General · 7th June 2011
Doubt is the foundation of all science. Every scientific principle and theory, no matter how established and trusted, contains the acknowledged possibility of error. This is the way science works. It is always in the process of disproving, adjusting or refining itself. This legitimate doubt at the foundation of science makes it particularly prone to misunderstanding and vulnerable to the illegitimate doubt that is irrational, self-serving or ideological.
Industry is quite willing to exploit this doubt to protect its markets and profits. The Advancement of Sound Science Coalition was set up in 1993 by Philip Morris to discredit the medical evidence linking smoking to cancer and other health problems. A 1990s coalition of US fossil-fuel-based corporations formed the credible-sounding Information Council on the Environment with the specific intent to "reposition climate change as a theory, not a fact" (New Scientist, May 15/11).
Coal, chemical, pharmaceutical and oil companies have followed this effective strategy by establishing similar organizations with equally authoritative-sounding names to debunk any science that doesn't suit their interests. People who join such organizations usually find themselves in the dilemma of being supported and then duped and exploited. But everyone else is also psychologically and materially victimized. So, too, is the environment, as the strategies to protect it are subverted by self-serving interests. And truth, that nebulous but most valuable of commodities, is lost in the manufactured confusion.
The mechanics of creating unfounded doubt are fairly clearly understood:
• Allege or imply a conspiracy and argue that scientific consensus has arisen through collusion rather than evidence.
• Use fake or selected experts to support the doubt.
• Select only the evidence that reinforces the doubt. Continue advertising this evidence even after it has been discredited ‹ a lie repeated often enough begins to sound true. Never mention the other overwhelming body of supportive evidence.
• Discredit the science by attacking the character of the scientists.
• Amplify the importance of a mistake. Focus on a trivial error to discredit a huge body of credible research and findings.
• Create standards of certainty that science may not be able to meet. If those standard are met, then create others that are more stringent. Always keep alive the doubt.
• Use logical fallacies. For example, scientists collaborate on climate research and attend international meetings, therefore they have conspired together to make global warming a socialist conspiracy to undermine free-market capitalism.
• Exaggerate differences of opinion. Manufacture doubt by portraying scientists as so divided on details that they seem to disagree on basic principles. Propagate doubt and confusion by insisting that these minor differences be publicized. Insist that dissident and minority views, regardless of their credibility, receive a hearing equal to the scientific consensus.
When confusion reigns, people revert by default to their old patterns of behaviour. Instead of embracing new insights and ideas, they continue doing what they have been doing, whether this be buying the same products, consuming the same amounts of energy or inflicting the same damage on nature. Change is invited by some measure of certainty. Any justification for innovation is subverted by doubt.
Doubt can be manufactured by even more devious means, such as outright lying. In 2006, a conservative columnist in Australia, Piers Akerman, published a condemnation of the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change by quoting its former chairperson, John Houghton, as saying, "Unless we announce disasters, no one will listen" (Ibid.). The international press distributed the quote around the world, and Houghton's statement became justification for discrediting the IPCC for sensationalizing and exaggerating the climate crisis. But Houghton had never said or written such a statement anywhere in his speeches or books.
In the manufacture of doubt, lies must seem credible. This single characteristic is enough to allow their propagation. Because people "use mental shortcuts" (Ibid.) to understand their surroundings and rarely check the veracity of quotes, such lies seem like they could be true, especially to people who are uneasy about the disturbing implications of scientific studies. Environmental subjects are particularly prone to this adverse reaction because they tend to strike at the foundational behaviour of our culture, inducing widespread worry, guilt and the need for corrective measures. The defensive and protective mechanisms of people then spread the lie until it reaches critical mass. Finally, the lie is believed simply because others believe it.
This is not mere quibbling. Our modern civilization is largely founded on principles that attempted to free "historical and scientific inquiry from dogma" (Ibid.). It is successful and viable to the extent that it places empirical truth above fanciful falsehood. And on a planet with profound and structural environmental problems, if we don't have truth, we don't have solutions.
As our circumstances move from serious to critical, we need a brave honesty if we are to identify these environmental problems and correct them. A subversive strategy of concocted deceit that spreads invented confusion is a strategy for delay and disaster. This is not a time for the debilitating effects of manufactured doubt.