Review of the must-read book: Merchants of Doubt

How a handful of scientists obscured the truth on issues from smoking to global warming

JR: I loved Merchants of Doubt.”  But before I could write my review, guest blogger John Atcheson wrote his.  John has more than 30 years in energy and the environment with government, private industry, and the nation’s leading think tanks (see “Utility decoupling on steroids.”)  He is working on his own novel about climate change. Merchants of Doubt Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway take us on a fascinating trip down what they call Tobacco Road.  Take the journey with them, and you’ll see renowned scientists abandon science, you’ll see environmentalism equated with communism, and you’ll discover the connection between the Cold War and climate denial.

And for the most part, you’ll be entertained along the way.

Oreskes and Conway are historians who focus on science. What they do best is to sort through history’s discarded headlines and peak into the nooks and crannies of scientific literature to weave together their tale and to reveal the hypocrisy and hubris of a few scientists who show up again and again in contrarian positions against established science.

The trip exposes an unlikely link between Manhattan project scientists and the cult of denial that confronted virtually every major public health and environmental initiative of the last sixty years.

The original villains in this story are Fred Seitz, Fred Singer, William Nierenberg, and Robert Jastrow – physicists all.  Sietz and Neirenberg had been involved in building the atomic bomb, and both had worked on other weapons programs.  Nierenberg had been the Director of the Scripps Institute and Jastrow, an astrophysicist, had headed up The Goddard Institute for Space Studies and he’d been a successful author of books popularizing space. Singer was a virtual rocket scientist and he had been the first Director of the National Weather Satellite Service. Seitz had been President of the National Academy of Sciences.  Each had worked with or for the Reagan administration.

Oreskes and Conway set the table by giving the impressive credentials of these distinguished scientists then asking:

Why would scientists dedicated to uncovering the truth about the natural world deliberately misrepresent the work of their colleagues?  Why would they spread accusations with no basis?  Why would they not correct their arguments once they had been shown to be incorrect?  And why did the press continue to quote them, year after year, even as their claims were shown, one after another, to be false?

Just as Yali’s question sets up Jarred Diamond’s inquiry in Guns Germs and Steel, these questions animate the discussion in the rest of this book.

The authors trace these scientists through the original denier/delayer effort — the cynical “Doubt is our Product” campaign of the tobacco industry, to the current climate denier campaign, with stops at the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), Acid Rain, the Ozone Hole, the second hand smoke issue, and a swipe at Rachel Carson for good measure.  Along the way, they accumulate fellow travelers such as Lomborg, Lindzen, Michaels, a host of neoclassical economists ready to discount the future down to or near zero, and of course, Conservative politicians.

Each of these campaigns could fit the same template: seemingly credible scientists, conservative think tanks (some created just for the campaigns), allied with industry, lubricated liberally with money and PR savvy, and leavened with a conviction that the ends justified the means.  This explains why talented scientists willingly jettisoned the scientific method.

And what was the end that justified this extreme behavior?

An almost religious conviction in small government and the potential evils of big government; a doctrinaire belief in unconstrained free markets and the purity of capitalism;  and the conviction that “environmentalism” and other do-gooder efforts threatened our free market, capitalistic system.

Oreskes and Conway show why cold warriors saw threats to their brand of uber-capitalism as threats to the United States, and they show how environmentalism came to be seen by them as “green on the outside, but red on the inside.”  The evolution of the Marshall Institute from SDI defender to Exxon-funded climate denier is particularly illustrative.

Climate scientists themselves come in for part of the blame. As the authors point out, while Singer et. al. and their allies from corporations and think tanks cast their disinformation and misinformation directly to the people, the press and politicians, the climate scientists, for the most part, spoke quietly among themselves.

No disinformation campaign can succeed without the cooperation of the press, and the authors provide some egregious examples of how the press in general, and such conservative organs as the Wall Street Journal and The Washington Times in particular, printed long discredited information and baseless personal attacks, and declined to print rebuttals or retractions when the errors were pointed out.

The book is not without flaws. For example, while they document the press’s individual failures, they don’t hold the discipline as a whole to account to the extent that the media deserves.  For example, consider the following statement:

In creating the appearance of science, the merchants of doubt sold a plausible    story about scientific debate.  They created a Potemkin Village populated, in only a few cases, with actual scientists.  A reasonable journalist, not to mention the ordinary citizens, could be forgiven for having been fooled.

Really? Their tactics were crude, the lies obvious, and the truth knowable with only a cursory web search.  If the press was “fooled,” it was because they were either hopeless slackers, or they wanted to be fooled.

The authors also describe the scientific method in a manner that makes it sound like a popularity contest. Their almost exclusive focus on peer reviews and peer consensus ignores the critical role of testable hypotheses and empirical observation.  In the end, it is the quality and reproducibility of the data that speaks, and it forms the basis for the peer reviews.  In their prescription for ‘A New View of Science,” they repeat this perspective, saying, “What  counts as knowledge are the ideas that are accepted by the fellowship of experts “¦” This is a slippery slope, in which old theories never die and new ones could be subject to the whims of the times.

In the end, the authors correctly note that what motivates deniers is political ideology, not science.  As CP’s Joe Romm put it in Hell and High Water, the reason most political conservatives and libertarians deny the reality of human-induced climate change is that they simply cannot stand the solution. So they attack both the solution and the science.

Despite its small flaws, Merchants is an impressive and disturbing piece of scholarship that does a good job of answering the questions they pose.  It should be read by every editor and every member of Congress, and by climate scientists as well.

Here is a terrific talk by Oreskes:

19 Responses to Review of the must-read book: Merchants of Doubt

  1. Will Koroluk says:

    Well-timed, Joe. My copy arrived in this morning’s mail.

  2. Anonny says:

    A better title would have been “PAID LIARS — how a handful of scientists got rich lying about issues from from tobacco to global warming”

  3. Conservatives have a longstanding distrust of science which began with Galileo but didn’t bloom into pure hatred until Charles Darwin told them that they weren’t God’s special creation. The corporation interests exploit this distrust and hatred because restrictions upon pollution will reduce their profit margin. They’d rather treat the Earth like an open sewer.

    The problem with democracy, especially as it functions in the United States, is that a very small vocal minority can prevent action to resolve problems until the problem becomes so large that a catastrophe results. This is what happened in the 19th century as the slavery issue wasn’t resolved by political means but allowed to fester until a civil war resulted.

    I’m quite certain that climate change will continue to fester until a major global catastrophe results. When that day comes the deniers will whine, “Why didn’t anyone warn us?”

  4. Jeff Huggins says:

    It sounds like a great book, and thanks for the excellent and helpful review, John.

    Three things . . .

    First, it’s too bad — and also concerning — if the book misses or downplays the gross negligence of the news media’s coverage of climate change. Unless science reporters don’t have a clue about science, or unless they are just plain lazy, and unless they don’t even have a clue about who to talk to . . . well, you get the point. There are no excuses for the news media. People have been pointing out the immense problems in coverage, and suggesting more valid and responsible approaches, for years and years now.

    That said, if the authors were completely honest about the news media’s coverage of the matter, and if they had done analyses on that front, and if they had allowed themselves to be honest and detailed about that particular subject in the book, they would have upset so many media organizations that they’d be lucky to get any positive coverage for the book at all, from the media.

    But the point is right: You can’t fool or confuse the public for so long, on such an immensely important issue, in the face of the bona fide scientific organizations trying to convey the facts of the matter, without an immense amount of help, passivity, laziness, and “controversy addiction” on the part of the news media. If the public is confused, and if the public lacks the degree of will necessary to push effective change forward, the news media share a great, great deal of blame.

    Second, John’s comments about the way the book explains the scientific method are also concerning. If that’s the case, it makes me wonder a bit about the backgrounds of the authors. Do they have backgrounds in the natural sciences, at all, in addition to their backgrounds as historians? I applaud Naomi Oreskes, and her efforts on the present topic, but in light of what John has written, I’d suggest that the two authors consider the scientific method from the standpoint of the natural sciences and the rigor that nature herself imposes on many sciences. In the lab, it doesn’t matter if twenty PhD-chemist-peers say that compound X won’t explode when mixed with chemical Z, while only one meek chemist (or nobody) says they will explode: If they are mixed and they DO explode, that evidence tends to carry the day, usually right away, but at least eventually, and usually fairly soon. In the sciences, real data matter. Any explanation of the scientific method should (of course) make that part of the matter crystal clear. Any explanation of the scientific method that overlooks or diminishes that key point is incorrect to that degree.

    Third (on another note), another absolutely great book is “The Price of Altruism”, by Oren Harman. Frans de Waal reviewed it in Sunday’s The New York Times, and it is truly great, informative, and so forth. It’s about George Price and the history of the scientific quest for an understanding of the evolutionary origins of human altruism, cooperation, morality, and so forth. It covers Price’s life, and the quest, including a whole range of the relevant scientists, in a way that considers interwoven aspects of science, biography, history, economics, philosophy, political ideology, and related matters. It’s great. Its subject-matter and discussions have a lot to do with the “problem of the commons”, of course, and the biographical and historical journey involves the Manhattan Project, the RAND corporation, and all sorts of other things. If you are interested in the science of human social-moral dynamics, and these other things, you won’t be able to put it down.

    Be Well,


  5. Bryson Brown says:

    As far as a layman’s point of view is concerned Oreskes and Conway are right: the way to figure out what’s going on, wrt to any complex, technical issue, is to look at what the experts say. If nearly all of them agree on something, your best bet is to assume they’re right. Of course that doesn’t tell us what makes an expert an expert or why the epistemic position of experts really is privileged. But we can get at that by starting with pure common sense: if you want to know the colour of the walls in a room, you should start by asking people who have seen the room or even who are in the room right now. Broader expertise grows from specific experience and training– consider an expert tracker, who can read footprints, bent grass and other signs to identify and follow animals, and was probably trained by another expert tracker at some point in her life. Science works exactly the same way: people who spend time studying the evidence and principles of atmospheric physics, temperature measurements, the timing of the seasons etc. know far more about it than the rest of us do. This is so obvious that deniers have had to vigourously attack the honesty and integrity of scientists to undermine the common sense case for trusting the experts. It’s nothing short of tragic that they’ve succeeded so well. +

  6. paulm says:

    “And why did the press continue to quote them, year after year, even as their claims were shown, one after another, to be false?”

    Because they were not prosecuted and belittled. This behaviour is much worse than shoplifting for example, with 3 strikes your in. And yet the individuals are not taken to justice.

  7. Prokaryotes says:

    David Mathews, the Montreal Protocol is an example

    Letter from Ronald Reagan to the U.S. Senate:

    “THE WHITE HOUSE Office of the Press Secretary For Immediate Release December 21, 1987

    To the Senate of the United States:

    I transmit herewith, for the advice and consent of the Senate to ratification, the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer, done at Montreal on September 16, 1987. The report of the Department of State is also enclosed for the information of the Senate.

    The Montreal Protocol provides for internationally coordinated control of ozone-depleting substances in order to protect public health and the environment from potential adverse effects of depletion of stratospheric ozone. The Protocol was negotiated under the auspices of the United Nations Environment Program, pursuant to the Vienna Convention for the Protection of the Ozone Layer, which was ratified by the United States in August 1986.

    In this historic agreement, the international community undertakes cooperative measures to protect a vital global resource. The United States played a leading role in the negotiation of the Protocol. United States ratification is necessary for entry into force and effective implementation of the Protocol. Early ratification by the United States will encourage similar action by other nations whose participation is also essential.

    I recommend that the Senate give early and favorable consideration to the Protocol and give its advice and consent to ratification.

    Ronald Reagan The White House December 21, 1987”

  8. Prokaryotes says:

    David Mathews, 3# “I’m quite certain that climate change will continue to fester until a major global catastrophe results. When that day comes the deniers will whine, “Why didn’t anyone warn us?””

    We have a major global catastrophe – now. Over time the situation advances and becomes more manifest/persistent – pronounced. Like an amplifying feedback, maybe with some slighter variations but overall growth in intensity. Still we pump more greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere and the media seems to be lead by blind people.

    Global heatwaves – check
    Global flooding – check
    Global storming – check

    This on a global scale “today” – Infrastructure damage, production throttling, shortages (devices i.e. electric fan or air conditioner), we may see more major hurricanes, season fires, more crop damage, power outages from heavy grid use, extreme food and water shortage in the developing world and higher food cost in the developed world (includes less quality), more pest outbreaks, global economy will further decline etc etc etc

    Actually we are quiet doomed, but also reaching a point when people no longer can deny catastrophic – dangerous climate changes.

  9. Len Conly says:

    Jeff Masters of Weather Underground reviewed a book last year on the same topic – “Doubt is their Product,” by David Michaels. Here is link to his post. Hill & Knowlton, one the world’s five largest public relations firms, have been mining this “doubt” gold mine for a long time. Lead, asbestos, tobacco, you name it, they’ll be there for a price.

    Dr. Jeff Masters’ WunderBlog

    November 25, 2009

    The Manufactured Doubt industry and the hacked email controversy

    “In 1954, the tobacco industry realized it had a serious problem. Thirteen scientific studies had been published over the preceding five years linking smoking to lung cancer. With the public growing increasingly alarmed about the health effects of smoking, the tobacco industry had to move quickly to protect profits and stem the tide of increasingly worrisome scientific news. Big Tobacco turned to one the world’s five largest public relations firms, Hill and Knowlton, to help out. Hill and Knowlton designed a brilliant Public Relations (PR) campaign to convince the public that smoking is not dangerous. They encouraged the tobacco industry to set up their own research organization, the Council for Tobacco Research (CTR), which would produce science favorable to the industry, emphasize doubt in all the science linking smoking to lung cancer, and question all independent research unfavorable to the tobacco industry. The CTR did a masterful job at this for decades, significantly delaying and reducing regulation of tobacco products. George Washington University epidemiologist David Michaels, who is President Obama’s nominee to head the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA), wrote a meticulously researched 2008 book called, Doubt is Their Product: How Industry’s Assault on Science Threatens Your Health. In the book, he wrote: “the industry understood that the public is in no position to distinguish good science from bad. Create doubt, uncertainty, and confusion. Throw mud at the anti-smoking research under the assumption that some of it is bound to stick. And buy time, lots of it, in the bargain”. The title of Michaels’ book comes from a 1969 memo from a tobacco company executive: “Doubt is our product since it is the best means of competing with the ‘body of fact’ that exists in the minds of the general public. It is also the means of establishing a controversy”. Hill and Knowlton, on behalf of the tobacco industry, had founded the “Manufactured Doubt” industry.

    The Manufactured Doubt industry grows up

    As the success of Hill and Knowlton’s brilliant Manufactured Doubt campaign became apparent, other industries manufacturing dangerous products hired the firm to design similar PR campaigns. In 1967, Hill and Knowlton helped asbestos industry giant Johns-Manville set up the Asbestos Information Association (AIA). The official-sounding AIA produced “sound science” that questioned the link between asbestos and lung diseases (asbestos currently kills 90,000 people per year, according to the World Health Organization). Manufacturers of lead, vinyl chloride, beryllium, and dioxin products also hired Hill and Knowlton to devise product defense strategies to combat the numerous scientific studies showing that their products were harmful to human health.

    By the 1980s, the Manufactured Doubt industry gradually began to be dominated by more specialized “product defense” firms and free enterprise “think tanks”. Michaels wrote in Doubt is Their Product about the specialized “product defense” firms: “Having cut their teeth manufacturing uncertainty for Big Tobacco, scientists at ChemRisk, the Weinberg Group, Exponent, Inc., and other consulting firms now battle the regulatory agencies on behalf of the manufacturers of benzene, beryllium, chromium, MTBE, perchlorates, phthalates, and virtually every other toxic chemical in the news today….Public health interests are beside the point. This is science for hire, period, and it is extremely lucrative”.

    Joining the specialized “product defense” firms were the so-called “think tanks”. These front groups received funding from manufacturers of dangerous products and produced “sound science” in support of their funders’ products, in the name of free enterprise and free markets. Think tanks such as the George C. Marshall Institute, Competitive Enterprise Institute, Heartland Institute, and Dr. Fred Singer’s SEPP (Science and Environmental Policy Project) have all been active for decades in the Manufactured Doubt business, generating misleading science and false controversy to protect the profits of their clients who manufacture dangerous products …”

  10. It is a superb and maddening book. How anybody can still side with S. Fred Singer on anything boggles the mind. If this book does not make you angry, you do not have a pulse.

  11. ralbin says:

    Agree that this is a superb book, really a model of engaged scholarship. Have to disagree about the putative flaws. The focus of the book is on these dissident scientists and how they manipulated the policy process. This included Nierenberg’s distortion of NAS reports, so its not surprising that even capable journalists, and science journalism in the 80s and 90s was arguably better than it is today, were misled. Climate science and some of the other topics discussed, like ozone depletion, were emerging phenomena during much of the period discussed. Given the way the official process was manipulated and the genuine eminence of individuals like Seitz, its unfortunate but not surprising that science journalists failed. No one, however, who reads this book will come away with anything but a highly negative impression of the performance of the press.
    I disagree also with criticism of scientific method. Oreskes is a sophisticated historian of science with an excellent grasp of the philosophy literature. I recommend strongly her book on the reception of plate tectonics which deals extensively and thoughtfully with issues of epistemic justification and the nature of scientific progress. Again, these issues are not the focus of the book but within the limits of this type of book, which aims to be both scholarly rigorous and reach a wide audience, the discussion of the nature of scientific validation is quite good.

  12. Josh Rosenau says:

    Interested folks should note this panel at Netroots Nation, where Oreskes and Conway will be speaking, as will folks with experience fighting creationism and anti-vaccine activism.

  13. Joe, everyone,

    We need to help Dr. John Abraham right now. Monckton is trying to get him censored by his university. Goto this page and leave a comment, please:

    See John Cook’s (of Skeptical Science) explanation of what is going on — you know the CA and WUWT crowd will outnumber us:

    Skeptical Science, Thursday, 15 July, 2010

    Monckton tries to censor John Abraham

    A few months ago, John Abraham from St Thomas University produced an excellent rebuttal of Christopher Monckton’s arguments. Monckton’s initial response was extraordinary – as well as likening John’s presentation to Nazi propaganda, he accused Abraham of ad hominem attacks while mocking his accent and personal appearance (comparing him to an overcooked prawn). Abraham’s response to this personal attack was professional and commendably stuck to the science. Now Monckton is trying to censor Abraham – urging Watts Up With That readers to pressure St. Thomas University to take down Abraham’s presentation.

    John Abraham’s presentation is vital and important as it explains in clear and accessible language the many falsehoods and misrepresentations in Monkton’s arguments. St. Thomas University needs to understand the importance of Abraham’s work. Hopefully they already do but if there is a flood of WUWT readers sending them angry emails, a reminder wouldn’t hurt. Rather than flood the University with even more emails, the New Zealand website Hot Topic has created a Support John Abraham page.

    Here, they propose that anyone who supports John Abraham’s efforts to leave a comment with their name, location and academic affiliation (if any). Comments from academics are especially welcome. Gareth at Hot Topic has been in touch with John Abraham and the St Thomas University and knows they are watching the comments thread. So I urge anyone who wishes John Abraham’s presentation to not be removed from the University website to go to Support John Abraham and post a comment.
    Posted by John Cook at 14:13 PM

  14. pete best says:

    The mental illness or natural state of evolution perhaps known as the paranoid mind probably fits the bill here. Very intelligent people are suspicious of ideas, people and change making it a natural state of mind to reject other work, others ideas and its very common in cultures and politics.

    We cant expect the media to be able to pick on this as it peer reviewed science which is the toughtest and truest system in the world but beyond most peoples ability to understand especially the medias.

  15. llewelly says:

    Jeff Huggins says:
    July 14, 2010 at 6:39 pm:

    … if they had allowed themselves to be honest and detailed about that particular subject in the book, they would have upset so many media organizations that they’d be lucky to get any positive coverage for the book at all, from the media.

    However, they would have gotten plenty of positive coverage from the numerous bloggers who would love to have another book which argues that the traditional news media has done everyone a terrible disservice. I don’t know if that would net more sales.

  16. john atcheson says:

    Just a note on the comments, particularly with regard to the flaws. As I noted, they were minor, and the book is essential reading to anyone involved in climate work, or anyone who simply wants to be informed.

    As far as their observations on the press, one cannot read this excellent book and feel sanguine about the press’s performance. Oreskes and Conway are clear that it failed. They also note the trends that led to this failure — faux balance; perhaps even advertising pressure. My concern is that they suggested it was understandable that reporters were confused, and I disagree. Very cursory examination of the science revealed the lies and distortions of these people. And if even cursory research wasn’t possible for reporters, folks like Ross Gelspan had already done their homework for them. The fabrications and distortions they so ably document in this book, in short, were easily knowable.

    With regard to their description of the scientific method, it is clear that the authors are knowledgeable about science, and understand the scientific method — my concern is with their portrayal of it in several sections. They did not lay out the critical role of testable hypotheses and empirical data in formulating theories. They are right to emphasize the important role peer review plays in science, but the way in which they did this could leave the lay reader with the impression that science in little more than a popularity contest.

    But again, these are minor flaws — the impressive research and scholarship the authors undertook, and the skill with which they communicate it make it a must read, and an enjoyable read.

  17. Jeff Huggins says:

    Thanks John (Comment 16).

    That helps. It sounds like a great book.

    Cheers and Be Well,


  18. John Mashey says:

    J please check spam/moderate queue.
    I have a post that’s Bern hung up for several days.
    Moderate queue shows me it’s there.

  19. John Mashey says:

    Hmmm, it’s even disappeared from the moderate queue.