In 2008 David Michaels’ published a book – Doubt is their Product. How Industry’s Assault on Science Threatens your Health – which was instrumental in the subsequent exposure of the systematic efforts of various industries to raise doubt about the science relating to areas from tobacco to today’s climate change.
Michaels took his title from an internal tobacco executive memo which emerged during the long litigation about what the industry knew about links to cancer, when and how they tried to hide it.
In recent talk he said the memo argued that: “Doubt is our product since it is the best means of competing with the ‘body of fact’ that exists in the minds of the general public. It is also the means of establishing a controversy.”
He said: “Although Big Tobacco manufactured more uncertainty over a longer period and more effectively than any other industry, the strategy of manufacturing uncertainty has been used with great success by numerous polluters and manufacturers of dangerous products to oppose public health and environmental regulation.
“It is central to the debate on global warming, and arises often in considering the safety of drugs and medical devices, and of consumer products. The approach is now so common that it is unusual for an industry not to challenge the science behind any regulation it faces.
“Manufacturing uncertainty has become a business in itself; numerous technical consulting firms advertise product defense or litigation support. The firms, and the scientists who own and operate them, sell not just their scientific expertise, but their knowledge of and access to regulatory agencies.
“The financial success of these firms depends on their ability to help their clients avoid increased regulation. Not surprisingly, it is rare for these firms to produce a study whose results conflict with the needs of the study sponsor. It follows that these scientists’ financial conflicts of interest are so severe that they should be barred from serving on federal science advisory panels that inform public health policy.”
Needless to say in Trump’s US and Morrison’s Australia this is unlikely to happen any time soon.
Michaels, a George Washington University Professor of environmental and occupational health has published a new book, The Triumph of Doubt: Dark Money and the Science of Deception. The book ranges across the efforts to undermine the science asbestos, climate change, brain injuries in US footballers, the opioid epidemic and silicosis. The last is a great example when a hired ‘expert’ seriously argued that it had not been adequately demonstrated that exposure to silica caused silicosis – perhaps believing it was daffodil petals.
Similar ground was covered by Merchants of Doubt by Naomi Oresekes and Erik M. Conway in 2010 and in May 2020 Industrial-Strength Denial Eight Stories of Corporations Defending the Indefensible, from the Slave Trade to Climate Change by Barbara Freese was published. It uses eight case studies of campaigns of denial waged by industries defending the slave trade, radium consumption, unsafe cars, leaded gasoline, ozone-destroying chemicals, tobacco, the investment products that caused the financial crisis, and the fossil fuels destabilizing our climate.
The slave trade is an interesting example in the light of the Morrison approach. While Clarkson and Wilberforce understandably get credit for their campaign against slavery one reality not much talked about is that the major British traders were paid huge amounts of money in compensation for losing their ‘livelihoods’. With Morrison, in contrast, the fossil fuel lobby is being paid colossal amounts of money to just keep on doing what they are doing under the pretence of tackling climate change.
Naturally companies love to target children although that doesn’t go down that well in the age Greta Thunberg. Nevertheless the Washington Post, reported the Heartland Institute (a Koch brothers’ front) has sent 25,000 copies of a fake science book, Why Scientists Disagree About Global Warming. Another 175,000 books are being sent.
Incidentally, many of the US groups opposing COVID-19 lockdowns are also heavily into climate denial.
Meanwhile, in Australia fortunately the conservative groups are not quite as flush with funds as the Kochs, nor do they face compliant school administrations. However, Advance Australia’s national director Liz Storer said her organisation was developing materials to be sent to schools, parents and grandparents, and could be used in the classroom or at home to “help get powerful resources out, especially in schools, to counter the nonsensical climate alarmism”.
Needless to say they include such pedagogically sound stuff as how to expose the climate hoax and point out that human-induced climate change is just not true. Fortunately, sight unseen, both NSW and Victorian governments have declared the stuff would probably be banned in schools as they “would not be deemed objective”.
Industrial-Strength Denial looks at the psychology behind denial and why such campaigns can be successful – well the industry ones if not Ms Storer’s.
Climate denial is obviously a significant cultural and tribal signifier. Eavesdrop on any group of paleo-conservatives (say at an IPA gathering) and you can witness it.
Many others are simply in it for the money. It is interesting that many of the scientists who were at the forefront of the tobacco denial campaign signed on early to the climate denial bandwagon – as detailed in The Merchants of Doubt. And on top of the scientists there are the usual collection of consultants who can produce appropriate reports and PR shills who have the gall to get paid for doing such heavy-lifting as getting the stuff published in the Murdoch media or the AFR. Then there are the lobbyists who peddle the stuff around Parliament Houses.
On the other hand there are contrarians like the recently deceased Freeman Dyson. Dyson may have been a genius who was extremely unlucky to miss out on winning a Nobel Prize back in the day when only three were handed out in any category but at various stages of his career he had some odd notions. Early on he wanted to power space exploration with nuclear bombs and late in life he was a persistent doubter on climate science in his NYRB columns and elsewhere. Not that he doubted it was happening but rather that thought it may be beneficial.
Where Nev Power fits in this can be left to readers. He has retreated a smidgeon on conflict of interest by stepping aside from one position he held. And perhaps he’s not a full out denier – just someone who thinks it can wait. Well, wait at least until his company and his fossil fuel mates soak up billions of our money which would be better spent on a real climate change strategy.
Noel Turnbull is retired and blogs at http://noelturnbull.com/blog/