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Forging Doubt

Just because we don’t know everything
doesn’t mean we know nothing
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WHAT DO TOBACCO, food additives, chemical flame retardants and carbon emissions all have in common? The industries associated with them and their ill effects have been remarkably consistent and disturbingly effective at planting doubt in the mind of the public in the teeth of scientific evidence. Call it pseudoskepticism.

It began with the tobacco industry when scientific evidence began to mount that cigarettes cause lung cancer. A 1969 memo included this statement from an executive at the Brown & Williamson tobacco company: “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.” In one example among many of how to create doubt, a Philip Morris tobacco executive told a congressional committee: “Anything can be considered harmful. Applesauce is harmful if you get too much of it.”

The tobacco model was subsequently mimicked by other industries. As Peter Sparber, a veteran tobacco lobbyist said, “If you can ‘do tobacco,’ you can do just about anything in public relations.” It was as if they were all working from the same playbook, employing such tactics as: deny the problem, minimize the problem, call for more evidence, shift the blame, cherry-pick the data, shoot the messenger, attack alternatives, hire industry friendly scientists, create front groups. (continue reading…)

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Candle in the Dark

Instead of cursing the darkness of pseudoscience on television, light a candle with Cable Science Network
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Ever since Galileo began the tradition of communicating science in the vernacular so that all might share in its fruits, a tension has existed between those — call them “excluders” — who think science is for professionals only and regard its dissemination to wider audiences as infra dig and those — call them “includers” — who understand that all levels of science require clear composition and public understanding of process and product.

Throughout much of the 20th century the excluders have ruled the roost, punishing those in their flock who dared to write for those paying the bills. Cornell University astronomer Carl Sagan, for example, whose PBS television series Cosmos was viewed by more than half a billion people, was denied membership in the National Academy of Sciences primarily (his biographers have demonstrated through interviews with insiders) because he invested too much time in science popularization. (continue reading…)

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