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Science and Activism

Should scientists also persuade, or should facts speak for themselves?

The May-June issue of the Harvard Magazine has several interesting articles. The World’s Costliest Health Care, by professor of applied economics David Cutler will perhaps draw the most readers (U.S. health care costs roughly twice as much, per capita, as healthcare in other developed countries; in return we have a lower life expectancy than most).

But almost equally interesting is Will Truth Prevail? by just-graduated student Drew Pendergrass. The piece is well written and Pendergrass’ enthusiasm for science is appealing. Less attractive is his belief that scientists should also be activists, because “truth” doesn’t always win.

Pendergrass has been much influenced by the book Merchants of Doubt, co-authored by Harvard History-of-Science Professor Naomi Oreskes’ and historian and writer Erik Conway. The book, which led to a documentary movie, tells a story about the political and public-relations machinations that have caused many to doubt the consensus view of topics such as climate change and passive smoking.

A key ingredient of Oreskes’ method is to dismiss an argument by impugning the motives of the arguer. Pendergrass echoes the book’s claim that “a small group of contrarian, industry-funded scientists misled the public about the dangers of both tobacco and human-caused climate change. By sowing doubt, exaggerating scientific uncertainty, and creating their own institutions to publish junk papers that would never survive peer review, these individuals undermined public trust in consensus science, delaying action on dangerous problems for years. [emphasis added]”

I recently wrote a critique[1] of MoD’s treatment of passive smoking, an issue so entangled in political ideology that the truth, which is in fact pretty clear, is hard to see through the smoke. The critique drew partly on my 2014 book about the smoking issue: Unlucky Strike: Private Health and the Science, Law, and Politics of Smoking [2].

Well aware at the time of the charge that critics of the “secondhand smoke kills” position were all in the pay of the tobacco industry, I decided to do an experiment. Before publication, I approached one or two tobacco companies to see if they could help. Surely, I thought, they would be happy to support a book sympathetic to their cause? But no: they had no interest. There is essentially no evidence that major scientific critics of the standard line on, say, passive smoking, are all paid to lie on behalf of the tobacco industry.

Passive smoke is dangerous according to the EPA, FDA, and Prof. Oreskes. In my book, I cited what is probably the best study that attempted to find an ill effect of passive smoke[3]. The results were negative, no harm detected. Contrary to Oreskes’ claim about such studies, it was peer-reviewed in a respected journal. No errors have been identified in it during the 17 years since its publication. Nevertheless, it is not mentioned by Oreskes and has been ignored and finally excluded from successive reports of the Surgeon General. There is little or no scientific evidence that secondhand tobacco smoke is dangerous. Yet because critics have been effectively silenced, the opposite view still prevails.

I recently became acquainted with some people critical of anthropogenic climate change, another bête noire of Prof. Orestes. Most are physical scientists, many are retired, hence free of work-related social pressure. None of them are associated with the energy industry; all came to their skeptical conclusions by looking at what they could find of the data and arguments. It is wrong to dismiss critics by charging them with corrupt motives, without first looking at the evidence: "What are they saying?" should come before "Why are they saying it?"

Drew Pendergrass is right: Truth may not always prevail, at least not at first. But truth should be distinguished from belief. Truth is truth; belief may indeed change with the vagaries of culture and politics. The two should not be confused.

Verifiable truth can only come from science, conducted free of concerns about power. Pendergrass, following Naomi Oreskes, thinks that “scientists should see themselves as part of the public sphere, understanding that knowledge won’t prevail on its own.” But the history of these controversies over smoking and climate change shows precisely the opposite. Consensus is not necessarily the same as truth. Consequently, striving for consensus can be dangerous. Science is not a democracy. It follows that if scientists try to combine science with persuasion and politics, science — truth — will be the loser. Scientists should be as free of political involvement as possible, if only because self-righteous social activism is so much easier than science.


[1] Staddon, J. (2020) Facts vs. passion: The debate over science-based regulation. Academic Questions, 33, 101-110.

[2] Staddon, John (2013/2014 US) Unlucky Strike: Private Health and the Science, Law and Politics of Smoking. Buckingham, UK: University of Buckingham Press.

[3] Environmental tobacco smoke and tobacco related mortality in a prospective study of Californians, 1960-98. James E Enstrom & Geoffrey C Kabat, British Medical Journal, VOLUME 326 17 MAY 2003.

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