Evaluating Science: How to Fight Doubt-Mongering

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Merchants of Doubt" by Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Are you skilled in evaluating science? How do you know what’s true and what’s false?

In the book Merchants of Doubt, Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway take on people and organizations who create the impression that scientific findings that threaten their agenda or ideology are unsettled—or flat-out wrong. The authors look at some of the issues that merchants of doubt are tackling today and share keys to evaluating science so that you can protect yourself from being taken in.

Read on to start developing the skill of evaluating science.

Doubt-Mongering Today

The original edition of Merchants of Doubt was published in 2010 and updated in 2020. Despite the victories of the merchants of doubt (MOD) in the climate change arenas pre-2010, Oreskes and Conway thought things might be improving because:

  • The media was decreasing its coverage of climate change deniers.
  • The 2006 documentary An Inconvenient Truth helped show Americans that anthropogenic climate change was very real. 
  • In 2007, Al Gore’s work on climate change made him a shared winner of the Nobel Peace Prize. 
  • The Obama administration was making progress against the fossil fuel industry and Republicans.
  • Most importantly, a coalition of territories, cities, and groups led by Massachusetts sued the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for failure to adhere to the Clean Air Act—the act requires the government to regulate dangerous air pollutants, and they didn’t regulate carbon dioxide. The Supreme Court found that the Clean Air Act did legally require the EPA to regulate (or justify why they weren’t). This was important because it meant that if there were already laws in place that required the executive branch to regulate, Congress had no say.

All of this progress stalled when Donald Trump was elected:

  • The U.S. withdrew from existing climate agreements and revoked the Clean Power Plan. 
  • Previous regulations were overturned. For example, in 2015, the EPA decided to ban chlorpyrifos, which causes brain damage in embryos. Under Trump, the EPA backpedaled on the decision, claiming that there wasn’t enough evidence of its harms to ban it.
  • The MODs reprised the same settled issues that we looked at in previous chapters. For example, the tobacco debate restarted around vaping in the U.S.

Additionally, today, it’s even easier for MODs to go public with their opinions, no matter how ludicrous or dangerous, because of the Internet. Anything on the Internet is sharable and permanent, and there aren’t gatekeepers on the Internet (for example, journals that will refuse to print a MOD’s letter).

Oreskes and Conway believe the world is in a bad place, and they see this book as a wake-up call. Scientists are often told not to be negative because they’ll depress people, which leads to them giving up rather than acting. Oreskes and Conway agree that negativity can be paralyzing, but reassurance that things aren’t so bad when they really are creates the same effect—inaction. 

Protect Yourself From Doubt-Mongering

Doubt-mongering is still alive and well. So, how do you avoid being taken in by merchants of doubt (MODs)? How can you cultivate the skill of evaluating science for yourself?

First, don’t count on scientists to set the record straight for you. Other than defending Ben Santer, the scientific community as a whole hasn’t done much to counter the MODs. This is likely for some of the following reasons:

  • Science is a team effort. Most discoveries come from teams, and even if only one person discovers something, it doesn’t count as science until it’s been peer-reviewed and agreed on as consensus by experts. Individuals who speak out might worry that their colleagues think they’re hogging the credit.
  • Lack of communication skills. Scientists aren’t trained in communication or how to handle attacks, and formal statements by groups of scientists are long, boring, and hard to understand. Additionally, many scientists think their work is to make the discoveries, not communicate them—communicating would take time away from doing science.
  • Objectivity. Most scientists are objective, which makes it awkward for them to get involved in anything political. They leave evaluating science to others.
  • Fear. Scientists have seen their colleagues attacked for discoveries the industry didn’t like. 
  • Faith in science. Some scientists think the truth will eventually come out.

However, you also can’t do the science and original research yourself—you don’t have the expertise in every single field you might be interested in. Therefore, when you’re evaluating science, you have to rely on information that’s given to you.

Things to Remember When Evaluating Science for Yourself

When you encounter a piece of information, keep in mind the following:

1. The information tends to be legitimate when it comes from a reputable source like:

  • Scientists who are experts in a relevant field, who regularly publish in peer-reviewed journals, and who are independently funded.
  • Organizations who have been asked (for example, the National Academy of Sciences) or self-organize (International Panel on Climate Change) to investigate something.

Example #1: Benjamin Santer’s papers and presentations about climate change were legitimate because he was a climate modeler and part of the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

Example #2: Fred Seitz was a scientist, but he was a physicist, not a medical professional, and he was funded by think tanks and the tobacco industry. Therefore, his input on tobacco was more likely to be doubt-mongering than real science.

2. Dissent can be doubt-mongering when the attacker is:

  • In disagreement with expert consensus
  • A known contrarian who often plays the devil’s advocate
  • Associated with a group with an agenda
  • Emotional or displaying intense conviction

For example, MOD Steve Milloy regularly and dramatically attacked a variety of issues he didn’t agree with (among other things, he accused Rachel Carson of being a mass murderer). He worked with strongly pro-industry organizations.

These are important principles and practices to keep in mind when evaluating science.

Evaluating Science: How to Fight Doubt-Mongering

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Here's what you'll find in our full Merchants of Doubt summary:

  • How doubt-mongering techniques are used to discredit those who threaten a person or company's agenda
  • The 10 most common doubt-mongering techniques
  • Steps you can take to protect yourself from doubt-mongering

Elizabeth Whitworth

Elizabeth has a lifelong love of books. She devours nonfiction, especially in the areas of history, theology, science, and philosophy. A switch to audio books has kindled her enjoyment of well-narrated fiction, particularly Victorian and early 20th-century works. She appreciates idea-driven books—and a classic murder mystery now and then. Elizabeth has a blog and is writing a creative nonfiction book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

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