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  • From Big Tobacco to Climate Denial

    This is an immensely important book and getting more important with every year that passes. It’s particularly vital as more and more people are slowly waking up to the fix we’re in with global heating. Yes, our house is on fire. So imagine that there’s a small electrical fire in your attic and your alarm goes off, you can’t find any fire but you notice the ceiling is warm in one spot and you get the fire extinguisher and get ready to go up into the attic and put it out. But then this guy wearing a fireman’s outfit turns up and he says, “Well, are you sure there’s a fire? That extinguisher’s pretty expensive. I mean, there’s no smoke, there’s just an alarm, are you sure the ceiling’s warm? It’s probably just a false alarm. Go back to sleep.” So you go back to sleep. And then a bit later, you wake and there’s a smell of smoke and the guy in fireman kit says, “It’s OK, stay calm, that’s just from a bonfire.” And the next time you wake, the whole house is ablaze. “Merchants of Doubt” is about the guy pretending to be a fireman – or guys, rather. It’s about a small cabal of mostly ex-Manhattan-project retired nuclear physicists who started by defending Big Tobacco from those silly dangerous people who claimed that cigarettes were carcinogenic. Their Doubt Strategy works by blowing up the way good normal science works: science naturally asks questions, doubts results, insists on redoing research, and generally keeps itself honest through repeated experiment and peer reviewed articles. The Doubt Strategy expands this and uses it against science itself. It works by delay, by emphasising that we’re not sure, there’s no proof, other things could cause it, don’t be hasty and (the killer) more research is needed instead of action. It’s deadly in its vagueness and comforting blandness. Now, don’t get me wrong. According to the shocking evidence piled up by Ms Oreskes and Mr Conway, the Doubt Cabal knew perfectly well that cigarettes are carcinogenic (and addictive) – as did the tobacco companies. Sure, they got paid for writing popular and well-disseminated articles casting doubt on and outright denying the validity of perfectly sound and well-conducted search that linked cigarettes with all sorts of horrible diseases. But mainly they did it because they were ideologically opposed to any kind of regulation by any authority. They were rabid anti-Communists and fanatical free-market fundamentalists. Amusingly, most of the Doubt Cabal worked for the US government and had no experience whatever of commerce. However they were very successful and delayed the popular realisation that cigarettes were disease-causing by around 30 years. How many people died of cancer in those years that might have otherwise given up cigarettes had they realised how bad they were? What was the Doubt Cabal’s target? Next they turned their doubt strategies on rubbishing the idea that CFCs could destroy the ozone layer. Luckily the science was so clear and the danger so scary that CFCs were banned. They went back to their old friends the tobacco companies and helped them by rubbishing the idea that secondary smoke can also cause cancer – you don’t have to be a smoker to die from cancer, you just have to live with a smoker. That worked well. Again they delayed action by a couple of decades. Now they had a problem. In 1989, Soviet communism effectively collapsed – so being anti-Communist was a bit obsolete. But one of them came up with a stroke of genius: they would go after the environmentalists who, they claimed, were like watermelons – green on the outside, red on the inside. First target was acid rain which was killing the forests of North America and Europe. The science showed clearly that acid rain was due to coal-fired power station emissions and other industries. The same Doubt Cabal tactics were wheeled out and worked well: are you sure, is it really happening, maybe it’s volcanoes, it’s a natural process etc etc blah blah? And because the fossil fuel companies knew the research into Global Heating and knew that they should be regulated, the Doubt Cabal had found themselves new and princely patrons for their Doubt Strategy. Their Doubt Strategy worked better than ever because most people in the rich West, didn’t want to stop driving cars, stop flying, stop eating meat or do anything except vaguely worry a bit about global heating after they had seen movies about it like “An Inconvenient Truth.” It’s working so well now, that the Doubt Cabal don’t need to make any effort to cast doubt on good science with fatuous and incomplete data, butchered graphs, or outright lying: the Climate-Change Deniers do it for them, more and better. But they started the attack on good science. It’s out of control now.

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