Pre-packaged doubt: A problem for action on climate change

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- The Sustainability Institute will co-host a screening of “Merchants of Doubt” at 7 p.m. on Sept. 9 at the State Theatre. The screening will be followed by a moderated panel discussion, which will conclude at 9:30 pm. The event is free and open to the public.

“Merchants of Doubt” brings viewers into the world of how a small group of politically well-connected, media-savvy men have sewn doubt and confusion in the public’s mind about the science of climate change. The film is directed by Robert Kenner ("Food, Inc." and "When Strangers Click") and based on the acclaimed book of the same title by Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway.

The panel discussion will feature Michael E. Mann, director of Penn State’s Earth Systems Science Center; Janet Swim, chair of the American Psychological Association’s Taskforce on Climate Change; Lee Ahern, associate professor of communications; and Rosa Eberly, associate professor of communication arts and sciences, to discuss climate change, communication and the flow and quality of information in a democracy. The panel will answer questions from the moderator and the audience.

“'Merchants of Doubt' illustrates a variety of psychological strategies used to undermine actions to address climate change,” said Swim. “These include cognitive strategies to manufacture doubt about the scientific certainty behind our understanding of human-caused climate change and affective strategies to foster ‘motivated reasoning’ and encourage groups to view the science through a political lens and view solutions as a threat to core individualistic values.

“The film illustrates how these strategies were purposefully initiated by those vested in opposing climate change action and to confuse the public and redirect the government and the public away from solutions that threaten fossil fuel companies.”

The strategy and results have been much like the tobacco industry’s "doubt is our product" strategy, and the public has been confused and politically polarized on the issue, slowing political action. Some of the tactics in the strategy have been less than civil.

Michael Mann, author of "The Hockey Stick and Climate Wars," is a Penn State scientist who found himself at the center of attacks funded by the fossil fuel industry, their front groups and attack dogs. His iconic "hockey stick" graph showed the unprecedented nature of human-caused climate change. The merchants of doubt made him a target.

“'Merchants of Doubt' provides the appropriate larger context for understanding my own story, describing how fossil fuel interests and their willing accomplices have sought to poison the public discourse over the threat of human-caused climate change, in a cynical attempt to put their own short-term profits ahead of the long-term welfare of us and the planet,” said Mann.

These cynical means have been around for a long time, according to Ahern.

“Although using absence of certitude as a rhetorical device has been around since the Greeks, in a mass-media context this communications tactic started with the war on tobacco. The rest as they say is history — sowing doubt works,” he said.

Ahern explained that the debate really isn’t about science. Science is a proxy. People are really interested in what the science means for society.

“What are the legal, ethical and social consequences of public science-driven public policies? These are not scientific questions. 'Merchants of Doubt' illustrates the importance of thinking of science communication as social communication,” said Ahern.

The event is co-sponsored by Penn State's Sustainability Institute, the Sierra Club Moshannon Group, the Arthur W. Page Center for Integrity in Public Communication, Penn State Institutes of Energy and the Environment, the Center for Democratic Deliberation, Pennsylvania Interfaith Power & Light, the Rock Ethics Institute, and Penn State Reads.

For more information about the "Merchants of Doubt" film, watch the trailer on YouTube. For information about sustainability efforts at Penn State, visit sustainability.psu.edu or follow @sustainPSU on social media.

Questions about the event can be directed to sustainability@psu.edu.

Last Updated May 19, 2016