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'Truth' For Sale

Robert M. Nelson: ‘Merchants of Doubt’ exposes ‘experts’ who distort the truth about climate change and other issues for money

Last week, the Republican-controlled Senate failed to override President Obama’s veto of the Keystone oil pipeline. This was a rare defeat for US oil conglomerates and a personal setback for energy oligarchs, personified by the Koch bothers. They will retaliate.

Merchants of Doubt

The methods probably used for retaliation are described in Robert Kenner’s film, ”Merchants of Doubt,” inspired by the 2010 book with the same title by Naomi Oreskes, Harvard science historian, and Erik Conway, the laboratory historian at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena.

Scientific evidence linking human activity to significant climate change is overwhelming. Yet recently, public opinion shifted to favor the carbon polluters. The mass media propagates doubt. Why?

Quite appropriately, the film opens at Hollywood’s Magic Castle, where many of the world’s most talented magicians perform. We see that the key to a perfect magic trick lies in directing audience attention elsewhere. Then, a card is dealt from the bottom of the deck. Diversion is the key to deception.

The film documents similar techniques being exploited by carbon polluters. However, there is a distinction. Magicians explain that they are creating an illusion. They are quite ethical. The carbon industry is not.

Oreskes’ scholarship discovered an important pattern. The tactic of “diversion then deception” has been used for decades by powerful corporate interests to hamper government actions clearly in the public interest.

Corporate self-interest interventions have been widespread. They include debates about smoking and lung cancer, asbestos and mesothelioma, suppression of the deleterious effects of atmospheric nuclear testing, acid rain and DDT. Today, the carbon lobby casts doubt on the compelling scientific evidence linking fossil fuels and climate change.

The doubters consist of a few “experts” in the scientific community who gladly testify in exchange for money slipped under the table. Others imitate the experts while having no expertise at all. That is all it takes to land an interview with CNBC’s Larry Kudlow or the talking heads at FOX News.

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The most astounding discovery in Oreskes’ research was that three US scientists have put themselves forward as experts on almost all of these public policy debates even though they have little or no expertise on the specific topic. They have PhDs. They specialize in presenting doubt to legislators who are anxious to please corporate interests. Their goal is to create confusion, and thus no policy changes emerge from their smokescreen.

“Merchants of Doubt” quite simply disposes of the imitation “experts” by letting them hang themselves. Mark Morano holds a political science baccalaureate. Under the tutelage of Rush Limbaugh, and with funding from the Pittsburgh oligarch Richard Mellon Scaife, Morano became editor of Climate Depot — a science denying website. The film lets Morano talk ad nauseam about his own self-importance. Ultimately, he discredits himself.

A few scientists with legitimate academic credentials remain. They argue against the massive scientific evidence. Consider Princeton PhD S. Fred Singer, atmospheric physicist, NASA-funded research investigator, and now professor emeritus at University of Virginia. In NASA circles Singer is noted for his long-discredited hypothesis that Phobos and Deimos, the moons of Mars, are hollow artificial satellites. He notes that their orbit trajectories spiral inward as a hollow object might be expected to do. However, compelling research now reveals that the Martian moons recently emerged from the nearby asteroid belt. They were deflected inward and now enjoy a temporary residence in orbit about Mars. In a few million years their orbits will decay. They will add two more craters to Mars’ already cratered surface.

Merchants of Doubt

A few years ago Singer gave a colloquium at JPL where he continued to defend his discredited hypothesis. When questioned about the new evidence, which has been accepted by a broad consensus of the astronomical community, Singer cast doubt on the measurements made by the world’s best astronomical observers.

Singer’s mode of operation is exposed in a series of video images of his public remarks about climate change. First, he is shown denying that temperatures were rising. He claimed measurements were being made in cities and subject to the “urban heat island effect.” Later, as evidence became stronger, he conceded the earth is warming but denied it was due to humans. Finally, he argued warming may be happening due to humans but it would be too costly to do anything about it.

The strategy is simple. Move the goalposts.

The film demonstrates the threat that a policymaker faces when confronting science doubters. Bob Inglis, a conservative former South Carolina congressman, describes how he became convinced by the overwhelming scientific evidence. He toured the Antarctic research stations, learned the method of analyzing atmospheric gas bubbles trapped in ice that had been deposited over time, and saw there was clearly less carbon dioxide in the atmosphere before the industrial revolution. Concentration increased steadily over the years. Inglis embraced the science. He was outspent in the next Republican primary by a climate change denier. Inglis lost; the energy oligarchs won.

[dc]“M[/dc]erchants of Doubt” is important viewing for those want to understand how reason is corrupted by the avarice and greed of a powerful segment of corporate America.


Robert M. Nelson
Pasadena Weekly