I just finished reading Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway’s exhaustively researched new book, ***Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming***, and must recommend this work to anybody interested in how science is communicated and debated in the public sphere.
Oreskes and Conway are science historians, at UC-San Diego and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, respectively, and the picture they paint is of a concerted and disturbing effort by a very small cadre of politically conservative – and highly influential – scientists to distort the public perception about complicated scientific issues.
The basic story goes like this: in the 1950’s, evidence for a link between tobacco smoking and cancer emerged, both in the labs of the tobacco industry and independent researchers. Fearing that this evidence would result in a general belief that smoking was hazardous, and that this belief would reduce cigarette sales, the tobacco industry began a purposeful and now-famous campaign to deceive the public by distorting the scientific consensus around the tobacco-cancer link. The goal of the misinformation campaign was to manufacture doubt and controversy about the underlying science linking smoking with cancer. By creating the facade of a debate, the industry hoped the public would conclude that the science was uncertain, and therefore not ready for regulatory or even personal action.
Perhaps the parallels to other environmental problems are already clear to you. The book goes on to detail how the same strategy has been used – often by the very same people – to delay action on the ozone hole, acid rain, and global warming.
The scary truth behind all of these issues is that science is by its very nature always unsettled. There are always more questions to ask, more details and hypotheses to explore, more (and sometimes conflicting) evidence to uncover. Smoking isn’t the only thing in the world that causes cancer of course, nor is carbon dioxide the only gas that warms our planet – but the body of evidence leads to the conclusion that smoking significantly increases the chances of getting cancer, and human-caused emissions of carbon dioxide are dangerously increasing the temperature of the earth.
Skeptics routinely use this inherent feature of scientific discovery to downplay the large and growing consensus supporting causal links between human actions and environmental or global consequences. In other words, they proclaim the science incomplete and political and personal action necessarily premature. This is a sad twisting of scientific inquiry; the process itself assumes that there is always more to discover. However, the search for absolute truth does not mean that we cannot reach well supported conclusions along the way.
Scientists, though, do not make public policy in this world. In our country, legislators are democratically elected to fill that role, presumably because an informed citizenry considers a certain individual or group most capable of fulfilling their wishes. We place high regard – and, at least at one time, high esteem – on the role of a free press to inform our citizenry, going so far as to enshrine that right in the Constitution. The press, however, ostensibly works under a model of fairness and “equal time” – concepts that apply to a two-party democracy, but are not so applicable to science. Allowing a global warming skeptic equal time on a news page alongside a much larger community of scientists who believe that humans are causing climate change may seem balanced, but the truth is that this already favors the minority, as their views have been largely discredited in the academic literature (where scientific inquiries are hashed out). Indeed, it is often a mark of the erroneous camp that its hypotheses are put forth in the media, rather than in scientific journals.
We require more critical thinking in our lives, not less. Journalists are tasked with reporting what is true, and that should reflect expert opinion without false or inappropriate claims to equal time. Scientists must consider whether their results are being accurately portrayed outside the ivory tower, and work to ensure that their understanding of phenomena are translated and displayed to everybody.
And citizens? Us? We must work to analyze the expertise of people we read, watch, and listen to every day. Nobody is an expert in every arena, and we must trust experienced information sources to give us sound advice. But that trust cannot be blind; we must work to analyze the sources of the information we use to make decisions.
In the end, all societal relationships are built on trust – it’s vitally important that we examine the credentials of people we rely upon, especially when it comes to complex environmental problems.