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Shadow Elite: Merchants of Doubt -- Do Scientific Denialists Have No Shame?

Posted: 06/17/10 08:48 AM ET

In Shadow Elite, I trace the disturbing emergence over the past 2 decades of a new breed of unaccountable power broker. These players (I call those at the pinnacle "flexians") glide across roles of influence in government, business, media, and think tanks, use overlapping affiliations and information gleaned in one venue in other venues, and exploit a stranglehold on (should-be) public information to advance their own interests, not the public interest. Case in point is a group I call "the Neocon core," longtime ideological allies who sold America on the need to wage war on Iraq, by subverting the standard government bodies and processes and branding their own version of the truth as the most authoritative. In their new book Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming, Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway track another group of influencers, exerting power across a wide range of life-and-death debates over science and public health policy, everything from global warming to the dangers of cigarettes to acid rain. They argue that these same denialists, cropping up again and again, have pushed their version of the truth, driven not by scientific findings, but by their own personal, political agendas.  
-Janine R. Wedel

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In Shadow Elite, Janine Wedel asks, "What does it mean when individuals can no longer be embarrassed or ashamed?" When researching and writing Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming, we wondered the same thing. How did these men (they were all men) justify the misrepresentation of scientific evidence? The personal attacks on colleagues, including vulnerable younger ones? The assured assertions in domains in which they had never published a peer-reviewed paper or had a grant proposal funded? The cynical manipulation and pressuring of the press? In short, how did they sleep at night?

The contrarians we studied--who systematically sought to undermine the scientific evidence of the harms of tobacco, acid rain, the ozone hole, DDT and global warming--engaged in many of the same kinds of behavior as the 'flexians' described by Wedel. Building informal networks of action and influence, based heavily on personal contacts, they acted according to a weltanschauung forged in the Cold War that divided the world into friend or foe, and demonized environmentalists as communists or fellow travelers. Their ultimate goal was to prevent regulation, motivated by a neo-liberal ideology that saw economic freedoms as inextricably linked to political freedoms.

Like Wedel's flexians, they used access and influence to bill themselves as all-purpose experts and worked through a network of existing think-tanks and created a private one of their own - the George C. Marshall Institute. They shared convictions, acted in concert, and promoted their own views as the most authoritative scientific ones. To that end, they camouflaged a political debate as a scientific one, doing serious damage along the way both to individual scientists and to the credibility of science writ large. Even when their claims were shown, in some cases, to be demonstrably false, they declined to acknowledge this, often repeating refuted claims as if they were true. And the press continued to quote them, continued to treat them as real experts.

One might argue, of course, that the contrarians of Merchants of Doubt really did believe that they were right and everyone else was wrong. Indeed, this is what we argue. Frederick Seitz, William Nierenberg, and Robert Jastrow--the co-founders of the George C. Marshall Institute, a central focus of our book--shared the conviction that environmental threats were being exaggerated. By offering a 'calmer' view, they believed that they were helping to prevent heavy-handed government interference in the marketplace, and ultimately in our private affairs.

These political convictions--forged in the Cold War-- were so strongly held, that they blinded our 'flexians' to the mounting scientific evidence that acid rain, the ozone hole, second-hand smoke, and global warming were real problems, doing real damage. They also led to behavior that can only be explained as following the tenet--for which communists had been routinely excoriated in the Cold War--that the ends did justify the means.

The Marshall Institute never went so far as to attempt to re-write history, but another think tank, also well known for its doubts about climate science, has. The Competitive Enterprise Institute, a free-market public policy group in Washington, has promoted the claim that DDT was a safe and effective pesticide that should never have been banned. But it was banned, they say, because of hysteria, leading to millions of unnecessary deaths from malaria. For this, they assert, environmental pioneer Rachel Carson should be held personally responsible.

[M]illions of people around the world suffer the painful and often deadly effects of malaria because one person sounded a false alarm. That person is Rachel Carson..."- a web site hosted by the Competitive Enterprise Institute.

The very idea that any one person was responsible for banning DDT is of course preposterous. No major political, social, or economic decision has ever been the result of the work of only one man or woman, and the decision to ban DDT in the United States came after a decade of work, study, and lobbying. It was supported in diverse quarters, including the President's Science Advisory Committee, the EPA, and the White House under President Richard M. Nixon. The American Enterprise Institute claims that banning DDT was "the worst thing Nixon ever did," so why not blame him, or his EPA administrator William Ruckelshaus, who formally made the decision to ban DDT in the United States? And of course, the ban never applied outside the United States, anyway.

The banning of DDT in the United States was not the work of a single person, but had it been, that person would be a hero not a demon. Major scientific studies have documented the serious harms that DDT poses to both human and non-human life, including, significantly, breast cancer. DDT is still in use in Africa (albeit in much more limited ways than in its heyday), and if malaria still prevails there it is not because DDT was wrongly abandoned. In 1976, the World Health Organization concluded that DDT had failed to eradicate malaria for a number of reasons; the most important was that insects had developed resistance.

Although the central claims of the "Rachel was wrong" campaign are demonstrably inaccurate, they have been repeated many times, including in the mainstream media. Why is the prestige press not ashamed to have printed claims whose inaccuracy could be demonstrated in a day of research? Who is holding the Competitive Enterprise Institute accountable for promoting canards? And who is noticing that the man defending DDT on the web pages of the Heartland Institute--yet another think tank that challenges climate science and defends DDT--is Bonner Cohen, who previously edited EPA Watch, an anti-EPA newsletter created by the tobacco industry?

It is often said that Joseph McCarthy's rampage against the U.S. Constitution finally began to unravel when Joseph Nye Welch, chief counsel for the U.S. army, demanded in outrage, "Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency? Perhaps the time has come for us to ask the same question of the Merchants of Doubt and the Shadow Elite.