Todd Martin's Reviews > Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming

Merchants of Doubt by Naomi Oreskes
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Back in the 1970’s, in response to irrefutable evidence that tobacco smoke represented a significant health issue, anti-regulatory forces hit upon a successful strategy that was to become the template for all future fights. The tactic was to sow doubt and to foment uncertainty about the science as a means to prevent regulatory action. And it worked.

Why is this approach so successful? Part of the answer lies in the public misunderstanding of science; what it is, and how it works. Science (in particular, science of emerging issues) is not a collection of proven facts, it is a body of knowledge that provides a better understanding of the world as the evidence accumulates. There is always more to learn about any topic, but this not a reason to conclude that action should not be taken in the absence of certainty. We do things every day in our lives based on the best evidence available, even if it is incomplete. A simple example would be choosing whether to purchase a piece of fruit. We use the data generated by sight, smell and touch to estimate the likelihood that the fruit is good and determine whether to buy it based on this evidence (which is anything but definitive).

The anti-regulatory lobby takes advantage of the uncertainty that is present in each scientific discussion to argue against taking action. Even if this strategy ultimately fails (and it eventually does, time and time again), the delay that it creates is a victory in itself (tobacco was known to cause harm in the 1950’s, yet it was another two decades before the government finally began to institute regulations to protect the public from harm).

Oreskes illustrates the history of this obfuscation using the examples of tobacco smoke, acid rain, ozone depletion, and second hand smoke as well as the current hot button issue of global warming. While is not surprising that the same arguments are recycled again and again as excuses for inaction, what is surprising is that it is often the very same people and institutions that are making them. Not surprisingly, it is ideology rather than the desire for good public policy that motivates these groups. They tend to be right-wing, free market fundamentalists who see government regulations of industries and practices that harm the public as a descent into Communism. While you may or may not agree with their ideology, their willingness to resort to deception, obfuscation, misdirection and outright falsehoods to further their agenda is something every truth-loving citizen should consider offensive.

Unfortunately, given a public that is largely scientifically illiterate and unused to critical thinking, this strategy will continue to bear fruit and it is the rest of us that will pay the price.
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Reading Progress

June 13, 2010 – Shelved
August 7, 2010 – Started Reading
August 19, 2010 – Finished Reading

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