Naomi Oreskes is, by any account, one of the most important science historians and climate writers in the country. Merchants of Doubt, which she wrote with Erik M. Conway, detailed exactly how a small number of scientists, paid by the fossil-fuel industry, sought to convince people that climate change wasn’t real, that it wasn’t caused by carbon emissions, and that we didn’t need new regulations—and how the news media went along. It was a profound work and changed the way a lot of us thought about the politics of climate change.
Now she and Conway have a new book, The Big Myth, which looks at how a few organizations funded by big businesses have convinced Americans that government is bad and can’t be trusted, and that the free market is the best solution to our problems.
Naomi Oreskes, photo by Kayana Szymczak
It’s a remarkable work of history, 565 pages (with the footnotes), and it covers most of the 20th Century. It makes a critical point, that corporate propaganda has driven so much of the news media coverage of the economy that people have been voting against their own interests for at least half a century.
I’m not on the Bloomsbury Publishing mailing list, but I learned about the book from an article in The Intercept, which makes the stunning claim that if the US had the same level of economic inequality today as 1975, the lower 90 percent of the population would have an additional $47 trillion.
So I emailed Oreskes, and she agreed to talk to me. This interview was slightly condensed to make it easier to read.
48HILLS: You’re best known as a geologist and a climate scientist, but you’ve made the switch to economic inequality and how businesses have been attacking government. Talk to me about the relations between those two and how you got on that path, because I think these are two are very closely related issues.
NAOMI ORESKES We don’t really see it as a switch at all because for us the continuity is the history of disinformation, or the way I think about it sometimes is this is all part of the larger project of agnatology, which is the study of the social construction of ignorance. In Merchants of Doubt, we pose the question, why would intelligent, educated people reject the scientific evidence of climate change? And the answer to that question turned out to be political ideology. It wasn’t that the science was bad science or that they had some kind of methodological opposition to models or something like that. It was really political. The merchants of doubt, the main characters that we study in that story, were market fundamentalists. They were anticommunists. They believed that if the government became heavily engaged in the marketplace that it would threaten personal freedom, personal liberty, and we’d be on a slippery slope to socialism. We finished that book, we were left with the question, well, where the heck did they get that idea from? Because really, history doesn’t support that. Because if you look at the social democracies of Europe, they have much stronger social safety networks than we have in the United States. Better protections for workers. But they’re still democracies. If anything, they might have stronger, more stable democracies than we have here in the United States.
So, towards the end of writing The Merchants of Doubt, we started trying to figure out where these ideas had come from. And we realized that what these guys were arguing was very similar to what Friedrich Von Hayek had argued in his famous neoliberal tract, The Road to Serfdom.
But the book was already 250 pages long. We’ve covered a lot of ground from tobacco through acid rain to climate change. We had promised we would deliver this book to our publisher. And we thought, okay. It’s just too much to start talking now about Von Hayek. So we just basically ended Merchants of Doubt saying, this is the argument they made. It’s a political argument, and it comes out of the Cold War, and we sort of left it at that. And that was the right choice because the book was successful. And I think anything more would have freighted it down. And also because we were trying to make the point that it was disinformation, that it wasn’t a scientific debate and we had established that we could trace it back to the tobacco industry. So that was plenty of work for one book to do. But we were left with this feeling that there was more to be said about it. And so here we are, 13 years later.
So we really do view the new book as not really a sequel, but in a way, it’s a prequel looking at where did these market fundamentalist ideas come from, who promoted them and why? And what we found and once again found a much bigger scarier story than we expected.
We thought we originally thought this book was going to begin with Ronald Reagan. Now Ronald Reagan is the last third of the book, because what we discovered was this much deeper story of American business interests, promoting free-market ideology, going back to the early 20th century as a form of freedom that the freedom of businessmen to decide for themselves, how to run their businesses. That, like the tobacco industry, they use the notion of freedom to try to squash progressive reforms, to protect workers, to protect children, to protect the environment. And in the latter part of the book, to stop efforts to address climate change.
48HILLS: There’s a deep connection between economic inequality globally as well as in the United States and climate change. And I think it’s very hard to actually address one without addressing the other. And since you’re now in the middle of both of those, can you talk a little bit about that?
NAOMI ORESKES: So climate change is deeply related to income inequality, I think for two reasons. One is because it’s related to patterns of consumption. If you ask yourself, well, who’s really driving climate change, it’s not the poor people in places like Bangladesh or Pakistan. They’re not the ones who are driving climate change. The people driving climate change are the inhabitants of the wealthy countries like the United States, Canada, Australia, Japan, and Western Europe, and some very wealthy inhabitants of poor countries like very wealthy people in India. So this is really about consumption.
And our consumption is enabled by our wealth. And so the more wealth is concentrated in certain countries, the more those countries consume, the more they use fossil fuels, the more they drive this problem. So climate change is driven by wealth, and it’s an issue of inequality, as the Pope says in his encyclical, because wealthy people have created the problem. But poor people are the ones who are suffering the most from it. I mean, everyone’s suffering. It’s not only the poor who will suffer because as we’ve seen from recent virus, floods, et cetera, everyone is potentially affected by climate change. But there’s a particular injustice when it hits poor people who have done little or nothing to create the problem.
48HILLS: You talk about the alliance for Liberty and the National Association of Manufacturers as kind of two of the pre-Reagan actors. And you talk about how influential they were with news media. In fact, at one point, you talk about more than 50 stories in The New York Times that essentially echo that line. Did you see that across news media beyond the Times?
NAOMI ORESKES: We didn’t have the capacity to do a capacious analysis of the news media. I mean, the book is very long as it is. So we were relying there on secondary literature and the work of some other scholars who had looked at this question. But they were able to show very clearly the way the corporate message was recapitulated in elite media and in a way, it’s not really surprising because. The right wing is always slamming The New York Times as a liberal media. And the right wing has constructed a narrative about the media being liberal. We often forget that media in America is mostly corporations and mostly corporations that are strongly aligned with large manufacturers, with other corporate, other Fortune 500 companies. So it’s not entirely a shock that these media outlets have by and large taken the side of corporations rather than, say, workers in debates over unionization. For example, or child labor. And so the alignment of The New York Times with the National Association Manufacturers was not really that shocking to me, except the degree of the alignment was shocking, right, that they were taking whole sections of text out of press releases that were written by the National Association of Manufacturers and reproducing them uncritically in The New York Times with no countervailing opinion from the heads of any of the major unions. Or we don’t really have consumer protection agencies at that time. But you might have thought that a conscientious journalist would have reached out to the president of some of the unions whose workers were involved. But we see little or new effort to do that.
48HILLS: I think today this is still happening, but it’s more subtle. Are you seeing that in news media today, that this pattern is still happening?
NAOMI ORESKES: Well, I think it’s complicated because it depends what you mean by news media. We have a weird landscape, which on the one hand is highly fragmented because of social media. But on the other hand, it’s highly consolidated because of the rescinding of the restrictions that previously were in place that were rescinded under the Telecommunications Act that was passed under Bill Clinton.
Certainly, there are some media like MSNBC that are quite openly and unabashedly left wing. But we also have this massive network of radio stations that we talked about in the book. The Sinclair Media Network owns thousands of radio stations across the United States, almost all of which have a broadcast message that is highly right wing, often evangelical Christian. Very often we see on right wing radio people like Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh, who are pushing very, very right wing, very anti-government, very pro-free-market messages with no attempt whatsoever to counterbalance them.
48HILLS: I’ve been interested for many years in why so many people have lost faith in government. And this is obviously the key premise of your book. Some of it is propaganda, but I particularly think about our generation. You talk a little bit at the end of the book about the failure in Vietnam and the embarrassment in Vietnam. It seems to me just from my perspective that there was more to it than that. That basically the War in Vietnam, and the War on Drugs convinced my generation that government was bad because government was going to send you to die in Vietnam or put you in jail for smoking pot. I saw some data on this. In 1980, a majority of the readers of Rolling Stone magazine voted for Ronald Reagan.
NAOMI ORESKES: Is that right? Yeah. There may also be kind of cultural factors.
48HILLS: Let’s say this is a really interesting question. How did we get to this point?. My parent’s generation thought that government got us out of their depression one won World War II. And then how did we get to a point where many people. In our generation don’t trust government either, even though they may think of themselves as socially Liberal.
NAOMI ORESKES: Yeah, that’s a great question. And one of the challenges of writing a book of this type is that you don’t want to oversimplify the argument and claim that it’s only this one thing that you decide to focus on. But on the other hand, unless you focus on something, then you just have a mishmash of, well. there’s 17 different factors, and that’s not an interesting book. So we focus specifically on the role of antigovernment ideology and particularly the way that was heavily bankrolled by corporate interests, because it was in their interest to make us distrust government and particularly to make us distrust regulation as a solution to problems. But also that it was taken up by the Republican Party as a political position and of course, part of what happens is that when Republicans come into office, then they do things to undermine governance. Like decreasing the budget for discretionary programs, starving the beast. So then government doesn’t work well. And so then we hate it because it doesn’t work well. And the Republican refusal to fund the IRS, I think, is a really great case in point, because all of the studies show that if the IRS were better funded, it would pay for itself, because the IRS would be better able to collect the taxes that people and corporations actually owed it.
But Republicans were having none of it because I think they love the fact that we hate the IRS. Nobody likes the IRS. No one wants to pay taxes. And even if you are willing to pay your taxes, you try to get a straight answer and you try to call. No one will ever answer. So it’s a great agency to hate.
And so the Republicans do everything they can to make it as ineffectual as possible. So we will hate it as much as possible. And then they do the same things to programs that the American people like. So in the book, we talk about Social Security. That’s an incredibly successful, incredibly popular program. More than 80 percent of Americans, both Republicans and Democrats like Social Security. But they worry that it won’t be solvent in the future. Why is that? Because the Republicans keep telling us that it’s a broken program, even when it’s not, because they don’t want it to work. They don’t want it to be successful because the success of Social Security refutes their ideology. It shows us that big government can work. So they have to keep telling us that it doesn’t.
Most Americans are astonished when I remind them that the marginal tax rate was over 90 percent under Dwight Eisenhower.
48HILLS: That radical socialist.
NAOMI ORESKES: Yeah, exactly. Today, that would be considered inconceivable. So because we’ve all bought into this anti taxation, anti government ideology, we can’t even imagine taxing people the way we used to tax them. And there was one review of our book that actually calculated we lost $47 trillion to the top ten percent [since 1975] What an astonishing amount of money. I don’t want to use the word theft because that gets turn around too casually, but I mean, an astonishing capturing of the economic wealth of the country and concentrating it in the hands of an incredibly small number of people.
48HILLS: The right wing media and the people who are pushing this agenda talk about the failures of government, but they never talk about the failures of capitalism.
NAOMI ORESKES: Yeah. I know a few people have noticed that about the book. And I’m always happy when a reader notices that because I actually feel like that was one of our more important insights. And we probably should have made it more front and center. But that’s the giant, asymmetry in this whole story. Because we have massive examples of failures of capitalism. And we certainly have plenty of examples of businesses that fail. But nobody at Wharton or Harvard Business School would say, oh, well, because some businesses fail, therefore, capitalism is no good, right? No. We would ever say that. We understand that failure is part of life. But yet when some government program fails, like the Solyndra thing, then the right wing is all over it to say, oh, see, this is why the government shouldn’t pick winners and losers, because look, here’s one example where they did it badly, when in fact, we have lots of examples where the government picked winners and it worked well after all. The US government built the Internet. That’s a giant success story. And one of the things that really gets me angry is when these guys in Silicon Valley are libertarians. They promote the idea that just let the private sector do it. Let the private sector figure out how to self regulate AI as if their own industry had been invented by guys and garages and it’s so the opposite of the truth of the matter. None of them would have their businesses, they would not be where they are today, had the government not invested in and then allowed the commercialization of the Internet.