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Ever wondered why good science has lost so much traction in public policy, especially in the US? (Though Canada is far from exempt: Consider the Experimental Lakes Area.) Or why so many Americans just won’t seem to accept obvious facts about evolution, climate change, even second hand tobacco smoke? For an enlightening, if deeply disturbing, explanation, I recommend Merchants of Doubt: How a handful of scientists obscured the truth on issues from tobacco smoke to global warming. This book, by Prof. Naomi Oreskes and writer Erik Conway, shows “how the ideology of market fundamentalism, aided by a too-compliant media, have skewed public understanding of some of the most critical issues of our era”.

They document how funding from the tobacco, chemical and fossil fuels industries, has been carefully used to spread doubt about the knowledge and motives of scientists, and about the reliability of any conclusions that might lead to greater regulation. Good science is complicated and can be hard to explain. Doubt and uncertainty are easy and powerfully favour the status quo: is it any wonder that they have been fostered by those who most benefit from doing nothing? Doubt and uncertainty also can create “controversy” and conflict, which help to sell newspapers. Voila: a convenient coincidence of certain industry and media interests.

With media complaisance, a smallish group of well funded “experts” has successfully created doubt, confusion and delay about a range of front-page issues in the past decades: the health impacts of tobacco; acid rain; the damage to the ozone layer from CFCs; second hand smoke, and climate change. The fact that these “experts” were demonstrably wrong, in each case, has done remarkably little to blunt their impact, or the continuing suspicion of science that they created.

On the contrary, that continuing suspicion have made it difficult for the public to tell the difference between good and bad science in a whole range of other controversies, including the trumped up fears about childhood vaccinations, and the current claims about wind turbines. And it has helped to erode the general level of trust between the public, scientists and government.

So, an infuriating, horrifying book to read, but useful.

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