black Inc. p 51.

[15] Correspondence by Rosen, J. Quarterly Essay, 44, 2011, p 103-7.