The Deleterious Downside of Doubt

Doubt was a concept that my college education extolled.  After all, doubt can push us to re-examine our thinking, and consequently replace old conclusions with newer better ones when the reasons demand.

However, three sources I recently encountered displayed examples of how doubt can actually cause people to hold on to old conclusions in spite of new evidence.  What a conundrum.

One source was the February issue of the alluringly titled Reason magazine (  In this issue’s article about gun control, I noticed how the author so often argued against gun control laws by saying that pro-regulation research was inconclusive, rather than out-and-out wrong.  Though the author did posit a few studies that directly backed his conclusion, the majority of his reasoning seemed to cast doubt on his opponents’ claims, rather than explicitly confuting them.  However, social science data is always questionable, I said to myself, so perhaps my liberal anti-gun predilections are pushing me to be too sensitive when an author uses doubt in a way I perceive to be wrong.

Then another instance of doubt as a weapon against change came in an article in the March 10, 2016 issue of the New York Review of Books.  On page 17, the author describes how the Koch brothers and institutions associated with them “focused not on conducting research to disprove climate change (a difficult task in a warming world) but on raising doubt about it wherever and however possible, a tactic borrowed from the tobacco industry (and in fact pursued by some of the very same operatives).”  Now I was more convinced about how the established powers were using doubt to stymie progress.  After all, climate science is more definitive than gun policy research.

The most convincing source documenting this abuse of doubt is the 2014 documentary Merchants of Doubt (  This documentary convincingly and clearly describes how the tobacco industry first used its coffers to cast doubt on medical research about the dangers of tobacco.  Then the documentary goes on to show how polluters today use the same techniques to make Americans question the findings of climate scientists, to make it appear that no consensus exists when in fact scientists have agreed about climate change for years.  The film also delves into the personal, political, and economic motivations of these aptly named merchants of doubt.  (For what it’s worth, I think this film was one of the best documentaries I’ve seen in years; I highly recommend it.  It was a real breaker of ice in my head.)

So, what happens when doubt becomes a tool to block important reform?  What is the proper response?  Why is casting doubt such a powerful tool for those who seek to block change? How can we reconcile the value of intellectual doubt with the occasional need to take action as if we are certain?


By Andrew and Alicia McCaffrey


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