Helthy Skepticism

In his remarkable book, Idiot America: How Stupidity Became a Virtue in the Land of the Free, Charles Pierce quotes Norman Myers of the Climate Institute who estimated that in 1995 there were already “25 to 35 million environmental refugees, and that number could rise to two hundred million before the middle of this century.” The 600 residents of the town of Shishmaref in Alaska are already making plans and attempting to raise money to relocate their town because the permafrost is thawing and the town itself is slowly disappearing into the ocean. They may eventually follow many of the refugees that Myers mentions who have left their homes in the South Pacific for the same reasons and are flocking to already overcrowded cities where they must learn entirely new (and alien) urban ways.

And yet 64% of our population — and an alarming percentage of those in Congress — still doubts that climate change is a reality and that humans are largely responsible. Folks look out the window and see the snow falling and the temperatures dropping and forget that we are talking about global warming. We might note that the term “climate change” is part of the reason there are still doubters. It is a euphemism that was invented by people hired by special interest groups as a substitute for “global warming,” which they regard as unduly alarming. They are intent upon calming fears and directing attention away from serious problems. And they have been very successful. How do they do this? They do it because people tend to believe what they want to believe and because they generally have lost any critical acumen they might have ever had because of poor schooling and the barrage of bullshit they are being fed daily by the media which are in the pocket of the corporate interests — along with most of those in Congress.

According to Pierce (you really have to read his book!), it all started in the 1950s with the tobacco companies. They realized that people were getting nervous about the reports emerging from scientific researchers about the dangers of smoking cigarettes. “The CEOs of all the major tobacco companies met in New York in December 1953. Allan Brandt, in The Cigarette Century, describes the strategy:

‘Its goal was to produce and sustain scientific skepticism and controversy in order to disrupt the emerging consensus on the harms of cigarette smoking. This strategy required intrusions into scientific process and procedure. . . . The industry worked to assure that vigorous debate would be prominently trumpeted in the public media. So long as there appeared to be doubt, so long as the industry could assert “not proven,” smokers would have a rationale to continue, and new smokers would have a rationale to begin.'”

In a word, get your PR team to cloud the air with half-truths and blatant falsehoods posing as hard science in order to confuse the general public (which doesn’t know science from Shinola) and be assured of continued profits. If this sounds familiar it is. In fact, it is precisely the strategy the vested interests, like the Koch brothers and others of their ilk, have adopted in the debate about the dangers to our planet. As Pierce goes onto point out, in 2002 “a Republican consultant named Frank Luntz sent out a memo describing how Luntz believed the crisis of global warming should be handled within a political context. ‘The most important principle in any discussion of global warming is sound science,’ wrote Luntz. ‘The scientific debate is closing [against the skeptics] but not yet closed. There is still a window of opportunity to challenge the science.'” In a word, get your PR folks to cloud the air with half-truths and blatant falsehoods masquerading as science and keep the uncertainty alive in the minds of as many as possible for as long as possible in order to assure your ability to maintain your political office and the continued rise in profits for those who have placed you there and will keep you there in the future.

What is remarkable about this entire scenario is that there is healthy skepticism in this country about the nonsense the politicians spew forth — politicians are right down there with used car salesmen as the ones we are least likely to trust — and yet so many of us are willing to believe what they say when it allows us to go on with our lives as usual and not to have to bother about such disturbing truths. In fact, what we do is reject as false those claims we find uncomfortable and embrace those claims (true or not) that are most reassuring. Indeed, the word “truth” no longer has any real meaning, since it simply refers to those claims that we choose to believe, even though our basis for believing those claims is nothing more than a gut feeling. Because of this, I have devised a new law. (You may be familiar with Curtler’s First Law, which is that “The academic strength of a college or university is in inverse relation to the success of its football team.”) Well, here’s Curtler’s Second Law: “Only those scientific claims are to be believed that are made by those who have no vested interest in the public response to those claims.” In a word, don’t believe anything that is put out there by a company that stands to increase its profits by having you believe those claims. We may not understand the scientific claims (they can be complex); what’s important is who is putting them forth. Real science is engaged in by those disinterested folks who have nothing to gain or lose by the certainties they uncover. The rest of it is a shell game.

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7 thoughts on “Helthy Skepticism

  1. Nice post!

    It’s very interesting to think about how scepticism can be used to keep verified science from the public, because scepticism is an integral part of the scientific methodology and process.

    When a scientific analysis is peer reviewed, you can’t have reviewers that let things go, assume all necessary supporting side studies have been carried out, and accept things at face value. You need people that will dig deeper than face value, challenge and request clarification of assumptions, and not be convinced by anything short of well-grounded evidence. This is the only way that the highest standards of scientific rigour can be maintained In short, you need sceptics. To be a sceptic is to have a personal understanding of a fundamental piece of the scientific methodology and its utilisation.

    So you need sceptics for science, but too much scepticism can cloud the public perception – interesting….

  2. Hugh, taking the page from the tobacco industry is very interesting. There is also the use of industry data and good data taken out of context. In the movie Toxic Seat, the chemical industry used a scientist’s findings out of context as a key part of their argument. The scientist learned of this and said that is not what that report found and argued against the industry. You may find it noteworthy that the fossil fuel industry is using the same PR firm it used for global warming naysaying for the fracking is safe campaign. Great post, BTG

  3. Well said, Hugh! It is creepy but not surprising to see the parallels between Big Tobacco and Big Oil. I like your last lines about the importance of objective science work. We have to trust and respond to its results.

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