Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming

by Naomi Oreskes

Hardcover, 2010




Bloomsbury Press, (2010)


"Merchants of Doubt " tells the story of how a loose-knit group of high-level scientists and scientific advisers, with deep connections in politics and industry, ran effective campaigns to mislead the public and deny well-established scientific knowledge over four decades that link smoking to lung cancer, coal smoke to acid rain, and CFCs to the ozone hole.

User reviews

LibraryThing member Nulla
If you've ever wondered why it seems so difficult for the United States to implement environmental protections to deal with issues such as acid rain, ozone depletion, or global warming, to name a few, then definitely read Merchants of Doubt. In painstaking detail, the authors, Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway, document the dance performed by scientists and politicians in the federal administration when environment meets the free market. Science states the facts and offers hypotheses, the free market responds with delaying tactics for "doing the the right thing" because it is costly. The free market then appeals to the administration and it, in turn, attempts to ameliorate the impact of scientific reports by soliciting countering opinion from other scientists.

Industrial and business interests have great lobbying power in the halls of government and, for the last few decades, have brought this to bear in Washington. The result is that environmental progress is lurching forward at a snail's pace. It is interesting that the scientists whom the government has consulted over the years, and who justify delaying and "more study," consist of the same cast of characters: S. Fred Singer, Frederick Steitz, William Nierenberg and Robert Jastrow. Their expertise, which is notable, lies in physics and weaponry; none are biologists, geologists, chemists, or oceanographers - fields that might be more appropriate for debating environmental concerns.

There appears to be a disconnect between what is good for people and what is good for corporate pocketbooks. Definitely read this book and pass it on!
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LibraryThing member BellaFoxx
I work for an environmental agency, during a conference on Climate Change, the speaker recommended this book. I immediately downloaded it. It took me a while to get to it and a while to finish reading it.

This is a powerful book, it details the methods used by a group of scientists, physicists to be exact, manipulated the press, the public, and politicians to fit their agenda. To say they were a group of bitter old men is an oversimplification, but that is the feeling I am left with.

These scientists accused others of the very same things they were doing, cherry picking data and results, and molding the research to fit their conclusions.

Tobacco, secondhand smoke, acid rain, the hole in the ozone layer, global warming/climate change and the scientists that researched them were all attacked. They also attacked Rachel Carson and the ban on DDT, claiming millions of African children died of malaria, conveniently leaving out that many may have died because of their work with the tobacco companies convincing people that the connection between smoking and cancer was ‘not proven’.

As I said this is a powerful book, well researched, with quotes that actually name a source. Everyone who lives on the planet earth should read it.
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LibraryThing member nzwaneveld
Interesting book. Read it with interest. Well written. Along the way I wondered how this knowledge could help me in business... not in an attempt to repeat it, but to be able to better recognize attempts by others to delay certain developments. It does make me curious about what other topics (such as Electro smog) are still under a shadow of doubt. What really hit me is that what matters in science is not what matters in politics. Scientists have been afraid to get involved because they have seen what happens when they do.

I believe this is a book that many people should read, and by keeping it in my library (collecting dust) doesn't help. I have passed the book on to a friend, who will continue to pass it on after he has read it.
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LibraryThing member mitchellray
The authors, both historians of science, carefully document the intentional disinformation campaigns waged by free market fundamentalists to discredit the scientific findings identifying the harmful affects of smoking, ozone depletion, acid rain, the Star Wars weapons system, DDT, and global warming. A handful of scientists have collaborated with business executives and government insiders over the past fifty years to manufacture doubt in the public mind about established scientific evidence. The reason, argue the authors, is to thwart government regulation. The strategy employed by these merchants of doubt is to spread disinformation through media outlets so as to mislead the public and government policy makers into denying established scientific knowledge.

This is an important book to be read by those who seek to be informed citizens. The authors reveal in detail the strategies used by those who would confuse the public discourse about critical issues confronting society. The authors make it clear that we all need to be discriminating readers of media reports. What is missing are explicit instructions about how the ordinary citizen may discern the reliability of what is reported in the media. The authors spent five years meticulously conducting research for their book. How are the rest of us, with limited time and expertise, to identify what is valid scientific evidence and what is deliberate misinformation? Nonetheless, simply reading this book will raise the reader’s awareness about how some in our society are selling us a bill of goods.
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LibraryThing member thosgpetri
This is the most interesting book I have read in along time. It is well written and well documented. The story is pimarily about 4 men-Frederick Seitz, S Fred Singer, Wm. Nierenberg, and Robt. Jastrow- turned their backs on accepted science in a misguided effert to fight Communism. To them the idea of regulating tabacco and other products was antithical to the ideals of free enterprise. While they did not ackowledge the problems in question or belittled their effect, they also stated that the free market would always rectify problems in due course if they occurred. In this they were aided, financialy and with other resources, by companies with vested interest in the outcome and by various political entities representing "free enterprise." By reliying on pubplic misperception of scientific methods, they were able to manipulate facts, or if needed create their own, to confuse the issues and create a public awareness of their view of the facts as true facts.… (more)
LibraryThing member figre
Contrary to all appearances, there is not a scientific debate going on about global warning. There was no scientific debate about smoking, there was no scientific debate about second-hand smoke, there was no scientific debate about acid rain, there was no scientific debate about the ozone hole, and there is no scientific debate about global warning. What there is, in each of these cases, is a huge body of scientific fact that is being fought with obfuscation and misdirection.

Merchants of Doubt lays out this argument in exacting detail, going through each of these scientific issues, providing the support for why science (and 90+% of scientists) provide the support that it is true, and laying out the case that there is a dedicated group of people – a group of people that seem to show up in every one of these arguments – that confuse the issues rather than enlighten them.

There is no doubt this book has an agenda. (It is up to the reader to determine if that agenda has merit.) And the last couple of chapters suffer because of this agenda, hashing over much of the same territory as the previous chapters. But read around that agenda and you will find a greatly enlightening examination of how environmental science continues to tell a bleak story, and how the spin doctors make the world believe things will only get better.

No matter which side of these “debates” you are on, you should read this book to gain an understanding of the battle that is occurring.
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LibraryThing member FredB
Subtitle: How a handful of scientists obscured the truth on issues from tobacco smoke to global warming

I was amazed at how the "controversies" over tobacco, acid rain, ozone depletion and climate change have been orchestrated by the same group of charlatans. This group includes, among others, William Nierenberg, director of Scripps while I was there as a grad student.

One thing the book does not mention is that similar controversies have been ginned up over other issues, like cell phone radiation, power lines, and vaccines.
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LibraryThing member EdKupfer
"How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming" is the sub title, and pretty much nails the thrust of the book is Fred Seitz and Fred Singer, two aging scientists who traded their credentials and reputations to work for industry on misleading politicians and the general public on the dangers threatened by tobacco, acid rain, the hole in the ozone layer, DDT, climate change, and any number of other topics that weren't their areas of scientific expertise.

The book is very clear on the issues and well laid out -- a scientific ignoramus like myself had no difficulty following along -- but was incredibly frustrating to read because I kept expecting a happy ending. There is none. They are going to win.

I recieved a free review copy from the publishers before I wrote this review.
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LibraryThing member pwagner2
I was thrilled when I was picked to receive this book thru librarything early reviewers.
It is a book I have wanted to read and a subject I care deeply about.
This book is about greed. At all costs all that matters to corporatists is money in their pockets. I cannot imagine anyone with children wanting to hand down the world they are creating to their future generations.
It is disheartening. They have the money and the power and that nowadays that means they have the loudest voice.
I am saddened and pessimistic that they can be silenced and reason can prevail.
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LibraryThing member Anome
My one problem with this book is that it is all to repetitive. This is not a fault on the part of the authors, but rather on the part of their subject matter.

It is truly disturbing that throughout the second half of the 20th Century, the same people kept turning up using the same tactics to discredit the "Inconvenient Truths" of scientific discovery. From the link of smoking to cancer, to second hand smoke, to the agricultural overuse of pesticides, to nuclear winter, to climate change, to ozone depletion, to the fantasy of SDI, the same, small group of pro-industry science advisers have cropped up again and again to push a political (and business) agenda in defiance of overwhelming evidence.

It's not just a laundry list of fallacious arguments, either. Each of the historical cases is given in context, and the counters to the "Merchants" are explained.

I'm not sure how well this book will do in convincing people one way or another, I suspect that most people reading it will already have made up their minds.
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LibraryThing member Narboink
Here is a great book about the origins and ongoing impetus of what is commonly referred to as the "anti-science" wing of the conservative political class. Oreskes and Conway have done a great deal of research on the subject, some of which is a bit tiresome (especially the back-and-forth academic wrangling over scientific papers) but all of which is relevant and enlightening. This is fundamentally the story of a tactic - the tactic of capitalizing on scientific doubt. It is the story of how specific members of the scientific community galvanized opposition to the dangers of smoking, second-hand smoke, SDI, acid rain, DDT and global warming. It is well written and ruthless.… (more)
LibraryThing member Razinha
My confirmation bias predicted I would like this book, as I am familiar with many of the names and their histories. My bias was correct, but I still needed to check what the authors were presenting, because I like to think I think. Well sourced, and well written, this is another book that needs to be read by everyone...but won't be.

Beyond exposing Fred Seitz, Robert Jastrow, William Nierenberg, and Fred Singer (and a few others) for the despicable disgraces to the scientific world that they are, Ms. Oreskes and Mr. Conway do an excellent job explaining what true peer review and true science really consist of. From defense of smoking, an indefensible Star Wars program, acid rain, ozone depletion, second-hand smoking to denial of climate science, these guys have had devastating effects on US policy. And that was before Fox"News". Now they don't even need to use the pseudo-science bait-and-switch tactics; the right-wing media has devolved to simple gainsaying - and their viewers/listeners don't have a critical thought in their heads to question their confirmation biases.

My one complaint about the book is that the authors more than not used the term "skeptics" (they did also use "deniers"). All science is about skepticism, but these disruptors, obfuscators, ... liars ... are not "skeptics". Singer is lower than low, and still at it.

I'm disgusted. At the "scientists".
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LibraryThing member rivkat
You knew that there was a concerted, well-funded campaign to convince people that “99 scientists agree, 1 doesn’t” justified reporting issues as controversial, right? This is a book-length exegesis of the past sixty years of such campaigns. The thing that I didn’t know—a lot of the time it was the same guys behind the media blitz defending cigarettes, SDI (Star Wars), acid rain, carbon emissions. The exact same men, with the exact same expertise (a lot of physicists, very little actual field knowledge). It wasn’t just that they developed and perfected the techniques, enough so that our kids are going to suffer for their sins—they themselves just transferred the techniques to new fields when the initial ones were decisively lost (cigarettes) or rendered irrelevant (Star Wars). If you aren’t outraged, you aren’t paying attention—but then journalists weren’t. It's useful information, but the repetition eventually just gets really depressing: the techniques that worked on cigarettes continue to work, as Rome burns.… (more)
LibraryThing member Devil_llama
The authors cover the history of misinformation and spin in the service of the anti-regulatory movement. Starting with the creation of the many think tanks spawned by the tobacco industry in the wake of the discovery of the risks of smoking, they trace the key players as they move from defending tobacco to denying environmental problems such as acid rain, ozone depletion, and global warming, ending up with the recent attack on Rachel Carson in an attempt to discredit science in general so that the public would come to distrust and despise regulations. The authors compiled an impressive amount of research, and the writing sytle is lucid and readable. A must read for anyone wanting to understand why anyone could think that there are two equal sides to every single story, and that every scientific finding is a controversy.… (more)
LibraryThing member MarkBeronte
Merchants of Doubt was one of the most talked-about climate change books of recent years, for reasons easy to understand: It tells the controversialstory of how a loose-knit group of high-level scientists and scientific advisers, with deep connections in politics and industry, ran effective campaigns to mislead the public and deny well-established scientific knowledge over four decades. The same individuals who claim the scienceof global warming is "not settled" have also denied the truth about studies linking smoking to lung cancer, coal smoke to acid rain, and CFCs to the ozone hole. "Doubt is our product," wrote one tobacco executive. These "experts" supplied it.… (more)
LibraryThing member Wings3496
Oreskes' and Conway's "Merchants of Doubt" is an excellent look into a world were science has less to do with data, and much more to do with business and politics. The book outlines the progression of professional scientific denialism from the initial tobacco industry backlash of the seventies to S.D.I., acid rain, the ozone, secondhand smoke, and global warming. Well researched and thoroughly cited, the book demonstrates that the small related cadre of individuals and organizations responsible for originally denying tobaccos deadly side effects are the same groups casting doubt on current science (such as on climate change). The book avoids any preaching, relying instead on strong research and facts to demonstrate clear links and allowing the reader to make the connections themselves. A highly recommended book for anyone interested in science, politics, or both.… (more)


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