The Intentional “Deconstruction” of Scientific Expertise: Environmental Skepticism, Climate Change Denial, and the Post-Truth Era

Wednesday, 18 July 2018: 15:45
Oral Presentation
Riley DUNLAP, Oklahoma State University, USA
Aaron MCCRIGHT, Michigan State University, USA
Decades ago industry launched efforts to block government regulations on harmful products, from asbestos to tobacco smoke, by “manufacturing uncertainty” regarding scientific evidence supporting the need for regulating their use. Over time these efforts were extended to combatting evidence of a wide range of human and environmental threats, including DDT, acid rain, and ozone depletion, and eventually broadened to undermining environmental science writ large.

The use of contrarian scientists to attack mainstream scientists and their research, labelled “junk science,” is central to manufacturing uncertainty and promoting environmental skepticism. This strategy has peaked with climate change denial, as industry has been joined by the conservative movement in an all-out assault on climate science. Contrarian scientists in league with conservative think tanks, media and political leaders have waged war on climate scientists, accusing them of falsifying data to exaggerate the threat of global warming to obtain funding and promote government regulations. This intentional deconstruction of scientific expertise (extended to environmental science of all types) has allowed politicians opposed to carbon reduction policies to argue that the science is too uncertain to impose allegedly costly regulations to limit climate change.

Some have argued that these efforts have been facilitated by earlier challenges to scientific expertise by post-modern philosophers and social science analysts of science and scientific knowledge. At a minimum, these scholars helped create fertile soil for such efforts. For example, lay climate change deniers portray themselves as “citizen scientists” and contrarian scientists cloak themselves as challengers to scientific orthodoxy, both claiming to “democratize” science. But in the process they are undermining legitimate scientific expertise in order to defend fossil fuels, neo-liberal ideology and the Western way of life, as increasingly recognized by those (e.g., Barry Collins) seeking to re-establish scientific expertise in our “post-truth” era of alternative facts and realities.