Bankruptcy of the ‘merchants of doubt’ meme

It's a MOD, MOD, MOD, MOD WorldIt’s a MOD, MOD, MOD, MOD WorldNaomi Oreskes’ new movie Merchants of Doubt has recently been released. Does this movie provide the seeds for ending the ‘merchants of doubt’ meme?

 The book

The movie is based on the book Merchants of Doubt by Conway and Oreskes, which was published in 2010. From the blurb:

Merchants of Doubt tells the story of how a loose-knit group of high-level scientists and scientific advisers, with deep connections in politics and industry, ran effective campaigns to mislead the public and deny well-established scientific knowledge over four decades. Remarkably, the same individuals surface repeatedly-some of the same figures who have claimed that the science of global warming is “not settled” denied the truth of studies linking smoking to lung cancer, coal smoke to acid rain, and CFCs to the ozone hole. “Doubt is our product,” wrote one tobacco executive. These “experts” supplied it.

Dagfinn Reiersol has a 6 part series of blog posts Debunking Oreskes, which is well worth reading.

The most insightful review, IMO, has been published by Reiner Grundman [link]. Grundman’s closing paragraph:

It is disappointing to see professional historians reduce the complexity to a black and white affair where it goes without saying what the preferred colour is. The social science literature relevant to the understanding of policymaking in the face of uncertainty is largely absent. This raises the question of what epistemological status it can claim. Its authors have been critical of the scientific credentials of the contrarians, quoting the lack of peer review or selective use of information. But it is what the title and subtitle suggest: less a scholarly work than a passionate attack on a group of scientists turned lobbyists. I wonder if it does not do a disservice to the cause it is advocating.

The movie

So the book is not up to snuff academically; how effective is the movie? Will this movie convince any of the ‘doubters’, or is it merely preaching to the converted?

The official blurb and trailer for the movie is found here [link]. I haven’t seen the movie, but I understand that it is not exactly tearing up the movie theaters [link]. LA Weekly has a good summary of the movie [link].

The motivations of the films Director, Robert Kenner, are illuminated in an email exchange with Roger Tattersall (Tallbloke), [link]. Excerpt:

People who mislead the public on climate change should not be on TV. Period.
 That’s one big reason why I produced Merchants of Doubt, a film that lays bare the greedy, shameful world of climate denial and the journalists who broadcast it. That’s also why, right now, we’re launching a people-powered national campaign that could keep climate deniers out of the news for good. Merchants of Doubt premieres in U.S. theaters today, and it will invite thousands of energized viewers to sign this petition and join our campaign. Let’s lead the charge! Join me to tell TV network and cable news directors: Stop booking “merchants of doubt” on your programs immediately.

Censorship and propaganda; lets call a spade a spade.

The National Review has an interesting review, excerpts:

At the same time that it accuses the public of falling for pseudo-scientific showmanship and believing the safe, soothing messages they want to hear, the film presents a caricature of climate science — one that comforts the choir of climate-change alarmists and ignores serious scientific concerns. The product that Merchants hawks is smear.

Kenner mashes up clips of tobacco CEOs averring that “there is no consensus” about the harms of smoking with clips of Cato Institute and Heartland Institute scholars swearing that no consensus exists on global warming. Oreskes, in an on-screen appearance, manages to cite S. Fred Singer and Frederick Seitz, two prominent climate-change skeptics who had once contended that smoking isn’t necessarily harmful, but admits that she can’t prove that they were manipulated by money.

Roger Pielke Jr has tweeted a brilliant summary in 90 characters:

Merchants of Doubt in a nutshell: How a 90 yr-old man and a few dead friends fool the stupid American public, end of civilization results.

The 20th century ‘doubters’

So, who are the ‘evil 4‚Ä≤ ‚Äì the star doubters ‚Äì that have poisoned the climate debate (after first poisoning the tobacco debate)? Take a minute and guess.

Did you guess Robert Jastrow, Frederick Seitz, William Nierenberg, Fred Singer? While you may have heard of Fred Singer, you might be wondering ‘Who the heck are Jastrow, Seitz, and Nierenberg, and why haven’t I ever heard of them if they are so influential?’

Well, that is a very good question. Here is a quick summary (extensive details in this rebuttal by William O’Keefe [link]):

  • Robert Jastrow: Director of NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, 1961-1981.
  • Frederick Seitz: Former President of the National Academies of Science, former President of Rochester University,
  • William Nierenberg: Director of Scripps Institute for Oceanography, 1965-1986.

All three are now deceased. That leaves 90 year old Fred Singer.

A scary bunch.

The 21st century ‘doubters’

The movie interviewed the following ‘doubters’:

  • Fred Singer
  • William O’Keefe
  • Marc Morano

William O’Keefe is President of the George Marshall Institute, someone that I had never heard of until last fall when I was invited by GMI to give a seminar. The George Marshall Institute is definitely a villain in this piece; from Sourcewatch it seems that GMI runs on a shoestring budget of less than $1M/yr. Makes me wonder how $1M/yr, whatever its source, can have much influence on an international political debate?

Marc Morano is described in the review by LA Weekly:

Kenner finds a magnificent antihero in Marc Morano, a cheery, chatty prevaricator who has made a mint by muddying water. His job is to promote skepticism of a truth that even Skeptic magazine believes in, and since Morano’s cocksure, and good at yelling on TV, he steamrolls over climate scientists on cable despite his lack of expertise. 

I’ve met Marc Morano a number of times. He is actually quite broadly knowledgeable about climate science and the associated politics. He is the one ‘doubter’ in this whole piece that actually has some influence in the current climate debate.

Clearly this list of ‘doubters’ is not very impressive. There is a hacker that has broken into an email chain, originated by Marc Morano, using the name ‘willieasoon’. The objective of this hacker seems to be to grow the list of ‘publicly shamed’ doubters.

Inside Climate News has the story: Leaked email reveals who’s who list of climate denialists: A network of pundits and scientists is consulted about stopping the release of “Merchants of Doubt”, a documentary that exposes their work. There is a list of 30 names (that were on the email list), including my name. Most of these people I’ve never heard of; a few I have contact with. The blurb describing me:

Curry is a professor in the School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences at Georgia Institute of Technology. During a January 2014 hearing before the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, Curry said the problem of climate change has been “vastly oversimplified.” She said scientists should pay more attention to the role of natural variability in the climate system and the uncertainties in climate modeling. She also said the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is overly confident in attributing most of the warming to human activity.


So, apparently anyone who received this email from Fred Singer is a ‘climate denialist’. As far as I can tell, Singer used the email addresses from an email sent previously by Marc Morano.

We have no idea who ‘willieasoon’ is, but he is displaying Gleickian cunning. On Feb 23, he sent this email to the ‘list’:

Bad things coming for these boys and girls:

Richard Lindzen
Roger Pielke Jr.
Steven Hayward
David Legates
Judith Curry
John Christy
Robert Balling

Keep your eye on the media. Several stories.

Note, the date on the letters from Congressman Grijalvi was Feb 24 (one day later than the email). Several people on twitter are suggesting a ‘conspiracy’ ‚Äì that perhaps Grijalvi did not instigate this. I will quote Francis UrquhartYou might very well think that. I couldn’t possibly comment.

Well, the ‘surprise’ will be that there is little to no evidence of any undeclared fossil fuel funding influence the work or testimony of these individuals. This in itself will provide a powerful refutation of the ‘merchants of doubt’ meme.

Michael Mann imagines skeptics are financed by the “most expensive disinformation campaign in human history” [link]

Big Oil/Coal is spending their money on lobbyists, not on scientists. Misinformation/disinformation? No, just politics.

Science: doubt and uncertainty

So, if not motivated by $$ from Big Oil, why do these scientists doubt the IPCC consensus? The simple answer is that they are doing their job as scientists; Richard Feynman has this to say:

“When a scientist doesn’t know the answer to a problem, he is ignorant. When he has a hunch as to what the result is, he is uncertain. And when he is pretty damn sure of what the result is going to be, he is still in some doubt. We have found it of paramount importance that in order to progress, we must recognize our ignorance and leave room for doubt. Scientific knowledge is a body of statements of varying degrees of certainty — some most unsure, some nearly sure, but none absolutely certain.”

For reference, see these previous posts:

It is fashionable in social science and journalism circles to talk about ‘motivated reasoning’ by the doubters. Chris Mooney has an article with a slightly different twist ‚Äì related to supply and demand. Joel Achenbach has a thoughtful article Why do many reasonable people doubt science? Motivated reasoning and bias are problems for people, including scientists, across the political spectrum. It is the job of scientists to challenge beliefs in the face of these biases.

Science is a process, not a collection of ‘facts’. Even the issue of second hand smoke is not ‘settled.’ The Independent reports on a new study from Stanford University: Study finds no clear link between lung cancer and second hand smoke. Now I detest cigarette smoke as much as anyone ‚Äì besides a physical aversion, my father (a smoker) died of lung cancer at the age of 50. Am I glad that smoking is banned from many public places in the U.S.? Absolutely yes. Do I think that scientists should continue to evaluate the link between cancer and second hand smoke? Absolutely yes.

Other movies

So maybe you don’t think spending your $10 at the movie theatre to watch Merchants of Doubt is such a good idea. There are other movies to consider.

Kingsman: The Secret Service is a spy action comedy film. Starring COLIN FIRTH; the villain is a climate alarmist/eco-terrorist. Mark Steyn has an entertaining write up on the movie.

And coming sometime next fall (I think; no release date set) is Marc Morano’s film Climate Hustle; check out the trailer. Seems to more entertaining anyways than Merchants of Doubt. I think I also spotted on twitter that Morano was going to interview Mann and Hayhoe (two of the stars of Merchants of Doubt) for his movie.

JC conclusions

The bottom line here is that very sloppy history and social science research (Oreskes and Conway) is being used to justify ad hominem attacks against scientists that do not support the prevailing consensus. I find this reprehensible.

I am hoping that the ‘investigations’ of Grijalva will put to rest the idea that scientists that question aspects of AGW and the proposed policy solutions are somehow corrupted by Big Oil. It just aint so.

It’s time for the ‘convinced’ to start beefing up their scientific arguments; they are not going to win any arguments by making ad hominem attacks on other scientists.


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