“Hearing ‘both sides’ of an issue makes sense when debating politics in a two-party system, but there’s a problem when that framework is applied to science. When a scientific question is unanswered, there may be three, four, or a dozen competing hypotheses, which are then investigated through research…Research produces evidence, which in time may settle the question…After that point, there are no “sides.” There is simply accepted scientific knowledge. There may still be questions that remain unanswered—to which scientists then turn their attention—but for the question that has been answered, there is simply the consensus of expert opinion on that particular matter. That is what scientific knowledge is.” (Page 268) – Naomi Oreskes & Erik M. Conway, Merchants of Doubt
Merchants of Doubt illustrates the value of knowing the historical perspective in which debates are being framed. Ideally, we know history to understand the landscape of the present, as well as a means of avoiding past mistakes, if humans are indeed capable of learning from our mistakes. The text was dense and detailed, but the authors lay out compelling evidence to illustrate how doubt of scientific consensus has undermined timely action to protect human and/or environmental health. This seems like a must read.
One of the struggles I had while reading this book was about the potential for bias. It was clear to me early on that my conservative friends and/or family members, no matter how interested in these issues, would not be interested in reading Merchants of Doubt. The book is a clear indictment of blind & absolute faith of the free market, a view held by some conservatives, which appeared to influence the motivation of scientific “experts” (who although experts in some fields were not experts in all the fields they appeared to meddle), which led to either complete loss of perspective or outright lying. Conservative administrations and politicians are the ones that are directly implicated in generating doubt where the scientific reality is much more certain. Does the implication of the “conservatives” make the book biased? In the end, I concluded that the authors were objective—they provide persuasive evidence (with sometimes exhausting detail) that key players intentionally misled the public and waged a scientific battle outside of science, which led to political inaction and public confusion over the real state of knowledge. The approach of the doubt-mongers, which started in the 1950s, has also provided enough examples and enough time to show that in each of these cases that the doubt they sowed was in fact unjustified—not a seed that should have grown & flourished, but actually a stone. So while I do not expect conservatives to like this book, I wonder if it can be countered with evidence that can withstand honest scrutiny.
This book reframed for me why these false scientific debates, funded ultimately by industry, take root in society. The book suggests that it’s not only personal financial gain for the business people, politicians, and the few scientists involved--although money is clearly there at the root of the issue—but also the idea that anything less than full free market support is the first step to the slippery slope of Socialism (arguably, in this country, the path to Socialism would be an uphill battle—not an easy slide). I grew up in a very conservative household, arguably “hawkish” in the words of Oreskes & Conway, so I can kind of understand that concern, even if I do not consider it particularly rational. What I cannot understand is how scientists, many of whom had been accomplished in their field of expertise, could pose as experts in other disciplines where they were clearly not and (or) then mislead or confuse the public about the state of knowledge—simply because they disagreed with the obvious implications of the data (which may mean warning labels on cigarettes, limited public smoking, regulations on emissions). We cannot have the correct conversations as a society if people are actively working to misrepresent the science—doing so seems criminal.
A true conservative approach would be one that ensured that the natural resources and biodiversity of the planet would be preserved for “the greatest good to the greatest number of people for the longest time,” in the words of Gifford Pinchot. Applying skepticism without perspective—by a failure to account for the available data—is not the path to a free society, but it is a very dark path and one that we cannot afford to travel. In any case, we should all be carrying our flashlights.