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Merchants of Doubt

How “scientific” misinformation campaigns sold untruths to consumers.

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Merchants of Doubt:
How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming
By Erik M. Conway, Naomi Oreskes
368 pp., $27

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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.

These businesses had a goal: to sell cigarettes and chemicals such as DDT. These businesses had a problem: scientists said their products were bad for people. These businesses found a solution: hire scientists to step outside the objective, peer-reviewed scientific academies and spread junk science and misinformation, manufacturing and selling doubt.

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For a time these scientists largely succeeded. They said antibusiness, liberal scientists exaggerated the negative health effects of products such as cigarettes and DDT. The truth, they said, was that the scientific world was divided and uncertain. Confused people shrugged and kept buying the products.
Eventually the truth about cigarettes and DDT emerged, after wasted years in which the public worked slowly to overcome confusion and separate fact from science fiction. In these wasted years, these scientists’ corporate allies made fortunes and killed people.

Today, a number of scientists have figured out how to sell doubt in the public consciousness and make money and a reputation in doing so. “Merchants of Doubt” shows how many of these same scientists are still working today on the Grand Poobah of science issues: global warming.

Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway tell the story of a number of scientists and organizations that they say have established themselves in this practice, but three in particular steal the show – er, charade: Bill Nierenberg, Fred Seitz, and Fred Singer. Oreskes and Conway contend that each of these scientists developed extensive political networks they then used to begin some of the greatest misinformation campaigns in American scientific history.

How and where have these men made their mark? Pick a major scientific question over the past few decades and determine the views of the majority of the mainstream scientific community (for example, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the American National Academy of Sciences, and the British Royal Society). Then turn around and peer off into the distance to find an extreme and contradictory point of view. That’s where you’ll see – Nierenberg, Seitz, and Singer. There are others (some of whom President George H.W. Bush called “my scientists.”)

Oreskes and Conway contend that Nierenberg, Seitz, and Singer have been wrong on every major issue. Smoking kills. Pollution causes acid rain. The earth is warming, and human production of greenhouse gasses is a major cause. Americans have generally accepted these first two conclusions despite the best efforts of the merchants of doubt. The third conclusion, however, is not yet widely accepted by the public (although readily acknowledged by almost every major august scientific organization in the world). The merchants of doubt continue to sow the seeds of mistrust and misinformation – and politicians and allies in media lend them a hand.

Of course, the American scientific community and the international scientific community are not without shortcomings (think “Climategate”). But the academic community is nevertheless self-policing and motivated primarily by scientific inquiry, not by profit margins.

Oreskes and Conway demonstrate that the merchants of doubt are not “scientists” as the term is popularly understood: that is to say, they are not objective researchers beholden to scientific best practices. Instead, argue Oreskes and Conway, they are science-speaking mercenaries hired by corporations to crunch numbers in whatever way to prove that the corporations’ products are safe and useful. They are salesmen, not scientists.

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“Merchants of Doubt” is a hefty read, well-researched and comprehensive. It reads more like an academic paper than a nonfiction bestseller, but I hope it sells, because what it has to say needs to be heard.

Will Buchanan is a freelance writer in Brookeville, Md.