Book Review: “Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming” by Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway

Today’s book review is a guest post from Mike MacKay. Mike is a long-time skeptic who, when he’s not practicing law or chauffeuring his children, reads voraciously on skeptical topics.

Interesting in contributing your own book review? If it’s related to scientific skepticism, we’re interested. Get in touch with us at skepticnorth@gmail.com or @skepticnorth on Twitter.

Merchant of Doubt is exactly what its subtitle says: a historical view of how a handful of scientists have obscured the truth on matters of scientific fact. The authors are both historians of science based in California. The book tells the story of the “Tobacco Strategy”, and how it was used to attack science and scientists, and to confuse us about major, important issues affecting our lives, and the planet we live on.

They show not only how doubt was sown, but that it was a very small group who were responsible for creating a great deal of doubt on a variety of issues.

The book opens in 1953, where the tobacco industry began to take action to obscure the truth about smoking’s harmful effects, when its relationship to cancer first received widespread media attention.

As one tobacco industry executive put it in an internal memo at the time, “doubt is our product.” The tobacco industry exploited scientific tendency to be conservative in drawing conclusions, to throw up a handful of cherry-picked data and misleading statistics and to “spin unreasonable doubt.” This tactic, combined with the media’s adherence to the “fairness doctrine” which was interpreted as giving equal time “to both sides [of an issue], rather than giving accurate weight to both sides” allowed the tobacco industry to delay regulation for decades.

The natural scientific doubt was this: scientists could not say with absolute certainty that smoking caused cancer, because there wasn’t an invariable effect. “Smoking does not kill everyone who smokes, it only kills about half of them.” All scientists could say was that there was an extremely strong association between smoking and serious health risks. As the Surgeon General’s report in 1964, said:

Smokers were ten to twenty times more likely to get lung cancer than nonsmokers. They were also more likely to suffer from emphysema, bronchitis, and heart disease. The more a person smoked, the worse the effects.

To counter the growing scientific evidence, the “Tobacco Strategy” was created, and had two tactics:

  1. To “use normal scientific doubt to undermine the status of actual scientific knowledge” and
  2. To exploit the media’s adherence to the fairness doctrine, which would give equal weight to each side of a debate, regardless of any disparity in the supporting scientific evidence

The strategy was effective: Even as late as the 1990s, one-quarter of those polled did not believe that smoking was at all harmful.

Fred Seitz was a scientist who learned the Tobacco Strategy first-hand. He had an impressive resume. An actual rocket scientist, he helped build the atomic bomb in the 1940s, worked for NATO in the 1950s, was president of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences in the 1960s, and of Rockefeller University in the 1970s. After his retirement in 1979, Seitz took on a job for the tobacco industry. Over the next 6 years, he doled out $45 million of R.J. Reynolds’ money to fund biomedical research to create “an extensive body of scientifically well-grounded data useful in defending the industry against attacks” by such means as focussing on alternative “causes or development mechanisms of chronic degenerative diseases imputed to cigarettes.”

He was joined by, most notably, two other physicists:

  • William Nierenberg, who also worked on the atom bomb in the 1940s, submarine warfare, NATO, and was appointed director or the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in 1965; and
  • Robert Jastrow, who founded NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, which he directed until he retired in 1981 to teach at Dartmouth College.

In 1984, these three founded the think tank, the George C. Marshall Institute, which they used to promote their views.

None of these men were experts in environmental and health issues, but they all “used their scientific credentials to present themselves as authorities, and they used their authority to discredit any science they didn’t like.” They turned out to be wrong, in terms of the science, on every issue they weighed in on. But they turned out to be highly successful in preventing or limiting regulation that the scientific evidence would warrant.

The bulk of the book details at how these men and others applied the Tobacco Strategy to create doubt on the following issues:

  • the unfeasibility of the Strategic Defense Initiative (Ronald Reagan’s “Star Wars”), and the resultant threat of nuclear winter that Carl Sagan, among others, pointed out
  • acid rain
  • depletion of the ozone layer
  • second-hand smoke, and
  • most recently, and significantly, global warming.

Having pointed out the dangers the doubt-mongers pose, Oreskes and Conway propose a remedy: an emphasis on scientific literacy, not in the sense of memorizing scientific facts, but in being able to assess which scientists to trust.

This book is a fascinating, solidly-researched, and well-founded treatise on how scientific uncertainty can be manipulated to serve political ends, and is highly recommended.

2 Responses to “Book Review: “Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming” by Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway”

  1. deever says:

    Surprising to have a friendly review of a book such as this, when the most egregious learners from “doubt is our product” have been the telecom industry & its abettors, in pushing upon the world latter day wireless mania, jeopardizing everything with cells in its body, the issue finally breaking through into even mainstream media for all the obvious suffering, yet this website hosting some arch-skeptos on the wrong side of the issue. The playbook seems somewhat different from “big tobacco”, more like turning resolutely away from capable dissenting science & whistleblowing scientists, co-opting by culture and more grossly regulators by seizing a hierarchy of deference, funding its own massive bank of studies to outweigh the underfunded in kookily determined “weight of evidecne”, and so forth. See on this website, including references to important books in the field (eg Doubt is Their Product) preceding this one reviewed, http://www.skepticnorth.com/2010/11/levitt-and-lai-peddling-discredited-emf-science/ . Let’s broaden the discussion, fellow Northerners.

  2. Jeff Orchard says:

    Thanks for the book review. I see it’s available at audible.com. I’ll definitely give it a listen.

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