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A book review: Merchants of Doubt

Last updated on 24 Nov 2022

This guest review is courtesy of Richard Harter, whose own website is here.

Merchants of DOUBT, How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming, Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway, Bloomsbury Press, New York, 2010, ISBN 978-1-59691-610-4 (alk. paper hardcover)

Perhaps the most natural reaction to this book is “What a wonderful book”. Well, it is, but there is more to reviewing than burbles of appreciation.

Who are the “merchants of doubt”? According to the book (which makes a thoroughly documented case) they are a handful of prominent scientists, industries protecting profits at the expense of the public, and a network of industry funded conservative think tanks.

What do these merchants of doubt do? When there is scientific evidence that some particular industry has a negative impact, they create doubt about the science and confusion about whether anything should be done about it.

Why do they do it? For the most part, the industries in question are protecting profits at the expense of the public good. The scientists in question operate from a mixture of commercial appreciation, resentment towards the scientific establishment, a distaste for advocacy science, and strong ideological objections to government regulation.

How do they do it? Here is where the plot sickens, er, thickens. The book goes through a series of case studies. Let’s look at the Tobacco industry, which is where the story begins. In the early 1950’s it had become increasingly clear that cigarette smoking was dangerous to your health and tobacco use was unwise. By “increasingly clear” I mean medical and epidemiological studies. At that time and for some years thereafter the precise mechanisms by which smoking triggered the onset of lung cancer and other assorted nastiness wasn’t known.

So there was bad news for the tobacco industry. Their product, when used as directed, killed people. Suppose you were a member of the management of a tobacco company. What would your reaction be? Should you shut the business down? That might be the moral reaction, but the inconvenient truth is that institutions aren’t moral. The reaction of the tobacco executives was to keep their very profitable business alive and thriving.

They had many natural allies. There were the tobacco farmers and the politicians in the states where tobacco was grown. There were the mom and pop stores – quite often cigarette sales were what kept them going. And above all there were all those millions of people who smoked, who wanted to believe that smoking was harmless or possibly even good for you, and who didn’t really want to quit.

So what did they do? They recognized that regulating industries is a political process rather than a scientific issue. (Many scientists and intellectuals seem to have difficulty recognizing this simple truth.) The tobacco industry could win the battle for survival by creating doubt and confusion in the public and the politicians.

It worked. In 1953 Reader’s Digest ran an article entitled ‘Cancer by the Carton’. In 2010 cigarettes are still a legal, readily available product. Granted they cost more, and there are regulations about where people can smoke, but the profits of the Tobacco companies continue unabated.

The elements of the process are these: Fund research and research groups under circumstances where there is an implicit quid pro quo, i.e., produce research that will be useful. Find scientists and expert witnesses that would cast doubt on the “smoking is deadly” research. This was easier than it might seem. First of all, at that time the research linking smoking and cancer was primarily statistical and epidemiological. The causal process was not well known until decades later. Secondly, about half the males in America smoked, and a large percentage of the smokers preferred not to believe that their minor sin was deadly. Finally plant stories in the popular press and the popular science press.

In short the plan was to create the appearance of scientific controversey in the mind of the public. Doubt was the product. They sold it for fifty years.

With Frederick Seitz (1911–2008) they hit the jackpot in their search for respectable scientists. Seitz had been president of the National Academy of Sciences (1962–1969) and president of Rockefeller University (1968–1979). In 1978 he became a full time consultant to R.J. Reynolds corporation. Seitz was a prominent physicist who had worked on the atom bomb. Seitz bought into and participated in the tobacco strategy and was a principal in extending it to other areas, e.g., the acid rain issue, the ozone hole issue, second hand smoke controversey, and global warming.

Why did Seitz and several other prominent physicists become merchants of doubt business? The short answer is that Seitz was on one side of an ideological split within the scientific community. Prior to WW II the institution of science was politically inconsequential. After WW II, not so much. Seitz (and others of his ilk – read the book) was a fierce anti-communist who rejected government regulation and control as being the slippery slope to socialism and the destruction of freedom.

His politics (and the politics of scientists generally) would not have mattered if it weren’t for the fact that science had become politically consequential. Not all science, of course. Finding new planets is not a political issue. Discovering that smoking causes cancer etc are political because they come with implicit “we ought to do something about that” tags. “Doing something” means using the power and the wealth of the state to effect advocated ends at the expense of existing interests. That puts it in the political arena.

Seitz, Singer, Jastrow, and Nierenberg were all physicists. Traditionally physics is the hardest of the hard sciences, and physicists are wont to be skeptical about the quality of the softer sciences. Physicists like firm causal sequences established by reproducible experiments. (At least they say they do.)

Environmental issues such as smoking, acid rain, and global warming are about effects in complicated ill-understood systems.

In the early stages of the recognition of problems both the data and the understanding of what the data means is often suspect. From the viewpoint of the hard nosed physicist the environmental sciences are more non-science than science – particularly when they are linked with advocacy. When you start from the view point that something is bad science or junk science, it can be hard to recognize that you were mistaken.

As the book makes clear, the tobacco strategy has grown large and spilled over into other issues. There are questions that the book does ask. I take the view that they misunderstand or are indifferent to the nature of politics.

Politics is not about reason and rationality; it is about the interplay of conflicting interests and the manipulation of public opinion and of politicians. Oreskes and Conway are scholars; they think like scholars. Most people are not; not in the here and now, nor at any time in any place. They don’t understand how science works and don’t need to know.

In the world of politics campaigns of vilification work. Dirty tricks work. Name-calling works. Lies and rumors work. Issues are presented in the shallowest of terms, with discourse based on slogans and spin. Passionate intensity and ardent partisanship is the norm; reason, a desire for truth, and concern for the public good are not. (When politicians speak of the public good they most often mean the good of the interests they favor.)

So, are Seitz, et al unique villains, who are to blame for the denialism industry? I suspect not. They were somewhat venal and were sincere. A slightly nauseous combination of venality and sincerity is the norm for our finest politicians. Nor are they to blame for the existence of denialism industry. I fancy that something like it was an inevitable reaction. Affected industries needed a way to protect themselves from the watermelons. (A right wing complaint is that environmentalists are watermelons – green on the outside, and red on the inside.)

In short, read this book. Your mind will be illuminated.


  1. John Monfries John Monfries

    Fascinating post, John!
    So depressing – now excuse me while I go away and shoot myself.

    Nicotine is certainly an addiction, and very hard to shake. My mother smoked like a tramp steamer till the age of 81, but always told us kids that we must never smoke; when questioned, she would reply ” Don’t do what I do, do what I say.”

    One question in my mind is whether the science of global warming is more complex and harder to explain than the case against smoking, ie is it even harder now in the public sphere to convince the public why global warming is a threat? Science may have been inconsequential before, but is it more challenged and less trusted now?

    After all, smoking affected a comparative minority, whereas the logic of global warming demands a change in lifestyle for everyone. Not many of us really truly accept that, even now.

    ” But Dad, you should do it for posterity” .

    ” Yeah, but what has posterity ever done for me?”

  2. John Monfries John Monfries

    whoops – sorry – fascinating post, Richard!

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