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.
Naomi Oreskes, a historian at Harvard. (Barry Berona/ Sony Pictures Classics)
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?
instead of talking about HOW the sea level is rising, we can fight about the politics
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?