Fighting the Merchants of Doubt

In yesterday’s post I mentioned the scientist-for-hire Fred Singer. I only met this odious character fairly recently, in the pages of the magisterial Merchants of Doubt by Naomi Oreskes and Erik M Conway. I don’t often say this, but everyone should read that book. It exposes what scientists are up against when they try to do some good in the world: a well-organised, well-funded, carefully-orchestrated and powerful lobbying system that is carefully designed to undermine scientists threatening political or industrial interests.

The scary thing is, it’s not that hard to do. All that’s required is a few seeds of doubt – public confusion does the rest. I won’t delve into it here; read the book. It’s worth it, I promise, because it will make you angry, and righteous anger is sadly lacking in the world, and especially among scientists.

One of the most startling revelations in the book is actually about the good guys: that good scientists are not angry or combative enough. Oreskes and Conway delve into the details of some of the biggest scientific battlegrounds of the last 100 years – acid rain, climate change, tobacco marketing and the ozone crisis – and find the scientists strangely disappointing. “We would have liked to have told heroic stories of how scientists set the record straight,” they say. But only in a few scant cases were they able to. “Clearly, scientists knew that many contrarian claims were false,” they point out. “Why didn’t they do more to refute them?”

Their conclusion is that scientists are really quite timid when it comes to public exposure. They worry unceasingly about what their colleagues will say, and about personal attacks on their reputation from deniers of all colours. Sometimes scientists (as they don’t put it) can be real pussies.

There was a telling line at the end of this week’s Horizon. Paul Nurse, incoming head of the Royal Society, says scientists must engage more with the public, “even if it does sometimes put their reputation [in] doubt.”

It is a tacit admission of a problem in the infrastructure of science. You might have thought that public engagement only enhances a scientist’s reputation. You would be wrong. Those who involve themselves in efforts to bring the wonders of science to an eager public tend to suffer for that. Whoever you are – Carl Sagan, Lynn Margulis, Brian Cox – there will be colleagues who look down their noses at your attempt to engage the public with science. If those are the wrong colleagues, you can find yourself, as Feynman did, passed over for tenure and denied membership of your national science academy. (This is not a thing of the past: there are those at CERN who don’t miss an opportunity to sneer at Cox, and this Nature piece gives examples of those who are fighting right now to overcome such prejudice).

I don’t know how Nurse is going to fix this problem: the implication of his statement seems to be that you can’t (I disagree, but it needs radical, root and branch change). The trouble is, even just talking to the public is no longer enough. In the face of the threat of climate change, scientists need to be not just talking about it, but getting themselves worked up about it. And this will be another source of censure.

The vast majority of scientists live in a culture where they are told scientists should not get worked up or involved. They should not be activists. They shouldn’t even talk about their frustrations and their concerns.We are in the sorry situation where people like senior climate scientist Susan Solomon get to tell the New York Times that, “If we as scientists go beyond what we know into our personal opinions and values, we begin to engage in the same sort of personal speculation masquerading as authoritative that we dislike when it is done by the sceptics.”

I couldn’t agree less. As Carl Sagan said in The Demon-Haunted World, “It is the particular task of scientists, I believe, to alert the public to possible dangers, especially those emanating from science or foreseeable through the use of science.”

That’s why Sagan not only did the science on the nature of a nuclear winter, but also got himself arrested at an anti-nuclear protest in Nevada. It’s why James Hansen now gets himself arrested on a regular basis: it’s his way of humanising the scientific message of climate change. I’d like to see more of this. And so would everyone else.

In 2009, a Pew Survey revealed that more than three-quarters of the public thought it appropriate for scientists to become “actively involved in political debates on controversial issues such as stem cell research and nuclear power”. But here’s the real shocker. The overwhelming majority of scientists – 97 per cent – also express that view when polled in the same survey. Scientists are champing at the bit, and are only held back by senior colleagues’ weighty-sounding (but vacuous and ludicrous) pronouncements about the “proper” way of doing things.

The proper way of doing things is why it took 13 years to get the Montreal Protocol signed; it actually took the discovery of the ozone hole over the Antarctic before anyone did anything substantial about CFCs and ozone. The climate situation is even more dire, and the scientifically “proper” way of doing things is clearly getting us nowhere. We’ve known what’s happening to the planet for decades. Now scientists have to take the lead in combating this threat – by “scientifically improper” means if necessary.

Even after Montreal, Fred Singer was agitating against the legislation, making it as weak as possible. He had huge reach – Senator Tom Delay, for example, is on record saying he got all his views from Singer. So did shock-jock Rush Limbaugh. Singer and his ilk are still active, sowing seeds of doubt in the public’s mind – now it’s about climate change. It’s a fight scientists won’t win by doing things the “proper” way, with one eye on their reputations and living in fear of the disapproval of their colleagues. If that kind of censure is allowed to continue, we will most likely have to wait for some catastrophic climate-related discovery to force governments to take appropriate action.


3 responses to “Fighting the Merchants of Doubt

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention Fighting the Merchants of Doubt | Free Radicals --

  2. the official science community is as fundamentalist as the official religious one, and they know it, deep inside. hence the “rigor”.

  3. Very often scientists need to be hard-nosed business men and women these days, chasing increasingly difficult to catch pots of money for research. There is no time to stand up for what they believe in in the wider world because they are so narrowly focussed on what they do (and the competition there in). I suppose they hope that journalists might pick up some of the important issues and run with them. The trouble is that balanced science reporting (based on consensus and peer review) are no match for news stories (note the word ‘story’) to sell the papers that make the profits for shareholders. It’s a muddle and a mess, but that doesn’t make the system all bad. Scientists should not give up. They need to be thicker skinned, and learn to communicate better with the public. Sadly, newspapers are dying (partly the web, partly time and partly because when a paper gets something seriously wrong and doesn’t correct it, it’s seen to be treating its readership with contempt and people are getting tired of this). Good, public facing websites that engage and intrigue and provide an institute’s or a professor’s work in an imaginative and readable way should be absolute requirements for any publicly funded researcher. That way, we all might learn something and if we are interested in a piece in the paper, we can follow it up ourselves, on line. Researchers – wake up to the modern world, and have a go! And, gosh, it could actually be fun.

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