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

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

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by Naomi Oreskes, Erik M. Conway

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The U.S. scientific community has long led the world in research on such areas as public health, environmental science, and issues affecting quality of life. Our scientists have produced landmark studies on the dangers of DDT, tobacco smoke, acid rain, and global warming. But at the same time, a small yet potent subset of this community leads the world in vehement…  See more details below


The U.S. scientific community has long led the world in research on such areas as public health, environmental science, and issues affecting quality of life. Our scientists have produced landmark studies on the dangers of DDT, tobacco smoke, acid rain, and global warming. But at the same time, a small yet potent subset of this community leads the world in vehement denial of these dangers.

Merchants of Doubt tells the story 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. Remarkably, the same individuals surface repeatedly-some of the same figures who have claimed that the science of global warming is "not settled" denied the truth of 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.

Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway, historians of science, roll back the rug on this dark corner of the American scientific community, showing how ideology and corporate interests, aided by a too-compliant media, have skewed public understanding of some of the most pressing issues of our era.

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Editorial Reviews

Kirkus Reviews
Two historians of science examine the motives and tactics of scientists who have consistently sowed doubt about issues affecting human well-being and the well-being of the planet. Oreskes (History and Science Studies/Univ. of California, San Diego) and Conway (Atmospheric Science at NASA: A History, 2008, etc.) begin with the tobacco industry's enlisting of scientists to refute studies linking smoking and lung cancer. To explain why Frederick Seitz, a former president of the National Academy of Sciences, joined forces with the tobacco industry in the 1970s, the authors describe him as a communist-hating hawk, a staunch defender of private enterprise and an opponent of government regulations. Other scientists of a similar bent-including Fred Singer, Robert Jastrow and Bill Nierenberg-defended President Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative, attacking the claim that it would create a devastating planetary nuclear winter. They also denied the scientific data showing that acid rain was an environmental problem, that the hole in the ozone layer was caused by chlorofluorocarbons and that global warming exists. Behind this spreading of disinformation and doubt, the authors claim, is a network of right-wing think tanks and foundations funded by corporations intent on defending the free market and preventing regulation of private enterprise. Among those cited are the Heartland Institute, the Marshall Institute and the Competitive Enterprise Institute. With dozens of specific examples, the authors demonstrate that casting doubt about scientific evidence has been an effective tactic. Journalists have been complicit in the practice, when, in the name of balanced reporting, they unquestioningly echodoubts. Further, scientists have often been reluctant to publicly refute false claims, perhaps fearing the kind of personal attacks experienced by Carl Sagan and Rachel Carson. 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. Appearances on the West Coast. Agent: Ayesha Pande/Collins Literary Agency
Publishers Weekly
Oreskes and Conway tell an important story about the misuse of science to mislead the public on matters ranging from the risks of smoking to the reality of global warming. The people the authors accuse in this carefully documented book are themselves scientists—mostly physicists, former cold warriors who now serve a conservative agenda, and vested interests like the tobacco industry. The authors name these scientists—all with powerful connections in government and the media—including Robert Jastrow, Frederick Seitz, and S. Fred Singer. Seven compelling chapters detail seven issues (acid rain, the dangers of smoking and secondhand smoke, the ozone hole, global warming, the Strategic Defense Initiative, and the banning of DDT) in which this group aimed to sow seeds of public doubt on matters of settled science. They did so by casting aspersions on the science and the scientists who produce it. Oreskes, a professor of history and science studies at UC-San Diego, and science writer Conway also emphasize how journalists and Internet bloggers uncritically repeat these charges. This book deserves serious attention for the lessons it provides about the misuse of science for political and commercial ends. (June)
Library Journal
This book joins a handful whose authors have investigated a powerful propaganda industry. Oreskes (history, Univ. of California-San Diego) and Conway (Atmospheric Science at NASA: A History) have documented the recruitment of some scientists by U.S. tobacco companies to spread disinformation. Funding could be channeled through nonprofit corporations or law firms. Later, some of the same scientists had backing to argue against regulation of sulfur emissions, banning of CFCs, effects of secondhand smoke, and causes of global warming. These calculated attacks on scientific consensus have been abetted by mainstream media, which have often presented the "other side" even when it's discredited. 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. VERDICT An important study about science and the media that informed citizens need to read.—David R. Conn, Surrey P.L., B.C.

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Merchants of Doubt

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

Bloomsbury Press

Copyright © 2010 Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-59691-610-4


Ben Santer is the kind of guy you could never imagine anyone attacking. He's thoroughly moderate-of moderate height and build, of moderate temperament, of moderate political persuasions. He is also very modest-soft-spoken, almost self-effacing-and from the small size and non ex is tent décor of his office at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, you might think he was an accountant. If you met him in a room with a lot of other people, you might not even notice him.

But Santer is no accountant, and the world has noticed him.

He's one of the world's most distinguished scientists-the recipient of a 1998 MacArthur "genius" award and numerous prizes and distinctions from his employer-the U.S. Department of Energy-because he has done more than just about anyone to prove the human causes of global warming. Ever since his graduate work in the mid-1980s, he has been trying to understand how the Earth's climate works, and whether we can say for sure that human activities are changing it. He has shown that the answer to that question is yes.

Santer is an atmospheric scientist at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory's Model Diagnosis and Intercomparison Project, an enormous international project to store the results of climate models from around the globe, distribute them to other researchers, and compare the models, both with real- world data and with each other. Over the past twenty years, he and his colleagues have shown that our planet is warming-and in just the way you would expect if green house gases were the cause.

Santer's work is called "fingerprinting"-because natural climate variation leaves different patterns and traces than warming caused by green house gases. Santer looks for these fingerprints. The most important one involves two parts of our atmosphere: the troposphere, the warm blanket closest to the Earth's surface, and the stratosphere, the thinner, colder part above it. Physics tells us that if the Sun were causing global warming-as some skeptics continue to insist-we'd expect both the troposphere and the stratosphere to warm, as heat comes into the atmosphere from outer space. But if the warming is caused by green house gases emitted at the surface and largely trapped in the lower atmosphere, then we expect the troposphere to warm, but the stratosphere to cool.

Santer and his colleagues have shown that the troposphere is warming and the stratosphere is cooling. In fact, because the boundary between these two atmospheric layers is in part defined by temperature, that boundary is now moving upward. In other words, the whole structure of our atmosphere is changing. These results are impossible to explain if the Sun were the culprit. It shows that the changes we are seeing in our climate are not natural.

The distinction between the troposphere and the stratosphere became part of the Supreme Court hearing in the case of Massachusetts et al. v. the EPA, in which twelve states sued the federal government for failing to regulate carbon dioxide as a pollutant under the Clean Air Act. Justice Antonin Scalia dissented, arguing that there was nothing in the law to require the EPA to act-but the honorable justice also got lost in the science, at one point referring to the stratosphere when he meant the troposphere. A lawyer for Massachusetts replied, "Respectfully, Your Honor. It is not the stratosphere. It's the troposphere." The justice answered, "Troposphere, what ever. I told you before I'm not a scientist. That's why I don't want to deal with global warming."

But we all have to deal with global warming, whether we like it or not, and some people have been resisting this conclusion for a long time. In fact, some people have been attacking not just the message, but the messenger. Ever since scientists first began to explain the evidence that our climate was warming-and that human activities were probably to blame-people have been questioning the data, doubting the evidence, and attacking the scientists who collect and explain it. And no one has been more brutally-or more unfairly-attacked than Ben Santer.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is the world's leading authority on climate issues. Established in 1988 by the World Meteorological Organization and the United Nations Environment Program, it was created in response to early warnings about global warming. Scientists had known for a long time that increased green house gases from burning fossil fuels could cause climate change-they had explained this to Lyndon Johnson in 1965-but most thought that changes were far off in the future. It wasn't until the 1980s that scientists started to worry-to think that the future was perhaps almost here-and a few mavericks began to argue that anthropogenic climate change was actually already under way. So the IPCC was created to evaluate the evidence and consider what the impacts would be if the mavericks were right.

In 1995, the IPCC declared that the human impact on climate was now "discernible." This wasn't just a few individuals; by 1995 the IPCC had grown to include several hundred climate scientists from around the world. But how did they know that changes were under way, and how did they know they were caused by us? Those crucial questions were answered in Climate Change 1995: The Science of Climate Change, the Second Assessment Report issued by the IPCC. Chapter 8 of this report, "Detection of Climate Change and Attribution of Causes," summarized the evidence that global warming really was caused by green house gases. Its author was Ben Santer.

Santer had impeccable scientific credentials, and he had never before been involved in even the suggestion of impropriety of any kind, but now a group of physicists tied to a think tank in Washington, D.C., accused him of doctoring the report to make the science seem firmer than it really was. They wrote reports accusing him of "scientific cleansing"-expunging the views of those who did not agree. They wrote reports with titles like "Green house Debate Continued" and "Doctoring the Documents," published in places like Energy Daily and Investor's Business Daily. They wrote letters to congressmen, to officials in the Department of Energy, and to the editors of scientific journals, spreading the accusations high and wide. They pressured contacts in the Energy Department to get Santer fired from his job. Most public-and most publicized-was an op-ed piece published in the Wall Street Journal, accusing Santer of making the alleged changes to "deceive policy makers and the public." Santer had made changes to the report, but not to deceive anyone. The changes were made in response to review comments from fellow scientists.

Every scientific paper and report has to go through the critical scrutiny of other experts: peer review. Scientific authors are required to take reviewers' comments and criticisms seriously, and to fix any mistakes that may have been found. It's a foundational ethic of scientific work: no claim can be considered valid-not even potentially valid-until it has passed peer review.

Peer review is also used to help authors make their arguments clearer, and the IPCC has an exceptionally extensive and inclusive peer review pro cess. It involves both scientific experts and representatives of the governments of the participating nations to ensure not only that factual errors are caught and corrected, but as well that all judgments and interpretations are adequately documented and supported, and that all interested parties have a chance to be heard. Authors are required either to make changes in response to the review comments, or to explain why those comments are irrelevant, invalid, or just plain wrong. Santer had done just that. He had made changes in response to peer review. He had done what the IPCC rules required him to do. He had done what science requires him to do. Santer was being attacked for being a good scientist. Santer tried to defend himself in a letter to the editor of the Wall Street Journal-a letter that was signed by twenty- nine co- authors, distinguished scientists all, including the director of the U.S. Global Change Research Program. The American Meteorological Society penned an open letter to Santer affirming that the attacks were entirely without merit. Bert Bolin, the founder and chairman of the IPCC, corroborated Santer's account in a letter of his own to the Journal, pointing out that accusations were flying without a shred of evidence, and that the accusers had not contacted him, nor any IPCC officers, nor any of the scientists involved to check their facts. Had they "simply taken the time to familiarize [themselves] with IPCC rules of procedure," he noted, they would have readily found out that no rules were violated, no procedures were transgressed, and nothing wrong had happened. As later commentators have pointed out, no IPCC member nation ever seconded the complaint.

But the Journal only published a portion of both Santer and Bolin's letters, and two weeks later, they gave the accusers yet another opportunity to sling mud, publishing a letter declaring that the IPCC report had been "tampered with for political purposes." The mud stuck, and the charges were widely echoed by industry groups, business-oriented newspapers and magazines, and think tanks. They remain on the Internet today. If you Google "Santer IPCC," you get not the chapter in question-much less the whole IPCC report-but instead a variety of sites that repeat the 1995 accusations. One site even asserts (falsely) that Santer admitted that he had "adjusted the data to make it fit with political policy," as if the U.S. government even had a climate policy to adjust the data to fit. (We didn't in 1995, and we still don't.)

The experience was bitter for Santer, who spent enormous amounts of time and energy defending his scientific reputation and integrity, as well as trying to hold his marriage together through it all. (He didn't.) Today, this normally mild- mannered man turns white with rage when he recalls these events. Because no scientist starts his or her career expecting things like this to happen.

Why didn't Santer's accusers bother to find out the facts? Why did they continue to repeat charges long after they had been shown to be unfounded? The answer, of course, is that they were not interested in finding facts. They were interested in fighting them.

A few years later, Santer was reading the morning paper and came across an article describing how some scientists had participated in a program, organized by the tobacco industry, to discredit scientific evidence linking tobacco to cancer. The idea, the article explained, was to "keep the controversy alive." So long as there was doubt about the causal link, the tobacco industry would be safe from litigation and regulation. Santer thought the story seemed eerily familiar.

He was right. But there was more. Not only were the tactics the same, the people were the same, too. The leaders of the attack on him were two retired physicists, both named Fred: Frederick Seitz and S. (Siegfried) Fred Singer. Seitz was a solid- state physicist who had risen to prominence during World War II, when he helped to build the atomic bomb; later he became president of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences. Singer was a physicist-in fact, the proverbial rocket scientist-who became a leading figure in the development of Earth observation satellites, serving as the first director of the National Weather Satellite Ser vice and later as chief scientist at the Department of Transportation in the Reagan administration.

Both were extremely hawkish, having believed passionately in the gravity of the Soviet threat and the need to defend the United States from it with high- tech weaponry. Both were associated with a conservative think tank in Washington, D.C., the George C. Marshall Institute, founded to defend Ronald Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI or "Star Wars"). And both had previously worked for the tobacco industry, helping to cast doubt on the scientific evidence linking smoking to death.

From 1979 to 1985, Fred Seitz directed a program for R. J. Reynolds Tobacco Company that distributed $45 million to scientists around the country for biomedical research that could generate evidence and cultivate experts to be used in court to defend the "product." In the mid- 1990s, Fred Singer coauthored a major report attacking the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency over the health risks of secondhand smoke. Several years earlier, the U.S. surgeon general had declared that secondhand smoke was hazardous not only to smokers' health, but to anyone exposed to it. Singer attacked this finding, claiming the work was rigged, and that the EPA review of the science-done by leading experts from around the country-was distorted by a political agenda to expand government control over all aspects of our lives. Singer's anti- EPA report was funded by a grant from the Tobacco Institute, channeled through a think tank, the Alexis de Tocqueville Institution.

Millions of pages of documents released during tobacco litigation demonstrate these links. They show the crucial role that scientists played in sowing doubt about the links between smoking and health risks. These documents-which have scarcely been studied except by lawyers and a handful of academics-also show that the same strategy was applied not only to global warming, but to a laundry list of environmental and health concerns, including asbestos, secondhand smoke, acid rain, and the ozone hole.

Call it the "Tobacco Strategy." Its target was science, and so it relied heavily on scientists-with guidance from industry lawyers and public relations experts-willing to hold the rifle and pull the trigger. Among the multitude of documents we found in writing this book were Bad Science: A Resource Book-a how-to handbook for fact fighters, providing example after example of successful strategies for undermining science, and a list of experts with scientific credentials available to comment on any issue about which a think tank or corporation needed a negative sound bite.


Excerpted from Merchants of Doubt by NAOMI ORESKES ERIK M. CONWAY Copyright © 2010 by Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Merchants of Doubt 4.1 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 11 reviews.
mbob More than 1 year ago
In a well documented account, this book portrays the difference between peer-reviewed science and unsubstantiated but well publicized claims which argue that the science is wrong. It covers issues including tobacco, second hand smoke, the ozone hole, acid rain and global warming. The amazing disclosure here is the small handful of the same people at the core of the contrarian groups. The effect of this small, vocal group on popular opinion and in delaying action by our leaders is very disturbing
leopardiNJ More than 1 year ago
When science meets up with the policy application of scientific output, the deciding issue often becomes one of consensus - Which of the proposed actions is based on sound science as understood and advocated by the best scientists? In Merchants of Doubt, authors Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway present a meticulously researched but sometimes flawed account of decades of attempts (some successful, some not) to obfuscate and derail the political response to one of several environmental and environmental-health threats. Focusing primarily on the careers of three protagonists - Frederick Seitz, Siegfried 'Fred' Singer and William Nierenberg - the book details their campaigns to forestall active response to one of several issues, some of which involved sowing doubt about a developing scientific consensus: 1. The link between smoking and cancer apparent by the 1950s and fought over for the following three decades; 2. The potential deployment of the Strategic Defense Initiative (Star Wars) most closely associated with the Reagan administration years; 3. The recognition, also starting back in the 1950s and debated into the Reagan years, that rainfall in both the U.S. and Europe was becoming unacceptable acid as a consequence of the sulfur content of coal used in electric generation and also of nitric oxides emitted by automobiles; 4. The discovery during the 1960s that chemical aerosols (primarily CFCs) were a threat to the Earth's stratospheric ozone layer; 5. The follow-up tobacco-related issue of the 1980s and 90s of second-hand smoke and its health risks; 6. The continuing struggles over global warming that began in the 1970s; and, 7. The resurrection of hyperbolic attacks on Rachel Carson, the EPA and the links between chemicals in the environment and human and ecological health. This is not a simple tale of conspiracy among the three principle characters noted above - roles change as do the players. Neither, despite the sub-title, does the book reveal a single strategy employed by one side of these "debates" against the other. Certainly, for the cigarette smoking/cancer link, somewhat for acid rain, ozone depletion and, at least initially, global warming, sowing doubt was the strategy of choice employed to discredit environmental threats and the scientists who came to represent those threats. However, for Star Wars, the shoe was basically on the other foot with government-independent scientists questioning the validity of conclusions held members of the administration in power. Also, doubt, despite its predominance among the amateur global-warming-denial community and certain politicians, is not the only means by which the primary actors (such as B. Lomborg and Michaels in the political, global-warming-denial community) are operating - they have shifted the game almost entirely toward economic arguments reflecting an overall shift in the political scene toward economic concerns. Despite these limitations, Merchants of Doubt does shine some light on aspects of debates (and malfeasance on the part of the powerful) on environmental issues that were hitherto undocumented, and, as such, is well worth the read. Richard R. Pardi Environmental Science William Paterson University
RolfDobelli More than 1 year ago
"As recently as 2007, 40% of Americans believed that scientific experts were still arguing about the realities of global warming." And, of course, they were not; global warming is a long-acknowledged, scientific fact, say science professor Naomi Oreskes and science writer Erik M. Conway. They show how "merchants of doubt" - a dedicated cabal of conservative scientists on the payrolls of industries and right-wing think tanks - have labored successfully over the decades to convince a broad spectrum of the public that the truth is not true, that scientific fact is merely opinion, that secondhand smoke will not kill you, that industrial pollution did not cause acid rain, that chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) did not deplete the ozone layer and that global warming does not exist. In this jaw-dropping, meticulously researched work of science, politics and investigative journalism, Oreskes and Conway track the shockingly long history of widespread, willful dissemination of scientific fiction in the service of politics and profits. getAbstract recommends this sure-to-be classic to all those interested in the environment, in the processes of politics, science and media, and in learning the hard facts that underlie so much propaganda.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Erick Nonway and Naomi Oreskes brilliantly tie together how science has been strategically attacked and hidden by special interests groups (notably big businesses) with a lot of money on their hands, trying to protect it at all costs. It was always a wonder how so many people distrust science these days, and rather treat it as opinion that they can agree or disagree with. It is quite concerning and I hope this book will help more people have their eyes opened to all the manipulation taking place. There is a lot at stake after all, and ultimately I really appreciate the efforts of the authors and their mission to provide clearity in these times. Highly suggest this read for anyone who follows corruption of both information and the environment.
WillettKempton More than 1 year ago
This is a very thorough analysis of seemingly diverse science policy issues.  
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minority_report More than 1 year ago
I know this is pretty good book. But I will NOT pay the price that B&N wants to charge for this ebook. B&N need to seriously re-evaluate their ebook pricing structure. First I see that this ebook actually costs .28 more than the paperback edition. Sounds silly but this is an ebook and it should be priced closer to 10 or 11 bucks for a paperback that is under 15 dollars! Then when you compare the B&N price to the Kindle price and see that we are being charged 3.55 more for the same ebook, you get the idea that we Nook owners are being gouged and not saving any money at all. I'll be dumping my Nook and looking elsewhere if this ridiculous cost structure for ebooks continues.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
What a waste of time reading this liberal rant. Character assassination on almost ever page. Insults to good men and women who work in and run our businesses. If you are a Smoker, an Engineer, or businessman you can expect to be insulted in every single chapter.