Two historians of science examine the motives and tactics of scientists who have consistently sowed doubt about issues affecting human well-being and the well-being of the planet.
Oreskes (History and Science Studies/Univ. of California, San Diego) and Conway (Atmospheric Science at NASA: A History, 2008, etc.) begin with the tobacco industry’s enlisting of scientists to refute studies linking smoking and lung cancer. To explain why Frederick Seitz, a former president of the National Academy of Sciences, joined forces with the tobacco industry in the 1970s, the authors describe him as a communist-hating hawk, a staunch defender of private enterprise and an opponent of government regulations. Other scientists of a similar bent—including Fred Singer, Robert Jastrow and Bill Nierenberg—defended President Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative, attacking the claim that it would create a devastating planetary nuclear winter. They also denied the scientific data showing that acid rain was an environmental problem, that the hole in the ozone layer was caused by chlorofluorocarbons and that global warming exists. Behind this spreading of disinformation and doubt, the authors claim, is a network of right-wing think tanks and foundations funded by corporations intent on defending the free market and preventing regulation of private enterprise. Among those cited are the Heartland Institute, the Marshall Institute and the Competitive Enterprise Institute. With dozens of specific examples, the authors demonstrate that casting doubt about scientific evidence has been an effective tactic. Journalists have been complicit in the practice, when, in the name of balanced reporting, they unquestioningly echo doubts. Further, scientists have often been reluctant to publicly refute false claims, perhaps fearing the kind of personal attacks experienced by Carl Sagan and Rachel Carson.
A well-documented, pulls-no-punches account of how science works and how political motives can hijack the process by which scientific information is disseminated to the public.