Science gets misused and abused

The Economist has written a review of a recent book called Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming by Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway. Apparently, the book is about how science can be misrepresented to sway public opinion and win political decisions.

In this powerful book, Naomi Oreskes and Eric Conway, two historians of science, show how big tobacco’s disreputable and self-serving tactics were adapted for later use in a number of debates about the environment. Their story takes in nuclear winter, missile defence, acid rain and the ozone layer. In all these debates a relatively small cadre of right-wing scientists, some of them eminent, worked through organisations sometimes created specially for the purpose to take on a scientific establishment that they perceived to be dangerously unsympathetic to the interests of capital and national security.

If bullshitters (misrepresenters of science) can clutter up the discussion and make it sufficiently confusing to sort out the good science from the fake science, it becomes harder and harder for people to make clear decisions. So, on one side of the battle are the people who care about making good decisions based on high-quality evidence. For them, a small amount of information takes a great deal of pain and expense to produce and analyse. On the other side of the battle are the bullshitters who hope to overload your cognitive abilities with a torrent of confusing and misleading information, often contradicting the careful science. For them, the information comes much easier and in much greater quantities, since it’s dishonest.

This highlights the importance of general science education. Everyone (scientists, voters, politicians, business owners, consumers, etc.) has to enter the above mentioned battlefield and sort out for themselves which information is worth listening to and which is just noise. This is the reason that understanding what science is and how it works is not just the responsibility of people who do science for a living; it is each persons individual responsibility to enable themselves to make sense of all of the information, good and bad. Science filters out the noise.


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