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Made You Think

Mar 6, 2018

“If we read an article in the newspaper presenting two opposing viewpoints, we assume both have validity, and we think it would be wrong to shut one side down. But often one side is represented only by a single ‘expert’.”

In this episode of Made You Think, Neil and I discuss Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming, by Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway. In this book, Oreskes and Cornway talk about media and science, and scientific consensus that became controversial in the public eye — from the SDI to tobacco to global warming.

“Rome may not be burning, but Greenland is melting, and we are still fiddling. We all need a better understanding of what science really is, how to recognize real science when we see it, and how to separate it from the garbage.”

We cover a wide range of topics, including:

  • The tobacco industry and the regulations on smoking today
  • Global Warming and all its many causes. Are all causes equally serious?
  • How media talks about science and creates controversial topics out of scientific consensus
  • The SDI and nuclear winter
  • The sugar industry vs working out

And much more. Please enjoy, and be sure to grab a copy of Merchants of Doubts by Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway!

Links from the Episode

Mentioned in the show

Books mentioned

People mentioned

Show Topics

0:44 — Science and media. Topics that have become controversial in the public sphere, through media, that weren’t so within the scientific community; tobacco, the sugar industry, pesticides, etc.

03:58 — The sugar industry and its history of media deception; people’s perceptions on sugar, then and now. The industry’s attempts of bettering their images as sugar is more and more seen as unhealthy.

07:21 — Sugar and artificial sugar: its effects on your body and microbiota. The inexistent proofs that help losing weight.

09:16 — What about exercise? The food industries’ attempts to shift responsibility for health and fitness into “lack of exercise”, overblowing the importance of exercising.

11:05 — Two issues that are not necessarily separated by the book: on one hand, people should be better informed of the risks of their behaviors, like eating sugar, or drinking. On the other hand, should they not be allowed to engage in certain behaviors? Or simply have awareness of the risks if they do engage? Advocating for control, instead of banning, like the taxing on the tobacco industry.

13:15 — The public perception of tobacco as incredibly dangerous, and different perspectives in different countries.

15:21 — The conclusion of the book helps understands the author’s overall thesis. Many people who fought back against restrictions to industries had been Cold War veterans, looking to protect free market. There are certain areas in which free market doesn’t work, like air quality.

17:47 — Regulation is the mother of innovation: they force people to create new solutions, often starting from the beginning.

20:05 — Surprisingly, Hitler banned cigarettes once it was known they were lethal. He had various issues with what he considered “dirty” or “unclean”, which links back to his view of the people he persecuted.

22:35 — All the Nazi research regarding smoke got discredit following their defeat, since no one wanted to use nazist research. But were there such qualms about other research, like rocket science? Is it ethic at all to use research created unethically?

24:06 — Likewise, many studies for controversial topics just can’t be conducted for ethical reasons, or at times there’s too many variables. Epidemiology is useful in this case; though correlation doesn’t necessarily means causation.

25:55 — Climate change, and how its many causes often get simplified to just one problem. And even if we’re wrong about its causes, isn’t it too dangerous to ignore the chance human intervention is responsible?

29:41 — Good science focuses on what’s not yet known; but media often then latches on to these doubts, advertising what scientist don’t know and obscuring the science of what they do know.

30:48 — The SDI: Reagan's program against nuclear strikes through satellites. Was it a serious project? Was it a proposital rumor? Could it have started a nuclear war? How did the idea get so far when it had such opposition?

35:10 — Richard Feynman, Freeman Dyson, and their views on nuclear winter and global warming: two issues that were somehow conflated. Were the models being used accurate?

36:34 — Scientists often focus on areas of doubt, rather than what is already known. A topic largely discussed in the book is that scientists aren’t necessarily good at understanding public policy, media, or how to get their ideas across to the public and vice-versa.

38:06 — CFCs. Once again, many factors contributed to the damage to the ozone layer, but all were given equal weight when certain factors were much more damaging than others. The same was done regarding skin cancers, where many other factors were pointed out that were true, but not as relevant. This seems to be a common tactic to detract from central issues.

43:58 — Second-handed smoking and e-cigarettes: are they as dangerous as regular cigarettes? What of second-hand damages that come with alcohol, like drunk driving? Should alcohol and driving be more strictly regulated?

51:05 — The companies knew what they were doing: memos from tobacco companies show their strategy of trying to keep the doubt on whether or not cigarettes were bad for your health. The ethical dilemma around working for such companies.

54:46 — School’s approach to drug education: are abstinence arguments really effective, or are them increasing drug use? Alternative methods for decreasing drug use and its harmful effects.

01:00:45 — Global Warming is still very much a current issue. What arguments that are in vogue today could be misinformation? It can be difficult to find a balance between suspecting statements that challenge the current scientific consensus, and not completely shutting them down.

01:05:00 — The book has a critical stance on Capitalism and Technology. “Technology won’t save us”. However, it is possible to join business and sustainability.

01:09:30 — The book has a certain one-sided point of view, which can be true for most of the topics discussed, but can also be a dangerous attitude. Radical changes are also much more difficult to execute, such as suddenly switching entirely away from fossil fuels.

01:12:24 — Alternatives to developing without fossil fuels. What about nuclear power? Could that be a solid green alternative? Can solar power progress as fast as our technological needs?

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