This disconnect between scientific consensus and public opinion is nothing new.
Businesses that oppose policy changes that threaten their interests have long used paid experts, faux public policy foundations and outright lies to create doubt in the minds of the public going back to the 1950s.
Numerous examples of these practices are exhaustively documented and analyzed in Merchants of Doubt, a book by Harvard professor Naomi Oreskes and CalTech science historian Erik Conway.
The book shows how a small number of politically conservative but academically respected scientists have been involved in campaigns to cast doubt on everything from the dangers of tobacco to evidence of an ozone hole to the debate over climate change, and how public relations executives used the now repealed Fairness Doctrine to convince media organizations give disproportionate attention to minority views in the interest of stirring up controversy.
A documentary based on Merchants of Doubt is now in staged release and will be widely available this summer. Eric saw it and calls it the most important documentary he’s ever seen. Paul listened to the 13-hour audiobook and calls it “life-changing.”
Naomi Oreskes, an American historian of science who serves as Professor of the History of Science and Affiliated Professor of Earth and Planetary Sciences at Harvard, joins us to discuss how commercial interests use doubt to block change and how to know when science is being manipulated in this way.
Merchants of Doubt has been praised – and attacked – for telling with “brutal clarity” the unsettling story of how a loose knit group of high-level scientists with political and industry ties ran effective campaigns to mislead the public and deny conclusive scientific evidence that had withstood critical review by a jury of scientific peers with nothing more than circumstantial allegations.
The book also identifies parallels between the climate change debate and earlier controversies over the adverse health impacts of smoking in which big tobacco funded research intended to delay regulatory and legislative action by spreading doubt and confusion on the scientific consensus that smoking is dangerous to your health.
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About Your Hosts
Paul Gillin is a veteran technology journalist and a thought leader in new media. Since 2005, he has advised marketers and business executives on strategies to optimize their use of social media and online channels to reach buyers cost-effectively. He is the author or co-author of five books, including Social Marketing to the Business Customer (2011), the first book devoted entirely to B2B social media marketing. He is also a social media trainer and coach at Profitecture, a training firm for B2B companies and their channel partners.
Eric Schwartzman is a digital strategist with 15 years of experience selling and leading teams on the agency side in the development and delivery of innovative integrated marketing initiatives for multinational corporations, NGOs, federal government agencies and military commands. He is a frequent speaker at conferences all over the world on the topic of how technology is changing the way organizations communicate and the way people use media and information.
Follow Eric on Twitter at @ericschwartzman.