Watching and Being Watched

With the ongoing public debate about Edward Snowden, the NSA leaks, and the role of surveillance in our society, I wanted to share (without necessarily always endorsing) an interesting perspective from Dr. Eric Stoddart, a Lecturer in Practical Theology at the University of St. Andrews, and author of the recently-published  Theological Perspectives on a Surveillance Society: Watching and Being Watched.  A couple years ago, I had the opportunity to interview him for the magazine I was then editing, Fermentations .  Here is the abridged version of the interview:

BL: Can you give me an outline of the argument that you’ll be making in the book?

ES: I start from the point that surveillance is now ubiquitous, in the sense that it is really our primary response to negotiating social relations in a world of networked strangers. And I want to challenge the current paradigms of surveillance that tend to see it so predominantly as an issue of control, and instead to take a different starting point: of surveillance as care—to take that theologically from the standpoint that God watches over us (Psalm 139), and to see that as our beginning place for thinking about how surveillance is a way that we can practice care. However, more fundamentally care becomes a critical hermeneutic for tackling issues of surveillance—care that is understood not simply within that domain of healthcare, childcare, or nurturing, but care that is a clearly political concept, that takes us into realms of challenging the narratives of our society; the social structures that inhibit and encourage the flourishing of human relationships. The theological angle is that we don’t start from the idea that God watches over us in surveillant care. We pray this, in the liturgy, but we don’t commence with our acknowledgment of God knowing all about us and from whom no secrets are hidden. We start the liturgy with our recognition of the prevenient love and grace of God.  We seek and receive absolution and then pray the “collect for purity’ (which I call ‘the surveillance prayer’).  I want to say that it’s actually not the omnipotent, all-powerful God who is our starting-point for surveillance, even as care—it’s the crucified God, where we start, and that crucified God is our theological hermeneutic, for asking questions about how surveillance helps and hinders care, relationships, social structure.

BL: What would you say to the objection that surveillance technology is our society’s attempt to play God—on the one hand, a desire on the part of some to exercise control over our lives; on the other hand, a desire on the part of the rest of us to be safe and secure via surveillance, rather than relying on God for that?

ES: I think this is where we have to start asking very serious questions about the type of society that we live in and the theological expectations that we have. I think it’s not at all appropriate to frame this as “Do we trust in God for protection, or do we trust in the technology?” I think it’s a completely false comparison. We wear seatbelts in cars. We don’t trust in God? We have brakes on cars; we have regular checks on vehicles. Is that somehow not relying on God? Let’s take it into the typical arena where this becomes an issue: surveillance in the face of terrorist threats. I think we have to grasp the nettle and say that it is not a question of trusting God to stop a terrorist attack. Maybe there are terrorist attacks that God has stopped, but there are certainly terrorist attacks that God has not stopped, and we all know it and could list off the dates and times. And I think there’s a false dichotomy placed there. We could think of surveillance technologies as God’s way for us to keep safer.

On the other hand, we have an obsession with being safe, and this is where surveillance reflects back on who we are. Part of the theological critique is to say, “How do we think about risk, about danger? How do we understand the world that we’re in?” This is not a world that is as predictable as those who calculate risk factors might believe it to be. Part of the theological task in my book is to question our reliance as Christians on the idea of risk, that somehow we can weigh up and balance and say, “On balance of probability, X is going to happen, or Y is going to happen, or not happen,” and somehow then navigate our lives through that. I think that’s profoundly atheistic, and the response is not a naïve rushing back to trust God, but a recognition that actually we need to be able to create communities that can handle risk, that can handle suffering. This is not as it were to retreat into the long grass with our theodicies and our explanations that somehow or other it will all come out right in the wash, but to assume that there is going to be a catastrophic terrorist attack again somewhere and God is not going to stop it. Christians can too readily either be frightened or turn to military response, revenge. What we should be looking at is building communities that can handle all types of risk—theodic communities (as Stanley Hauerwas and John Swinton call them)—communities where people learn how to live in a world that is dangerous, but with the right sort of fear, not the wrong sort of fear.

BL: Could you sum up for us what aspects of society’s attitudes toward surveillance you are wanting to challenge in your book?

ES: I think there are probably three. There’s the nonchalance, just not seeing it as a problem: the standard “if you’ve got nothing to hide, you’ve got nothing to fear,” as if somehow or other that makes surveillance okay. I think that has to be challenged in society, because it’s a very naïve response.

There’s also the self-centeredness, which is a major issue. In that I mean the self-centeredness that ignores the disproportionate effects of surveillance. So yes, you and I may be hindered slightly going through airport security, and we may have a lot of benefits, because we can swipe our credit cards getting money out of the ATM round the corner—we’re not particularly disadvantaged because of the social class, the economic group that we’re in, and the culture that we’re in. But we are very self-centered as a society, and we ignore the damaging effects of surveillance. There are groups who are disproportionately affected, and we just don’t take that on board in our naïve acceptance of surveillance.

And the third is that over-enthusiasm or over-trust that’s either overly negative because people have read Orwell’s 1984, or overly enthusiastic because they watch programs like BBC’s Spooks, which is a drama, entertainment series about the intelligence services—incredibly popular in the UK—and there the geek can sit in their London HQ and in a second’s notice call up every CCTV camera in the country on his screen. And people think that that’s what real operators can do! They forget that it’s entertainment. And that again creates a false sense of expectations.

BL: And among Christians particularly, what attitudes toward surveillance are you challenging?

ES: In addition to those three—because I think Christians need to be challenged on those as well—I think there’s a great issue about Christians being suspicious and frightened, suspicious and frightened of the other; and that is heightened by Christians’ endorsement of surveillance. It may be heightened by Christians’ readiness to use surveillance, perhaps on the church premises. Now, setting aside issues of the very proper checking and monitoring of those who are going to be working with children or vulnerable adults—let’s take that for granted and set that aside—the idea that nobody can be trusted anymore, that pastors need to be accountable for their use of the internet, using software in some cases for that. Where does that start breaching professional responsibility, and trust? We’re not at the stage where every pastor has to submit his or her weblog, for where they’ve surfed. But there are software packages being sold specifically to Christians as accountability tools. What is that going to do to relationships of trust? It may seem a good thing in the short term, but is it a sledgehammer to crack a nut, and what is actually going on there?

I think the other issue is this idea that we’ve touched on about risk and danger, and a naïve trust in God, that somehow or other we have two responses. We trust in God and make preparations, yes, but we sort of turn a blind eye to surveillance. I think it was Dietrich Bonhoeffer who talked about having others get dirty hands—and there’s a grave danger, I think in Christian circles, that we turn a blind eye to surveillance, because we know that it’s messy and its murky but we want it, we want it for the safety of our children and our families and our communities, but we don’t want to ask too many questions. We want others (the security services, other public officials) to get dirty hands doing the surveillance that we wouldn’t actually like to be associated with as citizens. I think that is more problematic than the naïve idea that somehow or other God is going to stop a terrorist attack. I think that has to be abandoned in order that we can have greater faith and greater trust in handling the aftermath in a Christian manner.
BL: Some people want to say that we must sharply distinguish between a technology, which is neutral, and the uses we decide to make of those technologies, which may be good or evil. Clearly, there is something to this distinction, but others challenge it as ignoring the fact that technologies always have certain purposes and uses in mind when they are developed, or certain side-effects that should have been foreseen. What do you think?

ES: I think we make a mistake when we talk about technologies doing this or technologies doing that, because technologies are developed by people, technologies are deployed by people, their deployment is authorized by people, it’s legitimated. The choices we make about how technology is designed, those are made by people. And I think that we need to see ourselves much more from within a technological paradigm, instead of seeing technology as something external to us. That is—we are part of a technological system. Suchman talks about the “politics of the code,” meaning that, right down to the level of software coding, there are political issues. When someone designs a database, for example, the data fields that they create and that are going to be populated with data, the connections that they’re going to make between them; those are political decisions. And if we see technology as something outside us, that does things, we absolve ourselves, both as people who write the software code, or those who buy it for our companies, or as public officials.

We need to own the technology in a much better way, and in that sense, it’s not a question of technology being used for X purpose or Y purpose or whatever is intended. That is important, but I think that technology contains opportunities for reform from within it. Opportunities for, you might say, democratizing technology—not standing back from it, trying to resist and push it away, or creating alternative spaces that are non-technological. Instead, to acknowledge that we inhabit that technological world and to see it as a place where we can have influence, through our politicians, through our own actions, as software designers, as educators, as politicians ourselves, over not just what technology is used for, but how technology is designed. This can include asking why it’s designed in a particular way or what intentions there are right at the point where there are aesthetic decisions about it. It is there that we can find ethical decisions, right at the level of actual hardware design. I think we can be much more hopeful—but not necessarily overly so—for reform from within the technological paradigm.
BL: What are mistakes Christians make in thinking about technology?

ES: I think, if you want to boil it down to the mistake that Christians make about technology, it’s that Christians have never really come to terms with a technological world. Deep down, if you scrape off all the surface, most Christians, I suspect, would actually like to live in a pre-technological village society, where everyone knows everyone else—something not unlike the Waltons, but without the poverty. Christians have not really recognized that we are actually living in a world where we have to communicate across distance, that we have in some sense collapsed time and space with computer-mediated communication.

But it’s even more profound than that: Christians tend to see the individual relationships, the face-to-face encounters that Jesus had with the people in Galilee, as not simply paradigmatic of how people are to relate, but as actually the only real way of relating. They almost fossilize the cultural dynamics of Jesus’ day and equate that with what the Incarnation is really about. The Incarnation, from such a perspective, has to be about embodied face-to-face relationships and anything else is somehow not so good or it’s a compromise. The mistake is to be unable to grasp technology, to be unable to say that we are actually technological people, that we are embedded in a technological world. Even in Jesus’ day, they were partly technologized: they built boats, they sailed, they had wheelbarrows, they had chariots, they had technology. As a carpenter, he was using technology. Somehow that gets forgotten by Christians in this romantic longing for unmediated relationships. I think that is profoundly sad because it does mean that Christians start from the place of being suspicious and frightened of technology. If you switch the perspective and say that this is a world that has technology, that we are part of a technological social system, you then ask how can we become who we are more effectively, more faithfully—not in spite of, but through that technology? Not idolizing it, not failing to see its real challenges and problems, but taking a critical stance.

BL: Just there you talked about the danger of idealizing this notion of personal face-to-face relationships; but earlier you’d seemed to suggest that one of the problems with surveillance technology was relying on it instead of personal relationships and trust.

ES: Yes, I think that part of the difficulty is that we’re in a world where our first response to having to relate to strangers in a networked world is to go to surveillance. And I think that yes, in terms of having to gather information about the stranger, trying to understand, trying to categorize, I think there’s all legitimate elements of that. But I think that if it’s our first and only response, we lose out on something. It’s surveillance tied in with those issues of fear, and surveillance tied in with a misunderstanding of risk. I think that if we recognize in our society that yes, we have to deal with strangers, we have to exchange tokens with strangers, do we have to always have so much surveillance in order to do that? Can we afford to cut back on some of the surveillance, and still relate to strangers? By using money, coins, notes, that’s a form of technology, and it’s a token of trust between strangers, but that doesn’t define our entire relationship with strangers. And the problem with surveillance is that, because it is ubiquitous, it tends to dominate, and our only way to think about one another is to think in terms of the stranger as a threat, the stranger is someone to be feared. That’s our starting point, so I think that in that way, we can still make some use of surveillance—we have to—but is it the only paradigm?

BL: In this book and much of your other work, you are engaging with issues affecting all of society, a society that is largely non-Christian. What do you see as the role of your Christian faith in engaging this context?

ES: I take my starting point from the fact that most people who are Christians spend most of their time in professional occupations, in family life, in meeting with their neighbors, and a tiny proportion of their time in church as we traditionally know it. But we seem to devote such a ridiculously disproportionate amount of time to the activities of church, in terms of our scholarly activity, in terms of our considerations and thought.

Now I’m not saying that there shouldn’t be narrative communities that maintain the story and teach people. But part of this is an obsession with Word and the teaching ministry. Are we really enabling people with the tools, with the critical thinking, with the theological awareness, that they can then deploy when they are, for example, serving coffee in a coffee shop and making decisions about how they are going to treat people?

We often can reduce it to: how are you going to think about being kind? Now, that’s not unimportant. But what about the person who is involved as a professional software designer? How do we help them to think theologically about what they’re doing? What about a person who is buying an IT system for their company? How are they as a Christian going to think theologically through the issues? Where are the resources coming from for that?

And that’s why I think that most of what I want to do is giving tools, critical ideas, funding the imagination of people who are Christian and who are not otherwise being helped to think critically about what they are doing in the wider world. That’s whether it’s as a politician, as a public official, as a cleaner, as a bus driver. It’s about the points where they have decisions to make, not just about how nice or kind they are to people, but, depending on the profession, certain really quite strategic points of influence. How can they think critically about it—not to impose their view on others, but to take up that responsibility.

So I think that the role of a practical theologian in this way is to offer people theological tools for where they spend most of their life.

The Modern Sacrament of Freedom

Having recently written on the god-like aspirations of contemporary technological development in relation to the problem of GM food, I was struck by Richard Bauckham’s critique of a far more prosaic manifestation of the same temptation—the car.  In chapter 2 of his wonderful God and the Crisis of Freedom, he has this to say about that infernal contraption:

“The modern dream of freeing humanity to be whatever we choose to be by transcending all limits has, of course, produced the ecological crisis.  This has exposed the myth as a dangerous fantasy.  The attempt to transcend all limits has brought us up against the undeniable finitude of the creation to which we belong.  We cannot reject limits without destroying the creation on which we depend.  We cannot make ourselves gods, independent of the rest of nature, supreme over it, molding it into whatever future we choose.  But the habit of trying is not easy to break.  Modern humanity is addicted to the freedom that rejects all limits.

There is no more pervasive symbol of this freedom and its destructive futility than the car.  Cars are the modern sacrament of freedom; they symbolize it and promise actually to give it.  We can glimpse the kind of freedom they promise in the typical television advertisement: an individual driving through open countryside, mountain ranges, and deserts with the widest possible horizons.  Some also navigate through picturesquely narrow streets.  Cars offer individuals the freedom to go wherever they wish, whenever they like, as fast as possible.  They give independence, freedom to be entirely one’s own master, not dependent on others, not even accompanied by others.  They suggest the freedom of escape from any situation and of new opportunities and experiences always to be found along a new road.  They give the feeling of control over one’s destiny.  This is why most car owners cannot imagine living without one.  But, as always, this kind of freedom restricts the freedom of others.  The more people have cars, the more difficult life becomes for those who cannot afford them or are too old or too young to drive; public transport decays, and shops and community facilities are no longer within walking distances.  But the more people have cars, the less the car owners themselves enjoy the freedom they value.  Commuters spend highly stressful hours in bumper-to-bumper, slow moving traffic.  Motorways become car parks.  Roads destroy the countryside the car owner wants the freedom to enjoy at the weekends.  Moreover, since car ownership has become common, cities and most aspects of life in cities have developed in such a way that normal life requires constant long journeys.  The freedom to travel has incurred the necessity to travel.  Again typically of this kind of freedom, cars increase personal independence at the expense of the community.   Many a vast residential area is for many residents no more than a place through which they drive on the way from their houses to other destinations.”

Are Christians Anti-Science?

Fewer slurs against Christianity are more common today than the accusation that Christians are anti-science.  You know the portrayal—Christians as Bible-thumping fundamentalists, so sure of themselves they don’t give a darn what science says; Matthew Brady in Inherit the Wind.  A few, perhaps are happy to accept the stereotype, while others regret it, but see this as the price they have to pay in order to be faithful to Scripture on issues of creation and evolution.  Others more cockily insist they care deeply about science, but it’s just mainstream science that isn’t to be trusted, and they trumpet their own idiosyncratic scientific theories instead.  Outside of evangelicalism, and increasingly within, many have nervously shifted out of the firing line, doing their best to renounce all that is scientifically unrespectable in traditional Christian teaching.  On the wisdom of this latter strategy I do not intend to comment here (clearly, I have described it in rather unflattering terms, but on many issues, such accommodation may involve no trace of unfaithfulness).

On reading Merchants of Doubt, though, I was troubled by just how much truth there might be to the stereotype, and I have begun to wonder how true is the claim of American Christians that “We’re not anti-science in general; we just cannot accept mainstream science on Darwinian evolution.”  For when it comes to environmental skepticism, there seems little question that evangelical Christians have been in the front ranks.  To be sure, I speak somewhat impressionistically and anecdotally, but as I look back, it seems to me that not only was skepticism (or downright hostility) toward climate change issues the norm in my evangelical background, but also skepticism regarding the litany of other issues surveyed in Merchants of Doubt—the ozone hole, acid rain, the dangers of secondhand smoke, the dangers of pesticides, etc.  Certainly, “red states” that are strongholds of the religious right also tend to be the places where one would encounter the greatest opposition to mainstream science on such issues.  Much of this may be correlation without causation, and indeed, no doubt the chief source of evangelical skepticism toward environmental science is the same as it was for Fred Seitz and Fred Singer—allegiance to free market ideology, which is threatened by environmentalism.  

But still it seems so incongruous that Christians would so instinctively rally to the side of Big Tobacco or Monsanto that I couldn’t help but ask whether or not there might be a deeper cause.  Two might be identified.  First, I suspect that being a conservative Christian in today’s world cannot help but encourage a certain contrarian tendency, a tendency to “root for the underdog,” so to speak.  We are counter-cultural, we are despised and rejected among men, we insist on positions that are unpopular or anathema in respectable public opinion, etc.  And so we tend to have a predisposition to sympathize with others who hold minority or out-of-the-mainstream views.  If the majority is not to be trusted in matters of morals, then why should we think it is to be trusted in matters of ____ (fill in the blank—science, history, economics, aesthetics)?  Not only do we lend a favorable ear to such voices on the margins of respectable opinion, but we often go on to identify with them, and to extend some of the martyr complex that we may have developed to the resulting scorn we receive.  Within the Reformed world, I wonder if the passion for “Christian worldview thinking” doesn’t contribute to some of this—Christian claims, we are told, will shape how we think about every aspect of life and the world, so if our Christianity is counter-cultural, then why shouldn’t we expect ourselves to be counter-cultural on nearly every subject we take up?

Now, I should immediately add that I have a deep contrarian streak myself, and think there are often sound reasons for doubting the received orthodoxy on any number of issues.  But I have to be honest with myself and always ask how much of my reflexive skepticism might be due to this deeply engrained way of thinking. 

Second, I think we might have a particularly bad case of this contrarian pathology when it comes to science.  The culprit is not hard to find; perhaps the popular Inherit the Wind stereotype is not so far off.  To be committed to creationism (especially young-earth creationism) requires a determination to stubbornly contest almost everything that mainstream science—geology and biology in particular—most confidently affirms.  It may well be true that such contrarianism stems not from any particular anti-science animus, which is earnestly disclaimed by many, but it would be hard to imagine that it does not tend to generate a kind of instinctive skepticism.  After all, if mainstream science can have been so dead wrong on so many fundamental matters, as creationists must insist, then how are we to have much if any respect for it?  It is as if we were convinced that our history professor didn’t know whether Martin Luther or Constantine came first, or whether it was Hitler or Genghis Khan that ruled the Third Reich.  Would we really be disposed to trust him on other matters, however much we denied any particular bias against him?  Indeed, some creationists may feel that to be intellectually consistent, they have to denigrate the reliability of science across the board; if they place great faith in science on climate science, for instance, how can they consistently refuse to trust carbon dating?

 I write this not at all as an attack on creationism; but if creationists are going to hold their heads high and deny the charge that they are simply anti-science, then they’re going to have to find a way of resisting these tendencies; they’re going to have to show that they can take science seriously when it deserves to be taken seriously, and will not just join every contrarian chorus that comes along.  When they do refuse the conclusions of scientific orthodoxy, they’re going to have to be willing to articulate why with theological and scientific precision, without simply resorting to broad-brush attacks on science as a mere “naturalistic religion” or as the tool of some left-wing agenda.  My friend Bradley Belschner makes just this plea in his comment on my Merchants of Doubt post below (in another of our remarkably frequent intellectual deja vus, I was working on this post already before I saw his comment):

It’s important that we know what we’re doing when we oppose a “scientific consensus.” If we oppose global warming willy-nilly without even weighing up the scientific evidence carefully, then how will folks treat us when we start criticizing Evolution? Oh, there they go again—the idiot Christians who refuse to look at real science. . . . I would like for Christians have a reputation for rigorous science, which in my opinion would involve the realization that global warming is real and evolution isn’t.”


Even better are the words of Augustine, writing fully 1600 years ago in De Genesi ad litteram, and still incredibly relevant

“Usually, even a non-Christian knows something about the earth, the heavens, and the other elements of this world, about the motion and orbit of the stars and even their size and relative positions, about the predictable eclipses of the sun and moon, the cycles of the years and the seasons, about the kinds of animals, shrubs, stones, and so forth. This knowledge he holds to as being certain from reason and experience. Now, it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for an infidel to hear a Christian, presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, talking nonsense on these topics; and we should take all means to prevent such an embarrassing situation, in which people show up vast ignorance in a Christian and laugh it to scorn.

The shame is not so much that an ignorant individual is derided, but that people outside the household of the faith think that our sacred writers held such opinions. Then, to the great loss of those for whose salvation we toil, the writers of our Scripture are criticized and rejected as unlearned men. If they find a Christian mistaken in a field which they themselves know well, and hear him maintaining foolish opinions of his own about what our books say, how are they going to believe those books in matters concerning the resurrection of the dead, the hope of eternal life, and the kingdom of heaven, when they think their pages are full of falsehoods on matters of fact which they themselves have learnt from experience and the light of reason?”

Merchants of Doubt: A Review

This immensely important and timely book demands attention from anyone determined to think critically and intelligently about the current interface of politics, economics, and science, which one might describe as the three gods of our time.  The book is not flawless, to be sure.  As a complete layman in such issues, I can detect certain ideological flaws, which I shall come to in due course, and it is hard not to think that the authors present a somewhat one-sided perspective on a highly contentious issue, and that their opponents would have rather more to say for themselves than Conway and Oreskes imply.  Indeed, in such matters, it is always essential to keep Proverbs 18:17 in mind: “The one who states his case first seems right, until the other comes and examines him.”  Nonetheless, from what I know of the world, and from the compellingness of the narrative set forth in this book, I am for now provisionally convinced that their basic picture is accurate. 

This picture, it turns out, is considerably more complex and interesting than I had expected when I picked up the book.  The basic gist I thought I knew: climate change denial is largely funded by Big Oil and industries with a vested interest in staving off any policy shifts in a green direction.  The science is being corrupted by greed.  And, should you be skeptical of such cynicism, just look at how Big Tobacco did the same thing in the 60s—and the 70s and 80s and 90s, for that matter; doubt is a highly durable product, it seems.  

A sordid story, but alas, a somewhat believable one.  Yet, such a story has the troubling consequence of making scientists look like they’re for sale to the highest bidder.  If Big Tobacco and Big Oil could simply bribe scientists into distorting the facts, then why should the moral of this story be “Trust the scientists,” as it must be for climate change orthodoxy?  Thankfully, Conway and Oreskes’s story is, as I said, considerably more complex, and on reflection, more disturbing.  


The denial of climate change and the denial of the dangers of smoking do not merely share links to big business; they (and the denial of the ozone hole, of acid rain, of nuclear winter fears, of the dangers of DDT, etc., all covered in this book as well) share something more insidious—a blind faith in markets, technology, and progress.  In each of the doubt-sowing narratives that Conway and Oreskes survey, they find a very small cast of lead actors, chief among whom are a cadre of high-profile Cold War physicists, Frederick Seitz, Fred Singer, and Bill Nierenberg.  It was Frederick Seitz, at that time aged 84 and retired from active scientific work for 17 years, who penned the damning public slander of Ben Santer and his chapter of the first IPCC report on climate change in 1995, after having spent most of the 1980s supervising contrarian research on behalf of the tobacco industry. 

Of course, the very fact that the same few names keep cropping up again and again, in radically different contexts, is enough to raise a few eyebrows as to whether we are dealing with real scientific opposition or some kind of conspiracy.  (Admittedly, it may well be that the authors overemphasize somewhat these few main characters so as to make the contrarian community seem smaller than it really is; however, they do not seem to be incorrect in assigning a leading role to these figures.)  How many solid-state physicists, after all, can claim to be experts on oncology, the effect of acidity on ecosystems, and the distribution of heat in the earth’s atmosphere?  And indeed, part of the burden of the book is to show how just a few well-connected, sufficiently outspoken, and somewhat unscrupulous scientists can create the illusion of a whole community of scientific dissent.  They note how a credulous and naive media and public is often willing to credit the testimony of any leading scientist as a relevant expert, even if his expertise is in another field entirely, as if an expert plumber could settle a controversy on the best way to construct the roof, just because he’s involved in the homebuilding industry.   

Why is it that these physicists should be so determined to attack environmental concern wherever it should arise?  It is here that Conway and Oreskes are at their best, subtly and insightfully introducing us to the Cold War mindset that drove these men.  They were all formed within that black-and-white view of the world, capitalism vs. communism, freedom vs. statism.  And for them, as for so many hawks of that era, superior technological innovation was the means by which freedom would triumph.  Seitz and Nierenberg both got their start working on the Manhattan Project, and were heavily involved in subsequent weapons-development research in the early Cold War, as was Singer.  Not only did this early work help set their ideological trajectory in a hard-right direction, but it also catapulted them to positions of remarkable political influence, which they maintained.  (Oreskes and Conway wish to leave us in no doubt that when it comes to the charge that our politicians are being manipulated by influential insider climate change alarmists, the shoe is most definitely on the other foot.) 

Since most of the rising concerns about the harmful effects of certain industries on health and environment necessarily implied the need for government regulation of those industries, men like Seitz, Singer, and Nierenberg thought they spotted a Red agenda at the heart of the Green movement.  Dedicated as they were to the freedom of capitalist industry and to a confidence that technology was our savior, they bitterly resisted the implications that capitalist industrial technology might be harming the planet and might call for government intervention.  In the Reagan era, such convictions easily won the day on issues such as acid rain, whatever the vast majority of the scientific community might say, and those who held them gained established footholds of influence.  


Conway and Oreskes also draw close attention to the strategy behind all this anti-environmental science.  The objective, most of the time, has not been to directly deny the various claims of harm being advanced.  The tobacco industry spent little time trying to prove that smoking was fine for you, and Singer and Nierenberg did not try to claim that acid rain was harmless.  Rather, their product was doubt.  The point was always to persuade the public that, yes, there might be a problem, but there was so much we didn’t know that we couldn’t be quite sure what its origin was, how serious it was, and what the best solution might be.  The downsides of our current course, then, were uncertain.  Accompanying this was the argument that the upsides of our current course were obvious, or the downsides to changing our present course were quite clear and certain, and certain to be serious.  As a delaying tactic, this argument served the tobacco industry astonishingly well.  Would-be smokers could be reassured that, although they couldn’t be sure one way or another of the science surrounding the safety of cigarettes, at least they could be sure that they really enjoyed smoking them, and it was probably worth a little risk.  Juries could be persuaded, for more than forty years after the extremely carcinogenic effects of smoking had been scientifically demonstrated, that there was still enough uncertainty to render the tobacco companies legally immune.  

Again, Conway and Oreskes insightfully show how psychology can lead us astray here.  We tend to fall prey to short-term thinking, willing to face future risks for the sake of present enjoyment, and disposed to always prefer the known (what we are already doing) to the unknown (any proposed change), assessing the latter as riskier than the former, even when the evidence clearly suggests otherwise.  (Many of the contrarian scientists described in this book  were clearly driven by this kind of thinking, particularly those with a particular interest in economics.  The economic costs of environmental protection, they felt, were so high as to outweigh the evidence of future harms.)  These psychological tendencies are if anything even more true on the social level than the individual.  What this means is that anyone claiming that we must stop the enjoyable things we are doing in order to avert future or unseen calamities, and must start ordering our lives in different ways, has to meet a very high burden of proof indeed to be listened to.  Our political leaders, who are supposed to take the future into account and thus make these difficult decisions for us, are unfortunately just as much the slaves of short-term thinking.  Economic growth in the present, not environmental protection in the future, is what is likely to win them their next election.  The merchants of doubt, then, have a comparatively easy task.  All they have to show is that there is enough uncertainty in the science that perhaps we had better sit back and wait for more evidence before committing ourselves to a costly change of direction, or, heaven forbid, sacrificing our freedom to government bureaucrats.

Unfortunately, it is extraordinarily easy to prove uncertainty in the science, because all science is always uncertain.  Conway and Oreskes are refreshingly upfront about this, and criticize the outdated positivistic view of science that imagines that science “proves” facts with logical certainty.  Even when the basic facts are well-established (though never absolutely proven), there exist all sorts of details that still need to be worked out, and ongoing scientific work will of course be dedicated toward investigating these remaining areas of uncertainty.  Anyone with a dedicated agenda of skepticism, then, will have no difficulty in finding evidence of uncertainty and debate in the current scientific literature, even when there is a firmly established consensus about the key points.  Moreover, given that the front lines of scientific work are so far beyond the ken of the average citizen, it is easy for him to be duped into treating as equally authoritative the testimony of popularizers and think tanks with some kind of scientific credentials.  When we look at this cacophony of voices and see evidence of widespread disagreement, we shrug our shoulders and say, “Who are we to believe?”  


So what is to be done about this?  Conway and Oreskes suggest some answers in their epilogue, pointing out how many areas of our day-to-day in which we recognize the need to trust experts and act on their advice, despite the inevitable uncertainty.  They conclude

“So it comes to this: we must trust our scientific experts on matters of science, because there isn’t a workable alternative.  And because scientists are not (in most cases) licensed, we need to pay attention to who the experts actually are—by asking questions about their credentials, their past and current research, the venues in which they are subjecting their claims to scrutiny, and the sources of financial support they are receiving.  If the scientific community has been asked to judge a matter . . . then it makes sense to take the results of their investigations very seriously. . . . Sensible decision making involves acting on the information we have, even while accepting that it may well be imperfect and our decisions may need to be revisited and revised in light of new information.  For even if modern science does not give us certainty, it does have a robust track record . . . modern science gives us a pretty decent basis for action. . . .

“Don’t get us wrong.  Scientists have no special purchase on moral or ethical decisions; a climate scientist is no more qualified to comment on health care reform than a physicist is to judge the causes of bee colony collapse.  The very fathers that create expertise in a specialized domain lead to ignorance in many others. . . . So our trust needs to be circumscribed, and focused.  It needs to be very particular.  Blind trust will get us into at least as much trouble as no trust at all.  But without some degree of trust in our designated experts . . . we are paralyzed, in effect not knowing whether to make ready for the morning commute or not. . . . C.P. Snow once argued that foolish faith in authority is the enemy of truth.  But so is a foolish cynicism. . . . We close with the comments of S.J. Green, director of research for British American Tobacco, who decided, finally, that what his industry had done was wrong, not just morally, but also intellectually: ‘A demand for scientific proof is always a formula for inaction and delay, and usually the first reaction of the guilty.  The proper basis for such decisions is, of course, quite simply that which is reasonable in the circumstances.”

In other words, we need to accept that painful, costly public policy decisions will have to be taken on the basis of uncertainty.  In fact, they always are, for economic projections about the future (perhaps the most frequent basis for public policy) are at least as uncertain as scientific ones.  If the consequences of inaction appear sufficiently serious and probable, the prudent ruler (and the prudent society) will begin to undertake corrective action even while acknowledging the possibility that subsequent research will reveal such action unnecessary; better safe than sorry.  


My one major misgiving about the book: despite their attempts to demystify the scientific enterprise, and acknowledge that it is human, all too human, not blessed with some special gift of infallibility, it is hard not to feel that the authors continue to speak of “the halls of science” in somewhat reverential tones.  Scientists are repeatedly eulogized as pure uncorrupt seekers after truth, even while a few contrarian scientists are shown to be quite the opposite.  But of course, if Seitz, Singer, Nierenberg, and others could let their ideology and the interests of their benefactors get in the way of doing honest and objective science, who’s to say that most other scientists are immune to this.  Conway and Oreskes do enough to suggest, I think, that the accusations that climate alarmists are acting out of self-interest or political ideology are a case of the pot calling the kettle black; however, that doesn’t mean that the kettle may not be black as well.  I have no doubt that most climate scientists are conscientious researchers who do their utmost to be objective and avoid unnecessary alarmism.  But not all, and not always.  The authors always speak of “peer review” the same way that Catholics speak of “Our Holy Father,” and it irks me just the same way.  Peer review is certainly better than the lack thereof, but it’s no magic epistemological bullet.  Scientists, like anyone else, are subject to the herd instinct, to confirmation bias, and sometimes to something as prosaic as mere laziness.  After just a couple years in academia, I have seen enough of the failings of the peer review process in theological studies to be skeptical that it could work as perfectly in scientific studies as many seem to think.  


So pardon me for still being something of a skeptic about the reliability of mainstream scientific opinion at any given time.  That said, I concede the overall point Conway and Oreskes are trying to make—you can’t refuse to act just because there will always be grounds for skepticism.  Mainstream science may be riddled with errors, but when the stakes are high enough, you’ve got to make decisions based on the best resources available to you, and until God deigns to issue an oracle telling us the truth about climate change and the best solution to it, we’d best pay attention to the scientists.