In early 2011, Chemical and Engineering News ran a review of the newly published book Merchants of Doubt. A website promoting the book remains on line, and states —
“In their new book, Merchants of Doubt, historians Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway explain how a loose–knit group of high-level scientists, with extensive political connections, ran effective campaigns to mislead the public and deny well-established scientific knowledge over four decades…Oreskes and Conway roll back the rug on this dark corner of the American scientific community, showing how the ideology of free market fundamentalism, aided by a too-compliant media, has skewed public understanding of some of the most pressing issues of our era.”
The Letter to the Editor of C&E News I wrote in response to the book review appears below. It was published in the February 2011 issue of C&E News. A scientist recently requested it, which led me to track it down.
The Future of Food is happening one day at a time, and most days, a significant chunk of “progress” is destined to deepen existing problems. Over most of the past century, science has delivered unimaginable wonders. We have placed our faith in science to illuminate the path forward, for the benefit of society and the planet. But now that science is so heavily dominated by corporate interests, is science losing its luster and ability to guide change in the public’s interest? I sure hope not, but clearly, things have gotten far worse in the decade since the publication of “Merchants of Doubt.”
For more musings on the state of science and policy today, see our content on Scientific Integrity.
February 28, 2011
To the Editor:
Science and discovery have intrinsic value and both inspire and challenge those lucky enough to work on the front lines. But for society, the return on investment in science is driven by the degree to which society acts on new knowledge and technology in improving the human condition. Today, the linkage between new science and insight—and action in the public policy arena—has become tenuous at best.
Since the 1980s, there has been a dramatic shift in the sources of investment capital that fund food and agricultural science and related analytical activities. Three decades ago, the public sector invested about two-thirds of the total dollars supporting such work, with farmers, consumers, companies, and researchers sharing the task of identifying priorities. Today, the public share is below one-third, and companies, trade associations, and allied commodity and food industry groups dominate the politics of appropriations. The result is predictable. The voice of independent science has been marginalized, the notion of “public good” has all but disappeared, and the policy process is nearly frozen, like a deer in headlights, because there is little consensus on what the problems are and even less on optimal solutions.
The U.S. has the largest and most productive combination of natural resources and climate for food production in the world. Although today the strength of the U.S. economy is based on technologies and industries other than agriculture, the long-run economic value of this nation’s agricultural resource base and food industries dwarfs the importance of all other natural-resource-based industries. Yet we are allowing deep-set problems to fester and are too often unable to translate new science and insight into coherent, cost-effective innovation.