Naomi Oreskes Talks About Her Book Merchants of Doubt

By Ragesoss - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,
By Ragesoss - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

How do you develop a climate change communication strategy in an environment where 97% of climate scientists agree that human activity is having a significant impact on climate change but only 50% of the general public agrees?

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This disconnect between the scientific consensus on climate change and public opinion is baffling.

Business interests that oppose any policy changes that threaten their economic 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 from the tobacco and fire retardant industries 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, academically respected scientists have been involved in campaigns to cast doubt on everything from the dangers of smoking to evidence of an ozone hole to the debate over climate change, and how communications strategy uses the Fairness Doctrine to convince media organizations to give a disproportionate amount of attention to minority views in the interest of stirring up controversy.

documentary based on Merchants of Doubt is also widely available. It's one of the most important documentary I've ever seen.

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.

The challenges of communicating climate crisis despite endless misinformation are real and sound climate change communication strategy will need to address this, possibly with an approach that makes use of cultural cognition.

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