Although the wind has changed into the north, from a direction that is never warm, in the sunshine and out of the wind it is a beautiful spring-like day, here in St Andrews.
I sat up until the early hours of this morning reading “Merchants of Doubt” (Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway). The book was five years in the research stage so I can not do it justices here.
That said, the book only confirms from in-depth research much of what we already knew. For a long time now, when I hear a ‘snake oil salesman’ masquerading as a spokesperson for the government, coming on television and telling me “their information is all based on science” I want to scream at the television
“Pants on fire”.
Possibly the links between tobacco and cancer was the reason I started to question what I heard from the media “inconclusive” was the buzz word in the late 1950s, early 1960s. What we did not know at that time was that the tobacco industry had poured vast sums of money into research centres and think tanks, not to research how smoking or passive smoke from tobacco smoking effected the human body but to study atmosphere, or industrial materials such as asbestos and their effect on the human body. So when anyone challenged tobacco companies in the media or in court, the tobacco companies had a ready pool of scientific data to show – well it could be other things causing lung cancer – after all some smokers do not contract lung cancer and our “Scientific based research” shows that – “the oxygen in the air we breathe…. plays a role in radiation-induced cancer. As dose asbestos and many other industrial chemicals and materials”. The link between tobacco smoking and cancer was inconclusive, and we have the scientist and their research to prove it. In short, they used science to muddy the waters and save their arse in court.
Once doubt is sown it is difficult to dispute and present the truth as credible. In 1999, researchers Gail Kennedy and Lisa Bero at the University of California, San Francisco, examined newspapers and magazine coverage of research on passive smoking and found that 62 per cent of all articles published between 1992 and 1994 concluded that the research was “controversial”. Yet, the scientific community had by that point reached consensus, and the tobacco industry had known the degree of danger even before that.
We heard the same scepticism echoed over ‘Acid Rain’ in the 1990s. As the media attended to the idea that what caused acid rain was still not established.
And around the same time, that the ozone hole was perhaps caused by volcanoes and not the gas that propels spray from cans.
Until recently the media presented global warming as a raging debate long after the US National Academy of Sciences first announced that there was no reason to doubt that global warming would happen if man continued to use fossil fuels.
So why has the “Balance” become a form of bias, in the media’s coverage?
This campaign to market doubt has been going on for many, many years, The tobacco industry led the way when they created the Tobacco Institute to foster research, but its primary purpose was to develop a pool of experts who could be called upon in time of need. The tobacco industry created the Center for Indoor Air Research, designed to deflect attention away from tobacco onto other causes of lung troubles. Newsletters, magazines, and journals, with titles such as Indoor Air Journal, Tobacco and Health, Science Fortnightly, with reviews from eminent people, all to cast doubt.
Writing in “Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville lamented the cacophony that passed for serious debate in the young republic:
“A confused clamour raised on every side, and a thousand voices are heard at once”
That was two hundred years ago, now the problem has multiplied 200 fold. Radio, television both with multiple channels, and now the internet. Anyone (even I) can now have their say. The internet has become a ‘Hall of Mirrors’ where any clams, no matter how preposterous, can be multiplied indefinitely, and that disinformation never dies.
A third of Americans still believe that Saddam Hussein was responsible for the attack on the twin towers on September 11.
Surprisingly by all accounts, as recently as 2007 – forty per cent of Americans belied that scientific experts were still arguing about the reality of global warming.
“Merchants of Doubt” shows us how a small group of men with scientific bonafide and deep political connections deliberately distort public debate running effective campaigns to mislead the public and deny well-established scientific knowledge over four decades.
It saddens me to know that this is still going on today, even with coronavirus, we heard how easing lockdown was based on scientific evidence. We had a second wave of coronavirus, and the death toll climbed. Then Christmas came and the scientific evidence said, it was safe to have a normal Christmas, resulting in the third wave of coronavirus and more deaths, when the scientific advice was not to ease lockdown over Christmas, quite the opposite. This however was drowned out by Ministers coming on the BBC, ITV and Sky News to tell us otherwise. Begging the question “how independent is our public services broadcaster and mainstream media?”
The media march expert after expert before the camera, but the BBC, ITV or Sky never mention the fact that the high ranking officer we see on our screen, telling us about the Iraq war, and how well it is going, was retired after the Cold War ended and knows no more about the Iraq war than anyone who reads the papers, but he is allowed to waffle on. They never mention either that s/he is in the pay of an arms manufacturing company.
And like manna for heaven – yesterday on BBC Scotland – a report out shows that there are so many variants, it is not possible to confirm that there is any link between people dying in care homes after patients having being moved there from hospitals, “Inconclusive” evidence. How convenient is that for the Scottish Government?……………do I need to say more?