'/> Uncommon Hours: October 2010
Blogging on culture, politics, and the environment since 2008.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Naomi Oreskes: 'Merchants of Doubt'

False Equivalencies and Selling Doubt: Naomi Oreskes at the University of Kansas

Bob Sommer
Uncommon Hours

One of the principal rhetorical devices of the reactionary right is the false equivalency. Creationism deserves an equal hearing to the science of evolution. The hate speech and violence of Tea Partiers (both actual and threatened) are somehow comparable to criticism of W by progressives during the long national nightmare of his presidency.

False equivalencies simplify arguments – for the media, for elections, for cable talk shows. They create doubt. They appeal to our sense of fairness. They’re easy.

But what they’re usually not is accurate or truthful. They’re also not organic to the logic or facts of a given argument. Fox News, Limbaugh, Beck, et al are the greatest current purveyors of false equivalencies, but the ease with which they use them owes much to the long history of pseudo-science used to disrupt efforts to address the dangers of tobacco use, the ozone hole, acid rain, and DDT. Now there’s climate change to deny.

Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway have traced this history in a new book, Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming (Bloomsbury Press).

Oreskes spoke recently at the University of Kansas. She described the institutional and corporate roots of the sham science used to promote opposition to addressing the threat of climate change and the greenhouse gas effect. Dr. James Hansen raised concerns about the rate of global warming in 1988, which resulted in the creation of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The initial source of doubts about Hansen’s findings came from the George C. Marshall Institute, one of the original conservative “think tanks.”

The Marshall Institute and others like it (e.g., the Cato Institute, the American Enterprise Institute) succeed not so much by debunking the science of climate change as by creating enough doubt about its validity through innuendo, suggestion, faulty logic and data, and false equivalencies to obstruct any progress toward addressing the problem.

The Marshall Institute’s air of gravitas is no fluke. Its founders included scientists Frederick Seitz and Robert Jastrow, both internationally recognized physicists but neither of them climate scientists. Yet, as Oreskes pointed out, they were willing to risk their reputations in order to take a stand against scientific concerns about the effects of acid rain and DDT, the health risks of tobacco, and finally climate change.


Not money, Oreskes said. Rather, “free market fundamentalism.”

Seitz, Jastrow, and others had taken up the ideology of the free market as developed by Milton Friedman and the so-called Chicago School of Economics, based at the University of Chicago.* The threats posed by climate science, anti-smoking campaigns, or prohibiting the use of DDT are threats against business and economic expansion, and by implication, against freedom itself. Notably, climate change is a global challenge. Coal-burning is a problem for the planet, not just for one country or region. Thus governmental solutions are needed – and thus, it’s an easy leap for conservatives and libertarians to raise the spectors of socialism and communism, which are ready-made to instill fear in a largely uninformed electorate.

During the question period, Oreskes noted the complicity of journalists in spreading doubt by treating the Marshall Institute and similar organizations as sources of “scientific” information without questioning the validity of the data or the motives of the organization. Thus, a false equivalency is spread. “Both sides” get a hearing, and doubt takes root.

* Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism is a compelling and thorough study of Friedman’s impact on global politics. Klein demonstrates the fallacy of the so-called “free market,” which, in instances she describes all over the globe, is supported by government intervention and sanctioned violence.