Merchants of Doubt

Climate change. Cancer and cigarette smoking. Vaccinations. What do we know?

Whatever knowledge we have is grounded in probabilities. What is the likelihood that carbon emissions lead to climate change? Does cigarette smoking causes lung cancer? Do immunizations prevent disease?

The merchants of doubt say we don’t know, we can’t be sure, we could be wrong, the evidence is suspect, we need more research.

Merchants of Doubt, a film made from the book of the same title, depicts the efforts to sow confusion and skepticism about the scientific research on these questions. Most of these efforts are corporate financed public relations campaigns designed to confuse the public.

Lies are spread, so is dishonesty and deception. The men and women who engage in these efforts couldn’t care less. They have a job, the untruths they spread are part of the deal.

Of course, there is always the question of who does and does not succumb to their playbook, the effects of their deceptions. Not everyone, that is for sure, but enough to block widespread acceptance of the research.

The same sort of doubts about research evidence has also characterized recent proposals of certain Presidential candidates. James Surowiecki calls them instances of “magical thinking.” (New Yorker 3/21/16). In particular, he discusses Donald Trump’s proposals to “slash taxes.”

He says Trump’s plan would reduce revenues by more than nine trillion dollars (can you can imagine such a number?) over the next decade. At the same time, he has promised to balance the budget and not cut services such as Social Security and Medicare.

How does he imagine he can do that? Surowiecki says he will get rid of government “waste and fraud and abuse…abolish the Department of Education and the Environmental Protection Agency” and that the tax cuts would stimulate the economy so that government revenues will increase.

This claim is contrary to all the current evidence. Surowiecki writes: “The message has been fact-checked and refuted over and over again, but once something becomes an article of political faith, it’s difficult to dislodge.”

This is the same sort of misperception that characterizes the beliefs discussed in the film Merchants of Doubt. All you have to do is make the claim, spread doubt and once they are in the public domain, they’re very difficult to overcome, in spite of all the contrary evidence, most of which is discounted or more likely ignored and unknown.