Doubt-Mongering and the Misrepresentation of Science

Earlier this year, James Powell produced a new version of his telling pie-chart about global warming consensus. For the first version he reviewed the body of peer-reviewed literature from 1991 through 2012 about global warming, to see whether there was any consensus among the scientific community on the matter.

James Powell's latest pie chart.

James Powell’s latest pie chart.

He was driven to this experiment because polls show that, among the general public, there is widespread belief that the true nature of global warming, and whether it is real at all, is still a topic of debate, and that scientists really aren’t sure about it. As it turns out, that isn’t accurate whatsoever. Powell went through all the scientific papers about climate change he could find and identified the ones that denied global warming or claimed that it wasn’t caused by humans. His findings are telling: out of the 13950 articles he found, only 24 rejected global warming.

Powell has now done the same study for the literature published in 2013 and, unsurprisingly, his second chart (shown to the right) delivers the same message. There is strong, nearly unanimous scientific consensus about the nature of global climate change.

The Problem of Communicating Science

How can there be such a huge discrepancy between what scientists believe about global warming and what the public thinks scientists believe? There must be some hitch in communicating scientific findings on the subject to a wider audience.

Communicating about what scientists are working on and what they’re finding is very tricky business. Science is a profession that is strongly segregated from the rest of society, separated by years of specialized study. This makes it very difficult to translate the technical language that scientists employ for their thoughts and discussions into something that can be understood without those years of painstaking study. This problem obviously only gets worse as time goes by and scientists dig deeper and uncover more advanced knowledge.

These circumstances can be troublesome. For instance, there is many a crackpot out there who thinks he can do better than mainstream science, ranging from misguided amateurs to actual trained scientists with proper credentials who seem somehow to have got lost somewhere along the way.

When such a crackpot obtains an audience that takes his ideas seriously, this can be hurtful to science. The tricky part is that it is often nearly impossibly to explain to a general audience why such a person’s ideas are false, or at least not substantiated by anything scientific. Take for example the movie What the Bleep Do We Know!? It tries to put a scientific spin on some metaphysical and paranormal ideas, pretending everything it claims is substantiated by quantum physics. Any physicist who’s taken an undergraduate course in quantum mechanics will find the entire movie cringe-worthy and will very easily be able to spot that physical concepts are being mangled to support ideas they bear absolutely no relation to. However, trying to explain that to someone who doesn’t know anything about quantum physics is a nearly impossible task; the layperson would essentially have to take the physicist’s word for it.

There is no universal solution to this problem. The scientist’s strategy for dealing with crackpots is usually to ignore them; and if you ask him about a crackpot’s theories, you’ll probably be answered with a deep, weary sigh. He knows the difference between crackpottery and real science; he deals with the rigorous principles of the scientific method every day. But how can he convince a layperson, who is not trained to criticize research and theories based on those principles? Especially if he wants to do so purely on the scientific merits of the case, without resorting to rhetoric? It soon becomes a tiresome enterprise.

Merchants of Doubt

Given these difficulties in communication between scientists and the rest of society, it is not very hard to see why the general public might misunderstand or misinterpret scientific findings. But in the case of global warming, these difficulties are not enough. After all, judging the existence or absence of scientific consensus on a topic isn’t quite as difficult. Anyone could have performed the analysis Powell did.

Something more is going on here: not just a misunderstanding, but an orchestrated attempt to deliberately misrepresent science to the public. The whole deal is powerfully represented in Merchants of Doubt by Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway. Oreskes and Conway dug through an astronomical amount of archival data on issues ranging from the health effects of tobacco to the modern global warming debate, and uncovered large-scale efforts to discredit the scientific findings on these matters and sow doubt as to what was really known about them.

A troubling facet of the story is that it was ultimately scientists themselves who made this all possible.

The Tobacco Strategy

The first instance Merchants of Doubt deals with is the debate about health issues associated with smoking tobacco. In 2014, no one has any doubts anymore that smoking is bad for you. It’s well known that smoking is linked to lung diseases, cardiovascular issues and a whole host of other impositions on your health. To those of us who grew up with all the anti-smoking campaigns, it seems like a no-brainer: of course breathing in smoke and tar can’t be good for you. However, for decades after concerns about tobacco smoke were first voiced, and well after those concerns were found to be grounded in scientific knowledge, there raged a debate about whether smoking was really harmful or not.

The tobacco industry’s strategy to combat this threat to their livelihood was to keep the controversy alive. Their enemy was science, which reached a stronger and stronger consensus, clearly indicating that smoking was indeed very harmful. The industry’s tactics, paradoxically, relied on scientists.

The big players in the American tobacco industry got together and decided to start pouring copious amounts of money into tobacco research. The science produced with the industry’s funding itself wasn’t unsound, and usually the findings didn’t help the industry’s case at all, but only solidified the consensus that smoking was bad.

But the tobacco industry wasn’t interested in the actual science at all and the fact that the research produced results that worked to their disadvantage was a minor inconvenience at best. After all, those results were only published in academic journals, which the general public would never read. No, they were interested in the scientists. By funding scientific research, the industry made contacts within the scientific community, which they could exploit.

Whenever a tobacco company was sued by someone who believed that their product had caused their lung cancer or other smoking-related medical condition, the defense would call a scientist to the stand. They would ask him, `Can we conclude with one hundred percent certainty that this person’s condition was caused by smoking?’ or `Is it established with certainty that smoking causes lung cancer?’

The scientist would, in good conscience, answer No, to both of these questions. Of course it is impossible to trace back through a person’s life and establish with certainty that his condition was not caused by asbestos or air pollution, instead of smoking. Of course the science about smoking did not provide a hundred percent certainty about the effects of smoking, simply because science never provides a hundred percent certainty about anything. It’s one of the strong suits of science: it never stops questioning what’s been found so far and it is willing to throw out old theories in the light of new evidence.

But that’s not what the general layperson thought science did. It was (and probably still is) a common misconception that science provides pure facts and unquestionable knowledge about the nature of reality. The fact that a scientist was saying that he wasn’t a hundred percent sure sounded to the general public as an indication that science had no idea. And so the tobacco industry exploited what is normally a strength of the scientific method as a weakness, to keep the idea alive that science wasn’t sure about any of it, long after scientists had reached a consensus among themselves.

The same strategy applied not only in court, but also in the media. The industry found itself some scientists willing to defend their case. In the media, they pretended that there was a debate between those scientists who thought smoking was harmful and those who thought it wasn’t, and demanded equal media time for both parties. In reality, the latter group consisted of a tiny minority with agendas that went beyond scientific inquiry, but the support of the tobacco industry made sure their voices were heard as loudly as those of the collective of researchers who had reached a mainstream consensus. They managed this mess so well that it was impossible for the public to disentangle it and get at the truth.

The Debate About Global Warming

The strategy, then, was doubt-mongering. Oreskes and Conway describe in lucid detail how this strategy was applied again and again: to the Star Wars initiative (a US space program proposed in the 80’s to fend off nuclear attacks with laser-equipped satellites); environmental issues like acid rain and the ozone hole; the second installment of the tobacco issue: second-hand smoke; and nowadays the issue of global warming. As long as there is doubt, you cannot get sued and governments won’t be strongly inclined to take measures to curtail your activities as a producer of tobacco or as an oil magnate.

The exact same thing has been happening in the climate change issue. There is no doubt. Scientists agree, almost unanimously, that climate change is happening, that it’s caused by us and that it’s a problem that needs to be addressed. It takes just a glance at the Headline Statements from the latest IPCC (the International Panel on Climate Change, which represents thousands of scientists working in the field of climate change) report:

“Warming of the climate system is unequivocal, and since the 1950s, many of the observed changes are unprecedented over decades to millennia. The atmosphere and ocean have warmed, the amounts of snow and ice have diminished, sea level has risen, and the concentrations of greenhouse gases have increased.

Total radiative forcing is positive, and has led to an uptake of energy by the climate system. The largest contribution to total radiative forcing is caused by the increase in the atmospheric concentration of CO2 since 1750.

Human influence on the climate system is clear. This is evident from the increasing greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere, positive radiative forcing, observed warming, and understanding of the climate system.

Continued emissions of greenhouse gases will cause further warming and changes in all components of the climate system. Limiting climate change will require substantial and sustained reductions of greenhouse gas emissions.”

IPCC AR5 Headline Statements

The statements are firm. Are they one hundred percent sure? No, because that’s not how science works. However, there’s no reasonable doubt: there’s a huge stack of evidence that seals the deal on the global warming issue and which leaves very little room for debate.

The problem is that this evidence is being actively undermined. Those with an interest to keep climate change-related legislation at bay have been spreading doubt, like the tobacco industry did half a century ago, presenting the issue as a `debate’ and pretending it isn’t settled. Since the general public consumes the media, but not the actual scientific reports, they are left with a skewed image of science.

A Wake-Up Call

So we come full circle and the moral of the story is that there is a gap that needs to be bridged. I strongly recommend Merchants of Doubt, to every scientist and also to everyone with even a passing interest in how science affects our society and our lives (which should really be every single person out there.) It’s a very interesting read, an eye-opener and a wake-up call.

To the general reader, it says: Wake up! Be critical of what you see reported about science, because a huge gap had to be bridged between the scientists and you, and along the way things may have become distorted. Keep in mind what science is and what it isn’t, what it can and cannot tell you, and try to understand what the information you’re getting really means.

To the scientist: Wake up! Be mindful of how your research is being presented to a wider audience. The scientist should to take up a more active role in communicating to the world, because, even if the general public wants to better understand science, they cannot do it without his help.

Marco is a theoretical (bio)physicist, currently engaged in unraveling the sequence-dependent dynamics of DNA molecules to earn his PhD at Leiden University. Other passions include literature and history.

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