William Nierenberg, Merchant of Doubt

Merchants of Doubt is a highly engaging read by Erik Conway and Naomi Oreskes about the long war on science waged by anti-regulatory forces. Obviously, this extends to the problem of anthropogenic climate change.

One of the “Merchants of Doubt” is William Nierenberg, founder of the anti-regulatory, denialist, bullsh*t hub of disinformation, the George C. Marshall Institute.

Nierenberg’s son Nicolas has been engaged in an understandable effort to whitewash his father’s legacy in underplaying the risks posed by climate change. In doing so, Nicolas (ironically?) follows virtually the same pattern of doubt-mongering laid out in Oreskes’s and Conway’s book. He relies upon the scientific community’s tendency to dial in on details to the exclusion of all else, and thus tries to argue the minutia in order to distract from and cast doubt on the bigger picture.

I couldn’t have scripted a better example than the beginning of a recent comment of his over at William Connolley’s: “…Merchants of Doubt (MOD) is highly misleading. As a very specific and critical point…”

Please don’t get me wrong- I believe that Nicolas is engaging in good faith, and is not deliberately trying to be misleading. I encourage everyone to read his comments in full and discuss the issue with him personally- in my experience he is always prompt and courteous.

But as I said, Nicolas is depending on our failure to keep the big picture in mind. From a science standpoint, GMI is an inexcusable, disgusting organization. It is the antithesis of what genuine and honest inquiry should be. William Nierenberg’s part in its founding is terrible, and it is simply not credible to pretend that he was not engaged in the same anti-regulatory shenanigans as his organization- no matter how much Nicolas would like us to believe otherwise. No matter what Nicolas says about Oreskes and Conway’s writing, keep that in mind. Listen to what William himself said in his own words. On the likely effects of climate change:

In actual factthe actual fact is, that calmer [vs. the scientific consensus] analysis has restricted the maximum likely CO2 to- the concentration- to slightly less than double and extended the time for the effects to the year 2150- that’s quite an increase. The global temperature change would be at most 1°[C], and the sea level rise would be barely one foot (or 30cm). The Western Antarctic Ice Sheet is now believed to be stable for the foreseeable future. Despite this great relaxation in extremes, the dire predictions remain. [8:15-8:52]

On the atmospheric residency of CO2:

Well you see with [the scientific consensus of long atmospheric residency of CO2] in mind, you have a problem. No matter how sure you are that the effects will be minimal- you see- they are in effect irreversible. If you’ve made a mistake, if you’ve made a bad estimate, you’re stuck and you have a problem- you see- reversing what you’ve done. Now, that’s the problem, but what happened is, the change in our viewpoint- those who take the problem seriously… In fact we now know that the CO2– the excess C02- will not last for a thousand years, but in fact will decay away on the average in about 150 years. Now that alters the entire perspective of the problem. It makes a possibility of correctibility at any stage of the game, if you have made a mistestimate [about the severity of the problem], and so on. So this [atmospheric residency of CO2], however, is the reason that the problem seemed to agonizing to so many of us early, and that reason has completely disappeared today. [12:01-13:08]

Watch the video in full. There are a legion of strawmen, red herring, appeals to ridicule, and other fallacies intended to persuade an audience rhetorically at the expense of fact and logic. William Neirenberg wasn’t a Morano or Watts-type out and out denialist. He was always an interjector of “reasonable” disagreement and uncertainty to prevent meaningful action on the issue. Nicolas Nierenberg would like you to believe that his father was not a Merchant of Doubt.

Nicolas is simply wrong.

UPDATE: As it’s a particular interest to WC, I wonder how he’ll react to Nierenberg lying about the “coming ice age” bullsh*t?

UPDATE: Per request in the comments, the video I linked to was shot in 1999. I don’t believe that the date substantively excuses many of the lies and half-truths by Nierenberg, but if anyone wants to attempt to justify his claims that’s probably a persuasive place to start. Nierenberg died in 2000- I’m not sure why anyone would expect comments of his to be made much past that time…


13 responses to “William Nierenberg, Merchant of Doubt

  1. Which ice age bullshit? Pointer?

    • Later on in the video, not sure of the exact time off hand- after the residency time crap, he regurgitates the “climate scientists predicted a coming ice age in the 70s” meme that is WC’s bête noir. He goes after Steve Schneider particularly.

      This is just after he does the “water vapor not CO2 is the most important” canard, IIRC.

  2. The youtube video is Nierenberg talking to the 17th annual meeting of the Doctors for Disaster Preparedness. Who are they, you may be wondering? They are associated with OISM.

    From the wikipedia page:
    The Oregon Institute of Science and Medicine (OISM) is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization located about seven miles from Cave Junction, Oregon. It has been described as “a small research institute” that studies “biochemistry, diagnostic medicine, nutrition, preventive medicine and the molecular biology of aging.”

    The institute is headed by Arthur B. Robinson, who received the Ph.D. degree in Chemistry from the California Institute of Technology. Robinson established OISM in 1980 after a disagreement with his mentor Linus Pauling.[1] Other listed faculty are biochemist Martin D. Kamen (died in 2002), Nobel prize-winning chemist R. Bruce Merrifield (died in 2006), Salk Institute biochemist Fred Westall, electrical engineer Carl Boehme, physician Jane Orient, chemist Noah E. Robinson, and veterinarian Zachary W. Robinson.[2]

    The OISM circulated the Oregon Petition, a “Scientists’ Petition” on global warming, in collaboration with the late Frederick Seitz, former president of the National Academy of Sciences. OISM founder Arthur Robinson is a global warming skeptic.”

    They give the Petr Beckmann Award. From the DDP website,
    “The Petr Beckmann award is given by DDP to individuals who demonstrate courage and achievement in defense of scientific truth and freedom. Marc Morano of http://www.climatedepot.com received the award in June of 2010.”

    Marc Morano, political hack!

  3. I think that it should mentioned when (in what year) the speech was delivered. And the text attatched to the video says that it was in 1999.

    • Sure. Not really clear why that matters- none of the false claims are really dependent on the time- climate sensitivity, as I don’t need to tell you, was 2-4°C back in the late 70s, so roughly doubling preindustrial CO2 gets you significantly more than 1°C and so on.

      Was there a particular false claim that Nierenberg made that you feel is justified because it was 1999?

  4. I do not object you to describe W. Nierenberg in 1999 as “a merchant of doubt”. I just wanted to avoid misunderstanding by the readers that you described him in 1983 like that. It is somewhat like the confusion caused by describing Schneider’s view to “global cooling” without mentioning the year of the source.

  5. I know someone who was a grad student at Scripps when Nierenberg was president there. He remembers Nierenberg as very bright, but a hard-core right-wing ideologue (and very “anti environmentalist”).

  6. Did you notice that you highlighted specific words out of Nierenberg’s talk to prove your point?
    Specific examples are a necessary part of logical debate. Vague, emotionally charged statements like “an inexcusable, disgusting organization” or “anti-regulatory shenanigans” are not.

  7. Ummm you realize that your response doesn’t make sense right? The same could be said for Nierenberg’s talk.

  8. Did you provide me a link to this site when you posted this? I’m surprised that I didn’t respond.

  9. Besides posting a link in the thread at WMC’s, where you responded to me?

  10. That’s why I asked the question, with everyone using a pseudonym it isn’t easy to remember after a while. But I will add an answer here.

    You accuse me of attempting to “whitewash” my fathers legacy. In fact what I have been doing is attempt to correct the historical record of the early 1980’s which was completely misrepresented in the Oreskes paper and book. Their book didn’t cover his video from 1999, and if it had and they had reported what he said, as you basically have, I would never have said anything about this. While I think your description of things is hyperbolic, the facts as reported are correct. The video speaks for itself.

    This is not true of their paper, or their book. In my published paper we demonstrated that what the wrote about the 1983 NAS panel was essentially fiction. But you don’t have to read my paper to see that, you can just read the report. Similarly their chapter on acid rain is essentially wrong, although they got a few things right. But the bottom line on the acid rain panel chaired by my father is that they made a strong recommendation to make immediate cuts in pollution. This was counter to Reagan administration policy. And it was widely reported. You would never know that from their chapter. Following is a link from the NY Times.


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