Credit Kayana Szymczak

2020 will mark the tenth anniversary of the publication of Merchants of Doubt, a book that in Europe and the USA has had an impact due to its capacity to make us ponder the effects of truth and the use of doubt as a semiotic and narrative practice that deconstructs scientific research for political and economic purposes. More pertinent than ever in this era of hoaxes, fake news, trolls and psychographics. The book is indeed a guide to understanding how the doubt machine works to influence the market, businesses or political persuasions. In a world where communication becomes a mirror maze, the echo chamber distorts and amplifies those who shout the loudest, where journalism must deal with the post-truth of social media, influencers and consensus engineers reading Merchants of Doubt becomes a necessity. To understand why the market of doubt is currently so healthy, we carried out this exclusive interview with Naomi Oreskes, co-author of the book with Eric M. Conway.

In Merchants of Doubt you described how it has been possible to create very successful communication campaigns, thanks to small groups of scientists and experts, that are used by political and economic actors to distract public opinion from real threats. Threats that are clearly outlined by medical and environmental sciences, including topics such as the effects of smoking, the existence of acid rain, the magnitude of the ozone hole and, above all, the consequences of global warming. What has changed since the book’s publication nearly ten years ago?

“The situation has actually worsened. While writing the book, we identified the deconstruction of the climate emergency as the central problem of American politics. Many people thought that the role of negationists could be the key of inaction to stop climate-changing emissions, strongly criticizing the book. Well, ten years on we are witnessing how this negationist agenda has taken root, leading to a government with a climate change denying president, surrounded by an entourage that openly negates science and is doing its utmost to take the USA out of the Paris Agreement. For many years, the Republican party leadership has been sceptical about climate change, but it is only with Donald Trump that scepticism and doubt have reached such a level as to lead part of the population to believe that the whole climate issue is ‘a hoax crafted by China.’ The worst thing is that, in private, many republican politicians admit that the climate emergency is real and that scientific evidence in irrefutable. But they are cornered by a broader media discourse. Others have denied evidence for so many years that they are no longer able to consider what is really happening, despite surveys saying that an increasing number of Americans believe the science is right. These politicians are incapable of discussing such topics openly, let alone act! And this is also the case with many other governments worldwide.”

Have you ever considered updating your book or writing a sequel to carry on investigating the Merchants of Doubt’s topics?

“Next year in the USA, a new edition will be published with a preface by Al Gore and a new afterword. Reworking and updating the book does not make any sense. What we discovered is already written in the current edition. Mechanisms are the key. In the afterword, we simply tackle the topic of scientific doubt with a dual approach, both optimistic and pessimistic. In particular, we describe the energy revolution that has taken place in California over the last ten years, which has really taken giant steps towards an economy based on renewable energy and energy saving; faster changes than planned, with a share of renewable energy production higher than 50% (with peaks of up to 80% on a good day). This contradicts the nonsense on climate change denial that we relate on these pages. The Californian economy is one of the strongest in the USA, with unemployment rates in line with the US average, and in some cases even lower. California’s case proves that the merchants of doubt’s reasoning is useless and false. But at the same time new mystification strategies are appearing aimed at denying the efficacy of renewables by defining them as ‘unreliable, intermittent, and unsafe in terms of national energy security.’ A reasoning associating the use of renewables with being effeminate or ‘weak’.”

Which axiom of the book is still absolutely valid today?

“One of the most important aspects emerging from writing Merchants of Doubt was how neoliberal ideology has become the bedrock of negationist mechanisms, concerning both the tobacco industry, climate change and renewable energy; diverse sectors led by the same ideological drive. This economic policy with no rules explains and justifies why evidence was denied by vested interests. The book also showed how negationism is not a question of scientific illiteracy, which could be solved with further scientific research or clearer and more convincing explanations. All this has been done, but in the case of climate science it has not worked. This is the reason why when we wrote the book, Eric Conway and I started to think about writing a book on how neoliberal ideology, so unsuitable for our society, managed to get such a hold on American and European culture and destroy rules and regulations to protect Earth, water and people; in favour of deregulation, tax cuts and austerity becoming accepted by influential associations such as the World Economic Forum, the World Bank and other bodies defining the world’s economic activity. This will be our next work entitled The Magic of the Marketplace. The True History of a False Idea, analysing how the marketplace was created, starting from Friedrich Hayek and the Chicago School of Economics’ theories. This is the natural sequel to Merchants of Doubt which will become a prequel.”

In terms of history of ideas and ideologies, the last decade has witnessed the arrival of political actors, from Trump to Farage, from Salvini to Duterte, that have brought back nationalist and sovranist ideas in a strange mix of national popular neoliberalism, anti-scientism, magic thought and structural ignorance. Whilst political power, as beautifully described in the book, used to have to resort to “prestigious scientists with highfalutin title” to produce an anti-narrative needed by the establishment, today, thanks to social media’s horizontal boom, where a blogger’s opinion is not only as important as that of a scientist but even of an entire panel of scientists, the market of doubt is “undoubtedly” growing fast.

“I think our work is important because it explains the very mechanisms that, as you rightly point out, have worsened terribly. The modus operandi of a small group of people, with no validation to talk about a certain topic and with no sort of scientific knowledge or specialisation has become a virus spreading like a pandemic infecting various fields of knowledge. This virus has been used by so-called populists to win consensus and convince ordinary people that they must not trust experts, you must not trust scientists defined as an elite of condescending eggheads. This has created a situation whereby no one can be trusted, where news is actually questioned and who shouts the loudest is right. All this is honestly worrying. A truly Orwellian situation, even though George Orwell feared that this dystopic vision would have come from the Soviet Union or Mao’s China. Today, doublespeak comes from the right, a fact that many progressivists and liberals were not able to foresee and have not reacted to. Suffice it to see the misinformation used in the Brexit referendum (with computer guerrilla carried out by companies such as Cambridge Analytica, author’s note). As illustrated in the book, doubt spreading is really harmful since in any case I lose and you win, because it is not a question of imposing one truth over another but rather the desire to confuse people, which leads to inaction.”

Is social media the perfect tool with which to magnify the strategy of doubt?

“It is difficult to gauge their real importance. When we wrote the book, Facebook was still little used, and Twitter did not even exist. Nevertheless, the Internet was already an important tool for spreading information and in the book we explain how the echo chamber of digital misinformation works. A stagnant space but with no anchors. After all, in 18th century, Alexis de Tocqueville already talked about this confusion in American democracy. So really, this is not a new problem. Means of communication to create disturbance have always been found using what is available. What has spread is a culture of suspicion, of doubt that has nothing to do with normal criticism and refutation. Social media is the latest incarnation, the most powerful tool of extreme spreading.”

There is also a lot of misuse: few people manage to tell false and reliable sources apart. Lack of education, but also a political inability to understand and regulate this system, has opened the doors to all sorts of racists, pseudo scientists and sceptics.

“I agree. The political establishment’s negligence is shocking. But I am also angry with the world of economics. In gatherings such as The World Economic Forum in Davos they often talk about how to change the world for the better. You meet businessmen who want to look like decent people, reiterating that they and their colleagues must take care of the planet, transforming it into a better place. But then there is a deafening silence on misinformation. Nobody wants to regulate it. The notion that if we leave it to the market, everything will sort itself out is still there. In reality, this is the exact opposite of what we know: markets work when regulated. Adam Smith himself, in his Wealth of Nations (published in 1776, author’s note), said that monopolies and banks needed to be regulated. The same is true for communication.”

Regulating the market, any market, is undoubtedly a toxic topic in the American debate.

“We need rules both to protect workers and the environment and to protect capitalism, free competition. Monopolies are harmful. But people are scared to talk about it. Politicians fear voters cannot understand what it means to regulate the marketplace.”

Many people do not trust scientists, especially pharmaceutical chemists, cancer or vaccine researchers as well as climatologists and biologists. The book shows how many experts sold themselves to the private sector working for private corporations and institutions, often with the aim of creating confusion or refuting research that was harmful to the private sector in exchange for money. This has led to widespread distrust towards real science. How can we heal this?

“This is an excellent question. It is ironic that some people generally perceive science to collud with the private sector. A study carried out by the American Academy of Arts and Science in the USA shows that the majority of people still trust science. Scientists are much more respected compared to other groups such as politicians, journalists and entrepreneurs. People become suspicious when there is a possibility that scientists might have personal interests in the research they are conducting. We must be careful though: if on the one hand we must increase public confidence in science, public scepticism is also good. People are not stupid: they understand that when objectivity and independence can be compromised due to private funding it is better not to trust them. In some cases, they are wrong, but in others they can be right. Thus, people are not the problem, but rather the scientific community which must tackle this issue. There is a need for better transparency on research funding sources and guidelines defining when it is not appropriate to receive funds. For instance, there are several universities that have adopted this approach. Magazines such as Science Magazine do not accept articles sponsored by the tobacco industry. But this is just the tip of the iceberg: there are countless situations that would need studying. Many men and women of science deny this problem. They say, ‘we are objective, we are scientists, we are independent.’ We must also say that science is not a virtue in itself, and each fund received is not necessarily virtuous for science. An issue that over the last twenty years has been complicated by a cut in federal funding for scientific research in state universities, thus limiting independence. This has led scientists to look for resources in the private sector to carry on their work. In some cases, extraordinary partnerships have been created, where scientists’ independence is guaranteed. In other cases, this is not true. This is why I think that today we need a serious debate on where to draw the line on these types of private partnerships.”

What are the three points to bear in mind after reading this interview?

“The first is to pay attention to how confusion is created. When we hear someone say, ‘Well, science is not 100% safe, there is no consensus,’ we must perk our ears. This is the first doubting strategy. Especially if the person talking is not a scientist, we must be even more careful. Obviously in science some things are not definitive. But in cases including public health or the environment when politicians or businessmen are doing the talking, we must be extra vigilant.

Second point: evaluating the strategy. Is it being done to muddy the waters rather than give a solution? Confusion is created to lead to inaction. Therefore, it is a good idea to avoid debating the issue in scientific terms. If we start discussing science, inaction carries on. I always suggest scientific and environmental journalists not getting drawn into a debate on science, but concentrating on the effectiveness of current practices, be them the price of carbon or regulations on emissions.

The third point is to be persistent. Any important action requires ongoing commitment. Suffice it to see the tobacco industry: having made progress in North America and Europe, today we are contaminating the debate in the rest of the world. If they want us to debate the fact that climate change will be irreversible in twelve or thirty years, we must concentrate on concrete solutions worldwide. The point is there is no time. Induced and unnecessary doubting is a waste of useful and precious time.”

Merchants of Doubt,

Naomi Oreskes, Erik M. Conway, Merchants of Doubt, Bloomsbury 2010

Naomi Oreskes, Erik M. Conway, Mercanti di dubbi, Edizioni Ambiente 2019: