Go to the archives

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

Naomi Oreskes & Erik M. Conway

By Jesse Kornbluth
Published: Feb 26, 2015
Category: Non Fiction

If the Pope needed a prom date, Naomi Oreskes would be his first call. He’s clear about climate change; it’s real, we cause most of it, and we need to take action now. No politician who takes money from companies that contribute to the end of the world as we know it has raised a voice to cheer him. Many environmentalists have. But none have the academic authority of Professor Oreskes.

How important is Naomi Oreskes? Read the front-page New York Times profile.
There are two ways to meet Naomi Oreskes.

One is the movie, certain to make you bristle:

The other is the book, also certain to make you bristle. I have read many books that infuriated me, and I was glad for the experience. It’s good to get pissed off at injustice, fictional or real, and come away energized, eager to do your small part in correcting whatever wrong the book exposed. "Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming" is brilliantly reported and written with brutal clarity, but it’s left me with a different reaction — frustration that lobbyists and “experts” have blocked most meaningful steps to avert environment disaster and, if they can, will continue to do so until millions are afflicted with skin cancer and the wheat fields are bone dry and the poor are fighting in the streets for water. Bet on it: In the very last minute of the very last hour of humanity’s very last day on earth, a scientist on the payroll of an oil or coal company — most likely a scientist who has no expertise in environmental matters and whose scientific contributions ended decades ago — will be saying “There’s still doubt about global warming.”

Naomi Oreskes is a real scientist and historian. When she co-authored this book, she was Professor of History and Science Studies at the University of California, San Diego; now she’s at Harvard. Her books include "Plate Tectonics: An Insider’s History of the Modern Theory of the Earth," cited by Library Journal as one of the best science and technology books of 2002. A few years ago, she tired of the Bush administration’s insistence that "most" scientists disagree with the notion of global warming, so she did what a real scientist does — she read every single piece of science written on the subject to see what "most" scientists said about it. [To buy the paperback from Amazon, click here. For the Kindle edition, click here.]

Not one of them called it a "theory." Her conclusion:

No scientific conclusion can ever be proven, absolutely, but it is no more a ‘belief’ to say that Earth is heating up than it is to say that continents move, that germs cause disease, that DNA carries hereditary information or that quarks are the basic building blocks of subatomic matter. You can always find someone, somewhere, to disagree, but these conclusions represent our best available science, and therefore our best basis for reasoned action.

This book, written with science journalist Erik Conway, is about the absence of reasoned action — and not just when the issue is global warming. The real shocker of this book is that it takes us, in just 274 brisk pages, through seven scientific issues that called for decisive government regulation and didn’t get it, sometimes for decades, because a few scientists sprinkled doubt-dust in the offices of regulators, politicians and journalists. Suddenly the issue had two sides. Better not to do anything until we know more.

Truth in science is a process: research, followed by scientific writing, followed by peer review. In this way, mistakes are corrected, findings refined, validity confirmed. But the interests of scientists on the payroll of, say, R.J. Reynolds Tobacco wasn’t truth.  “They were not interested in finding facts,” Oreskes and Conway write. “They were interested in fighting them.

Here’s the absolute stunner — some of the scientists who were on the payroll of tobacco companies turn out to be the very same scientists now working for oil and coal companies to create confusion about global warming.

Why you may ask, would scientists who once had impressive reputations pose as “experts” on topics which they have no history of expertise?

Frederick Seitz and Fred Singer — the most visible of the tobacco-causes-cancer and man-causes-global-warming deniers — were both physicists. Long ago, Seitz helped built the atomic bomb; long ago, Singer developed satellites. Both were politically conservative. Both supported the War in Vietnam and politicians who were obsessed with the Soviet threat. Both were patriots who believed that defending business had something to do with defending freedom. And both were beneficiaries of the strategy that John Hill, Chairman and CEO of the Hill & Knowlton public relations firm, laid out for tobacco executives in 1953: “Scientific doubts should remain.” The way to encourage doubt? Call for “more research” — and fund it.

You can imagine what this did to media coverage in our country. As early as the 1930s, German scientists had shown that cigarettes caused lung cancer. (No one smoked around Hitler.) By the early 1960s, scientists working for American tobacco companies agreed — nicotine was “addictive” and its smoke was “carcinogenic.” But the incessant call for more research and “balanced” journalism kept the smoking controversy alive until 2006, when a federal judge found the tobacco industry guilty under the RICO statute (that is, guilty of a criminal pattern of fraud.) Fifty years of doubt! Impressive.

“The tobacco road would lead through Star Wars, nuclear winter, acid rain and the ozone hole, all the way to global warming,” Oreskes and Conway write. You may want to read the tobacco stories, skim the middle chapters, and then re-focus on global warming, the subject of the book’s second half. There you can thrill to the argument that the sun is to blame. You can revel in the attacks on environmental scientists (they’re all Luddites, and some are probably pinkos). You can see politics trump science. (The attack on Rachel Carson, who first alerted us to the dangers of DDT, is especially potent. In a novel, Michael Crichton had a character say,”Banning DDT killed more people than Hitler. It was so safe you could eat it.”) Fifty-six “environmentally skeptical” books were published in the 1990s — and 92% of them were linked to a network of right-wing foundations.

I try to have compassion for the failings of others, hoping that they might have compassion for my failings, but I have trouble thinking that these scientists and the CEOs who hired them were misguided or confused or even blinded by the incessant need for profit. I now think there really might be such a thing as Evil. In their book, Oreskes and Conway do a great public service — they give us their names of the villains and tell us their stories.