March 25, 2016

The fallout from selling doubt about science



Virginia Immanuel, GHRI director of information technology, reviews a book (now a movie) about misrepresenting scientific evidence. Bad idea, she writes.

Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming
by Erik Conway and Naomi Oreskes
Bloomsbury Press, New York, 2010

Here is a disturbing book.The theme is this: As scientists discovered the dangers that various human activities have had on our health and our environment, a small group of well-connected men honed an approach—the selling of doubt—to prevent corrective action.

Chapter by chapter, the authors (Oreskes is a professor of history of science at Harvard, Conway is a historian at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory) march through seven great scientific issues of our time: the effect of smoking on health, the strategic defense initiative, acid rain, the ozone hole, secondhand smoke, global warming, and pesticide use.

Each chapter is eerily similar to the next: A concern surfaces about an important issue; a panel of experts is convened; after much investigation and debate, the scientists reach a conclusion that a human activity is causing harm; regulation or other corrective action is suggested; an opponent to the regulation launches a campaign of “doubt” to squelch regulation; and the issue fades from view.

Inconvenient truths

One of the most disturbing revelations in this book is the huge influence wielded by a very small group of men. Fred Singer, Fred Seitz, William Nierenberg, and Robert Jastrow were physicists who had come of age during the Cold War and who developed an intense fear of socialism that they carried with them for the rest of their lives. They strongly opposed regulation of any kind, as it seemed to them a step toward the evil socialism.

Although they did not do research on any of the seven topics discussed in this book, they were well known politically and were appointed to panels to investigate these scientific issues. Over the years, they established reputations for their ability to cast doubt on any “inconvenient truth,” and when they were not invited to sit on committees, they continued to be in demand from right-wing think tanks such as the Heritage Foundation and the Cato Foundation.

These men were invited to serve on panels ostensibly because of their scientific expertise, but their true mastery was in marketing and communication. An internal memo from a tobacco company included the statement, “Doubt is our product”; that cynical phrase reverberates through the book and crystallizes the purpose of these men’s work.

One of their strategies was to frame the issue at hand as a debate, implying an open question that could reasonably be decided by an informed public. They then invoked “fairness” in media coverage so that their “side” would get a full hearing, despite the fact that the science had been decided years before. Another strategy was to simply bury proceedings or rewrite committee reports or slip early misinformation to the press so that the true story would be relegated to back pages of a newspaper or to scientific journals only. A ploy used by the tobacco industry with good effect was to create “experts” who could be called upon when needed to provide scientific testimony.

To this end, the industry funded huge amounts of research on topics it felt might help its cause. For example, to deflect interest from the likely link between smoking and lung cancer, the tobacco industry supported research that looked at other possible causes of lung cancer, such as indoor air quality.

The critical importance of the issues and the excellent workmanship of the authors make this a must-read book. In fact, the book was made into a documentary in 2014 to reach a wider audience. The claims in this book were carefully researched and documented, and sometimes the detail detracted from the story. For that matter, each chapter was so similar to the next that it seemed unnecessary to read to the end. But the fact that so many important issues have been handled in exactly the same way—and by the same people!—is the point. An issue at least as compelling as global warming is whether we can figure out how to overcome powerful propaganda machines that stand in the way of resolving problems.

As members of the public, we have to be critical thinkers about science news stories. We must ask: Are two sides being presented out of “fairness” even though high-quality research overwhelmingly supports one side? As researchers, we need to be transparent about our funding and clear about our methods and conclusions. We all need to object when life-or-death issues are manipulated for political reasons.


by Virginia Immanuel, MPH, Group Health Research Institute director of research information technology