- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 15, 2010

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

THE MERCHANTS OF DOUBT: HOW A HANDFUL OF SCIENTISTS OBSCURED THE TRUTH ON ISSUES FROM TOBACCO SMOKE TO GLOBAL WARMING

By Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway

Bloomsbury, $27,

368 pages

Reviewed by Roger Lott



The authors of “The Merchants of Doubt” criticize the political right for creating doubt about what supposedly are irrefutably calamitous environmental issues. Naomi Oreskes, professor of history and science studies at the University of California at San Diego, and Erik M. Conway, historian at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, speculate that conservatives do this out of fear of hidden socialist agendas. This book surely will incite outrage among environmentalists and cause them to be even more dismissive and spiteful to those on other side.

According to conservative beliefs, the government has no business concerning itself with whether someone is endangering his own health by, for instance, smoking cigarettes. Conservatives also believe that even if there is evidence that secondhand tobacco smoke can harm others, restaurants, movie theaters and other places ought to be able to make what they believe are the most appropriate smoking policies for their unique circumstances.

However, it is true that global warming, depletion of the ozone layer, destruction of animal species by DDT and acid rain, are the types of issues that could, in theory, be appropriate areas for government intervention. After all, free-market prices for various goods or activities don’t include the societal costs from any environmental damage they inflict. Ms. Oreskes and Mr. Conway say conservatives, who on principle refuse to accept the need for government involvement in such instances, are the ones who will oppose environmentalism regardless of the science.

Ms. Oreskes and Mr. Conway are too quick to dismiss climate-change skeptics. Whether carbon-dioxide emissions have significant climatic costs is highly debatable, and it’s not obvious that benefits from regulation would outweigh resulting burdens on businesses. The effects of emissions on climate are far from clear - indeed, from 1940 to 1970, global temperatures decreased at the same time that carbon dioxide emissions increased. Whether a little warming is a bad thing is also disputable. Environmentalists, however, would argue that if we try to wait and see, the problem may become irreversible.

Strangely, Ms. Oreskes and Mr. Conway argue that if climate is sensitive to solar activity, it must be correspondingly sensitive to changes in carbon dioxide levels. Global-warming proponent Stephen Schneider sums it up, saying, “They can’t argue that comparable changes in the energy input from greenhouse gases will not also produce comparable large signals.” However, it seems perfectly natural that a couple tenths of a percentage-point increase in output from the sun - the Earth’s source of heat in an otherwise very cold universe - could have far greater effect on climate than an increase in carbon dioxide emissions by a few parts per million.

The authors simplify things, saying, “The devil was not in the details. It was in the main story. CO2 was a greenhouse gas. It trapped heat.” No one is arguing with this - the issue is how much of an effect it has.

Another main issue in the book is DDT. In the 1962 book “Silent Spring,” Rachel Carson set off the alarm about possible environmental effects of DDT, making tenuous claims about dwindling bird populations and effects on human and animal health. Largely as a result of Carson’s work, the EPA in 1972 enacted a ban on the use of DDT in agriculture.

DDT isn’t used just as an agricultural pesticide, but also is a cheap and highly effective chemical for controlling mosquito populations. Science provides no convincing evidence that DDT has harmful effects on humans, and spraying small amounts on the walls of homes prevents inhabitants from being bitten by mosquitos carrying malaria - a disease the World Health Organization estimates kills more than 1 million people every year.

Through disease control and increased food supply, DDT has saved many more human lives than it has ended. Thomas Sowell of the Hoover Institution was most likely correct when he said, “There has not been a mass murderer executed in the last half century who has been responsible for as many deaths of human beings as the sainted Rachel Carson.”

Ms. Oreskes and Mr. Conway call such claims “venomous” and say it’s absurd that a ban by the EPA in the United States could be blamed for the resurgence of malaria in Africa. The reality, however, is that the U.S. State Department refused to give foreign aid to countries that used pesticides banned in the United States. Mozambique, according to the British Medical Journal, stopped using DDT “because 80 percent of the country’s health budget came from donor funds, and donors refused to allow the use of DDT.” The politicians and the public should have carefully considered the facts instead of letting Carson’s arguments play upon their emotions.

Then there’s the ozone hole. The authors appear to be correct that after the 1978 U.S. ban on emissions of chlorofluorocarbons, ozone depletion decreased. However, the ozone hole is far from being simply a man-made creation. Ozone is formed when ultraviolet light from the sun causes oxygen molecules (O2) to break apart and one of the separated atoms joins another oxygen molecule to form an ozone molecule (O3). When sunlight is absent, as it is during the Antarctic winter, this process cannot occur. Along with the peculiar meteorological patterns of the Antarctic, which the authors admit are a factor, this can explain the seasonal creation of the ozone hole each August or September.

The authors show their naivete when they use the conclusions of the Food and Drug Administration or Environmental Protection Agency as evidence of an environmental problem. They fail to appreciate that bureaucrats working at government regulatory agencies have incentives to reach certain “scientific” conclusions that will justify the creation of new laws granting them oversight powers. Likewise, scientists are more likely to obtain research grants if they reach the conclusions the government wants to hear.

“The Merchants of Doubt” is well-researched and lucidly written, but the authors need to realize that there is plenty of room for legitimate disagreement about whether current scientific evidence justifies government intervention on these and other environmental issues. It’s perfectly fine for Ms. Oreskes and Mr. Conway to make scientific arguments for their side of the debate, and indeed, they do this well, but speculations about motives are often wrong and rarely contribute much to the discussion.

Roger Lott is a writer in Pennsylvania.

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