Side Effects

From quirky to serious, trends in psychology and psychiatry

Merchants of Doubt

On Manufactured Controversy and Dissent in Science

On this blog, we recently considered "the benefits of doubt" over religious doctrine. Reports on the unraveling of the case against former IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn also firmly underscore the need to avoid a rush to judgment and to hold convictions to proof "beyond any reasonable doubt."

But there are urgent issues affecting our daily lives, a well-received book just out in paperback makes clear, where doubt is manufactured purely to fit lobbyist and corporate interests. When better regulation would significantly improve our health and environment but lower profits and shareholders' dividends, the book shows time and again that corporations have won by contesting and cherry-picking data, "focusing on unexplained or anomalous details," and sewing false doubt among legislators, policymakers, journalists, and the public. Such carefully orchestrated efforts gum up the works, stall much-needed reforms over product safety, confuse voters, and keep controversy alive when, in scientific circles, the controversy no longer really exists.

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Remember the movie Erin Brockovich (2000), when Julia Roberts, playing the struggling single mother and future lawyer, discovers that the Pacific Gas & Electric Co. has been trying to buy land that was contaminated by hexavalent chromium, a deadly toxic that the company was improperly and illegally dumping, poisoning the residents in the area? "Well, um, seeing as how I have no brains or legal expertise," Brockovich says, "and Ed here was losing all faith in the system, am I right?" Turns out she is, and that she's exposed a nasty little secret that's endangered the lives of numerous Americans. The film was based on real-life events. Now multiply that case and its complex deceptions umpteen times and you get a sense of why the book under review is so important.

In Merchants of Doubt, Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway's well-documented account of "How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming," the degree to which discredited and false claims have been used to muddy broad consensus in science makes for extremely troubling reading. In their even-handed exposé, we learn how a few unscrupulous scientists managed to undermine the consistent findings of their colleagues. Oreskes and Conway, a science historian and journalist respectively, demonstrate that "doubt-mongering" has been used not to present both sides of a thorny issue or to insist on useful shades of gray, but rather to taint scientific findings and their representatives with claims that data have been rigged and thus can't be trusted.

The opponents of truth "were not interested in finding facts," the authors explain. "They were interested in fighting them." Not content with such mischief-making and distortions of facts and evidence, corporations have frequently hired figures to attack the messenger and "discredit any science they didn't like." In short, we learn, there is a politics of doubt, and free-market fundamentalists have learned cleverly to exploit it.

In "Doubt Is Our Product," Oreskes and Conway's opening chapter on how the tobacco industry for decades fought well-established links between smoking and cancer, we learn how scientists such as Clarence Cook Little were hired in 1954 to "spearhead the effort to foster the impression of debate" about cigarettes. He and his colleagues managed to "convince the mass media that responsible journalists had an obligation to present 'both sides' of the health risks" surrounding them, in effect promoting the phony idea of a "safe" cigarette.

Case in point: After the Tobacco Industry Research Committee met with staff at Time, Newsweek, U.S. News and World Report, Business Week, Life, and Reader's Digest, then set up meetings with the publishers of the New York Times and the New York Herald Tribune, it "prepared a booklet, A Scientific Perspective on the Cigarette Controversy, that was sent to 176,800 American doctors." "Fifteen thousand additional copies were sent to editors, reporters, columnists, and members of Congress," add Oreskes and Conway, noting that a poll conducted two years later showed the industry celebrating that "neither the press nor the public seems to be reacting with any noticeable fear or alarm" about recent articles insisting on links between smoking and cancer.

"While hazard labels [eventually] were strengthened," the authors remark, "it was not until the 1990s that the industry began to lose cases in courts. And although the FDA sought to regulate tobacco as an addictive drug in the early 1990s, it was not until 2009"—half a century after the Tobacco Industry Research Committee began its counter-efforts—"that the U.S. Congress finally gave [the FDA] the authority to do so."

The net effect of such well-funded interventions, Oreskes and Conway make clear, in a book that takes us from the hazards of smoking to those of asbestos, acid rain, holes in the ozone layer, and global warming, is that phony claims about supposedly unproven links become a justification for inaction. They're used to "spread confusion on many of the most important issues of our time." They also play to our collective desire to turn away from such large-scale problems, rather than confronting them head-on to safeguard our future.

Just as astounding, but perhaps to be expected in such timeworn and cynical distortions, the very people who brought us "safe" cigarettes and other non sequiturs were later rehired to fabricate debate about the climate crisis, casting doubt and aspersions on the scientists who pointed repeatedly to inconvenient facts and truths that truly imperil our future. Those people—Oreskes and Conway name them: Fred Seitz, Bill Nierenberg, and S. Fred Singer—cut their teeth professionally with the tobacco industry. Now they're using the same dirty tricks to ensure that we do nothing about the climate crisis affecting us all. Will we let them? is surely the question we need to ask ourselves.

"The network of right-wing foundations, the corporations that fund them, and the journalists who echo their claims have created a tremendous problem for American science," warn Oreskes and Conway in a lesson no responsible American can ignore. "A recent study found that of the fifty-six ‘environmentally skeptical books' published in the 1990s, 92 percent were linked to those . . . foundations (only thirteen were published in the 1980s, and 100 percent were linked to the [same] foundations. Scientists have faced an ongoing misrepresentation of scientific evidence and historical facts that brands them as public enemies—even mass murderers—on the basis of phony facts."

The manufacturing of dissent and false evidence that Oreskes and Conway document so compellingly ratifies similar findings on this blog about ghostwritten articles, fronted by prominent figures in American psychiatry and medicine, which marketing departments in large pharmaceutical houses have managed to place in prominent scholarly and medical journals. These, too, have skewed professional and public opinion about the efficacy of such products, giving Americans a false impression of their safety.

To find out more about Merchants of Doubt, including why The Economist calls the book "powerful," the Washington Times considers it "well-researched and lucidly written," and the journal Science thinks it "tempting to require that all those engaged in the business of conveying scientific information to the general public should read it," click here.

www.christopherlane.org

Christopher Lane, Ph.D., teaches literature and intellectual history at Northwestern University and is the author of Shyness: How Normal Behavior Became a Sickness. more...

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