Roundtable: Merchants of Doubt

In his Discourse on Method, René Descartes famously propounded that it was a greater perfection to know than to doubt.  Though he acknowledged the value of subjecting any truth to scrutiny, he distanced himself from those who would “doubt only that they may doubt, and seek nothing beyond uncertainty itself.”[1] And yet today who doesn’t use uncertainty in opportunistic ways?  Doubts and uncertainties are routinely played up to illuminate dangers, to point toward fruitful avenues of research, or simply to gain funding for a research project or summer salary.  Doubt also has been useful for tobacco companies who resist linking cigarettes to cancer, and to big agribusinesses that wish to tone down links between health problems and the array of strange substances that end up in our food.  And of course, doubt is the fuel for climate change skeptics.

The science of climate change—and its human causes—appears to be a matter of dispute, percolating up to the top tiers of political discussion.  In the 2008 U.S. presidential election, Vice-Presidential candidate Sarah Palin was not willing to attribute climate change to human causes.  Since then, several prominent figures in the so-called Tea Party movement have explicitly rejected the science of climate change.  At best, they describe the issue as “not settled.”[2]

In a 2004 Science article reporting on nearly a thousand peer-reviewed papers on climate change, Naomi Oreskes found no evidence of dissent to the view that humans were causing climate change.  The notion that there remained substantive disagreement about the reality of anthropogenic climate change, she maintained, was simply incorrect.[3]

So why do we continue to talk about the debate over global warming as if it remains a scientific controversy?  It is easy to explain why politicians, economists, and global oil corporations might want to do away the science of climate change.  But what is the basis of the scientific counterpoint to the “consensus” view outlined by Oreskes?  This is the subject of Merchants of Doubt, a team effort by Oreskes and Erik M. Conway, the historian of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.  Aside from her Science article, Oreskes is best known by historians for her work on the history of continental drift, plate tectonics, and oceanography, while Conway is known for his work on the atmospheric sciences and the history of technology.  They bring to bear their expertise as historians of the sciences of land, sea, and air, though the book is for a wide audience and published by a trade press.

The authors attribute most of the responsibility for climate science skepticism to very small group of people who exercised a powerful influence not only in the debates over global warming, but also in earlier disputes such as the carcinogenic effects of tobacco smoke.  Their thesis is bound to be controversial, and in fact it already has stirred up both praise and scorn.  A hint of their thesis had appeared in the journal Historical Studies in the Natural Sciences (HSNS), in which Oreskes, Conway, and then co-author Matthew Shindell singled out physicist (and former director of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography) William Nierenberg for shaping major scientific reports on climate change to fit his conservative views.[4] This work came under fire on the web and in print because Nierenberg’s son, Nicolas Nierenberg, disagreed with their characterization, claiming that they took a great deal out of context.  He then teamed up with Walter and Victoria Tschinkel to write a long rejoinder, also in HSNS, attempting to show that Nierenberg’s views were not out of step with those of other scientists writing the report.[5] Now with Merchants of Doubt, we have the story fleshed out on a larger scale, on subjects ranging from DDT to tobacco smoke and climate change.

I asked Spencer Weart to comment upon Merchants of Doubt because of his long association with the history of the physical sciences, as former director of the Center for the History of Physics, at the American Institute of Physics.  Scholars of nuclear power and weapons will know Weart’s work from Nuclear Fear.[6] More recently, he authored an exhaustive web-based history of the questions, patronage strategies, and political dimensions of the science of climate change.  A much-shortened version became a book, The Discovery of Global Warming.[7]

Mark Carey’s work also crosses over between environmental history and the history of science.  His 2007 article “The History of Ice: How Glaciers became an Endangered Species,” won the Leopold-Hidy prize for best article in Environmental History.[8] Rather than debate the reality of climate change, he investigates how people in a high-impact area such as the Peruvian Andes have dealt with it, sometimes with the aid of scientific advice and sometimes despite it.  Carey’s own recent book In the Shadow of Melting Glaciers, will be the subject of a future roundtable.[9]

Neil M. Maher works at the intersection of environmental history and the history of technology.  He shares with Erik Conway a deep interest in the technology of space exploration and its connection to environmental issues. He is currently writing a political and environmental history of the space race. His previous book, Nature’s New Deal, won the Charles A. Weyerhaeuser Book Award for the best book on conservation history.[10]

And finally, Ronald E. Doel has published extensively on science during the Cold War era, with particular attention to the earth and environmental sciences.[11] When he was postdoctoral fellow at the American Institute of Physics he spent many hours interviewing scientists who were important in climate research.  Those of us who have utilized these and others’ oral histories know how useful they are as resources in the history of recent science.[12] Since then, Doel has devoted considerable energy to highlighting the opportunities and difficulties in writing about recent science, and is the co-editor of The Historiography of Contemporary Science, Technology and Medicine: Writing Recent Science.[13]

I thank the participants for sharing their time and energy to comment on Merchants of Doubt.  As an open-access forum, H-Environment Roundtable Reviews is available to scholars and non-scholars alike, free of charge.  I hope that this particular roundtable is perceived as one round, neither the first nor the last, of an ongoing conversation about the connection between historical scholarship and today’s environmental issues.  Read the PDF of the full roundtable here, or browse all the roundtables at

[1] René Descartes, Discourse on the Method of Rightly Conducting the Reason, and Seeking Truth in the Sciences, trans. by John Veitch (Chicago: Open Court, 1910), 30.

[2] John M. Broder, “Climate Change Doubt is Tea Party Article of Faith,” New York Times (20 Oct 2010).

[3] Naomi Oreskes, “The Scientific Consensus on Climate Change,” Science 306:5702 (2004), 1686.

[4] Naomi Oreskes, Erik M. Conway, and Matthew Shindell, “From Chicken Little to Dr. Pangloss: William Nierenberg, Global Warming, and the Social Deconstruction of Scientific Knowledge,” Historical Studies in the Natural Sciences 38:1 (2008), 109-152.

[5] Nicolas Nierenberg, Walter R. Tschinkel, and Victoria J. Tschinkel, “Early Climate Change Consensus at the National Academy: the Origins and Making of Changing Climate,” Historical Studies in the Natural Sciences 40:3 (2010), 318-349.

[6] Spencer R. Weart, Nuclear Fear: A History of Images (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1989).

[7] Weart’s full site is here:  The short version is Spencer R. Weart, The Discovery of Global Warming (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2003).

[8] Mark Carey, “The History of Ice: How Glaciers became an Endangered Species,” Environmental History 12:3 (2007), 497-527.

[9] Mark Carey, In the Shadow of Melting Glaciers: Climate Change and Andean Society (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010).

[10] Neil Maher, Nature’s New Deal: Franklin Roosevelt’s Civilian Conservation Corps and the Roots of the American Environmental Movement (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007).

[11] For example, see Ronald E. Doel, “Constituting the Postwar Earth Sciences: the Military’s Influence on the Environmental Sciences in the USA after 1945,” Social Studies of Science 33:5 (2003), 635-666.

[12] These oral histories are available through the Niels Bohr Library and Archives.

[13] Ronald E. Doel and Thomas Söderqvist, eds., The Historiography of Contemporary Science, Technology, and Medicine: Writing Recent Science (New York: Routledge, 2006).



8 responses to “Roundtable: Merchants of Doubt”

  1. I just noticed this “round table.” Fascinating that you couldn’t find anyone who had even read or would comment on our paper. But I do appreciate your mentioning it in the introduction.

    By the way they also got the story wrong on Acid Rain. It is true that the executive summary was modified by the OSTP prior to publication. It is also true that my father didn’t do anything about it although he wasn’t alone in seeing it before publication. The remainder of the report remained unchanged, and even the modified summary called for dramatic cuts in pollution. More importantly the committee’s unmodified consensus which called for immediate cuts in pollution had been issued as a press release more than a year before and covered by every major newspaper.

    Clearly after retirement my father moved out of the mainstream. But during much of the period covered by this book the image is historically almost completely wrong. I imagine that the rest is no more accurate, but I haven’t really looked into it.


  2. Here is the New York Times story covering the committees press release in 1983. Note that Nierenberg’s committee is described as issuing a report contrary to Reagan administration policy.

    Coverage when the final report was issued. I ask anyone to reconcile this coverage with the tenor of the chapter in Merchants of doubt.


  3. Thanks for the comments. I used your father’s papers when writing my first book on oceanographers during the Cold War, and more recently encountered him in the NATO archives in Brussels. A fascinating person, and deeply involved in all these questions. I understand your concern about putting his work in the proper perspective. Is it your view that the MoD authors took his later attitudes and unfairly applied them to the early 1980s? Is it the characterization of him as a conservative that bothers you, or the representation of his scientific views (or both?)?


  4. In direct answer to your question my concern is that a reader of their paper, and their book would come away with a completely false understanding of what happened on the 1983 NAS committee. And a pretty much false understanding of what happened on the Acid Rain committee. To me historians have a responsibility to accurately describe history and not mislead their readers in order to build a larger narrative. I was frankly shocked that this type of work could be published, and I continue to be shocked by how it is accepted without questioning, for example by the people on your roundtable. They didn’t question the facts as written, despite the fact that a review of even the most basic primary documents like the NAS report itself, or the contemporaneous news reporting would demonstrate that it was wrong. As I mentioned, just reading those two stories from the NY Times I think would convince most people that they were misled by the chapter on Acid Rain. Did it have any effect on your belief? Have you read the actual 1983 NAS report? it is available now on line.

    I actually didn’t start out on this to defend my father, but rather in reaction to what I discovered when I looked into what they had written. I knew my father had been a climate skeptic at the end of his career, so based on their work I expected to find something very different when I looked into the 1983 NAS report. I would like to believe I would have done this for anyone, but of course it was a lot of work for a non-professional to get a peer reviewed paper published and so the extra motivation was important.

    What came clear to me, was what I already knew about my father. He never would have used a position as a committee chair to subvert the work of a committee.

    As to my father’s politics. It is true that he was a conservative, but I don’t think that had much to do with his views on these issues. He was skeptical of a lot of things environmental and otherwise. For example he always believed that the medical industry was overstating their ability to treat many categories of cancer. And he was much more complex than the caricature in their work. He was hardly anti-environmental and in fact appeared in television commercials supporting the California Coastal Initiative.


    • Thanks for the reply. Yes, I’ve read the report. I had read the original HSNS paper, and your own HSNS paper, prior to the publication of MoD. That was one of the reasons I chose the book for the roundtable, because it is a hot topic and already had some controversy around it. It wasn’t completely unnoticed: Spencer Weart referenced your work and Ron Doel addressed some of the problems about political ideology without specific reference to your paper. The reason I asked about your perspective is that I can see, even sympathize, with the view that singling out an individual for steering these results might be unfair. It seems to me that you are trying to argue that William Nierenberg’s actions, regardless of whether they were pro- or anti-environment, were in keeping with the views of his colleagues, that he did not interfere, and that many others acted as he did at the time. And you are suggesting that singling him out because of his later politics is unfair, and simply incorrect. By bringing in the warnings (like in the article you cited above) you are hoping to show that Nierenberg was acting responsibly, conveying the consensus of his colleagues. Am I right that this is your view? On a different point, do you feel the same about the other individuals identified in the book? It seems that the larger point about climate denial–that it often leads to the same small group of people–is the core of the book’s message. Based on how you see them portraying William Nierenberg, how does that affect your view of this argument?


  5. First and foremost I am arguing that their historical account is simply wrong. This by itself is important regardless of what is fair or unfair. It is a great frustration to me that I can’t get the discussion to focus on this regardless of issues of fairness etc.

    I certainly consider it unfair to rewrite history to fit a narrative due to the authors disagreement with his later “politics” as you describe it.

    You ask what I am “hoping to show.” I was actually hoping that people would examine the methods employed by Oreskes and Conway and be appalled. Whenever I read history I don’t want to find out later that I am dumber as a result. Someone reading their account of the 1983 NAS committee, or the acid rain committee would know less about it than if they hadn’t read anything. I find it incredibly ironic that their fundamental criticism is that this group of skeptics ignore the evidence, and yet they ignore and manufacture evidence.

    The idea that this was a kind of cabal that started in the early 80’s and continues to the present is also a kind of fiction created by the authors. They piece together stories to make it look like something that as far as I can make out barely existed. When the NAS report and the Acid Rain report were being worked on my father wasn’t doing anything with Jastrow and Seitz. In fact I’m pretty sure he hadn’t even met Jastrow yet. Singer was on the acid rain committee (at the request of the administration) but I think that’s about it. And reviewing the records I don’t think he had much influence. Then Jastrow, Seitz and Nierenberg found common ground on SDI I believe (not sure if Seitz was involved in that.) The GMI kind of went on from there. My father died in 2000, Seitz is dead as well, so if this was the whole global warming skeptic group then its gone. At most it lasted a few years, and was always completely in the open.

    If Oreskes had written a paper saying that Seitz, Nierenberg, and Jastrow were friends and started GMI and did these things then there would be no argument. But I also think it wouldn’t be that interesting. Nierenberg was retired by that time as were the other two I believe.


  6. I actually just went back and looked at Weart’s part of the round table and found a comment that Nierenberg’s action in changing the executive summary didn’t fool anyone since the press figured it out. But the story in the New York Times he references is from June 1983, more than a year before the executive summary incident occurred. That would have been a good trick fooling the press with an executive summary that hadn’t been written yet. And it is as if he hadn’t read the story that he referenced where Nierenberg is quoted calling for action.

    So this is a good example of Weart accepting an incorrect story (it was the OSTP that modified the executive summary not Nierenberg), and then being confused by the consequences (it occurred long after the press had covered the committee’s major conclusions). He then uses that set of incorrect facts to draw the inference that somehow Nierenberg did something on the NAS CO2 report, even though the report itself doesn’t downplay the issue at all. How can I not be disappointed in that level of analysis?

    I didn’t find any reference from him to our paper by the way. What were you referring to? He seems to have taken their paper at face value from at a factual level. All he does is point out that there is another view in a footnote.


  7. It is either climate change or procession of the equinoxes. Honestly, I tend to think it is both.

    Hopefully things get cleared up soon for us all. Some people just do not want to see the truth. It is really unfortunate. Then again, there are millions upon millions of people who still think the human race is only 6000 years old still also. Only thing you can do is educate and pray for the best.


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