Seeds of Doubt

Denial, Doubt, and Prevailing Bias

Denial, doubt, and prevailing bias create a confusing stew of conflict in nutrition, obesity, tobacco, and environmental policy. The new documentary Merchants of Doubt gives that stew a good stir.

The director of Food, Inc has woven together a compelling story about the business of sowing doubt in the service of corporations threatened by the intersection of science and public policy. In his new film, he brings to life the common metaphor of a playbook for deception invented by big tobacco.

That playbook has been applied skillfully in debates about climate change and, many people would say, in food policy.

Simple observations about rising sea level and weather patterns are becoming increasingly hard to dispute, so the climate change debate has moved on into arguments about whom to blame. Denial that it’s really happening is becoming hard to justify.

In food policy, this playbook metaphor is a little more problematic. When it comes to food policy, obesity and health, we have a lot of unresolved issues. Legitimate scientific doubt and debate is actually important, but it commonly gets characterized as disingenuous shilling for “Big Food.” Bad decisions, like 30 years of policy urging people to cut dietary cholesterol, can result. Prevailing bias can wreak havoc because it’s hard to recognize.

Likewise, the tobacco playbook metaphor is having a profound impact on deliberations about e-cigarettes. Deep suspicions about tobacco and nicotine led the state of California to warn that e-cigarettes are an imminent health threat. Some people cheer this decision. Others shake their heads and wonder what are they thinking — discouraging smokers from switching to a product that is certainly safer than cigarettes.

The challenge is to distinguish legitimate doubts and unresolved scientific questions from cynical denial of compelling facts. Otherwise, prevailing biases will lead us through a succession of errors in public policy.

Click here to read more about Merchants of Doubt in the Washington Post.

Seeds of Doubt, image © Sharon Hinchliffe / flickr

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One Response to “Denial, Doubt, and Prevailing Bias”

  1. March 21, 2015 at 6:30 am, Joe Gitchell said:

    Thanks, Ted–it is really tough to put aside the role of the limbic brain when dealing with such highly charged issues.

    I need to re-read some TS Kuhn, I think!