Merchants of Doubt

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Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming
Merchants of DOUBT.jpg
Author Naomi Oreskes, Erik M. Conway
Subject Scientists—Professional Ethics
Science news—Moral and ethical aspects
Publisher Bloomsbury Press
Publication date
June 3, 2010
Pages 355 pp.
ISBN 978-1-59691-610-4
OCLC 461631066
Dewey Decimal 174.95
LC Class Q147 .O74 2010

Merchants of Doubt is a 2010 book by the American historians of science Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway. It identifies parallels between the climate change debate and earlier controversies over tobacco smoking, acid rain and the hole in the ozone layer. Oreskes and Conway write that in each case "keeping the controversy alive" by spreading doubt and confusion after a scientific consensus had been reached, was the basic strategy of those opposing action.1 In particular, they say that Fred Seitz, Fred Singer, and a few other contrarian scientists joined forces with conservative think tanks and private corporations to challenge the scientific consensus on many contemporary issues.2

The Marshall Institute and Fred Singer, two of the subjects, have been critical of the book, but most reviewers received it favorably. One reviewer said that Merchants of Doubt is exhaustively researched and documented, and may be one of the most important books of 2010. Another reviewer saw the book as his choice for best science book of the year.3


Oreskes and Conway write that a handful of politically conservative scientists, with strong ties to particular industries, have "played a disproportionate role in debates about controversial questions".4 The book states that these scientists have challenged the scientific consensus about the dangers of smoking, the effects of acid rain, the existence of the ozone hole, and the existence of anthropogenic climate change.4 The authors write that this has resulted in "deliberate obfuscation" of the issues which has had an influence on public opinion and policy-making.4 Oreskes and Conway reach the conclusion that:

There are many reasons why the United States has failed to act on global warming, but at least one is the confusion raised by Bill Nierenberg, Fred Seitz, and Fred Singer.45

All three are physicists: Singer was a rocket scientist, whereas Nierenberg and Seitz worked on the atomic bomb.6 Oreskes and Conway state: "small numbers of people can have large, negative impacts, especially if they are organised, determined and have access to power".7

Seitz and Singer

Seitz and Singer served in high levels of science administration, and had contact with admirals, generals, and even presidents. They also had considerable media experience, so they could obtain press coverage for their views. The authors state that, "They used their scientific credentials to present themselves as authorities, and they used their authority to discredit any science they didn't like".8

Seitz and Singer were seen to be contrarians in the tobacco debate. Seitz directed a program for the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company that funded research defending tobacco. Singer co-wrote a report denying the risks of second-hand smoke, funded by the Tobacco Institute, which attacked the science behind the finding that there were health risks from passive smoking and said that it was "part of a political agenda to expand government control over peoples lives".1

Seitz and Singer helped to form institutions such as the Heritage Foundation, Competitive Enterprise Institute and Marshall Institute in the United States. Funded by corporations and conservative foundations, these organizations have opposed many forms of state intervention or regulation of U.S. citizens. The book lists similar tactics in each case: "discredit the science, disseminate false information, spread confusion, and promote doubt".7

The book says that over the course of more than 20 years, Singer, Seitz, (and a few other contrarian scientists) did almost no original scientific research on the issues which they debated. They had once been prominent researchers, but by the time they turned to the topics presented in Merchants of Doubt, they were, the authors state, mostly attacking the reputation and work of others. On every issue they were opposed to the scientific consensus.8

In December 2010, in an article for American Thinker, Fred Singer states that Merchants of Doubt attacks several well-known senior physicists, including the late Fred Seitz, a former president of the United States National Academy of Sciences. Singer says that Oreskes and Conway claim to be academic historians, yet they have operated in a "completely unprofessional way", by ignoring factual information, not bothering to consult primary sources, and not interviewing any of the scientists in question.9 Singer goes on to say, "No matter what the environmental issue—ozone depletion, acid rain, pesticides, etc.—any and all scientific opposition based on objective facts is blamed on an imagined involvement with tobacco companies. None of this is true, of course."9 He says that he serves on the board of an anti-smoking organization, finds secondhand smoke irritating and unpleasant, and has not been paid by the tobacco lobby or joined any of their front organizations.9

Free market fundamentalism

The book states that Seitz, Singer, Nierenberg and Robert Jastrow were all fiercely anti-communist and they viewed government regulation as a step towards socialism and communism. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, they looked for another great threat to free market capitalism and found it in environmentalism. They feared that an over-reaction to environmental problems would lead to heavy-handed government intervention in the marketplace and intrusion into people's lives.10 Oreskes and Conway state that the longer the delay the worse these problems get, and the more likely it is that governments will need to take the draconian measures that conservatives most fear. They say that Seitz, Singer, Nierenberg and Jastrow denied the scientific evidence, contributed to a strategy of delay, and thereby helped to bring about the situation they most dreaded.10


Philip Kitcher in Science says that Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway are "two outstanding historians".4 He calls Merchants of Doubt a "fascinating and important study". Kitcher says that the apparently harsh claims against Nierenberg, Seitz, and Singer are "justified through a powerful dissection of the ways in which prominent climate scientists, such as Roger Revelle and Ben Santer, were exploited or viciously attacked in the press".4

In The Christian Science Monitor, Will Buchanan says that Merchants of Doubt is exhaustively researched and documented, and may be one of the most important books of 2010. Oreskes and Conway are seen to demonstrate that the doubt merchants are not "objective scientists" as the term is popularly understood. Instead, they are "science-speaking mercenaries" hired by corporations to process numbers to prove that the corporations’ products are safe and useful. Buchanan says they are salesmen, not scientists.11

Bud Ward published a review of the book in The Yale Forum on Climate and the Media. He wrote that Oreskes and Conway use a combination of thorough scholarly research combined with writing reminiscent of the best investigative journalism, to "unravel deep common links to past environmental and public health controversies".12 In terms of climate science, the authors' leave "little doubt about their disdain for what they regard as the misuse and abuse of science by a small cabal of scientists they see as largely lacking in requisite climate science expertise".12

Phil England writes in The Ecologist that the strength of the book is the rigour of the research and the detailed focus on key incidents. He said, however, that the climate change chapter is only 50 pages long, and recommends several other books for readers who want to get a broader picture of this aspect: Jim Hoggan’s Climate Cover-Up, George Monbiot’s Heat: How to Stop the Planet Burning and Ross Gelbspan’s The Heat is On and Boiling Point. England also said that there is little coverage about the millions of dollars which Exxon Mobil has put into funding groups actively involved in promoting climate change denial and doubt.13

A review in The Economist calls this a powerful book which articulates the politics involved and the degree to which scientists have sometimes manufactured and exaggerated environmental uncertainties. But the authors fail to fully explain how environmental action has still often proved possible despite countervailing factors.14

Robert N. Proctor, who coined the term "agnotology" to describe the study of culturally induced ignorance or doubt, wrote in American Scientist that Merchants of Doubt is a detailed and artfully written book. He set it in the context of other books which cover the "history of manufactured ignorance":15 David Michaels’s Doubt is their Product (2008), Chris Mooney’s The Republican War on Science (2009), David Rosner and Gerald Markowitz’s Deceit and Denial (2002), and his own book Cancer Wars (1995).15

Robin McKie in The Guardian states that Oreskes and Conway deserve considerable praise for exposing the influence of a small group of Cold War ideologues. Their tactic of spreading doubt has confused the public about a series of key scientific issues such as global warming, even though scientists have actually become more certain about their research results. McKie says that Merchants of Doubt includes detailed notes on all sources used, is carefully paced, and is "my runaway contender for best science book of the year".3

William O’Keefe and Jeff Kueter from the George C. Marshall Institute, an American politically conservative think tank founded by Seitz16 provide negative commentary on Merchants of Doubt. They say that although it has the appearance of a scholarly work, it discredits and undermines the reputations of people who in their lifetime contributed greatly to the American nation. They say that it does this by questioning their integrity, impugning their character, and questioning their judgement.17


Naomi Oreskes is Professor of History and Science Studies at Harvard University. She has degrees in geological science and a Ph.D. in Geological Research and the History of Science. Her work came to public attention in 2004 with the publication of "The Scientific Consensus on Climate Change," in Science, in which she wrote that there was no significant disagreement in the scientific community about the reality of global warming from human causes.18 Erik M. Conway is the historian at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena.18

See also


  1. ^ a b Steketee, Mike (November 20, 2010). "Some sceptics make it a habit to be wrong". The Australian. 
  2. ^ Oreskes, Naomi; Conway, Erik M. (2010). Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming. Bloomsbury Press. p. 6. ISBN 978-1-59691-610-4.
  3. ^ a b McKie, Robin (August 8, 2010). "Merchants of Doubt by Naomi Oreskes and Erik M Conway". The Guardian.
  4. ^ a b c d e f Kitcher, Philip (June 4, 2010). "The Climate Change Debates". Science 328 (5983): 1231–2. doi:10.1126/science.1189312. 
  5. ^ Clive Hamilton reaches a similar conclusion in his book Requiem for a Species (2010, pp. 98–103). Hamilton suggests that the roots of climate change denial lie in the reaction of American conservatism to the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. He argues that as the "red menace" receded, conservatives who had put energy into opposing communism sought other outlets. Hamilton contends that the conservative backlash against climate science was led by three prominent physicists — Frederick Seitz, Robert Jastrow, and William Nierenberg.
  6. ^ Brown, Seth (May 31, 2010). "'Merchants of Doubt' delves into contrarian scientists". USA Today. 
  7. ^ a b McKie, Robin (August 1, 2010). "A dark ideology is driving those who deny climate change". The Guardian. 
  8. ^ a b Oreskes & Conway 2010, p. 8
  9. ^ a b c Singer, S. Fred (December 19, 2010). "Secondhand Smoke, Lung Cancer, and the Global Warming Debate". American Thinker. "I am a nonsmoker, find secondhand smoke (SHS) to be an irritant and unpleasant, have certainly not been paid by Philip Morris and the tobacco lobby, and have never joined any of their front organizations. And I serve on the advisory board of an anti-smoking organization. My father, who was a heavy smoker, died of emphysema while relatively young. I personally believe that SHS, in addition to being objectionable, cannot possibly be healthy" 
  10. ^ a b Oreskes & Conway 2010, pp. 248–255
  11. ^ Buchanan, Will (June 22, 2010). Merchants of Doubt: How “scientific” misinformation campaigns sold untruths to consumers The Christian Science Monitor.
  12. ^ a b Ward, Bud (July 8, 2010). Reviews: Leaving No Doubt on Tobacco, Acid Rain, Climate Change, The Yale Forum on Climate and the Media.
  13. ^ England, Phil (September 10, 2010). Merchants of Doubt The Ecologist.
  14. ^ All guns blazing: A question of dodgy science, (June 17, 2010), The Economist.
  15. ^ a b Proctor, Robert (September–October 2010). Book Review: Manufactured Ignorance, American Scientist.
  16. ^ "...a central cog in the denial machine...", August 13, 2007, Newsweek
  17. ^ O’Keefe, William; Kueter, Jeff (June 2010). "Clouding the Truth: A Critique of Merchants of Doubt". Policy Outlook. George C. Marshall Institute. "Although cloaked in the appearance of scholarly work, the book constitutes an effort to discredit and undermine the reputations of three deceased scientists who contributed greatly to our nation... This book questions their integrity, impugns their character, and questions their judgment on the basis of little more than faulty logic and preconceived opinion" 
  18. ^ a b Collins Literary Agency Rights Guide/March 2008

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