“Doubt is our product.”

Written by tim


merchants-of-doubt.jpgI 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.

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  1. Jay

    This book sounds like just what I need right now to recharge my efforts and fire me up again. It helps to remember what we are up against and how devious the deception is and how huge the stakes are…

  2. D. Pinto-Houbrick

    As an educator, I would like to see more CLEAN air products and laws; not something that will mask it and pretend to be something that it is NOT!

  3. Bill Palmer

    An interesting article, from a surprising perspective. TerraPass and government agencies are supporting the introduction of what are claimed to be “clean, renewable” energy sources to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. Yet, citizens in many countries (USA, Canada, UK, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, France, Denmark, Sweden, Germany, and others) living near some of these energy sources, specifically wind turbines are identifying adverse impacts on public health and safety, as well as identifying that wind turbines are not producing the desired reduction of fossil fueled generators due to the unreliability of the wind turbines. Using exactly the words of the article, government and industry sources, “proclaim the science incomplete and political and personal action necessarily premature” to increase setbacks to turbines to a level that would avoid adverse impact. The deniers are those who deny the adverse impacts of inadequate setbacks, even as evidence mounts. I must get a copy of this book!

  4. westomoon

    The irony here is that science is one of the few areas where modern media still feel the need for fairness and “equal time”. Any yahoo who wants to nay-say scientific findings on the basis of their gut feelings gets treated as the equal of peer-reviewed research scientists, while in every other area the most transparently insane assertions are reported unchallenged.

  5. Jay

    You should try living near a coal-fired power plant or down river from a mine– Then you will see why wind is beautiful. And remember, wind is just one of the solutions. I’ve powered my whole house by solar for over seven years. Nobody has ever complained about that. Have you ever seen a solar-thermal power plant– it’s like magic! Sure we need to be sensitive where we site these things, but we can do that. And the bottom line is that dealing with some correctable local disturbances is way better that continuing to cause irrevocable global destruction.

  6. Pythagoras

    If one is to visit the George C Marshall Institute web site today, you will find that they have moderated the language on global warming to acknowledge that the earth actually is warming. Of course, the desire to create an element of doubt is still there in that they will claim that it isn’t possible to differentiate between man-made warming and naturally occuring warming. Even with the warming that is occuring, it is being alarmist to suggest that the earth is at risk because “climate is always changing”. The theories of Richard Lindzen and Roy Spencer are emphasized to suggest that the projected temperature increases will be moderated due to negative feedbacks (cloud cover). And lastly that the cost of any mitigating action would be prohibitive.
    To those who have read the book, one can tell that this is just the next play in the playbook that was used to create doubt on acid rain, the ozone layer, and second-hand smoke.

  7. justanotherhuman

    I read Merchants of Doubt this summer and it was very educational – really impressed with the research and the number of footnotes and references. I also read (or rather am trying to read) Climate Confusion by Roy Spencer. No footnotes, very few references..Then I checked the folks that he had quoted (on the back cover) as recommending his book – they were all related to conservative free-market promoting organizations. I do think it is fair and important to look at the economics side of dealing with global warming and I also think it is fair to understand that climate is a very complex science – we don’t know everything at this point. I just think it is good to know that when one person or one institution is talking – it may be their own beliefs which are coloring the lens in which they look at the world and look at science.

  8. Pythagoras

    You do know that Roy Spencer is on the Board of Directors of the George C Marshall Institute?

  9. Don

    Bill’s response yields fine irony in the context of this article. He seems to want his unscientific doubt-casting (no named sources, no named studies, no peer reviewed research) on the current technology to be taken at least as seriously as the overwhelming scientific consensus.
    Unsurprisingly, actual peer reviewed journals (even readable ones like Scientific American) have shown studies demonstrating the massive GHG savings from wind, wave, and solar.
    Bill’s use of the MUCH smaller environmental costs of these technologies, to cast doubt on the attempts to actually “do anything” about climate change are exactly what this book seems to be about.
    Bill, you don’t need a copy of the book: it would appear you have already read it!

  10. Phil

    James Hoggan and Richard Littlemore’s “Climate Coverup” – a 2009 Canadian publication – covers much of the same ground. It’s a good read.

  11. Letsgetreal

    You seem willing to criticize people like Roy Spencer for being tied to what you would feel are groups of dubious motives. But how come nobody ever criticizes Al Gore for the venture capital firm he has a significant interest in which invests in green energy initiatives as nothing to look at? Al Gore was a government employee for decades, but have you seen pictures of his house? His green involvement has yielded him multi-millions, but that is cause for no alarm. His motives are pure as driven snow. A skeptic shakes a hand of someome that works at an oil company, and it is front page (or blog) news. Interesting when viewing the world through green-colored glasses…

  12. Tim

    This is apples (investing one’s own money) to oranges (on someone else’s payroll). Beyond that, it’s my understanding that Gore has donated all the proceeds from his investments to charitable organizations. Really, though, this is a non sequitur – it isn’t people’s wealth that bothers me, it’s the dishonest portrayal of science and the scientific process.