From Disinformation to Wishful Thinking

Wednesday, 17 December 2014: 10:50 AM
Naomi Oreskes, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA, United States and Erik Meade Conway, California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, CA, United States
In our book, Merchants of Doubt, we documented how deliberate disinformation campaigns served to confuse the American people about the reality and significance of climate change over more than two decades. We showed how a variety of strategies were used to persuade the public that the scientific “jury was still out” on climate change, including deliberate mispresentation of facts, cherry-picking of evidence, and personal attacks on scientists. And we documented the links, both conceptual and actual, between doubt-mongering about climate change and the rejection of scientific evidence of the harms of tobacco, acid rain, the ozone hole, nuclear winter, and DDT. These tactics are still in use today, but they are now reinforced by a new problem, the problem of wishful thinking. Increasingly, we see commentators who accept the reality of climate change assuring us that the problem can be solved by natural gas, or even by some as yet unknown and uninvented technological innovations. In this paper we argue that these forms of wishful thinking, while not malicious in the same way that previous doubt-mongering campaigns have been, contribute substantially to scientific illiteracy and misunderstanding both of the character of the challenges that we face and of the history of technological innovation.