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"Science Under Fire from 'merchants of doubt'": US historian

Discussion in 'Other Health News and Research' started by Merry, Mar 30, 2012.

  1. Merry

    Merry Senior Member

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    This article doesn't specifically talk about health research other than to point out how tobacco companies fought research that established that tobacco use poses serious health risks. Bolding is mine:

    http://news.yahoo.com/science-under-fire-merchants-doubt-us-historian-190044894.html

    Science Under Fire from 'Merchants of Doubt": US Historian


    Scientists are facing an uphill battle to warn the public about pressing issues due to dissenters in their ranks who intentionally sow uncertainty, says a US historian.

    These naysayers -- some of whom are paid by interest groups -- have helped undermine action on vital problems despite evidence of the need to respond, said Naomi Oreskes, a professor of history and science studies at the University of California at San Diego.

    They sap convictions by endlessly questioning data, dismissing experimental innovation, stressing uncertainties and clamouring for more research, she said. Over the last half-century, they have helped weaken legislative action or brake political momentum on tobacco, acid rain, protection of the ozone layer and climate change.

    "This strategy is so clever and effective," Oreskes said in an interview this week in Paris to promote a French translation of "Merchants of Doubt," a book she co-authored with California Institute of Technology historian Erik Conway.

    "It takes something which is an essential part of science -- healthy skepticism, curiosity -- and turns it against itself and makes it corrosive."

    Oreskes's book traces the starting point of professional science skeptics to when big tobacco companies were facing the first clear evidence that smoking caused cancer.

    An internal memo, written by a Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corp. executive in 1969, spelt out the goal of weakening this link with expert help.

    "Doubt is our product, since it is the best means of competing with the 'body of fact' that exists in the minds of the general public. It is also the means of establishing a controversy," according to the document, now placed in a US public archive.

    Oreskes said a blatant example today was the sowing of doubt about global warming.

    A "denial campaign" started to take root in the United States just before the Earth Summit of 1992 and amplified in the run-up to negotiations for the Kyoto Protocol in 1997, she said.

    "They don't have to prove that they're right. They don't have to prove that there's no global warming," she said.

    "They simply have to raise doubts and questions, because if they can raise doubts and questions, then they can say, 'Well, since the science is not settled,' they allege, 'therefore it would be premature to act on it.' And so they delay action and avoid the kind of actions they would like to avoid."

    The tactic has been so successful that climate denialism is now firmly anchored in the higher reaches of US politics, said Oreskes.

    "Major Republican (Party) leaders say in public that they believe it's a hoax. This is a very shocking state of affairs, and particularly from a party that once upon a time was considered to be more scientific and more environmental than the Democrats."

    Oreskes was scathing about some US media which believed that story "balance" meant giving equal weight to opposing scientific views -- even if one opinion was backed only by a small minority in the face of massive evidence to the contrary.

    According to Oreskes, scientists who push climate uncertainty are not necessarily hired guns, although "some of them get money, either directly through the fossil-fuel industry or indirectly through intermediaries."


    "But I don't actually think money is the primary motivation. I think it's political, ideological, it's (the desire for) attention and sometimes it's narcissistic too."

    For mainstream scientists, many of these full-time dissenters are time-wasters or intellectually valueless, she said.

    "These people don't do work, they don't collect data. Instead, they just criticise other people's work. And then, when they make those criticisms, they don't take them to the scientific community for scrutiny. They publish it in The Wall Street Journal, which is not a scientific journal."
  2. RustyJ

    RustyJ Contaminated Cell Line 'RustyJ'

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    Thanks for posting Merry. For members who continue to have blind faith in the institution of scientific researchers, I urge you to read this article. The article elaborates on the corrupting influences of some scientific professionals, influences which are evident in own area of medical research. The traditional authority and trustworthiness of these professions has been well and truly tarnished. Anyone who believes otherwise is either naive or part of the destabilizing forces mentioned in the article.
  3. xchocoholic

    xchocoholic Senior Member

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    Thanks. I'm sure most people don't realize this group exists. I didn't. I would love to see these authors take a look at health science. Tc .. X
  4. Esther12

    Esther12 Senior Member

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    I'd like to be a merchant of doubt.

    Doubt is a good thing, and scientists can be as likely to forget this as anyone else.

    I think that some scientists want their beliefs to be treated with too much deference, when very often the evidence available to us is limited and ambiguous. It's not as if when scientists get it wrong, they're held accountable for the problems this causes. It's easy to point towards something like 'evolution vs creationism' or the tobacco industry and cancer, as examples where there was an intentional attempt to mislead people by dishonestly criticising the work of scientists, but there have been problems caused by misleading science around race, homosexuality as a psychological disorder... CFS as atypical depression, etc, etc!
  5. SilverbladeTE

    SilverbladeTE Senior Member

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    Somewhere near Glasgow, Scotland
    WSJ = another Murdoch "front"
    and yes I know certain persons there have been very sympathetic to our cause
    Doesn't change the fact of who owns it or some of the stuff the journal been up to recently (almost certainly on higher order's)

    "When you sup with the Devil, be sure to use a very long spoon!" ;)
    Jarod likes this.
  6. Merry

    Merry Senior Member

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    Hey, Esther, always good to see you.

    I just checked Amazon for the book mentioned above, and it's Merchants of Doubt: How a Few Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming. Surely you aren't in favor of propagating "doubt" as the word is used in the title of the book.

    Below that book in the list at Amazon is Global Warming and Political Intimidation: How Politicians Cracked Down on Scientists As the Earth Heated Up by Raymond S. Bradley.

    Both books were published in 2011.

    I haven't read either book nor have I read the reviews at Amazon, although the first got four stars out of 81 reviews and the second five stars out of five reviews.

    My thanks to Rusty and x for the comments in this thread, too.

    Edit: And of course Silverblade!
  7. SOC

    SOC Moderator and Senior Member

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    Healthy, rational skepticism is a good thing and invaluable to science. In fact, it's a critical part of science. Paranoid and irrational skepticism, on the other hand, are not.

    I think it's important to distinguish between the soft and the hard sciences in this context. All the examples of misleading science (as opposed to misleading criticism) given above are from sociology and psychology, which are much more prone to confirmation bias and other logical flaws in the construction and interpretation of their research.

    Hard scientists expect to have their work scrutinized and criticized (in the logical sense). That's the nature of scientific research. It's about documentable and reproducible evidence, not belief. It's about not accepting one research result as fact until it has been verified multiple times. So let's not tar all scientists with the same brush. Misleading science rarely holds up in the hard science world. Sometimes it takes time, but the system (unlike in the soft science world) self-corrects.
    Waverunner, ggingues and Calathea like this.
  8. Esther12

    Esther12 Senior Member

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    Thanks Merry. Nice to 'see' you too!

    I really am pretty keen on doubt, and think that there's generally too little of it about.

    I've not read either of these books, and see how 'doubt' can be used as a dishonest way of manipulating people - but so can faith.

    I also think that my being British rather than American could affect my judgements in this way. Charles Darwin is the face on our ten pound notes, and all of our major parties recognise that action needs to be taken to reduce the harm being done to the environment by CO2 emissions (even if they're less good on following through with actual legislation). We don't have such a problem with the more extreme forms of anti-reality politics which take place in America, so can more easily focus upon areas where doubt is legitimate and, imo, required.

    eg: With global warming, while there's pretty good evidence that CO2 emissions are and will affect our environment, there's a lot of uncertainty about the extent to which this is occurring, and it does seem like the politicised nature of this debate has led to some unsafe scientific claims. It's all very well for scientists to feel grouchy about having their data criticised, but when the claims their making are likely to affect billion dollar decisions, and complicated geopolitical calculations, a fairly high degree of scepticism and caution is warranted imo.

    In America, I'd be confident that the government should commit to targets to bring down CO2 emission, in the UK, I'm unsure whether our current targets are too demanding, or not tight enough, and sceptical to of those who claim to have no doubt in one way or the other.
  9. Esther12

    Esther12 Senior Member

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    Yeah - I largely agree... but it can be hard to know where the line between hard and soft science lies.

    I certainly didn't mean to do this! Many of the thinkers I respect most are scientists - but I also think that there are plenty of stupid scientists. The same is the case with all professions, but it can be more of a problem when some are so instinctively trusting of the claims made in the name of science. I do worry that there can be a lack of doubt and scepticism from much of the public when a headline starts "Scientists say..."
  10. Merry

    Merry Senior Member

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    Esther, I trust your doubt, in fact enjoy your propensity to look at different angles. Or -- maybe I shouldn't trust you so much?

    Yes, you and I are products of a somewhat different cultural heritages. Charles Darwin on the ten pound note! My!

    But when I saw the face of Cesar Vallejo on a Peruvian bill, I thought: That's the country for me!
  11. Merry

    Merry Senior Member

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    Thanks, SOC. Good points. Sorry my mental powers are fading and consequently I can't pull thoughts together to respond more fully.
  12. Enid

    Enid Senior Member

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    Gee whiskers Merry - what a scrabble - anyone interested in the basics like helping patients simply for that - not too often it seems.
  13. SOC

    SOC Moderator and Senior Member

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    Very true -- there are some fuzzy areas. It's also sometimes difficult for the general public to distinguish scientists from the politicians and business people making so-called scientific claims.

    Certainly! What the media reports as science is almost universally not science, it's some non-scientifically thinking person's interpretation of science. The media (and politicians) also invariably extrapolate far beyond the data and any interpretation of the data given by the researcher.

    We really, really need to do a better job of education. There are far too many scientifically illiterate people in the world who are being fooled and manipulated by pseudoscience and personal agenda driven interpretations of scientific fact.
    Little Bluestem likes this.
  14. Jarod

    Jarod Senior Member

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    This article seems to be 180 degrees off reality.

    This is the way I read it: Are the elites pissed off the rank and file scientists are not going along with the mainstream concensus and causing them problems trying to keep the lies going? That's my interpretation.

    When one reads/watches news from a division of the worlds four corporate owned media empire's, first thing to do is try and figure out what the SPIN is. It is not all SPIN and one may find a well written article that slipped through in a Op-ed piece, but more often that not there is subtle brainwashing going on.

    No offense to anybody here, but we have to learn to recognize this propaganda so the banksters and ruling elites can't continue to trample freedom.

    Not suggesting anybody try and be a martyr, but we have to recognize this stuff.
    ggingues likes this.
  15. SilverbladeTE

    SilverbladeTE Senior Member

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    Somewhere near Glasgow, Scotland
    Thing is with GLobal Warming, that yes, it is too complex to be at all "certain" (as in absolute), but the basic facts are undeniable to anyone who isn't nincompoop:
    you cannot add a reactive material like that, in such quantities, over time, into a system, and it not have some effect

    Earth should be -20C, but the atmosphere keeps the heat in, almost +40C worth and THAT should tell folk how powerful such things cna be.

    Medium term as I've tried to get into folks' heads elsewhere, the biggest danger is not from the heat per se, but the vast mass migrations it will trigger, as poorly or chaotically run countries near the Equator collapse, due to food and water shortages etc

    Talking World War3, over food and water, stable nations forced to use weapons of mass destruciton to prevent hundreds of millions of folk swamping them.
    We aren't Stone Age Man, who could move across the land to adapt to the end of the last Ice Age.
    Please go read up on the KNOWN looming catastrophy as is, regarding food and water, throw in temperature rises of 2 to 6C by end of the century and, yeech, apocalpyse :/

    To show the degree of utter twistedness in this too, JunkScience had a video "CO2, we call it ...life!"
    O M G
    and who are their funders ? Tobacco, oil and Coal companies.
    Yes, without CO2, as I said, the planet Earth would be an ice ball.
    But see Venus as to what greenhouse gasses can do
    and yes, water vapour is the most powerful in total effect of the greenhouse gasses, point is, it's very short lived in the atmosphere, CO2's got a life in the air of about 10 years, so it builds up.

    Typical piece of Fear Uncertianty Doubt bullcrap the corporate driven skeptics talk is that "volcanoes produce more CO2 than Humans!"
    utter NONSENSE
    From US Geological Survey
    http://hvo.wr.usgs.gov/volcanowatch/archive/2007/07_02_15.html
    Anthropogenic Climate Change is indeed, not "proven" it maybe never will be, it's that complex. It is "Theory".
    Anyone want to doubt the Theory of Gravity, well...you don't HAVE to wear a parachute when you jump out of a plane :p
    Science just isn't taught/appreciated well enough much of the time :/
    Little Bluestem likes this.
  16. Merry

    Merry Senior Member

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    Hi, Jarod.

    Could you elaborate? Which elites and which science story are you referring to? Who are "the rank and file scientists"? What is "the mainstream consensus"? Does the "them" in the sentence refer to the elites?

    Not offended. Just waiting for clarification before I martyr myself.
  17. Merry

    Merry Senior Member

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    Thanks, Silverblade, for your passionate contribution.

    Now as I contemplate which road I'll take, martyrdom or nincompoopdom. . . .

    I was more than a little disturbed today to see the lilacs in bloom already.

    Oh, I forgot to thank Enid earlier for "Gee whiskers."
  18. Esther12

    Esther12 Senior Member

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    Trust no-one!!
    Jarod likes this.
  19. alex3619

    alex3619 Senior Member

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    A good first pass test for hard versus soft science is whether or not they use objective data. The use of only strictly objective data indicates hard science, the use of only subjective data is at best a soft science, and arguable not a science at all.

    This is of course only an approximation. It is very difficult to define hard versus soft sciences. Soft science is also not a derogatory phrase. It simply means the topic under study is so complex or subtle that it is very difficult to pursue rational objective analysis. The soft sciences are studying complex topics and it is still possible for soft sciences to be rational.

    Secondary issues include how much peer criticism exists. Something that is robustly debated by lots of scientists is more reliable than something that gets rubber stamped by a few and nobody argues. When a small group of researchers is working in their own isolated field, with little peer criticism because the peer group is so small, its easy for it to slip bad science through the cracks in the system.

    Rampant skepticism via sowing doubt is however often not science. It can be criticism, but is not always scientific criticism. Arguments have to be specific in science, and justified with sound reason, data or theory.

    How do you spot skepticism masquerading as spin? It isn't easy. However when a skeptical argument has been resoundingly debunked, but is still repeated again and again, it can be regarded as spin, propaganda, pseudoscience or just ignorance. Of course I could still be naive on these issues, my grounding is in science and reason not public relations.

    Again there are exceptions. If the same debunked argument comes back with better theory or data, it has to be re-examined. Therein lies the problem. Spin merchants, if they are good, will keep presenting the scientific community and the public with the same theory with minor variations. This ties the scientific community up when they should be doing more research. Its strictly a delaying tactic though. However when each year of delay may be worth billions or trillions of dollars, its a powerful motive.

    The reason these topic cause problems is that they have profound political or economic consequences (though the negative economic consequences to big tobacco was nearly all to the tobacco companies, society profits from decreased tobacco consumption). Once it enters the arena of politics or economics, it ceases to be hard science and can arguable be said to be only partially science-based. Most politicians do not have time to study the issues. They are easily manipulated if they don't make that time.

    Let us not forget that in the context of climate debate the green movement has also produced spin and doubtful claims - its a political movement, not a scientific one, even though there is scientific merit in much of what they say. So once the claim enters the political arena it is no longer really a scientific debate. People are too tempted to use pursuasive argument rather than rational argument.

    So the scientists have their debates, and the groups either for or against the ideas try to shift the debate to their liking, even though their arguments are often lacking in scientific justification.

    This is just my current take on things. Feel free to disagree.

    Bye, Alex
    Jarod and SOC like this.
  20. SilverbladeTE

    SilverbladeTE Senior Member

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    Somewhere near Glasgow, Scotland
    Be one with the inner nincompoop!!

    *Silver puts on a pink Teddy Bear outfit and goes parachuting!* :p

    Well, we had warmest March on record, 22C, in SCOTLAND?!
    doesn't mean a thing really to the Global Warming debate as it's only one tiny bit of data form a huge planet, but our "local weather" for past couple of decades has definatley being getting outside the norms.

    be-seeing-you.jpg

    BE SEEING YOU, NUMBER SIX! ;)

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