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Merchants Of Doubt [Paperback]

Naomi Oreskes , Erik M Conway
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Book Description

April 26 2011

"Merchants of Doubt should finally put to rest the question of whether the science of climate change is settled. It is, and we ignore this message at our peril."-Elizabeth Kolbert

"Brilliantly reported andwritten with brutal clarity."-Huffington Post

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.

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“Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway have demonstrated what many of us have long suspected: that the ‘debate’ over the climate crisis—and many other environmental issues—was manufactured by the same people who brought you ‘safe’ cigarettes.  Anyone concerned about the state of democracy in America should read this book.”—Former Vice President Al Gore, author of An Inconvenient Truth

“As the science of global warming has grown more certain over the last two decades, the attack on that science has grown more shrill; this volume helps explain that paradox, and not only for climate change. A fascinating account of a very thorny problem.”—Bill McKibben, author of Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet

“Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway have written an important and timely book. Merchants of Doubt should finally put to rest the question of whether the science of climate change is settled.  It is, and we ignore this message at our peril.”—Elizabeth Kolbert, author of Field Notes from a Catastrophe: Man, Nature, and Climate Change

“There can be no science without doubt: brute dogma leaves no room for inquiry. But over the last half century, a tiny minority of scientists have wielded doubt as a political weapon to halt what they did not want said: that tobacco kills or that the climate is warming because of what we humans are doing. ‘Doubt is our product’ read a tobacco memo--and indeed, millions of dollars have gone into creating the impression of scientific controversy where there has not been one. This book about the politics of doubt by Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway explores the long, connected, and intentional obfuscation of science by manufactured controversy. It is clear, scientifically responsible, and historically compelling—it is an essential and passionate book about our times.”—Peter Galison, Joseph Pellegrino University Professor, Harvard University, author of Einstein’s Clocks, Poincaré’s Maps

“With the carefulness of historians and the skills of master storytellers, Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway lay out the sordid history of tobacco industry protectionists, who framed the debate as scientifically ‘unproven,’ gaining decades of market share for those merchants of death—who knew all along the risks of their products. Merchants of Doubt shows that some of the very same individuals were part of the plans to frame the climate change debate as unproven, using the same tried and true tactics of misrepresentation of facts, non-representative scientists, and industry-friendly legislators. Again, tried and true public re-framing of reality worked. But now all this chicanery is exposed for the deception it has been in Oreskes and Conway’s powerful and timely work.”—Stephen H. Schneider, Professor, Stanford University, author of Science as a Contact Sport: Inside the Battle to Save Earth’s Climate

“A well-documented, pulls-no-punches account of how science works and how political motives can hijack the process by which scientific information is disseminated to the public.”—Kirkus Reviews

“Sweeping and comprehensive… Oreskes and Conway do an excellent job of bringing to life a complex and important environmental battle… [a] darkly fascinating history… Merchants of Doubt is an important book. How important? If you read just one book on climate change this year, read Merchants of Doubt. And if you have time to read two, reread Merchants of Doubt.”—

“Oreskes and Conway tell an important story…This book deserves serious attention for the lessons it provides about the misuse of science for political and commercial ends.”—Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway smoke out the Merchants of Doubt.”—Vanity Fair

“In their impeccably researched genealogy of denialism Merchants of Doubt, Conway and Oreskes show that a key group of figures in global warming denial earned their spurs in tobacco-industry-funded attempts to discredit the links between smoking and cancer. "—New Humanist

“Brilliantly reported and written with brutal clarity… 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 … Oreskes and Conway do a great public service.”—Huffington Post

“In their fascinating and important study, Merchants of Doubt, Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway offer convincing evidence for a surprising and disturbing thesis. Opposition to scientifically well-supported claims about the dangers of cigarette smoking, the difficulties of the Strategic Defense Initiative ("Star Wars"), the effects of acid rain, the existence of the ozone hole, the problems caused by secondhand smoke, and—ultimately—the existence of anthropogenic climate change was used in ‘the service of political goals and commercial interests’ to obstruct the transmission to the American public of important information … Because it is so thorough in disclosing how major policy decisions have been delayed or distorted, Merchants of Doubt deserves a wide readership. It is tempting to require that all those engaged in the business of conveying scientific information to the general public should read it.”—Science

Merchants of Doubt, by the science historian Naomi Oreskes and the writer Erik Conway, investigates a sort of reverse conspiracy theory: ecoterrorists and socialists are not the ones foisting dubious science upon us; rather it is deniers who are running their own well-funded and organized long-term hoax. Several previous works have ably illuminated similar themes, but this one hits bone…[Merchants of Doubt]  provide[s] both the historical perspective and the current political insights needed to get a grip on what is happening now.”—OnEarth

“All in all, Oreskes and Conway paint an unflattering picture of why some scientists continue to stand against the overwhelming scientific consensus on issues at the center of public discussion.”—USA Today

“Ever wonder how the terms liberty and freedom got all tangled up in fake science, how industry friendly think-tanks got their start, or what motivates scientists to sell out beyond the obvious? Merchants of Doubt expertly follows the historical twists and turns to answer all those questions and more in exquisite detail translated into entertaining narratives easily digested by readers from all backgrounds… This book should be a staple for any scientist and progressive, especially those whose work intersects public policy. Merchants of Doubt will not only leave you better equipped to combat the propaganda now packaged and fed to an unsuspecting public as legitimate science on a daily basis, it is a meticulously researched and wonderfully written.”—Daily Kos

“The disturbing tale of how some scientists sell their souls to advance political and economic agendas.”—Pittsburgh Post-Gazette


“After enduring decades of inexplicably persistent news reports casting doubt on the fact that cigarettes cause lung cancer, pollution harms the planet, and nuclear weapons are extremely dangerous, one might be forgiven for wondering if the same mob of misguided mercenaries might be behind them all. As it turns out—according to the evidence assembled in Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming—they are.”—Chronicle of Higher Education

“A devastating portrayal of organized scientific disinformation campaigns that makes clear just how gullible the press, scientific community and the public have been (and to a large extent, continue to be).”—Capital Weather Gang/

“Well-researched and lucidly written.”—Washington Times

“Excellent.”—America Magazine

“An important book … The next time a friend or Fox News commentator or political candidate assaults you with the claim that ‘climate change isn't happening or ‘isn't caused by human activities,’ you will recognize the source of their colossal misunderstanding. The good news is, honest science wins in the end. The bad news: The earth is heating up while this artificially heated debate rages, though Merchants of Doubt, if widely read, should help douse the media flames.”—Minneapolis Star Tribune

Merchants of Doubt might be one of the most important books of the year. Exhaustively researched and documented, it explains how over the past several decades mercenary scientists have partnered with tobacco companies and chemical corporations to help them convince the public that their products are safe – even when solid science proves otherwise…Merchants of Doubt is a hefty read, well-researched and comprehensive…I hope it sells, because what it has to say needs to be heard.”—Christian Science Monitor

“Ever wonder how the terms liberty and freedom got all tangled up in fake science, how industry friendly think-tanks got their start, or what motivates scientists to sell out beyond the obvious? Merchants of Doubt expertly follows the historical twists and turns to answer all those questions and more in exquisite detail translated into entertaining narratives easily digested by readers from all backgrounds…This book should be a staple for any scientist and progressive, especially those whose work intersects public policy. Merchants of Doubt will not only leave you better equipped to combat the propaganda now packaged and fed to an unsuspecting public as legitimate science on a daily basis, it is a meticulously researched and wonderfully written.”—Austin Science Policy Examiner

“No mere summary or review could hope to do more than scratch the surface of the information contained in this book…Merchants of Doubt [is] so compelling that it cannot be dismissed with a mere “talk to the hand.” The facts cannot be denied any longer – no free markets can address clearly market failures like acid rain and global warming, and ignoring reality only works for so long before reality finally does something that simply cannot be ignored.”—Scholars and Rogues

“Oreskes and Conway—through a combination of thorough scholarly research and adept story telling—unravel deep common links to past environmental and public health controversies among those now most often identified as climate “skeptics,” “contrarians,” “deniers,” “doubters” … and more. What makes their new book from Bloomsbury Press particularly worthwhile at a time of no shortage of new and intriguing climate change books? It’s their combination of thorough research with writing reminiscent of the best investigative journalism (remember that?)… essential reading for anyone seriously wanting to understand the tawdry background of climate science politicization as it was targeted, in particular, at some of the individual scientists and scientific undertakings most respected by the established science academy.”—Yale Forum on Climate Change

 “The eye-opener of the year.”—Head Butler

“Fascinating…Merchants is an impressive and disturbing piece of scholarship that does a good job of answering the questions [the authors] pose.  It should be read by every editor and every member of Congress, and by climate scientists as well.”—Climate Progress

“Historians a thousand years from now may wonder what went wrong: How, after scholars had so thoroughly nailed down the reality of anthropogenic climate change, did so many Americans get fooled into thinking it was all a left-wing hoax? Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway give us some very good—if disturbing—answers in their fascinating, detailed and artfully written new book, Merchants of Doubt…There is much in this book to outrage anyone who cares about the future of the planet, human health, or scientific integrity.”American Scientist

“If you really needed any more reasons to dislike the campaign against dealing with climate change, this book will supply it.”—Daily Kos

“Eye-opening…Merchants of Doubt is alarming, yet important.”—American Biology Teacher

“Investigates a sort of reverse conspiracy theory: ecoterrorists and socialists are not the ones foisting dubious science upon us; rather it is deniers who are running their own well-funded and organized long-term hoax. Several previous works have ably illuminated similar themes, but this one hits bone.”—

“Oreskes and Conway outline how science is supposed to work and how some critical evidence has been drowned out of the U.S. public discourse. An important study about science and the media that informed citizens need to read.”—Library Journal

“The authors explain in exhaustively-researched detail how renowned scientists abandon science, how environmentalism has become equated with communism, and how the Cold War has come to be connected with climate denial…A must read.”—Earth Gauge


About the Author

Naomi Oreskes is a professor of history and science studies at the University of California, San Diego. Her essay "Beyond the Ivory Tower" was a milestone in the fight against global warming denial.

Erik M. Conway is the resident historian at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory at the California Institute of Technology. Merchants of Doubt is their first book together.

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Most helpful customer reviews
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
This book amasses, organizes and presents thousands of pieces of data - scientific, commercial, political and journalistic - to reveal the true underlying problem with America's rapidly decaying democracy.
With exhaustive - and almost exhausting - citations, the authors have produced a scathing indictment of the American industrial, political, and pseudo-scientific complex. The huge corporations, their Republican benefactors ( and beneficiaries) and right-wing institutes and religious foundations are revealed as grossly cynical manipulators ver the lives of millions of people.
The degree of cynicism exhibited by the people at the center of the issues dealt with wield enormous power in a fashion that differs from Naziism only in that Naziism was forthright and open; the American complex described in the book operate as clandestine manipulators of the supposedly "free" market they claim to cherish. Their odious criminal influence is not just on science, but also on education, journalism, public health, decency - on democracy itself.
The authors have set a standard of science, journalism and public service that is rarely seen. I can only wish that the American voters had enough curiosity and interest to know how cruelly their elite" treats them.
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7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Setting the record straight June 28 2011
By Rich M
Science went from being a friend of the people (the Salk polio vaccine, man on the moon, wiping out small pox) to what is now perceived by many as an enemy of progress. This book provides an excellent explanation of how it happened.

The transformation began under Ronald Reagan when credible scientists opposed star wars, and it continues today. Scientists and their research ran into politics, big business, and the far right, which opposes government regulation in any form, even when it protects and serves the needs of society. The far right maintains that society will be protected by market forces, government need not be involved. But "negative externalities" come into play: negative because they hurt society, and externalities because they are outside of the free market system: what financial motives would induce industry to protect us against sulfur-induced acid rain, smoking induced lung cancers, asthma in children raised in homes with smoking parents?

This book shows how industry and government used a small group of right wing physicists to raise doubts about peer-reviewed science done in the interests of society. And it continues today. The "uncertainty" surrounding the climate change debate is a perfect example. Credible scientists including those in the US National Academy of Science have known for 30 years that climate change is upon us and that much if not all of it is it's man made. Yet in the interests of fairness, the voices of a few who question the science are given equal value as the majority who know their stuff, and the public and press can't separate the wheat from the chaff.

This book is full of revelations and a must read for progressives who think that government, informed by science, has a role to play in protecting the people it serves.
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3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Watertight and compelling Jan. 15 2012
I waited a long time to read this book ' in retrospect, too long. I have long been a fan of Naomi Oreskes; I believe she is a brilliant and sensible scientist with a compelling way with words. On the other hand, nothing depresses me more quickly than reading about those who deliberately spread confusion on climate change for political reasons. After a particularly battering year for climate science in the public eye, I want to make sure I stay sane.

However, "Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming", by Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway, was oddly comforting. How could it be so, you might ask, given the subject matter?

It's a good question. The book traces several key players, such as Frederick Seitz, S. Fred Singer, Bill Nierenberg, and Robert Jastrow, in their fight against mainstream science. Many of them were physicists in the era of atomic bomb development, and nearly all had been deeply influenced by the Cold War ' they were anti-Communist to the point of extremism.

This extremism soon extended into science: any new discovery that seemed to necessitate government action was vehemently attacked by Seitz et al. Whether it was the harmful health effects of smoking, second-hand smoking, or DDT, and the existence of anthropogenic acid rain, ozone depletion, or climate change, the same people used the same strategies to sow doubt in the public mind, delaying the cry for action.
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5 of 33 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Merchant of Deception June 24 2011
By Dan
Don't be mislead by the mainstream reviewers. This book has little to do with science and a lot to do with brainwashing the unwashed herd. I challenge readers of this book to check out Oreske's assertions, use of terms and especially her 'historic' analyis based on heresay. The truth will set you free. Her supposed 'science' credentials should be immediately refuted by her defective 2004 (Science Magazine) claims on the 'science' of manmade global warming science where she is satisfied with 'consensus' and selective review of abstracts over critical analysis of data. Errors in the book further attest to her credibility as a scientist. The book is rife with superficial and uncritical understanding of what she is talking/writing about e.g. beryllium as a 'heavy metal'; differences between O-15 and O-16, the power of models, I could go on. Oreske continues on her mission to villify conspirators and skeptics (and change their handle) while applauding those who look to government to hold their hand on life's journey. Her distortions certainly will appeal to communists and the faithful conspiracy theorists but not to those mavericks wanting to understand the truth.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 4.2 out of 5 stars  172 reviews
370 of 413 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Brilliant, devastating, disturbing --- at least as important as Bill McKibben's 'Eaarth' May 25 2010
By Jesse Kornbluth - Published on
If you are a candidate for a stroke or heart attack --- or just have fond hopes that your child or grandchild will grow up in a world without a sell-by date --- you really should step back from this screen.

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. But although "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, it has left me with a different reaction --- frustration that lobbyists and "experts" have blocked all meaningful steps to avert environment disaster. And will continue to do so, not just until millions are afflicted with skin cancer and the wheat fields are bone dry and the poor are fighting in the streets for water. No. 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. She's Professor of History and Science Studies at the University of California, San Diego; 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.

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."

Her new 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. The lay reader 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. Revel in the attacks on environmental scientists (they're all Luddites, and some are probably pinkos). 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. As late as 2007, 40% of the American public believed global warming was still a matter of scientific debate. (It's not just Americans who are now addled. Just today, in the New York Times, I read that "only 26 percent of Britons believe that `climate change is happening and is now established as largely manmade,' down from 41 percent in November 2009. A poll conducted for the German magazine Der Spiegel found that 42 percent of Germans feared global warming, down from 62 percent four years earlier.")

I'm just dancing on the surface of this book's revelations. There's so much more, and it's all of a piece --- as the director of British American Tobacco finally admitted, "A demand for scientific proof is always a formula for inaction and delay, and usually the first reaction of the guilty."

Well said, as far as it goes. When I finished "Merchants of Doubt," I felt a little more strongly about that guilt. 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 is 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.
110 of 128 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent June 10 2010
By R. Albin - Published on
This book is a model of engaged historical scholarship. It is thorough and documented well, written clearly, and addresses an issue of great contemporary importance. Oreskes and Conway document a series of attempts to dispute important scientific findings related to a series of public health and environmental hazards. From the hazards of tobacco to global warming, the pattern is the same. Supported by generous funding from industries with much to lose from increased regulation, a small group of dissident scientists - generally not experts in the relevant fields - create doubt about the scientific findings via public relations campaigns, lobbying in Congress, and lobbying of the executive branch. These PR campaigns and lobbying efforts generally involve indefensible tactics. As Oreskes and Conway point out, and as demonstrated extremely well in Allan Brandt's excellent book The Cigarette Century, this general approach was pioneered in the 1950s by the tobacco industry in response to emerging epidemiologic and experimental evidence of the dangers of cigarette smoking.

These tactics were used, often effectively, by opponents of efforts to reduce the hazards of smoking, second-hand smoking, acid rain, ozone depletion, and most recently, global warming. Remarkably, a smalll core group of prominent scientists figure over and over again as participants in the generally unprincipled attempts to discredit important scientific findings and their often inconvenient policy implications. These individuals were/are physicists with substantial reputations and impressive records of service in important administrative positions and in important advisory roles at the Federal level. Fred Seitz was a renowned solid state physicist, former head of the National Academy, and former President of Rockefeller University. Bill Nierenberg had been head of the Scripps Institute, and Robert Jastrow had been head of the Goddard Institute for Space Studies. S. Fred Singer was very well known for his work on satellite development. Oreskes and Conway document very well how these accomplished individuals not merely lent their names to unprincipled campaigns but also participated actively, often using their considerable prestige and access to government policy makers to obstruct the progress of regulatory efforts.

What motivated these distinguished scientists to behave this way and why were they often so successful? Its easy to understand why industries with strong vested interests would attempt to hinder inconvenient regulation. Why, however, would men who had devoted much of their lives to furthering American science, become committed to discrediting major scientific findings? Oreskes and Conway point out that all these figures came of age during or immediately after WWII and were committed Cold Warriors. The version of democracy and capitalism they espoused was the libertarian ideal (actually pseudo-libertarian) of individuals like Hayek and Friedman. When scientific findings pointed to serious negative externalities from markets, and the resulting need for government regulation, free-market fundatmentalist ideology trumped science. Their campaigns were relatively successful partly because they were influential figures and partly because what they had to say was very congenial to influential conservative politicians, notably the Reagan era White House.

This book will be a classic study of how complex scientific issues with unpalatable policy implications are handled by our society. Oreskes and Conway provide an even handed but cumulatively scathing analysis of how the failings of our political system and media facilitate these types of policy distortions. It is also a nice dissection of the powerful conjunction of financial interests and simple-minded ideology. Its clear that we need to find a better way to assess and decide about these types of issues.
80 of 96 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An Outstanding History of a Critically Important Subject June 4 2010
By Roger D. Launius - Published on
The historians Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway--who is also a longstanding friend and colleague--have set the bar very high in scholarly anaylsis with this book, located in the vital center of the debate about global climate change. "Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming" is a serious analysis of the opposition to global warming from such contrary scientists as Robert Jastrow, S. Fred Singer, and others. Well documented with 64 pages of endnotes and rigorously analysed, the authors demonstrate the ties between some senior scientists and political and business interests who stand to lose if decisions are taken that direct changes in American policy.

The effort they describe has been built about sowing the seeds of doubt, hence the title, and what Oreskes and Conway would contend is the obfuscation of some entities in the fray. The individuals that have undertaken this effort cut their teeth in the service of corporations that had everything to lose if findings about the dangers of DDT, tobacco smoke, and acid rain settled in the minds of the public. The continuation of this effort, and its particular permutations in relation to the issue of global climate change, are documented in detail here.

As the authors make clear, it has been obvious since the 1970s that some elements of the business community have been irate about the use of scientific studies by government officials as justification for regulations that circumscribe their actions. Those opposed have been successful largely through a questioning of the science on which the government has based its actions. The authors note that the attack on this science has been so broad and sustained that it represents a coordinated and frightening destabilization of scientific consensus. Oreskes and Conway draw connections between key contrarians of global climate change with their actions earlier in other scientific endeavors, and shows their linkage to key corporations, think tanks, and political groups.
29 of 36 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A critically important book that everyone must read - especially climate skeptics July 22 2010
By David J Kent - Published on
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
This book made me angry. And it should make you angry as well. The title "Merchants of Doubt" comes from the same line from a tobacco company executive used in a similar book that came out a couple of years ago that I recently reviewed (Doubt is Their Product). The basis, first used by the tobacco industry many years ago, was that their goal was to "manufacture doubt" in the minds of the public and policy-makers so that no policy-making action would occur, or at least so that it should be delayed as long as possible. And the tobacco industry succeeded for decades after they themselves knew that tobacco/nicotine was addictive and caused cancer. Yet they carried on a well-funded campaign to confuse and disinform the public.

Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway are science historians. And what they have uncovered with this book should shock even those who are familiar with some of the tactics used by the professional denialist industry. What is even more shocking is how just a handful of scientists and their collaborators have had a hand in nearly every major science denial episode for the last 40 years. And in the center of it all is the George C. Marshall Institute, Fred Seitz, S. Fred Singer, and the lesser known but equally deceptive William Nierenberg and Robert Jastrow.

After the tactics were perfected in the fight to deny that smoking causes cancer, these handful of men with close ties to the Reagan and conservative ideologies employed them over and over again to deny smokestack emissions cause acid rain, CFCs cause ozone depletion, second hand smoke cause cancer in non-smokers, and greenhouse gas emissions cause global warming. In all cases the science has been right, and this group of men helped delay action for many years until even their deceit couldn't hide the truth.

And those tactics, repeated to deny the science in each of these issues, were all the same: employ a few scientists willing to shill for the industry or who are "skeptical" (to create the illusion of credibility), focus the efforts through well-funded right wing think tanks (to create the illusion of independence), create "new" science specifically designed to create uncertainty (i.e., not to answer questions, but to create contrasting data they can misrepresent), hyperventilate about how "the science is not settled" (knowing that science is never settled, but the public won't understand), and of course, using their PR skills, Frank Luntz wordsmithing, and punchy - though meaningless - catchphrases like "sound science" to make it sound like they are saying something when they are not saying anything.

What I found amazing was how the origins of the George C. Marshall Institute and all of its subsequent science denialism came out of the cold war fight against communism. These handful of scientists were atomic bomb builders and astrophysicists who had no expertise in any of the science they were denying. But they had connections, most notably with the Reagan administration and the Strategic Defense Initiative (Star Wars) for which the George C. Marshall Institute was started to sell to the public, the military, and the conservative legislators they were trying to influence. Yet despite this lack of any expertise they continued to insert themselves into the acid rain debate, the CFC debate, the second hand smoke debate, and the climate change debate. And each and every time their goal was to push the denial of the science. They equated environmentalism with communism ("green on the outside, red on the inside"). And using their lobbying skills and influence they were able to create the impression that there was still a raging debate in the science, even though in all cases the science was overwhelming and they represented a very minority opinion. Actually, in all cases they were not being scientists at all, but rather advocates for non-action (all of these men had long-since stopped doing actual research, and none of them had ever done research in the areas of science they were denying).

What is most disturbing is that they routinely employed unscientific methods and deceit to push their political views. These handful of men have almost single-handedly cost the lives of thousands of Americans and increased the cost to taxpayers millions or even billions of dollars through their denial of the science. Most egregious in this has been S. Fred Singer. First as a denier that smoking caused cancer, then as a denier that CFCs caused ozone depletion, and now as a denier of climate change, Singer has used despicable methods to deceive fellow scientists who were too slow to realize that such deceit was possible from one of their own. What he did to Roger Revelle on his death bed is disgraceful. What he did to Justin Lancaster is despicable. What he and others did to Ben Santer is just one more example showing that the denialist industry, led by these few men and paid for by the biggest industries on the planet, will go to no end to deny any science or destroy any scientist in their path. The recent attacks on climate scientists like Michael Mann and Phil Jones are the latest iterations in the denialist industry's tactics.

And according to Oreskes and Conway, the denialist industry isn't even satisfied denying the present and the future, they have also recently turned to denying the past. You may have heard parroted from people here that the banning of DDT by environmentalists has killed millions of people in Africa. Not true. But the denialist industry has decided it needs to deny ALL science, and that means going back to the 1960s to attack Rachel Carson, whose book "Silent Spring" documented the dangers of widespread pesticide spraying. DDT was banned in the US after it was discovered that it caused the thinning of eggshells in raptors like our national symbol, the Bald Eagle. But like all the other denialist attacks, the idea that the US ban cost lives in Africa is completely false. DDT use actually increased in Africa after it was banned in the US, and in fact is still used today. It just doesn't work any more because the mosquitoes it is supposed to kill gained resistance to it, in part because of the overspraying advocated by the manufacturers to sell more product. But this is just one more case where facts are tossed aside in favor of an ideological promotion of an anti-science agenda designed to further the profit of the few at the expense of the many.

Oreskes and Conway end their book with "A New View of Science," which I'll let people read for themselves. And they should. In fact, they must. This book must be on the reading list of anyone and everyone interested in science, so they can read for themselves how just a handful of unscrupulous scientists with deep political connections and a near religious anti-communism fervor have been at the heart of every denial of science in the last several decades. As I indicated to open this review, the book made me angry. And we should be angry. And then we should not let them get away with it any longer.
7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A must read June 6 2013
By M. Hyman - Published on
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
This book is fascinating. It takes a look at the techniques used by what could only be called anti-environmentalists. The book posits that there is a core group of scientists and lobbyists, that started working for the pro-cigarette lobby, and that have since moved on and applied similar techniques of fear uncertainty and doubt into the battle for doing nothing about environmental destruction. Now, I will readily admit I am pro environment. I am shocked and saddened by what is going on with our planet, and the assault by the few against the long term health. Having said that, I've had a hard time understanding why intelligent people often are not able to grasp the thin ness of climate destruction deniers. I know they are bombarded on various tv and radio shows, but the appeal of the argument didn't make sense to me until i read this book, and saw the approach as one of an extension of the cold war ... any step towards regulation, even if vital for the health of citizens or the planet or our descendants, is a step towards Communism. Now this is obviously not a particularly appealing argument, but the book did cast the approach in a way that i could understand the philosophical framework for denial.

The book starts with the techniques used to promote the idea that cigarettes might not cause cancer, and does an excellent job showing how funding research was used to set up a set of efforts to cast doubt in the light of overwhelming evidence. It then moves on to many other topics, including acid rain and ozone holes, before moving on to climate destruction. Overall, you can see how the techniques of attacks on science and scientists, along with obfuscation, funding of science efforts that can cast doubt with the general public, constant bombardment of messaging, and lobbying efforts to those who want to receive a message that they can ignore these core issues, have worked.

THe book is well researched and goes into detail about the techniques. While it is obviously pro-environmental, it is not attacking. It is fact based. It is elaborately researched and footnoted. It doesn't take loosey-goosey emotional arguments, but instead looks at one of the critical aspects of climate change activity, and why so little has been done over the past 40 years or so in which we have known that we have a major problem on our hands.

I wish folks who deny climate destruction would read the book with an open mind, but i'm sure it will mostly appeal to those who are in the environmental camp. Even so, it is excellent material for furthering an understanding of what is going on from the lobbying side, and why we have some of the problems that we do today. Disturbing but important to read.

To the authors -- thanks for writing this.
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