Fellows in Doubt

A sense of gloom and frustration clung to the air along with the late lingering Virginia humidity as the first year IGC fellows met for their weekly seminar on September 24 to discuss denialism and the Merchants of Doubt, the film based on the Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway book of the same name. 

We discussed the strategies of doubt merchants to deliberately obfuscate scientific evidence by sowing doubt, even where none exists, about science and scientific findings. Such strategies have been used since the Cold War, successfully, to slow or prevent the enactment and acceptance of regulations surrounding tobacco, acid rain, flame retardant chemicals, and climate change. 

An early focus of discussion was the extent of deception that Merchants think justified in pursuit of their agenda to support industry and economic growth, and what we as scientists can or should do when presented with such attacks. Several students thought that duty to objectivity and their perceived moral high ground prevented the scientific community from engaging the Merchants at their own game. 

From there, the seminar discussion turned to how the doubt merchants are able to manipulate ideological divides to keep misinformation and uncertainty alive. Even with the evidence for anthropogenic climate change aligned, for example, the politicization of climate change has created a field that climate change deniers can coast through by appealing to tribalism and fear of regulation. 

The first year fellows and IGC faculty generally agreed that denialism is getting worse in the current political climate. Faculty shared their experiences with confrontation and explaining uncertainty, and everyone was invited to consider how we are all susceptible to false information and responsible for verifying information. Fellows found discouraging that the results of good science can be easily obscured by the power of some politicians and companies, but as one student suggested, the pressure from doubt merchants can help to make us better scientists, knowing we may have to defend our conclusions to people who are predisposed to doubt us.

We learned we have to work hard as scientists to contribute to society without being targeted by doubt merchants. However, we hope the session also gave the fellows a new perspective on dealing with denialism, and the importance of questioning and sourcing as second nature to being a good scientist.


Kristen Bretz is a first year PhD student in Dr. Erin Hotchkiss’ lab working on how changes in carbon inputs influence biogeochemical processes in headwater streams and how these changes affect the ecosystem.
Camilo Alfonso joined Dr. Ignacio Moore’s lab in the fall of 2018 an he is working on the influence of Testosterone on the male-female and male-male interactions of a tropical lekking bird.