Friday, July 6, 2012

"Merchants of Doubt"

We like to think our decisions are all based on a serious weighing of all the facts.  That is not true for any of us.  We do not have time so we rely on habits and information supplied to us.

There is a strong scientific consensus regarding Global Warming, however not much constructive action.  The two authors, Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway are both involved in the history of science. Meeting at a conference they noted that climate deniers were very much like those who denied links between tobacco smoke and cancer.

They decided to explore the matter and discovered that many of the same people were involved in several scientific controversies and used the same strategy.  The basic strategy was not to disprove a contention but to cast doubt.  If nothing else they succeeded in delaying any government response.  Most of their efforts eventually were overturned.

Many media platforms have a policy of balanced reporting.  Both sides of an argument are given equal weight, rather than as authors suggest is giving accurate weight to both sides.  It often appears as if there is a lot of controversy amongst scientists, when in fact regarding climate change there is very little disagreement.

It seems that scientific researchers often discover inconvenient truths that disturb those who have found a comfortable position in the status quo.  Scientists do quarrel amongst themselves and often form opposing factions.  They do have a system for determining what is valid.  Peer review is taken seriously and anyone can identify those who have participated in the review.

The people who have participated in denying, such as Robert Jastrow, Frederick Seitz, William Nierenberg and S Fred Singer have all distinguished themselves in science, but not in the field  they were contesting.   It might be easy to attribute their motive to money, but in fact there was an important political element.  Many of them at the beginning were anti-Communist and saw themselves taking part in the battles of the Cold War.  They also tended to be against government regulation and believed that the market would solve all problems.  They fought against  tobacco smoke causing fatal diseases and second hand smoke also causing fatal diseases, CFC causing ozone depletion, acid rain, DDT restrictions,and now global warming.

Money was invested in anything that suggested tobacco was harmful or if other scientific concerns should be regulated by government.  They used public relations efforts and were successful.  Obviously economic interests are prominent with these issues, none more than energy.  The economic interests need some scientific support to maintain their business plans, but they do not need to disprove anything, just cast doubt.

They quote John Maynard Keynes that there "is no such thing as a free lunch."  Many people relate that notion to actual financial costs, but the authors point out that mankind has been living off natural resources and haven't really paid the price.

A definition of conservative might be they like the status quo.  Change is frightening.  Usually they are invested in the present system and do not want to risk any adjustments.  The problem is that the world is changing and is likely to change even more.

An example of conservative thinking would be people who cite heavy snowfall in an area not experiencing it before as proof that climate change is a hoax.  They do not accept that it actually confirms climate change.  Warmer water evaporates faster and results in more precipitation, including snow.

I am reminded of the fuss surrounding seat belts.  The argument of some was that it was their life and nobody had the right to force them to do something they didn't want to.  Eventually another argument prevailed and that was that society paid for their resistance.  Medical resources were used and often the victims were unable to be productive causing suffering for others including family and employers.

The arguments about the freedom of the individual versus the affects on society will always be there.  When the issues arise we need a fair way of deciding.

There is an excellent 58 minute video that explains the main ideas of the book.

No comments:

Post a Comment