How did you and Erik decide to write Merchants of Doubt? Erik and I met in 2004 at a conference on the history of meteorology, held in the little town of Weilheim, Germany. He was working on the history of atmospheric sciences, I was working on the history of oceanography, and we had both noticed that some of the people who were challenging the scientific evidence of global warming had previously questioned the evidence of stratospheric ozone depletion and the harms of tobacco. Then we found evidence connecting them to the tobacco industry, and we knew we had a story.
How long did it take to write? We started conceptualizing it in 2005, and have been working on it ever since.
The book sounds a bit like a conspiracy theory. Is it? No. As far as we know, none of the players in our story did anything illegal, and it was all done quite openly. The men in our story had dedicated their lives to science and technology in the cause of defending the U.S. against the Soviet threat. When the Cold War ended just a few years later, they just couldn’t lay down their arms. So they found a new threat in environmentalism, which they worried would lead to excessive government regulation of the marketplace, and put us on the slippery slope to socialism.
What role does the media play in the story? A key tactic used by the Merchants of Doubt was to invoke the ideals of fairness and balance to persuade the media to give equal time to their views. Even the great Edward R. Murrow fell prey to this tactic, giving the tobacco industry equal time to argue that the facts regarding the harms of tobacco were not established. Murrow’s death from lung cancer a few years later was both tragic and ironic, for during World War II Murrow had been an articulate opponent of meretricious balance in reporting. Murrow was not ashamed to take the side of democracy, and felt no need to try to get the Nazi perspective.
But journalists can’t spend five years researching a question, as you and Erik have done, so what should they do? It seems that balance has often been interpreted as giving equal weight to both sides in an argument, rather than giving accurate weight. If 99% of scientists agree that tobacco is harmful, and 1% think the jury is out or hold an alternative theory, then it’s fair to acknowledge the 1%, so long as you make it clear that they are only 1%.
Sure, but don’t scientists bear some responsibility for not doing more to communicate clearly? Yes. Scientists could and should have done more to correct the misinformation that was being spread. Many scientists think that their “real work” is in the field or the laboratory, and that communicating science in plain language is someone else’s job. We think that should change.
One last question: How do we know that global warming isn’t caused by the sun? Scientists predicted more than a century ago that CO2 released by burning fossil fuels could cause global warming. But as with all scientific predictions, it’s possible that some other cause could have the same effect. The sun, of course, is the most likely other cause. Physics tells us that if the Sun were causing global warming, we’d expect both the troposphere and the stratosphere to warm, as heat comes into the atmosphere from outer space. But if the warming is caused by greenhouse gases emitted at the surface and accumulating in the lower atmosphere, then we expect the troposphere to warm and the stratosphere to cool. Scientists have shown that the troposphere is warming and the stratosphere is cooling. In fact, because the boundary between these two atmospheric layers is in part defined by temperature, that boundary is now moving upward. In other words, the whole structure of our atmosphere is changing.