Ever wondered why good science has lost so much traction in
public policy, especially in the US? (Though Canada is far from
exempt: Consider the Experimental Lakes Area.) Or why so many
Americans just won't seem to accept obvious facts about
evolution, climate change, even second hand tobacco smoke? For an
enlightening, if deeply disturbing, explanation, I recommend Merchants
of Doubt: How a handful of scientists obscured the truth on issues
from tobacco smoke to global warming. This book, by Prof. Naomi
Oreskes and writer Erik Conway, shows "how the ideology of
market fundamentalism, aided by a too-compliant media, have skewed
public understanding of some of the most critical issues of our
They document how funding from the tobacco, chemical and fossil
fuels industries, has been carefully used to spread doubt about the
knowledge and motives of scientists, and about the reliability of
any conclusions that might lead to greater regulation. Good science
is complicated and can be hard to explain. Doubt and uncertainty
are easy and powerfully favour the status quo: is it any wonder
that they have been fostered by those who most benefit from doing
nothing? Doubt and uncertainty also can create
"controversy" and conflict, which help to sell
newspapers. Voila: a convenient coincidence of certain industry and
With media complaisance, a smallish group of well funded
"experts" has successfully created doubt, confusion and
delay about a range of front-page issues in the past decades: the
health impacts of tobacco; acid rain; the damage to the ozone layer
from CFCs; second hand smoke, and climate change. The fact that
these "experts" were demonstrably wrong, in each case,
has done remarkably little to blunt their impact, or the continuing
suspicion of science that they created.
On the contrary, that continuing suspicion have made it
difficult for the public to tell the difference between good and
bad science in a whole range of other controversies, including the
trumped up fears about childhood vaccinations, and the current
claims about wind turbines. And it has helped to erode the general
level of trust between the public, scientists and government.
So, an infuriating, horrifying book to read, but useful.
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