Merchants of Doubt, by Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway

Merchants of Doubt

Merchants of Doubt is one of those books that fits my cynical worldview quite well. It says that those who most influence public opinion—especially on the right—are commonly lying, motivated either by a blind commitment to their ideology or more often by the simple fact that that’s what they’re paid to do. Further, that as a result of this, public discourse, particularly on scientific matters, is skewed in a direction friendly to those in a position to buy such unscrupulous spokespersons, where even if the bad guys don’t “win” a debate, they can at least create the false impression that there exists some controversy about it, putting non-experts in a position of “Well, some people who sound like they know what they’re talking about say x, and some say not-x, so evidently there’s enough uncertainty about this that it would be wrong to take action yet.”

The phony notion that creationism has any scientific standing as an alternative to evolution is an obvious example of this phenomenon, but this book focuses not so much on tendentious bullshit motivated by religious ideology as tendentious bullshit motivated by political ideology and/or money.

Though the book fits what I already believed about such things as people’s willingness to enlist as corporate shills when bribed sufficiently to do so, that’s not to say that this is all old hat to me. A book like this doesn’t provide me with a new worldview, but it does provide an extensive list of painstakingly researched facts to fill in the specifics of that worldview.

Among the points the authors make is that there are a fairly small number of scientists who keep getting recycled when corporations need someone credentialed to step forward and lie for them. Many of these folks—Fred Singer, for one—cut their teeth on the tobacco issue, spending years or decades facilitating the tobacco industries’ macabre campaign to profitably create addicts who’d slowly kill themselves. But from there they moved on to acid rain, the damage done by chlorofluorocarbons to the ozone, climate change, and whatever other issues the right needed them to chime in on.

Typically they weren’t taken seriously in the scientific community as experts on the issue in question. (It’s true they were scientists, but generally whatever significant work they’d done had been in the distant past and not in the specialized areas where the politically hot issues happened to develop.) But they were taken seriously in the mainstream media as representing a legitimate point of view with substantial scientific backing, due to the fact that mainstream media outlets tend to be either just as dishonest in pushing a right wing agenda as them, or to be trapped in a “he said, she said” phony model of objectivity that they think obligates them to simply pass along the views of proponents of “both sides” of any issue of controversy.

So the public is tricked into thinking that there is no scientific consensus in areas where in fact there is.

As I noted, often they lie because they benefit financially by doing so. In effect they are public relations flacks for industry; they just happen to have science degrees.

But there are also, as the authors state, personal and ideological explanations for some of their behavior. They may be inclined toward contrarianism due to incidents in their personal history (e.g., they were in the minority and felt ignored on some scientific issue early in their career, they felt they were passed over for a job or tenure by some university due to affirmative action policies, etc.), so now they look for ways to stick it to the scientific establishment.

In some cases they’d likely be doing what they’re doing even if they weren’t being paid for it because they have a strong commitment to a right wing political ideology. They may, for instance, be convinced that anyone not as conservative as them—mainstream scientists, for example—is relentlessly working toward goals such as the eradication of capitalism, and cynically using things like environmental issues as means toward those ends. They feel that they then must counter this by any means necessary. Misrepresenting science may seem a small compromise to make to someone convinced that the alternative is to allow a complete makeover of society for the worse.

This is a danger that people of all ideologies face. I think the right has far more liars, but both the right and the left are filled with people who run each issue through their ideological filters to bring it into line with what they want to believe. I’m sure I do that to some extent myself, though as a critical thinker I try to avoid succumbing to such tendencies.

On environmental issues, for instance, while the right dishonestly creates the impression that there is not a scientific consensus about an issue like climate change, many on the left no doubt are immediately persuaded by any industry-bashing environmental claim that comes along, regardless of whether it is based on solid science, or a very speculative set of claims made by a small number of non-scientists or scientists not taken seriously by the bulk of those working in their field.

Merchants of Doubt is a fairly dry book about how public policy is influenced by the powerful and those in their direct or indirect employ. Unless you have an interest in politics and its intersection with science, and unless you agree with or are open to a leftist take on such matters, I doubt this book would hold your interest. But it is a well done and valuable contribution on an important subject.


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