'Doubt is our product'

The title of this article was a quote from a tobacco company executive memo in 1969. The quote continues, “…since it is the best means of competing with the ‘body of fact’ that exists in the minds of the general public.” In the 2004 case of Phillip Morris, vs. the USA the tobacco industry was exposed as having known about the health effects of smoking since the 1950s. The tobacco executives had been scrambling since then to manufacture doubt in the mounting scientific tide of evidence against their product. These tactics are still in practice today with the climate change debate.

It took decades for the general public to believe that smoking is indeed bad for your health, partially because of counter arguments provided by friends of the tobacco industry and skeptical scientists. Instead of presenting scientific proof that cigarettes are not harmful, the skeptics took aim at publicly discrediting the evidence presented by the general medical community.

The authors of the book "Merchants of Doubt" ask, “Did they [Independent cancer researchers and tobacco industry spokespeople] deserve equal time? The simple answer is no. While the idea of equal time for opposing opinions makes sense in a two-party political system, it does not work for science, because science is not about opinion. It is about evidence.”

By 1960, the American Cancer Society had published the dangers of smoking. It wasn’t until 1979 that The New York Times stopped giving tobacco company spokespeople a chance to give a counterpoint response to their critics for editorial balance. The Times eventually decided that the tobacco argument wasn’t a 50/50 issue from the scientific community. It was a landslide of health risk evidence against well-funded, well-organized public relations teams, with direct or loose ties to the tobacco companies.

I am grateful to live in a country that guarantees free speech. I wouldn't want critics or skeptics of any issue to be silenced. I do think the media in our country delights in creating scientific controversy when there may not be actual controversy. It is up to the media to decide which issues legitimately have two equal sides and which ones don't. Historically, the media prefers conflict—manufactured or otherwise—to boring scientific consensus. At a minimum the media should research and acknowledge where the funding for their scientists and panelists come from.

In "Merchants of Doubt," the authors show similarities to the tobacco industry skeptic playbook in the denial of science in secondhand smoke, ozone depletion, acid rain, DDT health effects and climate change. The playbook for the denial of these issues seems to have followed this general pattern over the course of a decade or so: It is a hoax and it isn’t happening; specific pieces of the argument aren’t happening; we can’t control why it is happening; it may be happening, but it isn’t our industry’s fault.

The recent use of the skeptic playbook has been against the scientific research of climate change. Human-caused climate change isn’t a 50/50 issue. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is a group of 1,000 contributing scientist authors and about 2,000 expert climatology reviewers. They are not paid for their contributions by the IPCC. Their 2014 report stated, “Human influence on the climate system is clear, and recent anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases are the highest in history. Recent climate changes have had widespread impacts on human and natural systems.”

Who are the skeptics of the IPCC research? Is there another group of thousands of climate experts who have peer reviewed reports contradicting human-caused climate change? The short answer is no. The long answer is that there isn’t scientific proof the world is getting colder or that something other than human activities are accelerating the warming process.

One of the critics of climate change was a man named Frederick Seitz, co-founder of the George C. Marshall Institute. Seitz argued in a PBS interview that climate scientists lie to keep their funding about global warming. His critique could be valid, but he also admits that Exxon funded the Marshall Institute.

Another vocal critic of climate change is Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma. He famously threw a snowball on the Senate floor apparently to show that snow in Washington, D.C., in the winter proves climate change isn’t happening. Nine of the warmest world temperature years on record have happened since 2000. 2014 was the warmest year since 1880, according to NASA. A snowball doesn’t disprove climate change. Senator Inhofe has received $556,775 from oil, gas and mining sources, according to opensecrets.org.

Maybe the climate change deniers are right. Maybe people like Frederick Seitz and Senator Inhofe have found a legitimate hoax in global warming. Maybe books like "Merchants of Doubt" are the bamboozle. If the climate deniers could sway some of the climatologists with hard data that humans aren't causing climate change, I would welcome that debate. I choose to believe the thousands of contributing scientists who publish the IPCC reports for no pay over a handful of career skeptics who receive money from fossil fuel companies.

The jury isn’t out on human-caused climate change. We may argue about what exactly is going to happen as the climate changes or how to best stop the human-caused trend. We need to stop treating the fact that the world is getting warmer as opinion. Opinion doesn't carry equal weight to scientific evidence. With tobacco, acid rain, ozone depletion and DDT effects, the legitimate science outlasted the skeptical opinion. As a country we eventually addressed or cautioned against these issues and benefited from each of those decisions.

Why do we have such a hard time believing science? Let’s say you find a new type of plastic tube to use for a radiant heat system. If you sent a piece of that tube to 100 heating contractors across the world to test it out, and 97 of them reported back that the pipe leaked, would you use that pipe? According to NASA, “Ninety-seven percent of climate scientists agree that climate-warming trends over the past century are very likely due to human activities.”

A September 2014 Pew Research poll found that 61% of Americans believe there is solid evidence that Earth’s average temperature has been getting warmer over the past few decades. The photo below shows the documented global temperature change from the National Climatic Data Center. Why is there is a large disconnect between hard data and opinion for Americans? Why is doubt such an easy product to sell? n


1. Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway. Merchants of Doubt. Bloomsbury Press. 2011.
2. www.opensecrets.org/politicians/industries.php?cycle=2014&type=I&cid=N00...
3. www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2014/09/23/most-americans-believe-in-clima...
4. www.climate.nasa.gov/news/2221

Max Rohr has worked in the hydronics and solar industry for 10 years in the installation, sales and marketing sectors. Rohr is a LEED Green Associate and is RPA’s Education Committee Chairman. He can be reached at max.rohr@mac.com and @maxjrohr.

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