The book “Merchants of Doubt“ is about what problems capitalism is having and how to possibly solve them. The conclusion is, that we have to trust science and should use government regulation to address the shortcomings of capitalism.
Why is capitalism not working on problems like global warming?
The idea of capitalism and free markets is, that self-interest is leading people to do things that benefit the general population.
For example: I produce a good and then sell it. Because I would like to increase my living standard, I invent a better process that allows me to be more productive. This way I sell for a lower price to more people and increase sales and profits. I make more money and everyone else can buy my good for lower prices. Everyone profits.
This works as long, as my self-interest of making more money are aligned with a positive effect. If that is not the case, capitalism is not working in this particular area.
For example: For my production, I use a machine that pollutes the air. I could use a filter to reduce the emissions, but the filter costs money and increases costs without increasing my profits. Therefore, I don’t have a personal interest in reducing air pollution.
In this case, the air pollution is called an external cost because the resource “clean air” does not create any costs for my business. The external costs are carried by society in the form of poor air quality.
The nature of external costs is that they are not considered in production. This is the reason capitalism is not working for global warming and other problems with external costs.
Why is the public opinion divided?
The reason that public opinion is divided is that companies and industries are spreading doubt to avoid regulation.
For example: The scientists have figured out that second hand smoke significantly increases the likelihood of cancer in people that inhale it. Therefore, they suggest banning smoking in closed public rooms like restaurants, trains and all sorts of indoor entertainment. As the CEO of a tobacco company, I make a forecast that sees my profits drop by 25% if this regulation is enforced. Therefore, I have a strong incentive to fight the regulation.
Because of this phenomenon, there is a lot of money spend to delude the public and fight regulation to protect profits.
Because companies of one industry can unite and are often better at persuasion, it makes sense that they can pull a lot of people on their sides. This is the reason that public opinion is divided, even though the scientific community is unanimous.
Why are scientists not more aggressive in fighting the false information that is spread by companies?
The reason that scientists often don’t fight the false information that is spread by companies is that they are more interested in the science itself than in the distribution and advertising of the science.
Scientists go into science because they want to discover something or do research and explain things. They are often dislike advertising and promoting.
That is the reason that even though they see the false information they are either not interested in correcting it or if they are, they are not as good and successful at promoting their work than whole companies are.
Another factor is that today most scientific discoveries are the result of group work. Because of this group work, there might not be anybody who feels responsible for promoting and spreading the result of the research. In addition, it is not always well-received if one person is defending the research because it might look like this person is claiming the attention for the research, even though it was a group work.
How can we identify good science from bad?
Before writing about how to tell the difference, I would like to quote what the book means when talking about bad science.
It’s science that is obviously fraudulent—when data have been invented, fudged, or manipulated. Bad science is where data have been cherry-picked—when some data have been deliberately left out—or it’s impossible for the reader to understand the steps that were taken to produce or analyze the data. It is a set of claims that can’t be tested, claims that are based on samples that are too small, and claims that don’t follow from the evidence provided. And science is bad—or at least weak—when proponents of a position jump to conclusions on insufficient or inconsistent data. — Merchants of Doubt, page 153
To avoid this kind of bad science, it is advised to only use trustworthy sources. This can be reports that have been awarded with scientific prices, like the Nobel Prize. It can also be scientific journals that use peer review to control the correctness of their articles.
Newspaper in general are not trustworthy scientific sources. The reason for that is that the publishers and editors, who decide what is published, are not scientists and therefore cannot judge the accuracy of an article. This is the reason that newspapers might present “both sides” of an argument, even though scientific journals only present one “side” because that is the scientific correct one.
The book talks about problems that capitalism has. Arguing that dictatorship or communism would be worse is not going to solve the problems that capitalism has.
I think that regulation based on scientific evidence and recommendations is a practical way.
Because I value my freedom, I would like that humanity does not need regulation and rules and that every human would be responsible enough that we would not need regulation. However, I am also practical enough that I believe the problems that scientists present will not solve themselves and need another solution. I think the challenge will be to do the right amount of regulation. Enough to solve the problem, but not more than necessary to preserve liberty.
What are your thoughts on this?