Manufacture of Doubt
There is an industry for this!! There is probably an industry for everything but in this case, a book called “Merchants of Doubt” (2010) has been published which outlines the ways in which the public relations (PR) industry has systematically sought, trained and paid scientists and politicians to cast doubt on research on such varied issues as dangers of cigarette smoking, pesticides and ozone depletion. A few years earlier, Devra Davis mentions the “maturing of the science of doubt promotion” in the forward to her book The Secret History of the War on Cancer (2007).
How does it work? A 1969 memo from a tobacco company executive states "Doubt is our product since it is the best means of competing with the 'body of fact' that exists in the minds of the general public. It is also the means of establishing a controversy".
The public relations industry creates doubt, uncertainty, and confusion. Be it tobacco, exposure to radioactivity, the dangers of DDT, acid rain or global warming – the doubt industry is having a heyday. Witness the scientists who currently eagerly walk to centre stage to stow doubt in a willing public about global warming.
After all, if global warming is a threat, then we might be required to change something. Human beings – even those who live on the edge of adventure and imagine themselves to be flexible, nimble and contrary to mainstream thought – find that change, internal and behavioural is not an easy thing. “A potent subset of the scientific community leads the world in denial” and, the world, eager to believe that it does not need to change any fundamental beliefs happily and vehemently complies.
The most pressing issues of our era are skewed by manufacturers of doubt. Global warming, radiation from nuclear power plants, and rising cancer statistics become mired in complex arguments between people who otherwise agree – because something has led them to doubt the findings of their comrades and fellow travelers.
The woman who speaks out about the dangers of radiation, Dr Rosalie Bertell – with impeccable credentials – is “an old lady and a nun at that”. The mathematician, Dr. Gordon Edwards, who has voluntarily spent decades researching nuclear power, has “a personal axe to grind”.
In 2009, I had the privilege to represent the Saskatchewan Medical Association (SMA) at the Uranium Development Partnership hearings. The SMA is a conservative organization, slow to change and most members were quite supportive of the nuclear power, Saskatchewan was openly supportive of and a recipient of enormous grants from Cameco, a uranium mining global giant. My presentation had to reflect the organization, the board of the SMA approved it so it did.
It questioned regulatory bodies, reviewed the literature with respect to radiation exposure and concluded that more studies should be conducted including a baseline health study of Saskatchewan residents who might, in future, be affected by a nuclear power plant. It said nothing about whether or not radiation was harmful and nothing about my personal beliefs.
Nevertheless, the president of the Saskatchewan branch of the Canadian Nuclear Association (CNA) phoned the SMA the following morning before 9:30 am and asked him if “Dr. Dewar had represented the organization appropriately” and if “everything that Dr. Dewar had said had been approved by the SMA”. I know this because I phoned at 9:30 am to debrief with the executive director. Later the Sk CNA person wrote a letter to the SMA casting doubt on the material that I had presented to the SMA. The SMA appropriately forwarded the letter to me and I responded immediately, closing my letter with “please provide the exact nature of the research which is questionable”. He never responded. He didn’t need to because it didn’t matter – the only thing that mattered was the doubt cast upon me and my presentation.
A more recent similar episode occurred this past winter after the Ottawa Citizen published an opinion piece written by Dr. Caldicott and myself. Our piece was fully referenced (which the Citizen published on line). The Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission in the person of Mr. Binder wrote a reply claiming that they had more than 150 peer-reviewed studies in their Port Hope Synthesis Report which proved that “there was no danger to radioactivity in Port Hope”. Who besides those of us who have read the Synthesis report know that there are only 120 references and that, of these, less than 50 are studies, none of which are “peer-reviewed”?
When the Merchants of Doubt get such publicity, how can truth prevail?