The Living Thing / Notebooks :

Selling uncertainty

Usefulness: 🔧
Novelty: 💡
Uncertainty: 🤪 🤪 🤪
Incompleteness: 🚧 🚧 🚧

Reza Farazmand:

When it’s close it will be larger
When it’s close it will be larger

On the manifestation of scientific uncertainty where is serves the interest of incumbent economic agents.

I would be open to the hypothesis that this is a purely emergent behavior, as opposed to malicious conspiracy; but perhaps this is one case where conspiracy is the explanation:

The basic tenet is simple: carefully manipulate public perception about your product to make it sound like we either don’t know that it’s dangerous, or that the harm is caused by something else. Once the public is confused or thoroughly mislead, it’s impossible to get political consensus on any kind of regulation, and you can keep doing business as you see fit.

The tobacco industry is the most famous of such doubt-mongerers for having been caught in the act. But as “Merchants of Doubt” (OrCo10) recounts, there are many other such examples (pesticides, mattress flame retardants, acid rain, the ozone hole, and most consequentially for our civilization, climate change). The industries behind such campaigns knew full well that they were selling a harmful product, and they just kept doing it until they got caught.

A particularly lurid case is the story of Syngenta going after Tyrone Hayes because his research made their product sound dangerous.

Tim Mitchell’s lecture on the government of uncertainty is also entertaining.

Henry Farrell,

[we have an article] asking why politicians were influenced by a key group of economists early in the Great Recession but not in the later part. [..]what was crucial was the perceived degree of unanimity among economists. When the profession of economics appears to be speaking with one voice, politicians are more likely to listen, sometimes even when they don’t want to. When the profession appears to be split, politicians are much better able to pick and choose.

Unfortunately for economists, this offers incentives to politicians who don’t much like what economists are saying to elevate and promote dissident economists to create the appearance of intellectual division.


Oreskes, Naomi, and Erik M. Conway. 2010. Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming. 1 edition. New York: Bloomsbury Press.