Saturday, January 15, 2011

Deja vu all over again

Among the items in my basket of Christmas goodies to myself was Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway's book Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming.

I'm only 65 pages in, and I'll likely post more as I go, but I'd like to post this passage first:
"Seitz then summarily dismissed the models as bad science [...] having dismissed the . . . model as unscientific and casting doubt on the objectivity of its authors by linking them to liberal and environmental organizations, Seitz completed the picture for his readers by alleging ulterior motives. 'Political considerations subliminally skewed the model away from natural history . . .'

. . .He insisted that [it] was not science at all: it was left/liberal/environmental politics dressed up as computer code. 'No one who is familiar with the malleability of computer projections can be surprised at the result.'

. . .Finally, Seitz expanded his attack to encompass all science, and the scientific establishment itself . . . Seitz insisted that scientists had betrayed the public trust. Citizens regard 'the scientific profession as a bulwark of objectivity and credibility in an otherwise untrustworthy world," he noted, but they shouldn't.

. . . Seitz insisted that 'science bears little resemblance to its conventional portrait.' Instead, scientists are guided by such 'non-rational factors as rhetoric, propaganda, and personal prejudice.'

You would be forgiven for thinking that the above passage is referring to the late Frederick Seitz and his quixotic tirade against anthropogenic global warming. In fact, it's about Fred Seitz's cousin Russell Seitz, and his attack on the theory of nuclear winter that was being proposed by Carl Sagan and other prominent scientists during the late 1970s/early 1980s. The Wall Street Journal even gave Seitz a full 2400 words on its front page to attack science and scientists on the issue of nuclear winter.

It's a theme you'll see over and over again, and the central theme of Oreskes' book. Time after time, you'll see the same people, the same think-tanks, and the same tactics being employed in the manufactroversy over climate change. It started with the cigarette industry, it continued with SDI, nuclear winter, acid rain, and the ozone hole, and it's still going on today.


  1. What I see here is O&C feeding a lot of quotes with very very partial lead-ins. For example, are you really defending "science bears little resemblance to its conventional portrait" as a terrible attack on science?

  2. That quote in itself is unremarkable - I just left it in as the lead-in to his next quote.

    Almost all of the fragmentation here is due to my eliding to leave out the bits that were talking specifically about nuclear winter. The original O&C text has much more context.

  3. So why didn't O&C go to the footnoted source - In From the Cold, The National Interest , Fall 1986, instead of quote mining the Op-ed version I didn't edit? ( No , alas, the WSJ did not put it on their front page.)

    Had O&S cared to do their scholarly homework , they would have discovered that the piece was preceded by my exchange with Sagan in the pages of Foreign Affairs and peer-reviewed scientific publications on the model parameters including one in Nature.

    Politicized science happens, and the quotes they've so tendentiously mined amount to nothing more or less than Sociology of science 101. You needn't take my word that nuclear winter was and remains a locus classicus of the genre- Carl's cohort hired the PR firm before they published the paper, causing no less an echt-Liberal than Council for a Livable World President
    George Rathjens of MIT to declare on his own initiative :

    "Nuclear winter is the worst example of the misrepresentation of science to the public in my memory'

    Thanx to whoever's blog this is for bringing the matter to my attention- it's the first time i've seen the O&C passage, which demonstrates that framing , denial, and cherry picking are not the exclusive province of the Republican party.

    I'll happily provide a pdf of the National Interest article on request.

  4. If , instead of inquiring into my views on another issue four decades ago, O&C had simply googled as to where I stand on the climate wars of the present millennium, they would have gotten a blogful of of commentary at, through 2008, and this piece, which appeared two years before Merchants of doubt

    From what i've read here, their contribution to the history of climate science and popular culture seems to combine the objectivity of Ben Stein and the fact checking of Glenn Beck.