Thursday, March 17, 2016

4/50: Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming

Lengthy (and damning) subtitle. Lengthy and damning coverage here, too. The authors, Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway, begin with the tobacco companies' well-known efforts to keep the public from understanding the toxic effects of smoking. Even though scientific consensus had existed for a while, the tobacco industry recognized that "uncertainty favors the status quo," so it worked to make the science seem less certain than it actually was. They enlisted a few scientists: not doctors or biologists, as you might expect, but retired physicists who'd spent most of their careers in the Cold War arms race and had therefore become diehard supporters of the free market. Then those scientists enlisted the help of a few sympathetic news outlets. Then other industries realized that they could do the same thing—in many cases, buying the support of the very same scientists. So those guys (Fred Seitz, Fred Singer, Robert Jastrow, Bill Nierenberg, and a few others) helped keep the American government from acting on secondhand smoke, acid rain, the ozone holes, and global warming.

This is, as you might suspect, a maddening read. (I actually began last year and had to put it down several times for lengthy cooling-off periods.) There's a lot of blame to go around, of course, and it falls not just on Seitz et al but also on the journalists who were too lazy to examine sources, on the industries that refused to address problems they'd created themselves, and the politicians who allowed themselves to be persuaded by obviously non-objective "facts."

One of my favorite aspects of this account is how thoroughly and effectively it details the modern scientific process for the lay reader (sample passage: "Peer review is a topic that is impossible to make sexy, but it's crucial to understand, because it is what makes science science—and not just a form of opinion"). However, that also makes things get a bit dense in certain paper-trail sections, when one person is refuting an early draft of a paper, but then a newspaper picks up a different draft, but the second reviewer doesn't issue a correction... I think, essentially, that the question with so many of these issues is "How could so many people get it so wrong?" And the authors are to be commended for trying to answer that question as completely as possible. But it could be simplified in places.

The political denial of climate change often just leaves me yelling "WHYYYY? WHYYYY?" And there were sections of the book that gave me the same reaction. Which is why there's a bit near the end that I just want to quote at length:

This is the crux of the issue, the crux of our story. For the shift in the American environmental movement from aesthetic environmentalism to regulatory environmentalism wasn't just a change in political strategy. It was the manifestation of a crucial realization: that unrestricted commercial activity was doing damage—real, lasting, pervasive damage. ...To acknowledge this was to acknowledge the soft underbelly of free market capitalism: that free enterprise can bring real costs—profound costs—that the free market does not reflect. Economists have a term for these costs—a less reassuring one than [Milton] Friedman's "neighborhood effects." They are "negative externalities": negative because they aren't beneficial and external because they fall outside the market system. Those who find this hard to accept attack the messenger, which is science.

We all expect to pay for the things we buy—to pay a fair cost for goods and services from which we expect to reap benefits—but external costs are unhinged from benefits, often imposed on people who did not choose the good or service, and did not benefit from their use. ...This is the common thread that ties these diverse issues [acid rain, secondhand smoke, etc.] together: they were all market failures. They are instances where serious damage was done and the free market seemed unable to account for it, much less prevent it. Government intervention was required. This is why free market ideologues and old Cold Warriors joined together to fight them.

"Negative externalities" is not a term I've encountered before, but it's one I needed. I think the American public is confronting it in a very real way with numerous issues right now, as hard-core deregulators poison the water of Flint and keep mortgage bankers from going to jail and work to prevent minimum wage increases. It may be a little too academic-sounding to catch on, which is a pity, because most of these struggles are still playing out, and they involve all of us—whether we want them to or not.

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