2010-11-26 22:52:16The Tobacco Strategy*
Bob Guercio
Robert Guercio

The scientific community has established that the burning of fossil fuels is significantly and negatively changing earth's climate; however, the fossil fuel industry is challenging this in order to protect their profits. They are using a strategy which is not new and was previously used first by the tobacco industry and then by the chemical industries with regard to acid rain, the ozone hole and DDT. Since it was used for the first time by the Tobacco Industry, Naomi Oreskes coined the term "The Tobacco Strategy" in her book entitled "Merchants of Doubt".

The Tobacco Strategy is predicated upon buying time by sowing doubt. Given enough time, the truth must prevail so it is impossible to win these battles and the Contrarians are fully aware of this. However, if the inevitable is delayed by several decades, that is several decades of profit in the coffers of the industries that sponsor this strategy. Thus, profit is the motive and "The Tobacco Strategy" has been shown to be a very profitable strategy.

Sowing doubt is extremely easy since there is always a lack of certainty in the scientific community. Scientists state hypotheses and develop evidence to support the hypotheses but can never state with 100% certainty that a hypothesis is true. However, even when the confidence expressed by the scientific community is established to be 98%, there remains a two percent uncertainty with which doubt can be sowed among the gullible public.

The scientific community itself is manipulated to sow doubt against itself. There are always elements in the scientific community on the fringes who oppose mainstream science and these scientists, oftentimes with legitimate scientific credentials, are recruited to write pseudoscientific articles and give lectures to the unwary. Sham institutions such as the CATO Institute and the Heartland Institute are created to give the pseudoscience a facade of legitimacy.

In addition to the scientists on the fringe that are recruited, there unfortunately are those that prostitute themselves for financial gain. The financial gain is significant since these scientists knowingly embark upon a cause which ensures them of a negative legacy.

As discussed earlier, the Tobacco strategy is not new and has been used several times in the past. There is thus a wealth of experience from which to draw upon and unfortunately it is being used by the Climate Change Contrarians with consummate perfection. Unfortunately, the consequences of using this strategy to argue against Climate Change will be far more serious than past "Tobacco Strategy" campaigns.

*The information and ideas for this blog came from the book "Merchants of Doubt" by Naomi Oreskes

2010-12-16 18:28:38Feedback on a few quotes
John Cook


A few lines I question:

"Contrarians are fully aware of this" - I actually think most skeptics/deniers including the high profile leaders believe what they're saying. Never underestimate the power of ideology and cognitive bias to blind one to the full body of evidence.

"profit is the motive" - that may be the motive of some fossil fuel executives but ideology is the driving force behind most skeptics, as was the case with the Merchants of Doubt in Naomi's book. Naomi made clear that the merchants of doubt (the scientist spokesmen, not the tobacco executives) weren't motivated by money - their driving force was their opposition to government intervention which they saw as the slippery slope to socialism.

"even when the confidence expressed by the scientific community is established to be 98%" - is this a hypothetical number or are you refering to a specific confidence in a particular result?

"Sham institutions such as the CATO Institute and the Heartland Institute" - I think we're now getting into the ad hominem territory that SkS usually tries to avoid.

Again, I'm not sure the financial gain angle is a big factor. I think it's good that we expose the methods of skeptics - the sowing of doubt - but I'm not sure I agree with the approach here or the premise that the motives of skeptics are profit based.

2010-12-16 18:59:17
Rob Painting

Bob, I agree with John. I think it is a worthwhile topic to cover, given how stunningly effective it has been, and how much closer to the precipice it has shifted us.

On the financial angle I think you can infer, letting people "join the dots", without getting bogged down in that mire. For example how many trillions of dollars do fossil fuel interests have tied up in infrastructure?. What's in it for them if fossil fuels are phased out?. How are "institutions" like CATO funded?. 

The beauty of the doubt strategy, is that to the uninformed two supposedly expert opinions carry the same weight. And in this particular instance the "merchants" have the added benefit of proposing that humanity do nothing to change their habits, whereas the science highlights the need to take drastic action to effectively combat global warming.  

Then you have the mainstream media, who are obsessed with conflict and controversy. False equivalency is their trademark play when it comes to matters of science. They'll locate the "fringe" scientist who holds contrary views to the rest of their colleagues, and them pit him/her against another scientist who represents the mainstream science. So there you have it, once again doubt in the minds of the uninformed.      

Don't worry buddy, I wholeheartedly agree with your post, but for general consumption it's not in keeping with the way things are done around here. And good thing too, other blogs tend to degenerate into slanging matches. 




2010-12-16 23:22:41Possibly useful quote from Merchants of Doubt
James Wight


“Doubt-mongering also works because we think science is about facts — cold, hard, definite facts. If someone tells us that things are uncertain, we think that means that the science is muddled. This is a mistake. There are always uncertainties in any live science, because science is a process of discovery. Scientists do not sit still once a question is answered; they immediately formulate the next one. […]

“Doubt is crucial to science — in the version we call curiosity or healthy skepticism, it drives science forward — but it also makes science vulnerable to misrepresentation, because it is easy to take uncertainties out of context and create the impression that everything is unresolved. This was the tobacco industry’s key insight: that you could use normal scientific uncertainty to undermine the status of actual scientific knowledge. As in jujitsu, you could use science against itself.”

 - Merchants of Doubt, page 34

2010-12-17 07:52:26
Bob Guercio
Robert Guercio

OK Guys,

I understand why it's best to keep away from politics on this site.  It does cheapen the many fine arguments that we make.  So forget my blog and let me tell you my honest thoughts.  Maybe I'm wrong but!

Believe it or not, only about six months ago I was a skeptic.  I wasn't a skeptic for the reasons that Senator James Inhofe or Glenn Beck are skeptics;  I was a skeptic because I was ignorant of the facts.  The media and politicians present the issues as if the scientists have not yet agreed and that is what I thought.  I thought that the science was not settled so I decided to do some reading.

It did not take me very long to understand what the truth was.  In fact, it very quickly became painfully obvious and that is probably what has molded my present thinking.  Considering my technical background and age, I am somewhat embarrassed that I was fooled by the conflicting messages and this has made me very passionate about the subject. 

I may be educated with a very technical background but I only consider myself to be of average intelligence.  I worked very hard to achieve what I have and to understand what I do understand.  But this leads to the essence of my thinking on this subject.

James Inhofe, Sean Hannity, Glenn Beck, etc., etc., are all very smart cookies.  There is no question that if I were to go up against them one on one, I would get creamed.  Now how could anybody as smart as these people possibly draw conclusions which are patently wrong unless they are, and I'm not going to mince words, lying.  That is truly my belief about the contrarians since they have to understand what they read, see and hear.  They are liars.

I am fully aware that this line of argument is counterproductive to our cause and in other forums I do refrain from this approach.  But with you guys, I feel that I can be perfectly honest and there it is, warts and all!

Thanks for your comments and thanks for listening.  Please respond to this post because I truly want your thoughts on all I've said.


2010-12-17 08:42:17Why smart people are wrong about global warming
John Cook

Bob, I was at a workshop on climate change communication on Wednesday and listened to a lot of social scientists talk about research into how people react to climate change. And let me tell you your reaction is the exception, not the rule. There is much evidence that for complex science issues, people make decisions based on their values. There is also an extremely high correlation between people who believe in free markets and skepticism. For these types, the sad fact is more facts and evidence will have no impact as their views are not based on facts and evidence. In this case they're different to you - kudos that you were able to change your position but don't assume others are as rational as you.

Basically, the root of ideologically driven denial is distrust of government intervention. This can operate at different levels. The average guy just doesn't want the government telling him to run his life. The more sophisticated ideologue think a carbon tax or any form of government regulation is the first step down the slippery slope of socialism. But people can deny AGW even for basic psychological reasons. Denial of bad news. They've already reached their worry quota and don't want to add another problem to their lives. We're battling against the stream here, our job is not easy.

It's important to understand this, to be aware of the research onto human psychology which is why I created the forum on communication. Understanding our audience will affect how we communicate to them. So given that there are a variety of motives for skepticism, we can't know what's in a person's head when they express skeptic views. So I believe the best approach is to expose the methods, not the motives. Let the reader decide for themselves what the motive is.

2010-12-17 09:05:25
Daniel Bailey
Daniel Bailey

Bob, I agree with your sentiments and sympathize with your frustrations.

As John says:

I actually think most skeptics/deniers including the high profile leaders believe what they're saying. Never underestimate the power of ideology and cognitive bias to blind one to the full body of evidence.

When you start off with the position that A cannot be true so only that data which is against A is valid, then you have a recipe for denial.  Stir in a generous helping of political expediency and some pork for flavor and you get the concoction of a climate disaster.

Sucks to be us.

As far as confrontation, if it happens stick to the facts and all of the evidence.  Show pictures/graphs if possible.  All of Inhofe's, Beck's and Moncton's lies get blown away with a well-chosen visual. Don't try to rebut as their straw man arguments are on movable goalposts.  Rebut the Gish Gallop and you lose (all they have to do is to sow the seeds of doubt).

Stick to "this is what it is" and show visuals (the politics of denial cannot overcome visuals). 

More people will believe you because of the old adage:

Q: How do you know when a politician is lying?

A: His lips are moving and his hand is in your wallet.

2010-12-18 03:49:30
Bob Guercio
Robert Guercio

Hey Guys,

You may have misunderstood me regarding my original position on global warming.  Perhaps I should not have said that I was a skeptic.

Basically, I had no position and I thought that the science was not settled.  I did not switch positions but I finally took a position and it really didn't take too much of an effort.  I just had to get away from the main stream media.

I understand what you guys are saying and I think that part of the problem is that once a person has a position on anything, he tends to listen only to those arguments supporting that position.  However, the issue of global warming is different since the contrarians are not listening to the experts.  The are listening to the journalists and  politicians who support their position.  I think that's what makes this issue so different from all others in which people will in general listen to the experts and if the experts disagree they will then only listen to those experts espousing their own beliefs.

That's a big difference!

Bottom line: This may be the only subject in which the experts are not being listened to.  So I'm not sure that this fits the mold stipulated by the social scientists.

Just one more thought.  The fact that global warming is real is "in your face".  This is what is taught at all legitimate colleges and universities and this is what you find in all legitimate science textbooks.  James Inhofe, Glenn Beck and Sean Hannity know this!

Please don't misunderstand me.  Calling them liars is counterproductive to  our cause and I fully understand this.

If I may add, I have been very successful in making several people who thought the science was not settled aware  it was.  I appeal to the fact that global warming is taught at colleges and universities and I pointed them to David Archers on line course in global warming.  Also, the University of Arizona and Stanford University has an excellent series of seminars.  These online sources are very convincing.

Again, thanks for listening.