Imagine a gigantic banquet. Hundreds of millions of people come to eat. They eat and drink to their hearts’ content – eating food that is better and more abundant than at the finest table in ancient Athens or Rome, or even in the palace of medieval Europe. Then, one day, a man arrives, wearing a white dinner jacket. He says he is holding the bill. Not surprisingly, the diners are in shock. Some begin to deny that this is their bill. Others deny that there even is a bill. Still others deny that they partook of the meal. One diner suggests that the man is not really a waiter, but is only trying to get attention for himself or to raise money for his own projects. Finally, the group concludes that if they simply ignore the waiter, he will go away. (The Merchants of Doubt, p. 266.)
I’ve just finished The Merchants of Doubt which explores the fight against science by people who resisted action on a wide range of issues including cigarettes, CFCs, acid rain, the hole in the ozone and climate change. It is sobering reading, but well worth it.
One of the issues Oreskes and Conway raise is that the notion of balance has resulted in a disproportionate focus on deniers of climate change.
We’ve noted how the notion of balance was enshrined in the Fairness Doctrine, and it may make sense for political news in a two-party system (although not in a multiparty system). But it doesn’t reflect the way science works. In an active scientific debate, there can be many sides. But once a scientific issue is closed, there’s only one “sided.” Imagine providing “balance” to the issue of whether the Earth orbits the sun, whether continents move, or whether DNA carries genetic information. These matters were long ago settled in scientists’ minds. Nobody can publish an article in a scientific journal claiming the Sun orbits the Earth, and for the same reason, you can’t publish an article in a peer-reviewed journal claiming there’s no global warming. Probably well-informed professional science journalists wouldn’t publish it either. But ordinary journalists repeatedly did (p. 214).
Time and time again, claims that have little scientific support are widely read in the popular media, but the science disproving the claims is published in peer-reviewed journals that few people read. One of the strengths of Merchants of Doubts is that it provides some insights into the way in which scientific evidence can be undermined.
Science is increasingly providing evidence of the unsustainability of our lifestyle, we ignore the evidence at our peril. We cannot keep living as if there are no environmental (or social) consequences for our behaviour. There is no such thing as a free lunch.