Merchants of Doubt

I reviewed Merchants of Doubt for The Independent last year. I’ve reprinted the review below to accompany this interview of one of the book’s co-authors, the science historian Naomi Oreskes who has a long-standing interest in understanding the establishment of scientific consensus and the role and character of scientific dissent, by MIT academic, science writer and documentary filmmaker Tom Levenson on blogtalkradio.

Here’s my short review, published in The Independent on 18 October 2010, of Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming by Naomi Oreskes and Erik M Conway

Public scepticism about climate change is on the rise. The shift is due in part to the publication of the hacked emails of the University of East Anglia’s “climategate” scientists. Now climatologists have to live with the fact that most people simply don’t trust them. Merchants of Doubt, by two historians of science, may help restore some trust by showing that science is rarely black and white, and how its shades of grey have sometimes been distorted by a few willing hands.

Writing before “climategate”, Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway believe that “We all need a better understanding of what science really is…and how to separate it from the garbage.” They tell the story of how for half a century, a small group of scientists in America collaborated with think-tanks and corporations in campaigns to discredit scientific research by creating doubt and manipulating debate.

Manufacturing doubt as an effective corporate strategy was first developed by the American tobacco industry. Determined to stop any government regulation in the face of scientific evidence linking tobacco to lung cancer, the cigarette-makers created the Council for Tobacco Research to discredit the scientists and dispute their findings. “Doubt is our product,” boasted a now infamous 1969 industry memo. Doubt would shield the tobacco industry from litigation and regulation for decades to come.

The so-called “Tobacco Strategy” was used to “maintain the controversy” by promoting claims contrary to research. The peddlers of doubt insisted that scientists were wrong about the risks of Ronald Reagan’s Strategic Defence Initiative, and that acid rain was caused by volcanoes. They would dismiss global warming by claiming, in turn, that there was none; if there was, it was just natural variation; finally, it didn’t matter because humans would adapt. Aided by a complicit media, these claims generated the illusion of genuine scientific debate when there was none at all.

No scientific conclusion can ever be proven with certainty, but it is no more a “belief” to say that the Earth is heating up than to say that continents move or that germs cause disease. Oreskes and Conway warn that, “without some degree of trust in our designated experts we are paralyzed”.


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