Finished Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming. The subtitle pretty much says it all: the actual book is devoted to proving the case in rigorous detail.
The book goes through various public policy debates: smoking, acid rain, the effect of CFCs on the ozone layer, passive smoking, global warming, and DDT. The authors Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway show how in each case, the same small group of scientists, backed by the same network of right-wing think-tanks, produced contrarian arguments in an attempt to cast doubt on the scientific mainstream.
In each case, the same techniques were used. Mainstream science was attacked as "junk science". Equal time was demanded in the media, presenting the debate as an even one, though almost all scientists were on a single side. Doubts on the research were played up. Small alternative contributing factors were played up in an attempt to cast doubt on the mainstream explanation. The weight of evidence was ignored in favour of a microfocus on particular studies with odd results. The costs of action against the problem was played up.
In most of these cases, mainstream science won out in the end. However, by prolonging the debate they were able to win years or decades of time for the corporations troubled by the prospect of regulation. Moreover, in terms of the government and the media, the contrarians had a hugely disproportionate impact. The media was generally convinced that the issue was genuinely in doubt, politicians often convinced that the contrarians were correct.
The main scientists involved were Bill Nierenberg, Fred Seitz, and Fred Singer. I found it particularly depressing that they were at one point genuine scientists, studying my former discipline of Physics.
The authors believe that the motivations of these contrarians was ideological rather than financial. They carried out the same campaigns before the various institutions like the Marshall and Cato institutes started funding them. However, I suspect there must have been a financial incentive too: the corporations threatened by regulation funded the institutions, and the institutions kept them on their payrolls.
Nierenberg, Seitz, and Singer were cold war right-wingers who seem to have been true believers in free-market capitalism, and see any form of regulation as a kind of quasi-communist attempt to annihilate it. But if that was the whole story, it seems unlikely to me that they would choose to attack science to do it.
Overall, a sobering and depressing read. But it's highly convincing and a very important exposé of the exact methods used in the war on science. Essential reading.
What I'm Watching
Saw the gritty sixties classic The Battle of Algiers on DVD.
Tense story showing how the Algerian National Liberation Front (FLN) used terrorism and demonstrations against the French, only to be hunted down by paratroops using brutal tactics of interrogation.
Very good movie, deserves its status as a classic.
What I'm Watching 2
Saw Biutiful at the cinema. Javier Bardem stars as Uxbal, a small-time player in the Barcelona underworld who starts to suffer illness.
Some may remember that I have a real dislike for movies where people with no real problems whine about them. This movie certainly doesn't fall under that category. Instead Uxbal struggles under a succession of burdens: cancer, a manic-depressive ex-wife, abused illegal immigrants, police raids, and seeing dead people.
Some seem to have complained that it makes the movie too depressing. I don't think so, but I think it does lead to a bit of a lack of focus: could maybe have cut it down to three or so disasters. I did find myself checking my watch a few times in the middle section.
However, the plot does gel by the end, and the movie finally comes around to a moving conclusion.
Overall, a pretty good movie if you're willing to go with it, but not a classic.
Saw Becky Shaw at the Almeida in Islington. American comedy by Gina Gionfriddo involving four characters with various degrees of emotional damage.
I loved this play: absolutely superb. The dialogue is crisp, with some hilarious lines. The characters are sharply observed and well acted, especially Daisy Haggard as the shrewdly unbalanced Becky. It's not just a lightweight comedy though: it has a few things to say about the way a certain generation handles relationships.
Dropped in at Tate Britain to see a few things. Romantics is a free "from the collection" exhibition where they've hung a few other pictures from the same period alongside the Turners. A few interesting fantasy-like paintings there. Includes Richard Dadd's "The Fairy Feller's Master-Stroke" as referenced in Pratchett's "The Wee Free Men".
Reasonable quality but nothing that's particularly unusual for London there. They have got a recent acquisition: some hand-coloured engravings of William Blake.
Downstairs they have a big Susan Hiller exhibition. This one's £10 to get in for non-members. Once again this veers a bit too much towards the conceptual for my taste. Some of the installations have some impact though. One room is densely draped with speakers dangling from wires, whispering accounts of UFO abductions. Another "Psi Girls", has four large screens showing movie clips of girls showing psychic powers, each washed with a different colour.
There are also large collections of postcards with similar imagery, for instance storm waves crashing across various seafronts. I think that might have been more impressive when it was made, but Flickr and Google Image Search make this kind of thing very easy to do now. It's called "Dedicated to the Unknown Artists": never quite sure if these things are actual tributes or look-at-the-schmucks pisstakes, though I generally suspect the latter.
Overall, not terrible, a few interesting things if you're passing.
Borrowing and higher debt leverage appears to have helped the poor and the middle-class to cope with the erosion of their relative income position by borrowing to maintain higher living standards. Meanwhile, the rich accumulated more and more assets and in particular invested in assets backed by loans to the poor and the middle class. The consequence of having a lower increase in consumption inequality compared to income inequality has therefore been a higher wealth inequality.Video. A few seconds of Diaghilev's Ballet Russes. Gang fight turns deadly.
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