Merchants of Doubt

I reviewed Merchants of Doubt for The Independent last year. I’ve reprinted the review below to accompany this interview of one of the book’s co-authors, the science historian Naomi Oreskes who has a long-standing interest in understanding the establishment of scientific consensus and the role and character of scientific dissent, by MIT academic, science writer and documentary filmmaker Tom Levenson on blogtalkradio.

Here’s my short review, published in The Independent on 18 October 2010, of Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming by Naomi Oreskes and Erik M Conway

Public scepticism about climate change is on the rise. The shift is due in part to the publication of the hacked emails of the University of East Anglia’s “climategate” scientists. Now climatologists have to live with the fact that most people simply don’t trust them. Merchants of Doubt, by two historians of science, may help restore some trust by showing that science is rarely black and white, and how its shades of grey have sometimes been distorted by a few willing hands.

Writing before “climategate”, Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway believe that “We all need a better understanding of what science really is…and how to separate it from the garbage.” They tell the story of how for half a century, a small group of scientists in America collaborated with think-tanks and corporations in campaigns to discredit scientific research by creating doubt and manipulating debate.

Manufacturing doubt as an effective corporate strategy was first developed by the American tobacco industry. Determined to stop any government regulation in the face of scientific evidence linking tobacco to lung cancer, the cigarette-makers created the Council for Tobacco Research to discredit the scientists and dispute their findings. “Doubt is our product,” boasted a now infamous 1969 industry memo. Doubt would shield the tobacco industry from litigation and regulation for decades to come.

The so-called “Tobacco Strategy” was used to “maintain the controversy” by promoting claims contrary to research. The peddlers of doubt insisted that scientists were wrong about the risks of Ronald Reagan’s Strategic Defence Initiative, and that acid rain was caused by volcanoes. They would dismiss global warming by claiming, in turn, that there was none; if there was, it was just natural variation; finally, it didn’t matter because humans would adapt. Aided by a complicit media, these claims generated the illusion of genuine scientific debate when there was none at all.

No scientific conclusion can ever be proven with certainty, but it is no more a “belief” to say that the Earth is heating up than to say that continents move or that germs cause disease. Oreskes and Conway warn that, “without some degree of trust in our designated experts we are paralyzed”.

Richard Feynman – Take The World From Another Point of View

Here’s another classic Feynman interview. From the early 70s when Feynman was in his mid-50s, Take The World From Another Point of View was filmed some years before his celebrated Horizon interview that I posted here a few weeks ago:

Ed Witten on String Theory

Ed Witten

Here’s what TIME magazine said about Ed Witten back in 2004 when he was chosen as one of its 100 most influential people:

Albert Einstein labored unsuccessfully for decades to create a theory that would merge relativity and quantum physics into one tidy mathematical package. But where Einstein failed, physicists may finally be on the verge of success, largely thanks to Edward Witten, generally considered the greatest theoretical physicist in the world. “Ed is unique,” says John Schwarz, a theorist at Caltech, “the kind of person who comes along once a century.”

The tall, thin, soft-spoken Witten, 52, didn’t even set out to be a scientist. He majored in history at Brandeis and originally planned to be a journalist but ended up getting a Ph.D. in physics instead. By the mid-1980s, some of his colleagues had decided that the answer to Einstein’s failed dream was to treat the building blocks of matter–quarks, photons, electrons and such–as minuscule, vibrating strings of energy rather than as particles. But superstring theory was considered no more than an esoteric and eccentric subspecialty until Witten (by this time a full professor at Princeton) turned his attention to it. Before long he was the dominant player in the field, and string theory was the hottest area of physics. Many of the big developments in string physics–the kind of ideas that break through theoretical logjams and bring everyone to a deeper level of understanding–can be traced to Witten. “Most other people have made one or two such contributions,” says Juan Maldacena, who, like Witten, is at Einstein’s old stomping ground, the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. “Ed has made 10 or 15.”

What sort of contributions? Don’t ask, unless twistor-space methods and Yang-Mills theories are your cup of tea. But if Witten’s string theory is right, it means that the quest Einstein began to find the ultimate laws of the universe may nearly be over. The proof, however, may still be many years off. Witten once called string theory “a bit of 21st century physics that somehow dropped into the 20th century.” If so, Witten clearly has the 21st century mind to handle it.

Enough said. Here’s Witten on string theory: