By the 1950s, Big Tobacco knew smoking caused cancer. By the 1960s, the companies knew nicotine was addictive and that smoking could lead to heart disease. But three decades later, tobacco executives stood up before Congress and, under oath, denied the facts. The same story has played out with other major scientific issues of our time, from climate change to the health harms of various chemicals. As scientists build consensus, industry tries to obscure their findings outside the ivory tower, turning non-debates into ginned-up controversies.
A new documentary, Merchants of Doubt, shows exactly how for-profit players covertly shape popular thinking about the biggest science questions of the day. The movie helps explain that the fight about climate change — and smoking, and environmental chemicals — is actually about political ideology and questions of how people should live and govern themselves.
The documentary was inspired by the research of Naomi Oreskes, a historian of science at Harvard University. She coauthored the 2010 book Merchants of Doubt after stumbling on an amazing discovery: in all the journal articles on global climate change published between 1992 and 2002, there was complete consensus among researchers that the warming of the planet was caused by man. Yet somehow this monolithic agreement wasn’t making it out of the annals of research. Oreskes wanted to figure out why.
I spoke to her about how the hidden lessons in her research can be applied to current debates in science, what the public, scientists, and journalists can learn from her work on Big Tobacco and Big Oil, and how we can avoid repeating history.
Julia Belluz: In your research, you’ve looked at how scientists come to consensus. This is really interesting in the context of debates about climate change or the effects of tobacco because many of the people who tried to communicate the consensus to the public early on were derided and attacked, and treated like fringe lunatics amid disinformation campaigns being organized covertly by industry. What’s the lesson here?
Naomi Oreskes: If someone casts doubt on science, there are two questions we should ask. Number one: Who are they? Do they have a vested interest in challenging the scientific knowledge for some reason that has nothing to do with science?
The second question is: how well has the scientific community been studying this? In lots of cases, scientists do change their minds, especially in the early stages of investigation. So it’s important for us to look at the process by which scientists come to their conclusions and whether, after studying for some period of time, they have come to some kind of general agreement. And if someone is challenging that consensus, we have to be questioning who this person is and what is their interest.
JB: We in the media are encouraged to find the new and counterintuitive study, the miracle pill or procedure. But often times, these one-off findings don’t in any way reflect what’s known in research. What have you learned about the disconnect between what science says and how it’s depicted by media?
NO: There’s a big, big, difference between how the media think about news and how scientists think about news. For you, what makes it news is that it’s new — and that creates a bias in the media to look for brand new results. My view would be that brand new results would be the most likely to be wrong. People are doing all kinds of interesting work — resolving certain elements of the climate issue, for example — but none of it is new. So you guys don’t report it because it’s not new. No wonder the public gets confused.
JB: Is that a lack of appreciation on the side of the public about how science works?
NO: In modern science, there’s a myth that scientific knowledge is based on an individual genius who has a eureka moment, and that’s when new knowledge is created. Most science doesn’t come from a eureka moment; it comes from hard work. When an individual has a eureka moment, it’s just an idea, but then it has to be processed.
That process is all the different scientists who vet claims, the scientists who go to meetings, ask questions, and submit their work to peer review; and once the research is published, people read the paper and do follow-ups. This is a long process that goes on. It doesn’t happen overnight. In my own work, I have seen typically important scientific claims take decades to be sorted out.
JB: In your book Merchants of Doubt, you show that many of the people who attacked the science of smoking also attacked climate change. What was motivating them?
NO: Normal scientists don’t move to totally different, unrelated issues. You have one area of expertise. No one could be an oncologist and a climate scientist at same time. So that was the key that this wasn’t a scientific debate.
Most people assume this is just a story about people being corrupted by industry shills. The book [Merchants of Doubt] is the origin story, about where this all came from in the first place. We wanted to know why someone like [prize-winning scientists] Frederick Seitz would risk his scientific reputation to [work for both the tobacco and energy industries and distort science]. That’s where the ideological piece came in. We started reading their letters, what they had written. We found this free-market ideology, this idea that any government intervention is a slippery slope down to socialism. It came down to Cold War work, Cold War beliefs, that the Soviet Union is an evil empire and therefore people have to be vigilant and on guard.
JB: Politically, what do tobacco and climate change have in common that would motivate these esteemed researchers to mess with the science?
NO: They are both places where you have a problem created by a product, and that product is legal. It’s not illegal to sell or use the product, yet we’ve discovered it has created this gigantic problem. It’s market failure: the market created a problem it then has not remedied. This is a legitimate place for government intervention — carbon tax, emissions trading systems, various options one can draw on — but all require the government to do something. In the US, even though the Cold War is over, these guys tap into this anti-government strand in American culture and politics: the government that governs best governs least. The reason this gained so much traction in the 1980s is because [President Ronald] Reagan had come to power on this platform.
JB: You found out that shifting attention from the science to the politics is exactly what the tobacco and energy industries wanted.
NO: It’s perfect for industry: instead of talking about the fact that tobacco kills a million people every year, or that sea level is rising because of climate change, we can fight about the politics. Whether we want to have big government takes attention away from the problem.
JB: How much of this is a failure of the research community to fight back, to use some of the techniques of persuasion Big Tobacco used?
NO: I would never want to say scientists should adopt tactics of Big Tobacco. They’ve been prosecuted for conspiracy to deceive the American people. But is the scientific community partly to blame? It’s a legitimate question. I do think there are things the scientific community could do differently. Until pretty recently, scientists didn’t think it was their job to communicate. They thought it was journalists’ job to explain science to people. It has taken a long time for the scientific community to figure out that’s not true, and even if it were, it’s just not happening. Journalists just don’t do that work. The scientific community was uneducated and naive about what we are up against. I think we’re now more clued in and making much more of an effort.
JB: Watching the film, I couldn’t help but think of e-cigarettes today: Every time we run an even semi-critical piece at Vox, we are inundated by aggressive emails and tweets. Are there areas you’re looking at now where science is being distorted once again?
NO: E-cigarettes are breaking my heart. It’s tragic to see what’s going on, how history is repeated, the déjà vu. When you start seeing these disinformation campaigns everywhere, it’s sort of depressing, and it can make you feel paranoid and delusional.