Teaching Evolution

A blog devoted to teaching evolution, both in our schools and in our communities.

Friday, June 24, 2005

Manufacturing Uncertainty

I've always thought there are a lot of similarities between the evolution/creation debate and the debate over whether cigarettes are addictive. As recently as 1996, Bob Dole said on national television that he didn't know whether or not cigarettes were addictive. If you look for it closely enough, you'll find people willing to assert any kind of scientific nonsense.

In a good Los Angeles Times op-ed, former assistant secretary of Energy David Michaels writes about how easy it is for people to use bogus scientific-sounding claims to make something that every scientist knows sound like it's just some abstract thought.

The tobacco industry led the way. For 50 years, cigarette manufacturers employed a stable of scientists willing to assert (sometimes under oath) that there was no conclusive evidence that cigarettes cause lung cancer, or that nicotine is addictive. An official at Brown & Williamson, a cigarette maker now owned by R.J. Reynolds, once noted in a memo: "Doubt is our product since it is the best means of competing with the 'body of fact' that exists in the mind of the general public."

Toward that end, the tobacco manufacturers dissected every study, highlighted every question, magnified every flaw, cast every possible doubt every possible time. They also conjured their own studies with questionable data and foregone conclusions. It was all a charade, of course, because the real science was inexorable. But the uncertainty campaign was effective; it delayed public health protections, and compensation for tobacco's victims, for decades.

The tobacco industry, left without a stitch of credibility or public esteem, has finally abandoned that strategy — but it led the way for others. Every polluter and manufacturer of toxic chemicals understands that by fostering a debate on uncertainties in the underlying science and by harping on the need for more research — always more research — it can avoid debating the actual policy or regulation in question.

Michaels doesn't mention evolution, but the lessons taught in this article can be applied in many fields.


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