Paradigm
Paradigm
Naomi Oreskes: Politics, propaganda, and free market economics
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Naomi Oreskes: Politics, propaganda, and free market economics

Naomi Oreskes is a Harvard professor of the history of science, a best-selling author, and a leading voice on the role of science in society, and the reality of anthropogenic climate change.

Naomi is a Harvard University professor of the history of science, and an Affiliated Professor of Earth and Planetary Sciences. She’s a leading voice on the role of science in society, the reality of anthropogenic climate change, and the role of disinformation in blocking climate action.

She’s also a world-renowned author, having co-authored 9 books, including the best-selling book Merchants of Doubt, Climate change denial, and her most recent book, the Big Myth, which explores the idea of free market economics, and its dark and politically laden history.

In this conversation we discuss:

  • The relationships between science, economics, and politics

  • The idea of the free market, and common misconceptions about free market economics

  • Arguments for and against a free market way of thinking

  • The incentives systems that influence how ideas spread in a society

  • Meme theory

  • Propaganda

… and other topics

Watch on YouTube. Listen on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, or any other podcast platform. Read the full transcript here. Follow me on LinkedIn or Twitter/X for episodes and infrequent social commentary.

Episode links

Timestamps

0:00:00 Intro

0:03:15 Myth of the Free Market

0:08:55 Adam Smith vs regulation

0:28:40 Bad incentives vs bad actors

0:34:25 Arguments for and against regulation

0:44:10 Are free markets more fair?

0:53:00 Distrust in government as a cause of free market thinking

0:57:50 Meme theory of free market thinking

1:01:00 Ayn Rand & propaganda

1:09:00 Advice for people in positions of power

1:14:20 The Entrepreneurial State

1:16:50 Book recommendations

1:18:00 Advice for scientists

1:18:00 Who should represent humanity to an AI superintelligence?


Introduction: AI Risk and regulation

One of the core themes I’m focused on in this podcast, and in life more generally, is that of examining the paradigms in which we operate. Instead of just talking about important ideas in philosophy, science, and technology, we step back and look at the very paradigms in which those ideas exist, and we ask ourselves how and why we come to believe what we think we know.

In doing this, one quickly learns that philosophy and science, and indeed any of our knowledge systems, can never really be decoupled from politics and ideology. Whether we like it or not, political agendas influence the information environment we find ourselves in. Politics influences what scientific work gets funded, and therefore the direction in which our knowledge systems progress. It influences what books get written and promoted. And it even influences what gets taught as foundational knowledge in schools and universities.

Even in narrow situations, when science is conducted in a way that’s far removed from political agendas - for example, within the context of a particular scientific study - the category of things being studied itself is often the result of a combination of political, ideological, and commercial factors. So we just can’t get away from the fact that science and politics are linked. And the same is true of more theoretical fields, like economic theory.

Many scientists and economists alike find this state of affairs somewhat confronting, and even repellant. And I must admit that there is a part of me that shares this feeling. However, uncomfortable as it may be, these feelings say nothing of the truth of the matter.

Today’s conversation with Naomi Oreskes demonstrates just how deep these waters run, and how important it is to step back and take a critical and open minded look at the paradigms we’re working in. Because if we don’t, it’s all too easy to end up buying into ways of thinking and living that are a little bit more politically motivated than we might realise.

This was an useful conversation, and I hope you find it valuable.


Thank you for reading Paradigm. This post is public so feel free to share it.

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Transcript - for video interview

This transcript is AI-generated and may contain errors. It will be corrected and annotated with links and citations over time.

I'm here with Naomi Oreskes. Naomi, thanks for joining me.

[00:00:05] Naomi Oreskes: Oh, you're welcome. Thanks for having me on the

show.

[00:00:07] Matt Geleta: Naomi, Paradigm is more about philosophy and science and technology than it is about politics. However, I think it's naive and potentially quite dangerous to believe that these topics are not influenced by politics and ideology. And I think your work perhaps better than anyone else's I've followed over the years, reveals just how deeply these influences can run and how intimately related these topics are.

And so I would love to have a conversation with you grounded in your most recent book, The big myth But that draws on much broader implications about, you know, human psychology and incentive systems and political ideology, um, all the things that you've, uh, you've written about over the years, uh, in books like The Merchants of Doubt and others.

Um, let's start by laying the groundwork for the big myth. What is the big myth that you talk about in your book?

[00:00:57] Naomi Oreskes: The big myth is the myth of the free market. The idea that there is such a thing as the free market that stands alone and apart from culture and politics, uh, that the market has wisdom, uh, agency, and that we do best by just letting the market do its magic and not interfering, and that governments can't improve the function of markets, they only distort markets, and therefore, in order to generate prosperity, the best thing we can do is just stand back.

And as I said, let the magic, let the market do its magic. And in the book, we show how, in so many different ways, this myth is a myth. It's not really true. It's not true historically. It's not true economically. Um, And we show that it was really consciously developed in the 20th century in the United States in particular.

And the story focuses on the U. S., but it's not just about the U. S. Um, really promoted and propagated and exaggerated the power of markets, exaggerated by a group of industrialists, uh, who were really motivated by their own strong economic and political self interest.

[00:01:57] Matt Geleta: Yeah, the, uh, the word myth does a lot of work there because, um, I mean, yes, if you look at The You know, any, any scientific field, um, or any area of economics, you know, we're always dealing with models. We're always dealing with abstractions that are somehow idealized. And, uh, in those contexts, we don't refer to those things as myths per se.

We just understand that they're models. But, uh, in this case, I think that the word myth is quite rightly used. Why is it that you call it a myth rather than a model or something else?

[00:02:25] Naomi Oreskes: Yeah, that's a great question. And we actually went back and forth a lot on the title of the book, the original working title. was The Magic of the Marketplace, A True History of a False Idea. So, we had the idea that it was an idea, but it wasn't really true, that if it were a scientific theory, you would have to say that it had been refuted because there was so much evidence to show, uh, that even some of the assumptions about market efficiency really don't hold up when you look closely.

Um, so we went back and forth, but our editor didn't like The Magic of the Marketplace as a title because there were sort of implied scare quotes around the word magic. Um, and he said, you can't really have. irony in a title. Uh, that doesn't really work. Um, so we settled on myth because we thought it had the right sense of, for myths to work, they have to have a kernel of truth in them, right?

Myths are never wholly false. If they were completely 100 percent false, nobody would believe in them. People believe in them because they capture something that on some level evil is either is true or we want it to be true. Um, and so that was one aspect of calling it a myth. And the other was the way in which we show in the book that it is deliberately developed and cultivated.

Um, we could have called it a story, you know, the big story, because in a sense, the book is about a group of people telling a story about the efficacy of the marketplace. and the inefficacy of government, but story didn't feel quite strong enough, because again, there are good stories and bad stories, and it's not a model, because it's much more than a model, I mean a scientific model.

Um, it's something that's developed by scientists in very specific conte context. But this is much, much larger than that. It's not just about what economists are publishing in economic journals. It's also about propaganda campaigns. It's about edited versions of classic texts like The Wealth of Nations, uh, and The Road to Serfdom.

It's about attempts to influence children's books, film. radio, television. So it's far, far more pervasive than a scientific model or scientific theory. And of course, that relates to what you said at the outset of this program. I'm a historian of science by training, uh, and a scientist, uh, Eric Conway is a historian of technology by training.

We began our careers interested in science and technology, not interested in politics, not interested in ideology, and certainly not interested in myth and propaganda. But what we discovered here was a story of a heavily propagandistic, conscious, deliberate effort to sell, to sell this story, to sell this myth.

And so that's how we settled on the word myth. It's not perfect. Um, titles are hard. As anyone who's written a book will know. Uh, but it comes closest to capturing the sense that we're trying to pro present here, uh, that this is not, um, it is a true story of a false idea. It's an idea that was propagandized, uh, in very conscious and very deliberate ways, and the documentary record shows that.

It's also not a mistake, right? It's not that these people were mistaken, or that this is an art, a difference of interpretation. I mean, there are elements of it, particularly when we look at the University of Chicago School of Economics, there are elements of interpretation, but there's also, there are also elements of clear misrepresentation of history.

So it's not, it doesn't work just to call this, um, this is not a scientific debate, and it's mostly not taking place in scientific venues. It's mostly taking place, uh, in popular

culture.

[00:05:43] Matt Geleta: Well, let's uh, let's dig in then to the history of this big myth, um, you know, if one goes all the way back to someone like Adam Smith, who's one of the founding fathers of modern economic theory, um, He famously has the idea of the invisible hand of the market, and most people will be familiar with this idea.

At its core, it's something like, uh, you know, in a, in a free market, the wants and needs of individuals will, um, aggregate in some way into some distributed supply and demand calculation. And this will drive the market towards optimally or close to optimally meeting the, the needs of those people. Um, and I think based on this idea, and maybe the idea of enlightened self interest.

Most people assume that Adam Smith was a fairly diehard proponent of, um, free market economics. And it's interesting because you don't have to read too much of Adam Smith to realize that that's not quite true. Um, what is your, what is your view here on, on Adam Smith? How much of a free market fundamentalist, uh, was, was he?

[00:06:45] Naomi Oreskes: He was not at all. I mean, all you have to do is sit down with the wealth of nations, which is admittedly a hard book. Uh, and spend some time with it. And you very quickly realize that the Adam Smith that has been presented to us, the, you know, the image that you just said, that this is a man who believes fundamentally and essentially in the role of self interest, and that if everybody just does what's good for them, that there will be this aggregate outcome that serves the common good, is at best a gross oversimplification of what Adam Smith believed.

It is certainly true that, uh, in the wealth of nations, you do find important foundations for modern market based thinking. It's certainly true that he does have that, you know, very famous line about the self interest of the butcher and the baker, but there's an awful lot else in that book too that shows you that Smith had a much more nuanced view of markets, their roles, and their limits than you would ever guessed by listening to conservative commentators in the United States today or reading the Wall Street Journal.

So one of the things we point out in the book, and I actually say of all the things we found to me, this was one of the most astonishing because when I was reading Adam Smith, I was like, holy moly, they did not teach us this in college, right? Um, he has a very long discussion about the need for regulation and specifically the regulation of banks, which is particularly appropriate in this current moment when we've seen major bank failures.

Uh, in the last year or two that have the potential to really, uh, bring down the entire global. economy like the Credit Suisse failure, Adam Smith recognized this 300 years ago and he specifically said, you have to regulate banks because if you don't, the self interest of bankers will lead them to reckless practices that threaten the security of the entire economic system.

And he says this in 1776. And this was particularly striking to me because much of the literature that Eric Conway and I had been reading is extremely anti regulation. Regulation is kind of the bugbear of a lot of Conservative economists, conservative politicians, um, this is the thing that you most often hear being attacked, uh, in right wing literature, or, you know, if you get to go to the World Economic Forum, which I've been

I'm going to say something that my business colleagues won't like, but you know, we really do have to think about regulation as if this is a betrayal of Adam Smith, as if this is a betrayal of capitalist principles. But it's not because Adam Smith is actually clear about this. And in fact, There's an absolutely wonderful passage where he really, in a way, solves the core problem of self interest.

He says, self interest is great up to a point. Liberty, freedom. Yeah, of course, we all, we all want to be free. We all want to be able to do what we want to do, but it has to stop at the point where my freedom threatens to hurt somebody else. I mean, in a nutshell, in a few sentences, he solved the problem of competing liberties, but I never knew that growing up.

I never knew that he... He had those conversations, and it doesn't stop at that. American conservatives also hate taxation. One of the biggest drivers of income inequality in the United States in recent years, uh, has been the changes in the tax code, and we've seen this in Europe and other places as well.

When Dwight Eisenhower was President of the United States, a Republican President, a moderate conservative guy, the marginal tax rate in the 1950s was over 90%. Today it's 37%, and this has driven a huge income inequalities, income inequities, which has led to massive concentration of wealth among very small numbers of people, who then distort the political process because they can buy so much influence.

So what does Adam Smith think about that? Does he think that taxation is theft, as a lot of American Republicans say? No, he thinks taxation is totally appropriate, that you need it for, uh, Roads and bridges for infrastructure that everyone benefits from. You need it for, uh, the preservation of the dignity of the sovereign.

I thought that was so sweet. You know, the king has a right to have decent clothes and a decent carriage. Um, and a few other things. He just says if you're going to have taxation, do it fairly, do it equitably, and do it transparently. Which it seems to me is something that anyone, liberal or conservative, could agree with.

And then... Even more astonishing, he has a whole discussion of why workers need to combine in what today we would form, today we would call unions. So he says, look, employers will always pay workers as little as they can get away with, to the point that sometimes they even pay literally starvation wages, that the workers, the children of workers in 18th century England, people who were working full time, were starving.

And he even talks about how many families would deliberately have more than two children because they would know that some of the children wouldn't make it to adulthood, partly because of disease, but also partly because inadequate nutrition. And he says because of this, workers have to combine to protect their own interests because the owners will always, always, always pay them as little money as possible.

So this is Adam Smith, the father of modern capitalism, defending unions, which again is something that conservatives in America have loved to hate. So we see a very, very different, um, Smith. When we look at the totality of his work, then many of us have come to believe was the case. So why do we have such a wrong impression of Adam Smith?

Well, one of the things we show in the book is because the version of Adam Smith that was produced by the University of Chicago and was used in many American classrooms in the 1950s, 60s and maybe as late as the 70s Expunged all of those parts, all of the parts where Smith says we need taxation, we need regulation, we do need to limit freedom, we can't just rely on self interest, workers do have to combine to stand up for their own rights against rapacious factory owners.

All of that is eliminated from the University of Chicago version of Adam Smith. And so in the book we focus on that specific text, but I think this is a microcosm for a sort of larger pattern of misrepresenting Adam Smith as a market fundamentalist, when in fact he was a quite sophisticated and nuanced thinker who, yes, absolutely believed in the power of markets, was proposing a market based system as an improvement over mercantilism.

Remember, you have to remember what is Adam Smith arguing against in 1776. He's arguing against mercantilism. So, um, yes, absolutely. He thinks market based economies will be better than mercantilist economies. And he's right about that, right? But he also, he is by no means a market

fundamentalist.

[00:13:19] Matt Geleta: it very much then begs the question as to why, um, people would view Adam Smith in such an incorrect light. If, if really in his own writing, it was not that unclear what his position was. And I think this, this really, you know, comes down to a big part of the purpose of this podcast, which, which is looking at, you know, how we know, uh, what we think we know.

I mean, one quickly learns when asking this question in basically any context that scientific knowledge or really any knowledge engine, um, it's always inextricably linked with politics and politics influences what books get written and published.

And as you mentioned, what gets taught in schools and universities and therefore what information environment people live in. And the free market case is a very good case study here, um, in particular the economic theory taught. I share your experience of taking economics courses at university where it was certainly free market economics taught there.

So could you tell me the story behind all of this? You know, how does one get from... Adam Smith and a very clear position in his writing to the state of play today where it's very much skewed towards a free market ideology that is taught in standard economics across the western world.

[00:14:40] Naomi Oreskes: Well, I don't want to oversimplify, and this book is over 500 pages long, because we're trying not to do what we are, in fact, accusing our opponents of doing, which is oversimplifying and misrepresenting. And, of course, any complex story, any complex question, there's always going to be some degree of oversimplification, because the reality is...

You know, The Wealth of Nations is over a thousand pages long. You can't expect undergraduates to read the whole book. But what we show in the book is that it's not just an accident, or it's not just the problem of the book being too long and complicated. That there's really a systematic pattern here, and it has a lot to do with who's sponsoring the work.

So in the middle portion of the book, we talk about a group of business leaders in the United States, led by a man named Harold Lunow, someone most people have never heard of. He's not a particularly famous figure in history, although I guess, hopefully he will be after everyone on the planet reads my book.

But, um, he was a close associate of a man named Jasper Crane, who had been an important executive at the DuPont Corporation. So DuPont is a name that many, most Americans will know. And they were very eager to push back against the reforms of the New Deal. They were very resentful of what they saw as... Too much government control over business practices, particularly because during the New Deal, a number of laws had been passed to protect workers.

Laws about minimum wage, fair labor practices, laws limiting the use of child labor. which was a big debate in the early century that we talk about at the start of the book. These businessmen really felt that they had the right to run their businesses any way they, any way they chose, that the government did not have the right to set, for example, a minimum wage law or a minimum age for child labor.

And so they pushed, wanted to push back against that. And the way they did it was in part ideological. They had the idea that if they could promote books, texts, academic arguments to show that market based economics. was better than the alternative, that government regulation was bad, and specifically the argument that had been made by Austrian economists that government action in the marketplace threatened democracy, that that was an argument that they could use that would persuade the American people to, as we say, love the market and loathe the government.

And so they began to fund a project at the University of Chicago, which became the most famous economics department in the world, um, that they called the Free Market Project. And the specific aim of this project, and we have this from their own letters, this is not us interpreting, this is them, was to create a blueprint for a, for a society based on free market economics.

Their touchstone, touchstone text was Friedrich von Hayek's Road to Serfdom, which they thought laid out The basic argument that they wanted to promote that government acts in the marketplace threaten democracy, threaten freedom. And this comes from the Austrian School of Economics from people like Ludwig von Mises, um, and, well, Mises was Hayek's professor and mentor.

Now, again, here we see the same pattern. If you read The Road to Serfdom, which, again, I suspect most people don't, because if they really read it, they probably wouldn't. use it the way they do. It's not nearly as long a book as The Road to Serfdom, sorry, as, it's not nearly as long a book as The Wealth of Nations, but it is a subtle book, it's a sophisticated book.

In fact, there are lots of caveats. So, Von Hayek says, for example, that it is perfectly appropriate and even necessary for governments to intervene to prevent pollution, for example, deforestation, um, the use of certain kinds of toxic chemicals. And he says it's also appropriate for governments to have some form of what in the United States we call social security, or I think in Australia you still call the dole.

Um, you know, that these are appropriate to protect people against like the most extreme forms of privation. So he recognizes that in a market based system, not everybody, it doesn't work out for everyone. People can end up unemployed. People can end up hungry. And he says governments do need to do something about that.

But this is all expunged in a version that they produce in the United States for Reader's Digest magazine. So, Reader's Digest still exists today. It's in England, Australia, and Canada, as well as the United States. Specializes in taking long books and producing short condensations of them, often as low as 20 or 30 pages, often novels, but also non fiction works.

So, They work with Reader's Digest to produce a condensed version of The Road to Serfdom, which again, like The Wealth of Nations, takes out all the caveats and makes it seem as if von Hayek thinks that there is no role for government in our society, no role in the economy, no role to protect workers, no role to protect the environment.

And They get that published in Reader's Digest magazine, which has a circulation of millions of people, and, oh excuse me, and they also produce a comic book, literally a comic book, uh, with 18 illustrations and captions, in which it begins with the government becoming active in the economy during World War II, mobilizing for the war effort, something that virtually all Americans accepted as good, but saying, no, actually it's bad because it's going to lead us to totalitarianism and the final cartoon is a dissenter being shot by a firing squad.

And this was distributed through a magazine that doesn't exist anymore today, but was very, very popular, um, when I was growing up, a magazine called Look Magazine that had a circulation of many millions, um, and then also distributed as a pamphlet that was distributed by General Motors Corporation. So through a variety of techniques, they worked to create these simplified arguments, simplified pro market, anti government, arguments and distribute them broadly in American culture.

But they realized that for this to have credibility, it needs academic backup. So they also fund the University of Chicago, where they fund people like George Stickler, Milton Friedman, um, uh, Robert Bork, who later would be nominated to the U. S. Supreme Court, Aaron Director, a whole group of important highly intelligent, very talented people to help develop these Mark arguments, to give them intellectual credibility, to publish articles in academic journals, to make it seem as if this is not just propaganda, but it's actually a principled economic program.

Now again, we could argue a lot about all that work, but I think one example that I think is really important, one of the people involved in this as Robert Bork. When Bork was denied a nomination, denied the chance to serve on the Supreme Court of the United States, much of the argument revolved around his views about the right to privacy, that he had said that he did not believe the Constitution, in fact, had enshrined a right to privacy.

Now that's something that constitutional lawyers will probably debate till the end of time, but to me the more Terrible thing that Bork did was he wrote a set of papers arguing against antitrust enforcement. Now, one of the big problems in the 19th century that was well established was that capitalism wasn't actually even good for capitalism.

That is to say, if you just let capitalists do whatever they wanted, Capitalism quickly devolved into monopoly, you had the concentration of power and wealth and a very small number of people who in the United States came to be known as robber barons, so they were not viewed as good people, they were not people who viewed as people who were engines of economic progress.

And so a set of laws was were passed to prevent monopolies, in a sense to protect competition from anti competitive practices in the marketplace. So this is the Sherman and the Clayton Antitrust Acts. They were passed by wide margins in the U. S. Congress and when the Sherman Antitrust Act was passed, John Sherman himself, the senator who was the primary sponsor of the bill, said this isn't just about protecting capitalism, although it is that and that's important, it's also about protecting democracy.

Because when you let too much wealth be concentrated in too few hands, it undermines democracy. And Sherman says this explicitly in his speech to the U. S. Senate. This is something that is very easy to find in any library or even on the internet. But Borg writes a series of papers denying this and saying that The only thing that Sherman and the architects of the act cared about was what was good for consumers.

And he introduces what he calls the consumer welfare standard. This is completely ahistorical. the historic record. But he says monopolies are fine so long as they serve the interest of people. And that just means that, um, as long as they bring the price down. And then he makes a kind of Darwinian, a social Darwinian argument where he says look the monopolies, the big monopolies are the companies that have won.

in the Darwinian struggle for survival in the marketplace. And so it's not bad, it's good. These are the best corporations. These are the strongest corporations. And therefore, they're the ones that deliver the best goods and services to people. Well, the experience in the 19th century was not that at all.

But Borg completely ignores 100 years of history. And he becomes very effective in pushing this argument. Many judges cite it. And they cite it. to throw out antitrust cases or to dismiss or find against the government. And so this is so effective that for the past 40 years, there's been very little antitrust enforcement in the United States because the Justice Department has by and large felt that these cases could not be won.

Now this is changing now during the Biden administration, which I find very, very interesting. And the Assistant Attorney General who's been raising antitrust cases of late has explicitly raised this issue and said, look, the consumer welfare standard is not in the statute. This was an invention, um, of Robert Bork and some other economists.

Bork shows this absolute reckless disregard for the facts of history. And to me, reading this material, I thought, wow, This is in a way far worse or at least certainly at least as bad because millions of consumers have been hurt by monopolistic practices in recent years and we have seen in the last 40 years massive consolidation of power, wealth, and influence in very small numbers of companies, particularly obviously the internet giants, telecommunication, and the average consumer has Almost no recourse, I mean we've all had that experience of being on some site where there's a 75 page list of conditions that if you don't agree, you, you know, you, you can't use this site, and of course none of us are actually going to read this because who has time for that, and often these things involve signing away our legal rights, that we can't sue them if something goes wrong, so these monopolistic practices have been used to deny workers, employers, consumers basic fundamental legal rights, and the courts have until quite recently, really refused to even look at these cases because they were so persuaded of this argument about the consumer welfare standard.

And this was done at the University of Chicago as part of a project that was funded by American business people.

[00:25:27] Matt Geleta: Mm. Yeah. I'm really interested in the, um, you know, the, the question of whether this is driven by bad actors versus just inevitable, uh, incentive mechanisms and incentive systems or, or some blend of both, you know, in, in those examples that you gave. Um, we have a situation where the people in these positions of power who, you know, stand to produce monopolies, uh, they're very much incentivized.

to propagate this sort of thinking. And, um, those who do will benefit and those who don't won't. And as you mentioned, there is a sort of Darwinian evolution at play there where, um, it feels like almost inevitably just by the way economic systems work. Um, those who do propagate this sort of way of thinking about the market and oppose too much regulation in their industries will do better.

And um, you know, does, does this, does this mean like necessarily phenomenon, a phenomenon such as this will exist in the market? Or do you need to have explicitly bad actors

to, um, to be doing

[00:26:34] Naomi Oreskes: combination of both. I'm a historian, I always tell my students that in history, the correct answer is almost always D, all of the above. So, in, you know, in the story we've told, and particularly in our previous book, Merchants of Doubt, and in all the work that I've done with my colleague, Jeffrey Supran, on the history of ExxonMobil, we certainly see bad actors.

And particularly in the history of the tobacco industry, we see overt, indisputable evidence of bad actors. Tobacco executives who knew that their product was killing people and sat in rooms to try to figure out how to keep that. information from consumers and their own salespeople. So there are definitely bad actors in the world, that's a real thing.

But I think it doesn't work by bad actors alone because most people have at least some sense of conscience. And so, if you were to say to them, so you're telling me that it's perfectly fine to sell a product that kills people. In fact, to sell it to teenagers and children. A product that we know kills infants in their cribs because we know that secondhand smoke causes cot death.

They wouldn't, they wouldn't say yes to that, right? They would come up with an explanation. And in Merchants of Doubt, we showed how the explanation was market fundamentalism. They say, oh, no, no, no, no. I'm not trying to kill people. I care about people, but I don't want us to live in a world where the government tells us what to do.

I don't want to live in a nanny state. I don't want to live in a country, place where the government takes away our freedom. So they come up with what appears to be meritorious, but is really a meretricious argument about freedom. And then they market tobacco under this aegis of freedom. And, you know, one of the things I've talked about in a lot of my works was an ad campaign where the tobacco industry in the 50s marketed to black Americans this idea that there was a that the right to smoke was freedom and that the government was trying to take away the freedom of black people by either controlling cigarettes or in later years controlling menthol cigarettes.

So this is pretty pernicious but I think in a lot of cases it's also a form of what Cognitive scientists call motivated reasoning. People have the things they want, they have their self interest, and they look for evidence, they look for theories, they look for arguments that help them justify what they've done.

So, I do think there are people in the tobacco industry who are truly bad actors. That's the name of the book that Sharon Eubanks, the lawyer who prosecuted them on behalf of the U. S. government, used. But I also think there's a lot of motivated reasoning and a lot of rationalization. So you can think how, if you were a tobacco executive, you could rationalize what you do by saying, Look, it's not, it's people should decide for themselves whether they want to smoke or not.

And I would personally agree with that argument, but for the fact that they lied about it, that we didn't know the truth. If they had sold tobacco saying, look, this is a product that will kill you if you smoke for the next 30 years, right? Um, and it will cause emphysema, bronchitis, heart disease, blindness, you know, here's a list of 300 diseases, uh, that are caused by this product.

But, you know, you might want to smoke anyway, because it's fun. Well, that would be one kind of advertising. There probably would still have been teenagers who smoked, but there would probably have been a lot more people, and we have evidence for this, a lot more people who later years said, look, if I knew how bad it was, I would never have started smoking.

And then the other thing about the tobacco industry is the addictive quality of it. Most of us draw. a somewhat bright line between things that are addictive and things that are not. We don't, I mean, I don't think there's any country in the world, maybe I'm wrong, but certainly most countries I know of, heroin is not legal because it's so highly addictive.

We know that nicotine is highly addictive, not as addictive as heroin, but like getting close. And the industry not only lied about that, I mean we know that the industry lied over oath, under oath, when executives testified in Congress that they did not believe that nicotine was addictive, even though their own documents discuss the fact that it is.

But they actually worked to make their product more addictive. They worked to develop breeds, uh, not breeds, uh, strains of tobacco that had more nicotine in them than just ordinary natural tobacco. I mean this is probably one reason why The tobacco that Americans smoked in the 20th century was probably quite different than the tobacco that Native Americans smoked, you know, before colonization.

So they deliberately worked to make it more addictive, to addict customers to their product and then lied about it. So, you know, it's kind of hard not to see. those people as bad actors. But I also think there were others, maybe salespeople, who did authentically rationalize what they did by saying, look, it's not for me to decide, and I definitely don't want the government telling me what to do.

People can decide for themselves. So there's a mix of rationalization, authentic belief, and bad. Bad

actors.

[00:31:13] Matt Geleta: Yeah, I mean, I guess to be able to rationalize to yourself and indeed convince other people, um, as you said, right at the beginning, there has to be some kernel of truth or some amount of believability in, uh, the myth as a, perhaps let's, um, let's zoom in, in the case of free market economics to some of the.

arguments for and against this idea that we've, we've heard. And I mean there are plenty, there are so many, so we won't be able to go exhaustively, but maybe I'll play devil's advocate here and put forward a couple of objections to government intervention. Um, You know, one that you mentioned earlier was, um, the, um, you know, in free markets, monopolies, um, you know, emerge, and this is not, in the long run, good for consumers.

Um, but one argument is that there are also hidden downsides of regulation. So, you know, you can point to historical examples of free market failures, like, as you mentioned, stock market collapses, or, um, the climate crisis, I think is probably the most pressing one currently. Um, but there... Also, arguments made that in highly regulated industries there are also failures, um, perhaps just as significant, but they're more hidden.

So for example, um, I work in the medical industry, I spend a lot of time there, um, and this is a highly regulated industry, especially in the United States. The FDA is one of the most stringent regulators, uh, globally, um,

and,

[00:32:35] Naomi Oreskes: not sure I agree with that, but okay.

[00:32:37] Matt Geleta: okay, well,

[00:32:38] Naomi Oreskes: we'll, take it for the sake of

argument, right?

[00:32:40] Matt Geleta: For the sake of argument, um, you know, the regulation here is absolutely intended to protect people from malpractice and so on. But there are definitely negative consequences as well, so for example, um, it can delay access to consumers for the most, um, sort of advanced treatments. Um, and it can create very large barriers, uh, to innovation for new entrants to the market. So, um, in a sense then this protects incumbent medical companies, such as big pharma companies, from being disrupted.

Um, and so, the insidious thing with those consequences is that they're somewhat hidden. Um, you know, the consumer can't see how much innovation would have happened, they can't see how much disruption would have happened if this industry were less regulated, and, um, yet, you know, there is an argument that monopolies in pharma, for example, um, are sort of more able to exist because of the regulation, so how do you think about this sort of class of objections that regulation has more hidden downsides, uh, and therefore it's really hard to To assess, um, the benefits versus, uh, sort of negative consequences of a highly regulated market.

[00:33:48] Naomi Oreskes: Yeah, I certainly agree with you up to a point. I mean, there's no question, no system is perfect. And when we regulate a marketplace, there are definitely trade offs. So I think you're absolutely right that there is evidence that a highly regulated industry can, uh, in some cases stifle innovation, make it difficult for newcomers to, to join in.

Uh, And that's, and that's partly why we, we, in the book we talk about what happened in the 1970s when under the Carter administration there was an attempt to deregulate certain industries for which there was a really strong argument that they really did need to be deregulated, like trucking, there was this whole panoply of regulations that had developed since the 1930s, most of which didn't really make sense anymore.

They had made sense in the context of the 1930s. They didn't really make sense in the context of the 1970s. And some of them were contradictory. They created clear inefficiencies. So there's no question that there was an argument to be made in the third, in the 1970s for deregulation of trucking.

Aviation was another example. Early on, virtually all countries protected aviation as a fledgling industry. Virtually all countries had national airlines, national carriers, like, you know, Well, what was then BOAC, British Overseas Airways Corporation in Britain, or, you know, um, Lufthansa in Germany, in Australia, uh, I've

[00:35:03] Matt Geleta: Contest.

[00:35:04] Naomi Oreskes: Qantas, thank you, right.

So, the argument was, fledgling in the industry, you need to do something to support these companies, uh, but then, They were no longer fledgling. By the 1970s, they should be deregulated. And in the book, we say, you know, whether airline deregulation was good or bad, people can argue about that. There's arguments on both sides.

But there was certainly a case to be made. So we're not, we're absolutely not saying regulation is always good. And in fact, in the book, we say that, you know, we've been reading conservative political and economic materials for over a decade now. And it's definitely persuaded me of, of one really important conclusion, which is that whatever the problem is, the best solution should be the one that involves the smallest government action that will fix it.

I do think there is sometimes a tendency for reformers to overreach. I think we saw that in the case of prohibition in the United States, where the regulation of alcohol arguably did do more harm than good. So there are absolutely cases like that, and I think you're absolutely right. Just to point those out and in the book we agree with that, but what I would push back against is your use of the term intervention.

And this is saying that, this is the way language structures the way we think. So, the Chicago school loves the language of government intervention because it creates this image that the market exists unto itself and then the government is intervening, interfering. And that's just wrong because markets don't exist unto themselves.

We make this point in the book. First of all, markets predate capitalism. There were markets in the ancient world. We can find evidence of markets in Pompeii, and in ancient Rome and Greece, and in the Bible, and there are discussions in the Bible of the rules for how markets should operate. So, People set the rules for the operation of markets in the way, same way we set the rules for most government, um, sorry, most human activities.

I mean, we have rules about marriage, we have rules about roads, you know, the rules of the road. That's a, a phrase we use to refer to all kinds of things. We have rules for sports, we have rules for raising children, right? There are things you can and can't do as a parent. We have rules for how schools and hospitals operate.

That's what, That's society. That's what it means to have a society. So, of course, there will be rules for markets, and there might be rules you agree with, like not selling alcohol on a Sunday, or there might be rules you disagree with, like not selling alcohol on a Sunday. When I first came to Australia, I was stunned at how few hours shops were open, and as a working woman, kind of annoyed that the shops were not open on the weekends, because it seemed very sexist.

It seemed like the assumption was You know, your wife would do the shopping during the week, and especially because, I don't know if this is still the case, but when I lived in Adelaide, um, Stores were all closed on Sunday except for hardware stores because men needed to be able to go and get the stuff they needed for their chores and projects at home.

And I thought that was pretty sexist, right? So, but there it was. That was a rule about how markets operated and I guess most Australians thought it was reasonable because that was how it was. So, the point is the government's not intervening in the market. The government plays a role in markets the same way it plays a role in all kinds of aspects of life.

So, I push back against the idea of intervention. We'll call it government action, uh, but I think you're right. Now, medicine, of course, is really, really tricky as an industry because it's a hybrid industry, because part of the reason government is so involved in medicine is because most of us don't think that healthcare is something that can simply be left to the private sector, right?

We could have an entirely private sector healthcare system, but we know that if we did, Millions and millions of people, probably billions on the planet, would go without health care. And most of us feel that that's not right. Many people feel that health care is a right. Uh, and so once you get into the area of rights, then the government has to be involved because the private sector, left to its own devices, will only sell medicine to people who can afford to pay for it.

And we see that even, even with all the government involvement in in medicine, we do see that big pharma tends much more to be focused on diseases that affect rich people who can afford to pay for drugs and much less on the diseases of the poor. So medicine is this complicated hybrid system. Um, there's a lot of regulatory capture.

I would probably push back on the idea that the FDA is super stringent. I think it's stringent about some things and not so much for other. If you actually read epidemiology, which I do from time to time, the bar for Approving a drug based on efficacy is pretty low. I was, I was reading some articles recently about a drug in which I had a personal interest.

And this drug had been approved for use and had been judged by the FDA to be effective because about a third of the people in the clinical trial saw remission. So a third, that's like 33%. If a student got a 33% on an exam in my class, that would be a failing grade . So the standard for efficacy is, is very, very low actually.

But you might say that's okay, because if it helps even a third of the people, that's still a good thing. But when your doctor prescribes this drug, I mean, I ask a lot of questions with my doctor because of who I am and the kind of work I do. And sometimes when I'll ask. a doctor. Well, what is the efficacy rate of this drug you're suggesting?

I can tell you that in my whole life, no doctor has ever known the answer to that question.

[00:40:14] Matt Geleta: I think, I think you're right. Maybe instead of, um, sort of very stringent, I might have just said there are many steps to take for anything

to

[00:40:21] Naomi Oreskes: I agree. And it's definitely slows down innovation, no question about it. But we might argue that that's an appropriate trade off to also prevent dangerous drugs in the market. And in defense of the FDA, since I've slightly criticized them, I will defend them. I mean, one thing the FDA in the United States can be proud of is that the U.

S. FDA did not approve thalidomide when European agencies did, and, uh, massive, you know, terrible birth defects in Europe from this drug that was, in fact, not approved in the United States. So this is the trade off, right? You want innovation, you want new drugs, but you don't want to put drugs on the market, uh, that will hurt

people.

[00:40:57] Matt Geleta: That's actually a great example because what we've seen there is, like the Thalidomide example because, you know, we had different governments, uh, having different regulatory postures and the results were different. And so this actually begs, it points to a sort of a separate argument that one would have in this realm, which is...

You know, one of the beautiful aspects of, of a free market way of thinking, at least, is that it's completely determined by the collective wants and needs of all the individuals. Even if we can't see, say what they are, this at least determines the answer in some sense. And, uh, but in a regular, in a regulatory environment, things are somewhat more arbitrary.

You know, people have to set rules, have to make decisions, lines need to be drawn. And different, there is. Disagreement here, um, about where those lines should be and which lines should be drawn. And so there is some sense in which, uh, like a, a free market ideal is in some sense more, uh, I don't know, fair, I

guess.

[00:41:56] Naomi Oreskes: Yeah, no, I, I think this is a really important point, and this is why I think we can understand and have sympathy for the free market ideal, right? Because in its sort of perfect... expression, it's really very democratic, right? The idea is that individuals, and you do see this in Adam Smith, and to some extent you even see it in Milton Friedman, although I have lots and lots of objections to Milton Friedman, but I'll give him credit on this point.

The idea that individuals decide for themselves what they want, and they go into the marketplace and, you know, Milton Friedman says, you know, essentially you vote in the marketplace for what you want by what you decide to buy. So in that sense it's bottom up, and in that sense it's radically democratic.

The problem is that it's radically anti egalitarian because the fact is we don't all have equal votes in the marketplace. Rich people get a lot more voting power than others and we see that all the time, right? All you have to do is to go into a shop where they're selling, you know, a hundred different luxury handbags but you can't find a pair of cheap functional sneakers, right?

And, and this is everywhere, right? You see this in airport duty free shops selling expensive makeup and perfume. Um, you see it. You know, on the high streets and capital cities around the world, the market tends to meet and satisfy the needs of the wealthy far more than the working class or the poor, because it's the wealthy who get the voting power, as it were, in the marketplace.

And we've seen also, we just mentioned about drugs, right? I mean, this is a well documented phenomenon in medicine that, I mean, just look at Ozempic, right? Which is now, there's global shortages of Ozempic, because all these rich people... are rushing to take it. It costs in the United States, it costs 900 a month.

Um, and wealthy people are happy to spend that to lose weight. And Ozempic was designed for people with diabetes. That's a real problem. It's a drug that can help those people. So it's a good drug in that sense, but it's also being used by people for, I think what we could fairly say are cosmetic reasons, which is not necessarily wrong.

I mean, people have a right to want to look nice, but, um, at huge expense when meanwhile, You know, all across the globe, there are poor people suffering from all kinds of diseases. Um, or we even saw during the COVID pandemic, all across the globe, billions, literally billions of people who couldn't get vaccinations because there was no mechanism to bring vaccinations to those poor countries.

Um, and of course this comes back to bite us because then the virus mutates and comes back to America and Australia anyway, and so now we need new vaccines. So... Yes, the ideal of the free market system is really beautiful and you can see why people are attracted to it and the idea that we can just decide for ourselves and we don't need government, um, is great, but it doesn't actually work in practice.

And we have 300 years of evidence to show that. Um, and that's true of lots of things in life, right? There are lots of things that are good in theory, but don't work in practice. The other big problem, and this is something that Eric Conway and I talked about in Merchants of Doubt, our first book together, the notion of the marketplace is also hinges on the idea that we have good information.

I go to the marketplace, you're selling meat, let's say, and you tell me that this meat is fresh, that it's good, there's no maggots in it, um, and I trust you or I believe that you're trustworthy and I buy that meat. Maybe it's not good and I get sick and maybe I don't come back. Next time and buy your meat because now you've sold me bad meat, and I know you're not trustworthy But that assumes that there are other butchers that I can go see and in the capitalist world that Adam Smith grew up in with Lots of small markets and you know butchers bakers and all the rest if I didn't like one particular butcher I could easily go to another but now think about modern globalized capitalism.

I mean, I live in a place where there's only one internet provider and they're crap and they don't respond to complaints and there's no customer service and there is nothing I can do about it because there's no alternative. I mean, maybe I could install a satellite dish on my house. I mean, maybe if I'm really motivated, I might figure out an alternative.

So monopolistic practices. really destroy the democratic ideal of capitalism. But this brings us back to what we were just talking about, that left to their own devices, companies don't want competition. They want to control the markets and they do everything they can, or many, I shouldn't say all, some don't, but we know, history shows that many businesses will do everything they can to drive out the competition.

And once they've done that, then we don't have choices and then typically they increase prices and so now we're paying more and we have less choice. And then the third thing of course has to do with all the whole world of things that the economists call the negative externality or we could just call them the external costs.

And this is of course what connects all of this work to climate change which is what brought me into this whole space in the first place. So the the democratic ideal capitalism is a kind of democratic bottom up thing also assumes that this is a fair exchange in that You know, I buy, let's make it now, shoes.

I'm buying shoes from you, and they seem like good shoes, and the price seems right, and I try them on, and I like them. But what I don't know is that you're dumping pollution in the river behind your factory. And that pollution is going downstream and killing fish and hurting people and making it impossible to swim in that stream.

Maybe it's contaminating groundwater resources which are giving people cancer. And maybe you're also abusing your workers. Maybe you're using child labor. And I don't know any of that. So if I don't know that, then I don't really know what's a fair cost for that product. And so, For the Adam Smith model to work, there has to be radical transparency.

So who's going to enforce the transparency? Well, the government. That's where government regulation comes in. And now we have all these products where the government, I don't have anything here, but I don't know. If this were food in the United States, there would be nutrition information on the back, right?

It's actually hand cream, but whatever. Um, Now again, those systems aren't perfect. There's a lot of problems with food labeling. But at least in principle, the government can set up situations where industrialist manufacturers have to give information about these things. Um, there's um, in the book we talk about this, uh, conservative, or, I mean a lot of these people aren't really conservative, I don't like the word, they're actually radically right wing, but we'll call him, Well, we'll call him con conservative out of graciousness or something.

But Tom Tillis, who I believe is, I can't remember, North or South Carolina, he did an interview where he said, Look, I just don't think the government should be involved in these things. So, for example, I don't think the government should say that employees at Starbucks need to wash their hands. So long as, he says, Starbuck puts up a sign that says, you know, alerts consumers, our employees don't have to wash their hands.

Okay, well... Yeah, but who's going to make Starbucks put up the sign, right? There's always this question about enforcement. And if we go back to the pollution problem, we know from the entire history of the 19th and early 20th century that factories did routinely dump pollution in the rivers behind the factory or into the air.

Um, with no cost, no, no penalties because there was no enforcement. And that only, and there was nothing that individual consumers could do about it because the individual consumer was too, by themselves, too small. But when people began to organize politically and demand that, that governments pass laws to prevent these practices, then things changed.

But it was the governments of the world that did that. I mean, there's rare cases of companies that voluntarily stop dumping pollution in rivers and lakes, but they're, they're not the norm, right? The norm is that if you're lucky, the company obeys the law. There's one other thing I'll say about this, and then we can move on to the next question.

But I, when I was in Australia, I worked in the mining industry, and I worked for a company that had a very good reputation. We were considered to be one of the best companies, uh, in Australia at that time. And what I will say about my company is, we obey the law.

[00:49:48] Matt Geleta: Yeah, it's, um, it's really interesting some of those examples. I mean, those negative externalities you mentioned, like, you know, the factory dumping pollution in the lake, um, those examples, I think almost everybody would agree that that shouldn't happen. And there should be mechanisms in place to prevent.

Uh, that from happening. And if, if we call that regulation, that's great. But at the same time, these people would believe that government participation in markets is something that we don't want. And so there is this very high level of cognitive dissonance. And they definitely, I know these people, there are many people who like this, they hold these two views.

And so I wonder to, to what extent, you know, what, what's permitting that cognitive dissonance is actually not, um, a discussion about the system itself, you know, whether regulation in principle could solve these problems, but whether it's distrust in particular governments. So whether it's a distrust that my government, uh, is able to, um, effectively regulate away these negative externalities.

To what extent do you think that the reason so many people can buy into this way of thinking

is driven more by distrust in specific governments and specific individuals versus Uh, you know, a more theoretical belief about how markets

[00:51:04] Naomi Oreskes: that's a great question. And of course, it's always really hard to know why anyone believes the things they believe, right? I mean, it's kind of impossible question really. But one of the things we can show historically is that this pattern of distrust in government has increased in the past 50 years, and it coincides with the growth of the right wing propaganda, the construction, the big myth, and it really grows.

It grows among conservatives, people who are self identified or in the United States registered Republican or, um, you know, liberals in Australia, uh, not labor, and the same Tories in England, uh, not labor. So it aligns with political party and it really It grows independently of who's in office and it grows independently of the actual empirical evidence.

So there's no question that governments can be corrupt and there's no question that people at times have very legitimate reasons to distrust government. I mean certainly in the United States in the 19, late 60s and 70s when we learned that the government had been massively lying to us about the Vietnam War, that was certainly a legitimate reason to distrust government, but you might have thought that Because of that, since it was mostly people on the left who were opposed to the war, that it should have been people on the left who then developed distrust of government, not people on the right.

But actually what we see is the opposite, right? It's people on the right. And so we argue it's because it's on the right where we see these anti government arguments being developed and propagated and propagandized. And we see politicians like Ronald Reagan, who we discuss at length in the book, obviously an important figure in the story.

Um, Reagan explicitly takes this anti government ideology and it makes it the centerpiece of Republican ideology. And when he, you know, runs for office, his slogan is, government is not the solution to our problems. Government is the problem. So it's one thing to say, look, government doesn't always work well.

We really want to figure out how to make it work well. We want to look closely at the examples that work. and figure out the ones that don't work, right? That would all be rational and smart and good, but that's not what happens. And particularly in the United States, because again if we go back to pollution and environmentalism, which is the issue that brought me into this space in the first place, the laws that were passed in the late 60s and early 1970s in the United States, which became models for many other countries, the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the National Environmental Protection Act.

These laws were highly effective and we saw big gains, big improvements in environmental conditions in the United States, you know, rivers and lakes that then began to recover from the incredibly, incredible toxic pollution of the first half of the 20th century. Or if you think about the ozone hole in the Montreal Protocol, uh, the ozone layer is recovering now because that was a form of international governance that worked well.

So we have examples of government that worked really well. But you never find, and in our book we talk about this, you never find the Chicago School or the Cato Institute saying, Oh, well, look, here's some great examples of governance that did work. So let's focus on those and learn from that. No, that's not what they say.

They say government intervention, right? is bad, uh, government intervention threatens freedom, it takes away your rights, uh, taxation is theft, you know, this whole tissue of anti government regular, um, sorry, anti government rhetoric, which is not based on actually looking objectively at what has worked and what has failed.

And the other thing we say in the book is, of course there are government programs that don't work, of course. But there are also lots of businesses that don't work. Lots of businesses fail, but the right wing never takes that as a general indictment of capitalism. But they do cherry pick examples of government failure and say, See, look, government is bad.

Government doesn't work.

[00:54:38] Matt Geleta: Yeah. Yeah. It concerns me a little bit that, um, ideas like that are, they sort of take on a life of their own. Um, like if you take like a meme theoretic, um, perspective on ideas like that, um, you know, and obviously in Richard Dawkins sense, not in cat video sense of the word meme, um, I'm a little concerned that this, this type of myth becomes.

a little bit, uh, inevitable because, you know, if, if you take the example of, um, free market fundamentalism, you know, specific people will stand to gain from propagating that belief. And, um, these people are typically the ones in positions of power and influence, you know, executives at industries and so on.

Um, but there aren't. similar people on the other side who stand to gain as much from dispelling that way of thinking. You know, it's, it's a far more, it's the general populace. It's a far more dispersed group. They don't have access to the information. They don't have time. They can, they can, I guess, um, vote with their vote, but they, they don't see everything.

And so it does feel like a meme like this will, um, uh, it's kind of like positioned to survive, um, a little bit more.

Marker

[00:55:42] Naomi Oreskes: Yeah, for sure. I mean, this is what we try to get at the, at the, in the book, is that there are huge power differentials. And so part of what we show in the book is exactly what you say, that people who stand to gain from pushing these ideas are often people who are already very wealthy. There are people for whom government action in the marketplace would limit their freedom, limit their capacity to abuse workers, to pollute the environment, and they don't like that.

They would like to do whatever they want, um, no matter who gets hurt. And obviously there's a range. I mean, you know, they're not. They're not all the tobacco industry. The tobacco industry is an extreme end member, but the fossil fuel industry is up there with tobacco, right? They would like to continue, you know, exploring for producing and selling oil and gas, which is driving the climate crisis, which is destroying trillions of dollars in value around the globe already today.

And they would like to say that that's their right to do that. And because they are so profitable, they can afford to spend. hundreds of millions, even billions of dollars on advertising, marketing, PR campaigns, contributions to political parties, contributions to political candidates. They have the capacity to get their message out and to have it repeated over and over and over again in many different contexts and in many different ways.

And we have lots of evidence from cognitive science, from psychology, that if you hear something enough times, You may start to believe it's true or you may at least start to believe it must be at least partly true because everyone is saying this. The point is if you hear something enough times, if the media is saturated with these arguments, and particularly if you hear them in different ways from different people, there's a good chance that it will start to seep in.

You know, one thing I often wonder about, have you ever had the experience of watching television? You know, maybe it's a sporting event or the Olympics or, or like I watched the U. S. Open on television a couple of weeks ago. Um, and you see the same ad over and over again and you think, why are they showing the same advertisement over and over again?

I already got it that Cadillac now has a car with a 450 mile, you know, EV range. So, okay, I got the message. So, why do they do that? I mean, these people are not stupid and they are not throwing away their money, they know from their own research that this sort of saturation, message saturation, can be effective.

And so it's just not a level playing field. And this is why the classic ideas of liberal democracy, like John Stuart Mill, I think just don't work in the modern era. And, you know, you could say, well, what about unions? Didn't they push back against these arguments? And the answer is yes, they did. And in the book we talk about that.

Um, most unions had nothing like the power, the authority, and the money that the manufacturers had. And one thing we show in the book too, it's not just individual manufacturers. One of the key players in this book is a trade organization called the National Association of Manufacturers. So this was the most powerful manufacturing companies in America, companies like General Motors, banding together to get this message out.

So even if there were powerful unions like the United autoworkers, they still were nowhere near as powerful and had nowhere near the capabilities of getting their message across in the way that the captains of industry

did.

[00:58:48] Matt Geleta: Yeah, I am, I was, I was really shocked when, when going through your book just how much money was put into, um, like propping up this way Of thinking and, uh, across so many different angles. I mean, one that really stood out that I'd never, I'd never realized was affiliated with any sort of, um, Yeah. Yeah.

institutional body of people were Ayn Rand's books and the Ayn Rand Institute. I mean, I, I was, I was first recommended, it's actually interesting, it's pertinent here. I was first recommended Atlas Shrugged by a McKinsey consultant who absolutely loved it. And, you know, he said everyone in the firm was, uh, was very interested, but it's very interesting because he's also Canadian and he loves the fact that they have a very Um, a great public healthcare system, decentralised, universal, publicly funded, um, and, you know, for anyone who's read At the Shrugged or The Fountainhead, they will know that this, this book definitely preaches a very specific angle and, um, philosophy of, of life that seems to be contradictory to,

to, um,

[00:59:47] Naomi Oreskes: And you know, you said it before. I mean, people have the capacity to hold very contradictory ideas in their heads, and they also have the capacity to carve out exceptions. And again, that's not necessarily wrong. You could believe, you could believe in the primacy of free markets, but still recognize medicine as an exception because of this question about health equity and believe that The government should be involved in having an effective national health system, but still think that everything else should be left to the private sector.

But what's crazy about all the people who love Ayn Rand, and as you say in the book we show how her work was consciously promoted, um, by right wing groups like the Ayn Rand Institute that buy and give out hundreds of thousands of copies of her books. So no wonder these books are bestsellers. My books would be bestsellers.

if some institute, I mean, how great would it be? We're going to

[01:00:33] Matt Geleta: yeah,

[01:00:33] Naomi Oreskes: Institute, buy 700, 000 copies of my books every year and send them to schools all across the world. I mean, how great would that be? Terrific, right? So again, this isn't bottom up democratic capitalism. This is a very organized, um, strategy for getting a certain message out to people.

And it's kind of a crazy message, right? Because Her message is that anybody should be able to do whatever they want, even blow up buildings. I mean, it's really almost a terroristic message. So it's a little bit hard to understand why anyone who would actually stop to think seriously about it would really believe these things.

But I think it appeals to a kind of, um, I don't, I don't want to insult people, but, you know, almost everyone I know who read those books and loved them, read them as teenagers, but never, like, went back and rethought them. I mean, a few people I know, like Michael Shermer, have rethought them, and good for him.

But, you know, it appeals to a kind of teenage, rebellious individualism, I think. Like, because when we're teenagers, we all want to just do what we want to do. We don't want our parents and our teachers telling us what to do. And so Rand really appeals to that. And when you're a teenager, sure, of course, you think life would be great if you could just do whatever you want.

Then you become an adult, and you realize, well, it's not quite that simple. But her arguments are radically individualistic, to the point of being almost anarchistic. And you see that radical individualism running through a lot of pro market... So if you read Milton Friedman, for example, I mean, when I was reading Friedman, I was, I was, you know, trying to do what all historians do, which is, you want to try to understand under what intellectual framework do these arguments make sense, right?

You don't want to assume from the get go that a person is a bad actor. Like, my view is always, If there's evidence that there's a bad actor, I'm not going to pretend that evidence isn't there, but I'm not going to assume that a person's a bad actor until I see evidence to think that. So, I do think that Milton Friedman believed, authentically believed most of what he wrote.

I don't think he was a bad actor in the sense that tobacco or fossil fuels were. If you read his work, you see it is absolutely radically individualistic. He thinks if you just let people decide for themselves, it'll somehow all work out. And that strikes me as Colossally naive, because A, history doesn't support that, right?

It doesn't. But also, people don't really live as individuals. It's a really mistaken conception, I think, of of humanity and what it is to be homo sapiens. I mean, if you think about it, wherever you go in the world, I mean, people are very varied, cultures are very varied, but wherever you go, one commonality is people live in groups.

They live in families, tribes, clans, um, and bonds of kinship are really important in almost all societies. And when we make decisions, We almost never make that decision only based on what's good for ourselves. If we did, our friends and family would probably think we were sociopaths, right? I mean, that's a diagnosable disorder.

We think about our friends, our families. We think, well, what would our friends think? We often will consult friends for advice about big decisions. We worry about what other people think, and rightly so, because we are social animals and because our fate is tied up with the fate. of each other. And the scientific evidence for that is overwhelming.

And in that respect, we're You know, almost no different from most other animals, right? Very, very few animals. I mean, you can find some animals that the males live alone for a while. Mostly teenagers, right? Like the teenage lion that gets thrown out of the troop, and like, we can understand why they throw out the teenage lion, right?

But, I mean, lions live in prides, birds live in flocks, fish swim in schools, right? The radically individualistic concept While it is appealing in certain ways and you can understand why people like it, but it's not, it's not really based on any actual reality, any natural reality or social reality. And so it requires people to sort of subscribe to an ideology that really flies in the face of the facts of human behavior.

[01:04:27] Matt Geleta: Yeah, I mean, not only that, I think people who do subscribe to it often don't, um, live that out in many aspects of life. I mean, people, people even, um, claim to not have, like, full self knowledge about what they want. So, I mean, many people do things that they say, I don't really want to do this.

You know, we talked about an extreme example of, Um, heroin, you know, people who take heroin, most of them would not want to be doing that, and they understand that, yet they do, and I think they're more pedestrian examples

of

[01:04:56] Naomi Oreskes: Yeah. Well, that's right. I mean, heroin is a particular case in point because it is so highly addictive. Um, And for a lot of people, it's a kind of self medication, but if you just think about, you know, say someone who buys too many shoes or something, right? It's not, it's not an addiction and it's not the end of the world, but why did you buy all those shoes?

Well, advertising and marketing has something to do with it, right? And almost all of advertising and marketing is, In a way, based on making us feel bad about ourselves, that we're not really sufficient the way we are. But, if we had these good shoes, or a nice handbag, or we went on this great vacation, or we lived in a bigger house, or drove a better car, that somehow we would be happier.

And, and sometimes we are. I mean, I don't want to just shoes. A good pair of shoes can make a person happy. A good car can definitely, you know. But, there are also all these other factors. And if you just think about the individual making the choice in isolation, well, you know, the next thing you know, we've got 420 parts per million CO2 in the

atmosphere.

[01:05:54] Matt Geleta: yeah, yeah, exactly. So then, then what is your prescription then for people working in positions of power today? I'm thinking of, you know, Executives or people who have influence in industry bodies, um, I mean, I, I work a lot with venture capitalists and I think these are positions of people with, in positions of influence.

A lot of them are, are tend towards the free market ideal way of thinking. What is your general prescription for, um, these people who currently buy into the free market way of thinking in, in a, to like a very significant

extent?

[01:06:24] Naomi Oreskes: Yeah, well, that's a great question. And in general, I don't really like the word prescription, but I guess a suggestion is that I do think, and I don't hang out with venture capitalists a lot, but I've certainly met people in the private sector, and I have spent some time at the World Economic Forum, and I do read the Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times.

My experience is a lot of these people believe that problems like climate change will be solved by the progress of technology in a free market. And towards the end of the book, we quote a line out of the Wall Street Journal where they say exactly this. This fellow columnist makes the claim that no one of serious judgment thinks that climate change will be solved by anything other than the progress of technology in the free market.

Well, that is just so wrong on so many levels. I mean, first of all, Basic fact, we have known about climate change, um, for decades. You can pick whatever particular benchmark you want, but already in the 1950s, scientists were warning that burning fossil fuels and cutting down forests would lead to dramatic, serious climate change with big economic consequences.

I've just finished a paper with my students, 100 pages, proving this point. So, um, and already then by the 1980s, by 1988, scientists were saying that climate change was happening. And in 1992, so now 31 years ago, world leaders signed the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change to prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system.

So the market, or the markets, um, have had more than 30 years, arguably half a century, to respond to develop the technologies that would solve this problem for us. And it hasn't happened. Um, and to the extent that it's happened at all, the scale is not even remotely commensurate to the scale of the Elon Musk, he makes a nice car, you know, we have good electric cars now, we have, I have photovoltaic.

panels on my roof, um, we certainly have had some important and meaningful technological innovations, but they're not remotely on the scale we need to fix the problem. Carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is continuing to increase, so the market has not responded in the way that we need to fix this problem.

Second of all, to the extent that it has responded at all, it's almost all been heavily because of government incentives. So, the example I know the most about is photovoltaics. We all know that the price of photovoltaics has come down dramatically, and that's great. But how did that happen? Was that just markets responding to the need?

No, it turns out, and the best work on this was done by my colleague Jessica Trancic at MIT. She and her colleagues did a study of what were the big driving factors that led to the decrease in the price in photovoltaics. And what they found was that the biggest factors came from German policies, that the German government had a set of policies in which they guaranteed that electricity, basically a monopsony is the word, they guaranteed that they would buy any electricity produced by photovoltaics.

Chinese government has done this as well with wind. So the government Basically makes power purchase agreements, guarantees to buy the stuff. That takes the risk out of the investment. And you know, Mariana Mazzucato is very good on this. She goes, you know, venture capitalists love to talk about risks. But the reality is they actually don't like risk.

They don't want risk at all. What they want is a sure bet. Will they make good money? And fair enough. I would like that too. I could have it right. So the government protects them from risk. This allows the major manufacturers. Manufacturers like Siemens in Germany to manufacture these at scale and then the price begins to come down because then you have the economies of scale, the learning by doing, and all those good things that the market is good at.

But it took the government to set up a set of policies to make that happen and the same with wind power in the United States. If you look at where we have significant growth of wind power. It's almost all entirely in states that had policies in place to support wind power, either renewable portfolio standards like California, or in Texas, the so called plug and pay system that guaranteed anyone who generated wind power could feed into the grid and get market prices for it.

So the market didn't do this on its own. The market did it in conjunction with government policies that created incentives and protections. And that's the important thing that I think Um, people need to understand, and so it's not to say that the private sector doesn't have an important role to play. It absolutely has an essential role to play.

I don't think the government should or ever will manufacture cars. Well, in some countries, I mean, they did in the Soviet Union and it didn't go so well, right? So there is a good, strong argument for why we don't want governments becoming manufacturers, but we do want governments implementing policies that will support manufacturing to move in the directions we need.

[01:11:01] Matt Geleta: Yeah, I guess, um, I guess being exposed to this history, um, is a good starting point and, and reading books like The Big Myth and others, um, would be a good, a good,

place

[01:11:11] Naomi Oreskes: Yeah, I mean, definitely recommend Mariana Matsukato's book, The Entrepreneurial State. We actually, at one point, Eric Conway and I had an idea to write a book about the history of technology that would be making this argument about how none of the major technological innovations of the 20th century, not a one, were developed by the private sector on its own.

Um, but then Mariana wrote her book and that was great. We thought, oh great, we don't have to do that. Because, you know, um, so, because we also had this idea to write about the ideological part, so that's partly how we set up on writing The Big Myth, because the, we had these two main ideas, and Mariana Matsukato did the first one, so we're like, good, we'll do the second.

But it's a really important book, because if you think about it, um, even going to 9th, 19th century. Railroads, telegraph, telephone, radio, television, aviation, the internet, nuclear power. I mean the list goes on and on. All of these, you know, the so called visible hand of government played a really major role in developing these technologies, um, and particularly the internet because so many venture capitalists in the United States, so many of the, you know, Silicon Valley tech billionaires, um, they create this, they tell this story about technological innovation taking place, you know, in people's garages.

Well, yeah, I mean sometimes, right? But we wouldn't have the internet were not for the United States government. The internet was invented by scientists and engineers who were hired, paid for by the US government because it wanted a durable telecommunication system that could withstand a nuclear war.

That's the fact of the matter. After the government developed the internet, after the government took all of the risk associated with developing, building that technology, then it made it available for commercialization. And at that point the private sector stepped in and did a lot of great stuff, but it was the government that took the risk, it was the government that invented the technologies.

And so my message to, you know, corporate leaders and stuff is accept that and be supportive of governments trying to do the right thing. trying to support innovation, supporting science and engineering in universities, and also protecting people from the potential harms that can accrue, because no technology is perfect.

All technologies have unintended consequences, and that's okay, so long as we acknowledge it and think about what the protections are. So, I'm not against drugs, um, especially fun ones. No, I'm just joking. No, I mean, you know, we were talking earlier about drug innovation. Of course drug innovation is a good thing.

We want to cure diseases and have effective drugs, but we also want to make sure that we have a regulatory process that makes sure that those drugs are

safe and effective.

[01:13:39] Matt Geleta: well, that's a, I think that's a great stepping off point towards, um, some short rapid fire questions as we close. Um, we, we've talked about. Several very interesting books today, some of them yours, some of them not, and uh, my question for you is, which book have you most gifted to other people, and

why?

[01:13:56] Naomi Oreskes: Oh, uh, well, that's easy. My own ,

I mean, as much as possible I

give cop copies of my books to other people. You can see behind me on above my head are about a dozen copies of why trust science. So, um, my publishers give me freer cheap copies, and I gift them to my friends, colleagues. Sometimes my enemies, no, I don't have enemies.

Just

kidding.

[01:14:15] Matt Geleta: Very good, well I'll link that one as well in the show notes here. The next one is, um, what advice would you have for a scientist who wants to avoid thinking about politics or believes political influence has nothing to do with their work?

[01:14:31] Naomi Oreskes: Well, look, what I always say about that is, not everyone has to do everything, and not everybody has the personality to communicate in public, so I don't, I don't want to be one to say that every scientist has to take on the obligation of public communication, but I do want to say that the idea that science could or ever did exist in a vacuum apart from social factors and politics, religion.

It's just not true. I mean, it's never been true. It's, it's a myth, as big or worse as the myth of the free market. So the reality is science exists to serve society. Taxpayers pay for scientific research because we expect something good in exchange, and that's legit. And so at minimum, it seems to me scientists ought to be willing and able to explain what they do.

And why it's the, you know, why should taxpayers pay for this? Like, what is the, what is the argument for the support of science and technology? And what is the argument for trust in science? As I said, that's the book that you can see above my head. Um, I do think that it behooves scientists to be able to answer that question because if we can't answer that question, then it would be legitimate for people to say, well, okay, then forget about it.

I've got other things I think my taxpayers, my tax dollars should be spent on.

[01:15:42] Matt Geleta: Yeah. The last one is a little bit of a sidestep, but, uh, you know, a lot of, a lot of scientists and a lot of people in industry are working on artificial intelligence at the moment. And a lot of people believe that we're not too far off being visited by something like an AI superintelligence. And so my question to you is, um, suppose that day comes, who should represent humanity to this AI superintelligence and that can be past or present.

[01:16:08] Naomi Oreskes: That's, that's a tough question. Well, I think one thing that we know for sure is it can't just be the scientists who invented AI. I mean, one of the things we, we see over and over and over again is people are really bad at predicting what the real threats are that will hurt them, and they often worry about things that are not that significant.

So I think in the current AI debate, the people who are worried about the superintelligence that decides that humans caused all these problems, and therefore the rational response is to kill all people. That could happen, but it seems to me far off in the future and a much less probabilistic threat than What we know for a fact is already going on right now, which is the growth of disinformation, um, AI generated disinformation on the internet and social media.

And that is threatening. American democracy, threatening democracy around the world. That's a fact. We know that that's happening already right now. And so I would really like to see industry leaders take that seriously and invite in to the conversation political scientists, historians, sociologists, anthropologists, maybe some poets, um, to think about that.

because what was really offensive to me was when Eric Schmidt said a few months ago, Oh, AI is too complicated for ordinary people to understand. So, you know, the government can't regulate this. You have to let us regulate ourselves. Well, yeah, we know how that goes. We know how Fox is guarding the hen house goes, but it's not just that.

It's not just that industry can't be trusted to self regulate, even though we know from history that it can't. Um, but it's that. There are things that people will see, people who are not insiders will see things that insiders don't see. And again, we have tons of evidence of that from all kinds of domains.

So inviting other people into the conversation, other people who have thought about democracy, other people have thought about communication, people have thought about the question we've been discussing here for the last hour. Why do people believe the things they believe? Why do people believe Disinformation on the internet, because you can take a supply side approach and say, okay, let's try to stop this disinformation.

But often that doesn't work. We know that labeling disinformation as disinformation can actually backfire and make some people more interested. Now it's forbidden fruit. You know, it's like telling teenagers, don't smoke. I'm like, oh, yeah, we're definitely going to smoke, right? So, um, you know, the tobacco industry did that.

So inviting people in who understand human cognition and why we believe the things we I think that will be essential to this conversation.

[01:18:33] Matt Geleta: Yeah. Fantastic. Well, um, Naomi, it's been an absolute pleasure speaking with you. Um, if people want to find your stuff, uh, find your books, where should, where should they go? What's the one link that they should, uh, they

should click on?

[01:18:43] Naomi Oreskes: Oh, one link. Oh, that's,

sorry, I forgot you were going to

ask me that. Um, well, I'm working on a, I'm, I'm working

on an improved web page as we speak that hopefully will have the links to all of my books. But in the meanwhile, uh, you can get most of my books at any good brick and mortar bookstore if there still is one in your community.

Um, Bookshop. org is a great source. I don't know if it's global, but for people in the United States, they will order books from the nearest independent bookstore in your community and send them to, not as quickly as Amazon Prime, but pretty quickly. And you know, it's not an emergency. You don't have to get my book the next day.

Like wait a week. It's gonna take a while to read anyway. So bookshop. org is a great source. And then of course all the standard online booksellers carry

all of my books.

[01:19:27] Matt Geleta: Great. Well, um, Naomi, it's been a pleasure. Thank you so much for joining me

today.

[01:19:31] Naomi Oreskes: Likewise, it's been my pleasure too. It's been a great conversation.

Paradigm
Paradigm
Conversations with the world's deepest thinkers in philosophy, science, and technology. A global top 10% podcast by Matt Geleta.