The Invention of Lying

Despite this spring's ferocious weather, which scientists warn could become more commonplace as the planet warms, climate change denial is en vogue, particularly among congressional Republicans. They claim the science is unsettled, and seek deep cuts in programs that would research and prepare for climate-change.

The GOP's current attacks on climate science, though, are part of a decades-long narrative that questions scientific authority. In Merchants of Doubt, Naomi Oreskes, a professor of history and science studies at the University of California, San Diego, and her co-author Erik M. Conway detail the right-wing's history of obscuring connections between tobacco smoke and cancer, sulfur dioxide emissions and acid rain, and, currently, fossil fuels and climate change. The Prospect talked with Oreskes about the denial; why tornados, floods, and wildfires should come as little surprise; and how Cold War ideology continues to define political debates -- even around climate change.

In your book, you trace the use of scientific doubt as a political strategy in blocking government regulation. What got you interested in the topic?

In the scientific community, you expect there to be a disagreement about scientific matters. If the scientific issues that are being debated require different expertise and different expert communities, then you would not expect the same faces to appear over and over again. When we realized that the same faces were appearing over and over again, whether with tobacco smoke or acid rain, that's when we smelled a rat. That's when we realized there's something else going on other than normal scientific debate.

Who keeps popping up?

One person who worked with the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company in trying to generate doubt about links between smoking and cancer was a man named Frederick Seitz. At the same time that he's working for the tobacco industry in the early 1980s, he teams up with two fellow physicists named Bill Nierenberg and Robert Jastrow in order to defend Ronald Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative against criticisms from the scientific community.

They don't just have a debate within the American Physicist Society about the feasibility of strategic missiles, they create their own institute separate and apart from the scientific community, which they call the George C. Marshall Institute. It's created in 1984 and has a very strong anti-communist political bent. So they find themselves with an institute devoted to fighting a war that doesn't exist anymore. What we show in the book is that rather than, say, "Oh well, great, our life's work has come to a successful close. We can be happy and play golf," they find a new enemy and that enemy is environmentalism.

Why the shift from the Cold War to environmentalism?

This really became the most interesting part of the story because it is not just greed. These are not people who have just been paid off by the tobacco industry. Rather, they are motivated by a deeply held set of political beliefs forged in the Cold War and an anxiety that government regulation is a slippery slope toward socialism. They fear that these environmental issues will be used as a wedge to create increased government control of the market place. And that's the underlying theme that ends up uniting all of these otherwise different issues, whether tobacco, acid rain, or climate change. Its an absurdly reductive argument about creeping government regulation, you know, "today tobacco smoke, tomorrow the Bill of Rights."

What's their connection to political power; what explains their influence?

All these men have very extensive political connections because of the work that they did during the Cold War. For example, George H.W. Bush referred to them as "my scientists." They could pick up the phone and call the chairman of a House congressional committee and the chair would speak with them. Bill Nierenberg served a scientific advisor to NATO. Bob Jastrow was the head of the Goddard Institute for Space Studies, where he worked on the Apollo program. Fredrick Seitz was also a scientific advisor at NATO. By the 1980s these guys had been in the corridors of power for 40 years. If Ben Santer, a leading climate scientist, picked up the phone and called the White House, he wouldn't get invited to brief the President, but Bill Nierenberg would.

Doubt is a core scientific concept. But these scientists deploy a perverse form of doubt, don't they?

There's an evil genius to their work. Doubt, curiosity, what we would call healthy skepticism are what drives scientific inquiry. Without these things we wouldn't have science. But they take this essential part of science in a kind of jiu jitsu move and turn it against itself. There's always some degree of uncertainty about what we know of the natural world. But they use this principle and say: "well, if we're not 100%, absolutely certain, we know absolutely nothing."

This doubt-mongering tactic was most recently on display when
congressional Republicans sought to strip the EPA of its regulatory
authority while also seeking to cut funding to the National Oceanic
and Atmospheric Administration and the National Weather Center
Service, which both collect scientific data.

I think its clear that these people do not want more evidence that demonstrates their position is unsupportable. It's the classic killing the messenger. They don't want to know the truth about this matter, so they attack scientists -- and there's a history of personal attacks on scientists, which has accelerated as you can see with the Virginia Attorney General's attacks on Michael Mann. It's a know-nothing strategy and its very frightening.

This is ultimately about regulation -- its' about the proper role of government -- and what we're seeing in Congress right now is nothing new. We saw it back in the Newt Gingrich years. It's about gutting the regulatory structure of the federal government and the main agenda now is to gut the EPA. The Supreme Court ruled very clearly that the EPA does have legal authority -- not just authority, legal responsibility -- to regulate carbon dioxide under the Clean Air Act.

You know, no journalist has ever asked me why the Clean Air Act, signed in 1973, mentions climate.

Why does the Clean Air Act mention climate?

Thank you. Because people already knew back in the 1960s that pollution could change the climate.

Yet, we still have political elites saying there's no connection between greenhouse gas emissions and climate change, that there's no connection between climate change and an increasing frequency of extreme weather events like we've seen over the past few months.

We know that these extreme weather events are expected. Scientist have known for a long time that global warming would lead to increased extreme weather events -- floods, droughts, tornados, hurricanes. You can't say that any one individual event, taken in isolation, is proof of climate change. But when you look at the overall pattern, increasingly the scientific community is saying that it is consistent with what is expected.
And we will be seeing more and more of this.

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