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December 21, 2010
"Merchants of Doubt" (2010) by
Naomi Oreskes & Erik M. Conway
A very good book, about the history of a
not-so-vast right-wing conspiracy to transform
scientific results into scientific controversies.
On various different issues, the objections
keep coming from the same small set of names
representing for Conservative Science
(e.g. Fred Seitz and Fred Singer).
A handful of tame "scientists" is all it
takes to turn a near scientific certainty
into a "controversy" with two-sides that the
press can cover with equal weight and call
their job done.
What is the character of these scientists?
You're often left with the impression
that the Seitz and Singer's of the world
must simply be corrupt: they're opinions
are for sale to the highest bidder.
Oreskes & Conway paint a more
nuanced portrait of Seitz, as an
anti-communist cold warrior, a hawk
isolated from his colleagues by his
increasingly unpopular opinions (e.g.
support for the Viet Nam war).
They point to his background in
research on the atomic bomb, a
sense of gratitude toward the
tobacco industry funding of
scientific research, cite his
general disgruntlement with other
So, it is possible that these are
people they believe that they're
serving a higher good, and bending (or
breaking) the truth toward that end.
That higher good might easily
be a political one: they're
confirmed conservatives and
willing advance that cause, I want to raise the question:
even if it means being is it *only* conservatives
traitors to science. who may feel this temptation?
But the "higher good" might Yes, I know that that's a
even be a scientific cause: standard accusation from
They might feel that the Right at this point,
scientific consensus needs but you know, just
some rebels to keep it because there's smoke
honest, some challengers doesn't mean that there's
that need to be disproved. no fire.
For example, to take a more
recent case: I regard Freeman
Dyson's remarks about Global
Warming as sincerely I have some sympathy for
motivated-- he truly believes this: I'm a confirmed
in the value of being a contrarian myself, so
"heretic". being a heretic makes
sense to me.
But I don't know much So when I look at a book
about Seitz and Singer. like "Merchants of Doubt",
It's easy to project I admire the work they did
the image of villainy in documenting the right's
on a blank. assault on the truth, and
then check the index to
see what they say about
the nuclear power issue.
Nothing about "nuclear power"...
"nuclear war", yes,
"nuclear winter", yes,
but that's all.
If you wanted to write a
book about technical issues
where the public has been
sold on Doubt when little
exists among the technical
experts, I submit that
nuclear power would have to
be part of the story.
Instead, Oreskes & Conway
have written solely about
Right Wing purveyors of
Doubt: this is a valuable
book, but limited in scope.
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