Please share this!

    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).



    Print Friendly
    Please share this!