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11 February 2012

The Merchants of Doubt

Tag(s): Environment

As I write this blog there is snow on the ground and the temperature is below zero centigrade as it has been for a few days. This is the fourth winter in succession where we have experienced such weather in this normally mild area of England and I have been on the internet looking at 4-wheel drive cars for the first time ever. At times like this it is understandable to question the concept of global warming and indeed many climate change sceptics use such weather information to support their claims that climate change is not happening and even if it is, it is normal and not caused by human behaviour.

But the great majority of scientists who have expertise in this subject believe that in the balance of probability that is not the case. For them climate change is a proven fact and it is highly likely that human behaviour is largely responsible. Forecasting is of course less certain but again on balance of probability if humans do not change their behaviour then recent trends are likely to continue with potentially dangerous consequences.

Now in this introduction I have used my words carefully.  I have used phrases like “on balance of probability” and “likely" because that is the language of science. They rarely speak of certainty and know that the scientific process seeks evidence to prove hypotheses. Such language is then capable of being exploited by climate change deniers who use the implied uncertainty to sow the seeds of doubt.

I recently read an extraordinary book that explores this issue in great detail which I think should be required reading for all politicians, particularly American ones, all media owners and their editors, particularly American ones, as well as the rest of us who have any interest in this subject. Merchants of Doubt by Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway[i]is the result of many years of painstaking research into the way in which a group of high-level scientists and scientific advisers, with deep connections in politics and industry, ran effective campaigns to mislead the public and deny well-established scientific knowledge over four decades. Several members of this group who claim the science of global warming is "not settled" also denied the truth about studies linking smoking to lung cancer, coal smoke to acid rain, and CFCs to the ozone hole. In some cases they were financed by the very industries who were threatened by such links. Yes, the same individuals who were paid by the tobacco industry to muddy the waters over the evidence that linked smoking to lung cancer and other killer diseases have been recruited by energy companies and others to do the same in the debate about global warming. “Doubt is our product” wrote one tobacco executive. These “experts” supplied it. 

They use a variety of techniques. I have already referred to one: the exploitation of the natural tendency of the scientist to express his conclusions in language which is less than certain because that is the world in which he operates. But ordinary people and particularly journalists like to talk of certainty. They are not trained in statistical probability. On many occasions, not only the issue of climate change, one hears an interviewer asking an expert to express risk in a certain way when that is not the nature of risk. Health scares are often exaggerated as a result leading to panic behaviour.

Linked to this is the need for balanced reporting in democracy. In the United States this is enshrined in law while in the United Kingdom with our unusual tradition of taxpayer funded public service broadcasting the BBC seems determined to find someone on the other side of the argument even if that person is in a discredited and tiny minority. So the climate change deniers, even though they probably number less than 2% of scientists in this subject, will get an equal chance to put their views leading to doubt in the non-scientific minds of the average reader, listener or viewer.

This is further compounded by the lobbyists from interested parties. I quote from a letter to The Sunday Times Business Section not so long ago:

“It is regrettable that many trade associations are sending out mixed messages on environmental regulation. On the one hand they welcome government initiatives to go green, while on the other they warn about increasing the burden on business.

Trade associations must accept that their first responsibility is to their members and not the environment. Despite protestations to the contrary, the jury is still out on man-made global warning. (My italics).                              Robert Durward  British Aggregates Association, Lanark.”[ii]

Few things have a worse carbon footprint than aggregates but Mr Durward not only denies the science but also openly puts his members’ interests ahead of the environment.

Another technique is to attack the scientist putting forward the evidence. Many young scientists have found their careers cut short by threats and worse from the forces that feel challenged by such evidence. Please read the book for details.

There is some hope that scientists are beginning to band together to get their views across. In the current Republican campaign for a candidate to stand against Barak Obama few of those running have expressed their concern about climate change and some have stated that it is a hoax. Scientists from more than 20 institutions in Iowa urged Republican presidential candidates in the Iowa primary to accept the reality of climate change. Some 31 scientists from 22 universities and colleges issued a statement to candidates in November “to acknowledge the science of climate change”. The letter, drafted by four climate science researchers at Iowa State University cited rainfall patterns and other climate indicators as evidence that Iowa is already experiencing climate change effects, which could negatively affect farming – a cornerstone of the Iowa economy. They say lawmakers need to adopt an “appropriate policy response” to the threat.[iii]

The subject of the decline of science as a basis for public opinion is well treated in another excellent book, Nonsense on Stilts, How to Tell Science from Bunk by Massimo Pigliucci.[iv]Pigliucci examines a number of well-established scientific findings that are not accepted by many of the public of which global warming is just one. He finds that about 40% of Americans believe that the threat of global warming is exaggerated, despite near consensus in the scientific community that manmade climate change is real. On the other hand fewer than 40% believe in Darwin’s theory of evolution, despite it being one of science’s best established explanations of nature. Here part of the problem is in the word theory, which in popular parlance implies something that is not proven when in science it has a different meaning. Further, opponents of Darwin ignore all the subsequent work that has been done by the great man’s followers which has proved his theory over the past 150 years.

Why do people believe bunk? And what causes them to embrace such pseudoscientific beliefs and practices? Pigliucci sets out to separate the fact from the fantasy in an exploration of the nature of science, the borderlands of science, and- borrowing a famous phrase from philosopher Jeremy Bentham – the nonsense on stilts. Presenting case studies on a number of controversial topics, Pigliucci cuts through the ambiguity surrounding science to look more closely at how science is conducted, how it is disseminated, how it is interpreted, and what it means to our society.

Dr Philip Plait, creator of the Bad Astronomy blog writes:

“A frightening percentage of the American population cannot tell the difference between sense and nonsense- astrology, creationism, and anti-vaccination propaganda are rampant despite overwhelming evidence against them. If only we could get everyone to sit down and read Nonsense on Stilts, this country would be in far better shape! Pigliucci carefully lays out the case for why science leads us to the truth, but will always be battling superstition and antireality along the way. His book should be required reading in every science class.”

Hear! Hear! And not just in science class because too many children are allowed to give that up and not just in the United States because while they seem to have a greater proportion of such people it is by no means confined to them. My favourite story in Pigliucci’s book is about astrology. Astrology of course is based on efforts made by primitive scientists to read the heavens and draw conclusions about the human condition from the movement of the stars. Constellations were identified and can still be named by people who know nothing of astronomy but everything about astrology. But we now know how far apart the stars in these constellations are and that since they were first mapped they have moved even farther apart. Thus when a modern day astrologer talks about something being in the constellation of something else it has moved since it was first identified by humans and so even on their own logic they are entirely wrong in their analysis!

In 1965, based on information he had received from scientists, President Lyndon B. Johnson said in a special message to Congress

“This generation has altered the composition of the atmosphere on a global scale through …. A steady increase in carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels.”

But by 2008, thanks to the perverted efforts of the climate change deniers exposed in Oreskes and Conway’s book, a major conference in New York called “Global Warming is not a Crisis” opened with the main speaker saying,

“The science is settled. Climate change is not caused by human activity.”

I’ll leave the last word to Dr James Martin, the brilliant futurologist who endowed the University of Oxford with £150 million to found the Oxford Martin School to foster innovative thinking, interdisciplinary scholarship and collaborative activity to address the most pressing risks and realise important opportunities in the 21st Century.

“There are many climate deniers, some of them in high places. There is remarkable opposition in the US government to taking action about global warming. The public wants to avoid any form of carbon tax.

We have reached a time when the understanding of science is vital for our existence. A major concern today is that powerful voices with no knowledge of science often make themselves heard much louder than scientists. Many scientists avoid the public stage.

This is a time on Earth when we desperately need to get our act together, but it is an age of dangerous misinformation. Highly skilled PR organisations earn a fortune by persuading the public of anything that will increase the profits of the corporations that hire them. Strong and urgent actions are needed to slow down climate destabilisation, but clean energy would lower the profits of the coal industry. Such PR ought to be called ‘PM’ – Public misinformation. PM copywriters are highly paid.[v]

[i] Merchants of Doubt  How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming Naomi Oreskes & Erik M. Conway Bloomsbury Press 2010

[ii]“Mixed green message” Sunday Times Business Section 2011

[iii]  “Not Balmy? You’re barmy!” Times Higher Education 24 November 2011

[iv]Nonsense on Stilts  How To Tell Science From Bunk Massimo Pigliucci University of Chicago Press 2010

[v]Fasten Your Seatbelts, There’s Turbulence Ahead. Dr James Martin Oxford Today 2011


Copyright David C Pearson 2012 All rights reserved


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