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Salesmen, Not Scientists
July 12, 2010 3:49 PM   Subscribe

Merchants of Doubt is a new book that reports how a small group of scientists committed to an extreme free-market ideology have been employed by large corporations over several decades to cast doubt on such different environmental issues as the risks of tobacco smoke, the dangers of DDT, the effectiveness of the Strategic Defence Initiative, the regulation of CFCs, and the causes of global warming. A review in the Christian Science Monitor calls this "one of the most important books of the year. Exhaustively researched and documented..."
posted by binturong (48 comments total) 33 users marked this as a favorite

 
Once you get enough money you can hire as many Dr. Panglosses as you need.
posted by The Whelk at 3:54 PM on July 12, 2010 [3 favorites]


The Hall of Shame includes Robert Jastrow, Fred Singer, William Nierenberg, and Frederick Seitz -- all cold warrior physicists and rocket scientists not noted for their understanding of ecology and at least one a creationist.
posted by binturong at 4:02 PM on July 12, 2010


I don't get it.

(1) I expect the book to adopt a point of view. However, the review should be impersonal and unbiased. This one is not.

e.g.;

"The merchants of doubt continue to sow the seeds of mistrust and misinformation – and politicians and allies in media lend them a hand." [unsupported assertion].

"The academic community is ... self-policing and motivated primarily by scientific inquiry, not by profit margins. [unsupported assertion].

"Oreskes and Conway demonstrate [to whose satisfaction?] that the merchants of doubt are not “scientists” as the term is popularly understood."

"I hope it sells, because what it has to say needs to be heard." [If your review is thorough and unbiased, this is the kind of conclusion readers should draw for themselves]


(2) "These businesses had a goal: to sell cigarettes and chemicals such as DDT. These businesses had a problem: scientists said their products were bad for people."

DDT was banned because evidence suggested it was bad for *birds*, not people. If illness and fatalities from insect-borne diseases is factored in, DDT on balance is probably *good* for people. The author's whole line of argument seems incoherent here.


(3) Smoking is the author's other example. Smoking correlates with lung cancer. But that doesn't mean smoking *causes* lung cancer. It could mean, to pick just one alternative, that latent cancer causes an urge to smoke. I don't believe this is the case. But do only "bad" scientists point out that correlation does not mean causation? Should those scientists just have shut up and gone along with popular consensus? Again, incoherency.

Hey, for all I know, this book is the apotheosis of insightful thinking. But you wouldn't know it from reading the review.

- AJ
posted by Alaska Jack at 4:20 PM on July 12, 2010 [2 favorites]


A little more on Fred Singer. I recall when his funding from Moon got dragged into the daylight, he went ballistic.
posted by warbaby at 4:25 PM on July 12, 2010


But do only "bad" scientists point out that correlation does not mean causation?

Yes. Good scientists design and conduct experiments to tell the difference.
posted by Zalzidrax at 4:38 PM on July 12, 2010 [14 favorites]


DDT was banned because evidence suggested it was bad for *birds*, not people.

DDT has been linked in humans to gene and nerve damage and endocrine disruption.
posted by binturong at 4:48 PM on July 12, 2010 [11 favorites]


But do only "bad" scientists point out that correlation does not mean causation?

Yes. Good scientists design and conduct experiments to tell the difference.


Tell that to a large part of the internet. I'm sure they'll shower you with kisses and praise just for implying that they're scientists in the first place even if that's not what you meant at all.
posted by dubusadus at 4:54 PM on July 12, 2010


The evidence regarding DDT harm to birds is not clearcut, but it is generally accepted that it does cause eggshell thinning and brain damage in birds. It is also definitely extremely toxic to fish.

Lastly, it is now suggested that exposure to DDT while young can contribute to a higher risk breast cancer later in life. Earlier studies on breast cancer looked at incidence related to DDE levels in later life, and found no link.

Whether these side effects are worse than those from other highly toxic but non-persistent pesticides, or the damage and lost lives caused by diseases carried by mosquitos such as malaria and yellow fever is a tough call.
posted by ArkhanJG at 4:58 PM on July 12, 2010


(3) Smoking is the author's other example. Smoking correlates with lung cancer. But that doesn't mean smoking *causes* lung cancer. It could mean, to pick just one alternative, that latent cancer causes an urge to smoke.

Seriously? You doubt that smoking tobacco causes lung cancer? Richard Lindzen, is that you?
posted by mek at 5:02 PM on July 12, 2010 [1 favorite]


Tell that to a large part of the internet. I'm sure they'll shower you with kisses and praise just for implying that they're scientists in the first place even if that's not what you meant at all.

You misinterpret what I'm saying. Yes people who only point out correlation is not causation are bad scientists; scientists design and run experiments to answer questions, not just point them out. This is their job.
posted by Zalzidrax at 5:07 PM on July 12, 2010 [2 favorites]


the review should be impersonal and unbiased.

lolwut?
posted by Senor Cardgage at 5:19 PM on July 12, 2010 [3 favorites]


(3) Smoking is the author's other example. Smoking correlates with lung cancer. But that doesn't mean smoking *causes* lung cancer. It could mean, to pick just one alternative, that latent cancer causes an urge to smoke. I don't believe this is the case. But do only "bad" scientists point out that correlation does not mean causation? Should those scientists just have shut up and gone along with popular consensus? Again, incoherency.

Inference of causation wrt smoke was one of the major drivers of epidemiological methods and thinking in the 20th century. It's more complicated than that.
posted by a robot made out of meat at 5:20 PM on July 12, 2010


"Exhaustively researched and documented..."

Pity it won't make any difference.
posted by nanojath at 5:21 PM on July 12, 2010 [2 favorites]


There is more than one review of Merchants of Doubt, so there's no need to get hung up on the perceived failings of the CSM review. Philip Kitcher discusses the book in the context of several other recently published climate change books in Science.

If reading's not your thing there's always Oreskes' hour-long lecture based upon the book.
posted by plastic_animals at 5:21 PM on July 12, 2010 [2 favorites]


So, this is the more serious version of Thank You For Smoking?
posted by snuffleupagus at 5:25 PM on July 12, 2010 [6 favorites]


So, this is the more serious version of Thank You For Smoking?

"I'm glad you asked that question!"
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 5:28 PM on July 12, 2010 [1 favorite]


Somebody needs to watch less Penn and Teller.
posted by Pope Guilty at 5:48 PM on July 12, 2010 [2 favorites]


- AJ

Never before has a critical metafilter comment been so off-putting as to actually make me want to support the subject at hand without further reading.
posted by farishta at 5:54 PM on July 12, 2010 [4 favorites]


Todd Lokken approves, I'm sure.

-PG
posted by Pope Guilty at 5:57 PM on July 12, 2010 [2 favorites]


Zalzidrax:

Yes. Good scientists design and conduct experiments to tell the difference.

Yes? Only bad scientists point out that correlation != causation? Uh, ok. If you say so. As for experiments: Controlled experiments? On humans? Do you understand that is precisely the difficulty in doing this that makes the subject so bedeviling?


Binturong:

DDT has been linked in humans to gene and nerve damage and endocrine disruption.

Agreed. But I'm fairly certain that work antedates the ban, and in any case it certainly was not the proximal cause of the ban.


ArkhanJG:

Well put. My only point is that the ban was the result of the eggshell-thinning allegation, not allegations that DDT was harmful to humans.


Mek:

Seriously? You doubt that smoking tobacco causes lung cancer? Richard Lindzen, is that you?

Seriously? You couldn't read one more sentence, where I said "I DON'T believe this is the case."?


A robot made out of meat:

Inference of causation wrt smoke was one of the major drivers of epidemiological methods and thinking in the 20th century. It's more complicated than that.


I completely agree. So much so, in fact, that I am not sure of your point. It seems completely appropriate directed toward the author of the book review; less so directed at my comment. Unless I misunderstand something?

- AJ
posted by Alaska Jack at 6:14 PM on July 12, 2010 [1 favorite]


(3) Smoking is the author's other example. Smoking correlates with lung cancer. But that doesn't mean smoking *causes* lung cancer.
Yes it does. If two things are correlated, and one happens first, that means the first thing caused the second, so long as there's no plausible thing that could have caused both.
It could mean, to pick just one alternative, that latent cancer causes an urge to smoke.
It has to be plausible.
posted by delmoi at 6:15 PM on July 12, 2010 [2 favorites]


Farishta:

Really? Why? What do you find off-putting about it?

- AJ
posted by Alaska Jack at 6:16 PM on July 12, 2010


Alaska Jack, you don't need to sign your comments. Your username is right there at the end of each of your comments, and we can all see it.
posted by rtha at 6:27 PM on July 12, 2010 [4 favorites]


Alaska Jack: You realize your posts are already tagged with your name, right? There's no need for a tagline or sig.
posted by absalom at 6:29 PM on July 12, 2010


It's the Alaska Jack show! Step right up and take a throw.

- STB
posted by stbalbach at 6:29 PM on July 12, 2010 [3 favorites]


Delmoi, nothing soothes my unfortunate lung tumors like a light coating of tar.
posted by adipocere at 6:29 PM on July 12, 2010 [1 favorite]


Alaska Jack:

User names automatically appear beneath every comment made on this site. Signing off every comment with your user name or initials is redundant. People tend to overreact when new users do it, which is unfortunate, but it does tend to clutter up the thread a bit. I think you'll find if you stop putting your initials at then end of all your comments, you'll get a much better reception here.
posted by Atom Eyes at 6:34 PM on July 12, 2010


Delmoi -

First, let's get this out of the way:

(A) I DON'T SMOKE
(B) THE AVAILABLE EVIDENCE LEADS ME TO BELIEVE THAT SMOKING CAUSES LUNG CANCER.

That said, with all due respect, your assertion is simply wrong.

Let's say A correlates with B. Some possibilities:

A causes B.
B causes A
X Causes both A and B. (e.g.: Bologna causes cancer. It also causes people to crave tobacco.)

Common sense suggests to you that Tobacco use -> lung cancer. Common sense suggests that to me too. But our sense of plausibility is no substitute for scientific proof.

PS: A quick Google search turns up links like: Does smoking cause cancer? and Researchers pinpoint how smoking causes cancer. However, the first link cites a 1998 study; the second cites a study just two years old. So it may very well be that science has now established a causal link. But the fact that it was still an issue just two years ago puts the authors' accusations -- and the reviewer's -- on pretty shaky ground.
posted by Alaska Jack at 6:36 PM on July 12, 2010


I think that the capitalism=freedom meme is one of the most dangerous and misguided threats to freedom that has ever existed.
posted by fuq at 6:40 PM on July 12, 2010 [12 favorites]


Seriously? You couldn't read one more sentence, where I said "I DON'T believe this is the case."?

The facts don't care what you believe, and neither do I. I objected to your depiction of the smoking issue because you offered a facile assessment of a reasonable argument, which is what we call a "straw man." If you had actually read the book, you would know that the smoking debate and associated epistemological issues are explored in depth. Most of your comments appear to take this tack: you grossly simplify the review (which is itself a simplification of a extremely well-researched book) and the issues raised, in order to seed doubts which are groundless at best (even you dissociate yourself from them!) and are in all probability attempting to manipulate the debate into a complete derail. The whole subject of the book is that corporate interests present contrarian arguments which willfully ignore scientific data in order to confuse public debate and delay action, because they have financial motivation to do so. The influence of capitalism on scientific debate is an increasingly important issue (especially given climate change) which can do without an eponymous example of the behaviour in the thread itself, but maybe you're going for that self-referential style.

All that aside, I find your objections that the link is "biased" incomprehensible because the entire point of a book review is to provide an opinion. We read book reviews to observe other people's bias. They are nakedly subjective. If you want to present an argument, you can read the book and provide a competing review. Maybe you think it's a bad book - how about you read it and tell us why. Or you can explain why this review is poor, using examples from the source material. Until then you are just spreading ignorance by fabricating controversy. Your comments are noise at best.
posted by mek at 6:47 PM on July 12, 2010 [7 favorites]


Mek:

The facts don't care what you believe, and neither do I.

1. But you do care. This only came up because you asked: "Seriously? You doubt that smoking tobacco causes lung cancer?" For my part, I simply pointed out that by asking that question, you ignored what I wrote in the very next sentence.

2. I haven't read the book. I never pretended to. I was critiquing a poorly reasoned, unprofessional rant in the form of a book review by a freelance writer and advocate which the CSM inexplicably slapped up on their website.

3. Your second paragraph is actually pretty much on point: It cuts to the nature of a book review, a subject on which surely reasonable people can disagree. I found this particular review sloppy and pretty clearly founded almost entirely on confirmation bias: The writer liked the book because he already agreed with it. Where, for example, did he actually critique it? What are it's methodological strengths and weaknesses? What questions does it leave open for further study? How do the authors address the obvious questions about Ad Hominem and Appeal to Authority fallacies? etc. etc. etc.

Did you like the review? If so, what did you like about it? (Not being flippant here -- genuinely curious.)
posted by Alaska Jack at 7:09 PM on July 12, 2010 [1 favorite]


The key point of the book, which at first I thought sounded too much like conspiracy theory, is that the same small group of scientists has been involved in many different public debates on the dangers of particular corporate activities over a period of many years. They are paid by the corporations in question and their opinions invariably coincide with corporate interests . They are not specialists in the fields they comment on. Like lawyers and whores, they sell their services. They do damage to the credibility of scientific discourse itself.
posted by binturong at 7:13 PM on July 12, 2010 [1 favorite]


1. But you do care. This only came up because you asked: "Seriously? You doubt that smoking tobacco causes lung cancer?" For my part, I simply pointed out that by asking that question, you ignored what I wrote in the very next sentence.

Once again, I objected that you raised an issue that nobody is seriously arguing as a hypothetical position in a debate nobody is actually having. Even now we are still engaged in a rather circular discussion about nothing whatsoever. I suggest we start over, perhaps with an actual topic. The primary link is a much better resource here; I agree the CSM review comes off as a puff piece, but that has no bearing whatsoever on the content of the book.
posted by mek at 7:17 PM on July 12, 2010 [1 favorite]


Yes it does. If two things are correlated, and one happens first, that means the first thing caused the second, so long as there's no plausible thing that could have caused both.

I'm sorry, but this is insufficient evidence for inferring a causal relationship.

See, for example Pearl's recent paper. He's pretty fond of the smoking example in many of his books. The long story short is that in order to identify causal relationships, you need to observe experiments whereby the proposed "effect" is made to happen. (Pearl calls this an intervention.) Then you can observe that the correlation between the proposed cause and proposed effect is broken.
posted by esprit de l'escalier at 7:22 PM on July 12, 2010


Binturong -

Doesn't recent research suggest that generally, money follows belief, rather than the other way around? That is, it would be simpler for the tobacco companies to find scientists whose research *already* supported their positions, and funnel them research dollars, rather than try to "convert" others.

It's troubling because it suggests that ANY support from private entities would call one's impartiality into question. Hmm, have to think about that some more.
posted by Alaska Jack at 7:26 PM on July 12, 2010


[A few comments removed. Please don't sign your comments; it's not the convention on mefi and makes for an unnecessary distraction. Your username is already in the byline of your comments.]
posted by cortex at 7:26 PM on July 12, 2010


Esprit -

How dare you come barging in here saying things better than I can!

:^)
posted by Alaska Jack at 7:28 PM on July 12, 2010


[If you need to talk about moderation stuff, take it to Metatalk or write me an email. Otherwise, get on with the discussion and leave it alone, this isn't the place for it.]
posted by cortex at 7:35 PM on July 12, 2010


Doesn't recent research suggest that generally, money follows belief, rather than the other way around? That is, it would be simpler for the tobacco companies to find scientists whose research *already* supported their positions, and funnel them research dollars, rather than try to "convert" others.

Except that binturong's point was that the review was claiming just the opposite. That is, that by all appearances these are not existing scientists whose research suggests what the companies want to prove, nor scientists who are bought off to change their minds, but scientists who are basically selling their names to parrot whatever they are paid to claim, in fields far from their actual expertise.

Which is a really bold claim, and open to any number of counterarguments, but as far as I can tell you're out in left field whacking down a bunch of strawmen.
posted by bjrubble at 9:42 PM on July 12, 2010


Related posts: The Denial Machine, Exposing the money behind fake climate science
posted by homunculus at 10:14 PM on July 12, 2010


--scientists who are basically selling their names to parrot whatever they are paid to claim, in fields far from their actual expertise.

I knew that some of the same lobbyists claiming global warming isn't a problem had earlier claimed that second-hand smoke isn't a problem, but I wasn't aware of the Cold War angle.

Another book describing past industry campaigns to discredit science: Doubt Is Their Product.

For a concrete example, see this 1994 proposal to weaken European support for regulatory action by casting doubt on scientific studies, setting up an objective-sounding lobby group along the lines of TASSC. The memo is taken from a massive collection of documents published as part of the Master Settlement Agreement between the states and the tobacco industry.
As we stated during our meeting in London, we believe that a TASSC-like group can succeed in Europe. European policymakers place a significant amount of importance on objective research - particularly as it relates to technical issues. TASSC, if created properly, can become a credible commentator to complement or spearhead business objections to unfair public policies and pronouncements. ...

Specifically, we recommend that a European TASSC be formulated to do the following:
- Preempt unilateral action against industry.
- Associate anti-industry "scientific" studies with broader questions about government research and regulations. ...
- Have non-industry messengers provide reasons for legislators, business executives and media to view policies drawn from unreliable scientific studies with extreme caution.

To achieve those objectives, we encourage a TASSC group in Europe to focus on a few key messages, such as: (i) science should never be corrupted to achieve political ends; (ii) economic growth cannot afford to be held hostage to paternalistic, overregulation; and (iii) improving indoor air quality is a laudable goal that will never be accomplished as long as tobacco smoke is the sole focus of regulators. ...

As a starting point, we can identify key issues requiring sound scientific research and scientists that may have an interest in them. Some issues our European colleagues suggest include:
- Global warming
- Nuclear waste disposal
- Diseases and pests in agricultural products for transborder trade
- Biotechnology
- Eco-labeling for EC products
- Food processing and packaging

In each of these issues, there has been considerable discussion as to whether sound science is being used as a basis for these decisions.
The PR strategy was to attack scientific studies supporting regulatory action as "junk science", while arguing that "sound science" didn't support regulatory action.
posted by russilwvong at 10:39 PM on July 12, 2010 [2 favorites]


Let's step back and assume that AJ is acting in good faith and is not a shill, a troll, or both.

What his comments show, then, is that mind control exist. Asserting that "correlation doesn't equal causation" is a comment that only someone brainwashed by precisely the people this book is talking about, could make. Do you AJ, really believe that you've thought of something that thousands of scientists over the past few decades didn't? My God, I hope a scientist or three is reading this thread, they might not have thought about causation before!

Anyhow, AJ is a perfect example of how successful people like Betsey McCaughey (and Edward Bernays, the godfather of propaganda) really are. I mean, he is literally repeating the exact points that industry PR people do all the time: we can't really be sure/the science isn't in/correlation !=causation BS.

about Ad Hominem and Appeal to Authority fallacies? etc. etc. etc.

lololol yeah guys what would oncologists and cancer researchers know about smoking?
posted by r_nebblesworthII at 5:40 AM on July 13, 2010 [3 favorites]


man i can't write for shit
posted by r_nebblesworthII at 5:45 AM on July 13, 2010


DDT has been linked in humans to gene and nerve damage and endocrine disruption.

Agreed. But I'm fairly certain that work antedates the ban, and in any case it certainly was not the proximal cause of the ban.

...

Well put. My only point is that the ban was the result of the eggshell-thinning allegation, not allegations that DDT was harmful to humans.


The allegation that DDT could be harmful to humans was key to getting it banned. It was already known that massive levels of DDT caused neurological issues in humans, and that small amounts of DDT were present in the fat tissue of pretty much every animal in the food chain (including humans). One of the key points brought up in the landmark Wisconsin Hearings was that DDT was present in the breast milk of women who were exposed to it, and that the effects of DDT on a developing infant were completely unknown. Obviously the environmentalist aspect around protecting birds and fish was a big driving force behind the organizations that wanted it banned, but the scare factor of possible toxicity to humans was definitely a part of why so many regular people didn't want to have DDT sprayed in their neighborhoods.
posted by burnmp3s at 6:44 AM on July 13, 2010 [2 favorites]


I completely agree. So much so, in fact, that I am not sure of your point. It seems completely appropriate directed toward the author of the book review; less so directed at my comment. Unless I misunderstand something?

The public health community was well aware of the difficulties, which is why they were being very sophisticated in how they drew conclusions and came up with criteria for causal inference. It's not like there was a cross-sectional study and then the surgeon general's report, like you're making it sound. The tobacco industry scientists were not participating in a genuine intellectual exercise, but a misinformation campaign relying on the fact that the public does not want to consider a nuanced and extensive literature.
posted by a robot made out of meat at 8:22 AM on July 13, 2010 [1 favorite]


a misinformation campaign relying on the fact that the public does not want to consider a nuanced and extensive literature

Well put. This is the challenge in all sorts of public issue discussions of complex issues, from medicare to immigration to climate change to teaching evolution. When well-financed lobbies with a single agenda are pitted against more honest expert voices, the latter invariably lose. The concentration of wealth has practically defanged democracy -- the big money boys can manipulate public opinion through the mass media and can influence government policies by buying politicians. How to combat such power?
posted by binturong at 8:51 AM on July 13, 2010


Man, Thank You for Smoking was such a great book. Can't read it anymore because it is actually too optimistic about effecting change in Washington.

But yes, it did include the bought-and-paid for tobacco-defending doctors as well as describing what the standard tactics for dealing with inconvenient truths: Deny, co-opt, throw dust, distract, escape.
posted by emjaybee at 9:01 AM on July 13, 2010


Chris Mooney (iirc) interviews Naomi Oreskes about Merchants of Doubt on Point of Inquiry
posted by mincus at 6:14 PM on July 13, 2010


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