The story of how a handful of asshole scientists managed to convince people that “the science is uncertain” regarding climate change, tobacco smoke, and acid rain (among other things).

Date posted: June 16th 2017

Book Title: Merchants of Doubt

Book-in-a-sentence

It is easier to fool people than to convince them that they have been fooled
Mark Twain

Introduction

This is the story of the common thread that links lung cancer, nuclear weapons, acid rain, the ozone hole, pesticides, and climate change together. As you will see, all of these issues have something in common: They’ve all been the victims of an anti-environmentalist movement that has for decades denied scientific facts and has therefore slowed down our response to these dangerous environmental situations.

Unfortunately I have to start by saying that I would not recommend this book to anybody that is looking to entertain themselves with fun facts and witty anecdotes. These are not fun facts, they are terrifying (and often aggravating) facts. Not only that, it is a very complex story with many names and dates that are extremely difficult to follow. So, to Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway (the authors), congratulations for keeping me awake through such a mess of a story. They really did an exceptional job!

But what makes the story so fascinating (or rather infuriating) are the methods used by the merchants of doubt. When you put the stories side by side—like the book does—you start noticing that their strategies are always the same. Not only that, the characters of the different parts of the story are always the same too. Time after time, these assholes have manipulated the public knowledge, and (as the book title implies) they have merchandised doubt. Selling it to politicians and media outlets for one reason, and one reason only: To fight (or delay) regulation.

I say delay because in most of these cases, regulation eventually kicks in. But because of the doubt that these anti-environmentalist assholes have sprinkled all over the place, several decades went by with no government intervention—and very little public awareness. Meanwhile, corporations reap fruit that these doubt mongers have sown.

However, this is not a story of “good vs. evil” , or “right vs. wrong”. Is not about right‑wing vs left‑wing, or about the big bad government against the people. No. This story goes way deeper into the foundations of our political and economic systems—even our cultural tendencies—and I’m afraid we are all partially responsible for what has happened. The way we think and live today has made us susceptible to the methods used by these merchants of doubt, but the saddest thing of all is that these manipulative strategies are often used in politics, in enterprises, and in even seemingly harmless discussions of public interest. It’s all about who speaks the loudest, and who has the arguments that resonate with the uninformed the most—just like Brexit, and Trump… or the rejection of the peace process in Colombia.

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The weapons of doubt

As I was reading the book I managed to narrow down the strategies of doubt to six main arguments or “weapons” (as I like to call them). You will see these six weapons come up time and time again on each one of the stories covered in the book—and it is very easy to see their similarities in politics. Allow me to introduce these methods before we go into the stories themselves.

The first one I like to call “being a magician”, and it works exactly like when the magician waves a handkerchief to distract the public while he performs the trick with the other hand. People do it all the time. They bring up a subject that is loosely related to the topic of conversation to distract the audience and make them forget about the part of the argument that requires pondering about. For example, have you ever talked to someone about a difficult topic like ‘exercising regularly’, and suddenly they say something like “exercise makes me hungry, and then I end up just gaining weight”, or “gyms are too expensive, besides I feel judged when I go to them” or “I don't want to get injured. I have a friend that got injured, and blah, blah, blah”. They are not necessarily lying, but they are waving their handkerchiefs to call the other person’s attention using a colorful argument while avoiding the uncomfortable truth. Laziness...

That is Weapon 1: Being a magician and distracting people with loosely related shit.

The second weapon is just straight up lying—or denial. As you will see (once I get to the first story in the book), the Tobacco Industry held firmly that tobacco smoke was NOT carcinogenic...for decades!… So, Weapon 2: bullshit or denial. As simple as that.

Then we have Weapon 3: Cherry picking; highlight uncertainties or highlight special cases. You see, science always has a degree of uncertainty. There is always room for error on every measurement. Some measurements are more accurate than others, but that is no reason to dismiss those with large error bars. The merchants of doubt LOVE highlighting these uncertainties to make the whole study seem unreliable. There is also a flipside to this weapon. The merchants of doubt often highlight a very special and isolated case in order to make their dismissive argument more reliable. Like when people say “well if smoking kills, how come my grandma lived until she was 90 if she smoked three packs of cigarettes a day?”. Valid question, but that is an extremely isolated case—not representative of the average at all. That’s weapon # 3, cherry picking, and it is very easy to see how this would resonate with the uninformed.

Moving on to Weapon 4: The illusion of a debate, make up ‘two sides’ and use the fairness doctrine to defend yours. The fairness doctrine was this thing created in 1949 when television was on the rise. As some of you may remember there were very few channels at the beginning, and broadcast licenses were very difficult to obtain. For this reason, it was established that any controversial issues of public concern must be presented in a fair and balanced manner—showing both sides of the argument. Weapon 4 takes advantage of this “balance” by making up two sides and using the fairness doctrine to get people to listen to their opinion, as wrong as it may be. This weapon is particularly damaging for scientific findings because a single scientists disagreeing with the general scientific consensus1, can use the fairness doctrine to make it look (in the eye of the public opinion) like there is a significant disagreement among scientists. But in reality if ten thousand scientists are telling you something is true, would you take the claims of this lone wolf seriously?

The fifth weapon is also something ordinary people use very often without thinking of the implications it can have. Weapon 5: exaggeration; using extreme hypothetical scenarios to condemn reasonable measures. The most representative case of this weapon is the claim that environmental regulations are the first step for the government to take ALL of our freedoms. Another example is those who claimed Obama was a socialist and that he hated America. Or, when those who opposed the Peace Process in Colombia claimed that it was the first step for Colombia to fall into a dictatorship like Venezuela. What the fuck are they talking about? These are obvious exaggerations—totally disconnected from reality...but they resonate with the uninformed.

And finally Weapon 6: attack the weak link, find a mistake (or a weak point), blow it out of proportion and condemn the whole thing as bad. Scientists can make mistakes, they are human too. But unfortunately when an environmental scientist makes a minor mistake, the merchants of doubt say “AHA! See? We can’t trust these guys...if they made that one mistake they are probably wrong about everything...” — really?

That’s what I’ll be talking about on this post. Six very controversial and important issues:

    Lung cancer
    Nuclear weapons
    Acid rain
    The Ozone hole
    Pesticides
    And climate change

Under attack by these anti-environmentalists who over the past few decades have perfected these six weapons:

    Weapon 1: Being a magician
    Weapon 2: Denial
    Weapon 3: Cherry picking
    Weapon 4: A fake debate
    Weapon 5: Exaggeration
    Weapon 6: Attack the weak link

If you keep reading I will go through each one of the stories with a reasonable amount of detail and hopefully by the end of this post you will realize two things. One: free market capitalism is not the answer to everything. And two: we really have to be careful about who we listen to.

  1. Even if he or she is one case out of ten thousand

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