Book Club

The Chair read for you Merchants of doubt by Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway

Published on 21 February 2022

Merchants of doubt [1] is the fruit of 5 years of thorough research by authors Naomi Oreskes, Professor of the History of Science and Affiliated Professor of Earth and Planetary Sciences at Harvard University, and Erik M. Conway, historian at Caltech’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (NASA). Their book is at the intersection of investigative journalism, historical research, and scientific vulgarization. After “plow[ing] through hundreds of thousands of pages of documents,” the authors assiduously document how a handful of individuals and organizations, so called “merchants of doubt,” “attack[ed] science and scientists […] to confuse us about major, important issues affecting our lives – and the planet we live on.” Oreskes and Conway convincingly identify a pattern of strategies and actors that played a role in these attacks. They weave this pattern into a discussion of what the scientific process really is, and how it can be turned on its head by organized, well-financed and disingenuous individuals.

The strategy used again and again by these merchants of doubt can be summed up by a quote the authors highlight from an internal Philipp Morris document: “Objective #1 [is] to maintain the controversy […] about tobacco smoke in public and scientific forums”. They dub this “the tobacco strategy” and highlight how it was used not just to deny the link between smoking and cancer, but also on issues such as acid rain, the ozone hole, global warming, and DDT. Why might this be the case? As laid out in detail in this book, the longer a scientific controversy exists – or appears to exist – the longer dissenters can argue against government regulation.

Oreskes and Conway describe how these individuals and industry lobbies maintained the controversy in seven different cases – one for each of the book’s chapters. The most important and repeated strategy they report on is creating distractions to drown out scientific consensus. An example of this is when Reynolds, a cigarette maker, created and funded a program dedicated to fighting the growing worry in the scientific community that smoking caused cancer. They did this by generating a large body of studies that looked into other causes of cancer such as stress, genetic inheritance, or pollution. Another strategy is known as “paralysis by analysis.” This is when dissenters keep asking questions about a scientific issue, long after the scientific community has already answered those questions, thus creating the impression that the issue is not resolved. This strategy was used by a handful of scientists bent on denying the reality of global warming when the IPCC’s first reports were published. These merchants of doubt also engaged in several vicious personal attacks on scientists, which the authors chronicle. The most notable of these was on Roger Revelle, mentor to Al Gore. More generally, they tried to discredit science as a whole. The tobacco industry even went as far as to publish “Bad Science: A Resource Book” – a book giving advice and strategies to “challeng[e] the authority and integrity of science.”

One of the most interesting aspects of Merchants of Doubt, is that it provides evidence that these attacks against scientists working in various fields were in fact carried out by the same people and organizations. Many of those involved were ex-Cold Warriors (Fred Seitz, Fred Singer, and Bill Nierenberg are particularly singled out) who were haunted by the specter of communism and strongly opposed any form of government regulation. These “free market fundamentalists” saw restrictions on smoking as the first step on a slippery slope towards socialism. They considered environmentalists to be watermelons: “green on the outside, red on the inside.” To them, every area where government was called to regulate because of mounting scientific evidence was an area worth fighting for. The key issue is of course that in each of the cases that are studied in this book, the problems – cancer, pollution, a hole in the ozone, … – were caused by market failures.

The strategies used by these merchants of doubt were especially effective at stalling government intervention against global warming for several reasons. The biggest reason is that this issue strikes “at the root of economic activity: the use of energy,” making free market fundamentalists particularly adamant on opposing any arguments that could justify regulating what they consider to be the motor of economic growth, capitalism, and the free market. Additionally, global warming has two particular characteristics that made it more difficult for policymakers to address the issue. First, it is difficult to make a cost-benefit analysis in the standard economic sense. While the costs of abating emissions can be roughly calculated, it is virtually impossible to put a price on the benefits of abating emissions – indeed, “who can calculate the benefit of a blue sky?” This made it easy for dissenters to argue that the problem was too expensive to fix given uncertain returns. Second, the specificity of global warming is that actions taken now have serious, but somewhat uncertain, impacts in the future. While the uncertainty and the distance of this future are both decreasing, this was seen a good argument against regulation as well. If we assume a high enough discount rate on the future, then the cost of actions now for some uncertain future are also far too high. Of course, this is a logical fallacy given that taking no action at all ensures a far higher cost to pay in the future, no matter the discount rate.

Finally, Oreskes and Conway insist on another important aspect of this story: the role of the media. They discuss the impact of the Fairness Doctrine, a policy enacted by the US Federal Communications Commission in 1949, in force until 1987. It required licensed broadcasters to devote airtime to controversial issues of public importance, and that they do so in a “fair and balanced way,” providing exposure to partisans of both sides of the issue. The authors argue that this was interpreted as “giving equal weight to both sides, rather than giving accurate weight to both sides.” The crux of the problem is that once a scientific issue is closed – meaning a consensus has been reached by the majority of scientists working on the subject using peer-reviewed evidence – then there is only one side to the issue. Giving minority views an equal amount of weight in the media ends up giving them too much credibility. This is especially true when those supporting those minority views have a history of opposing the general scientific consensus on many different issues, without having evidence to back up their claims. Unfortunately, the media did not take this into account and the authors document many instances during which unscientific claims were published in mass media, but corrections or opposition to them were not. The case of Roger Revelle illustrates this. While attacks against him were widely published and echoed, letters from his family and colleagues to correct the record after his death were declined for publication in the general press.

Merchants of Doubt reminds us that science is a process, which takes time and involves the collective efforts of many scientists and organizations. “Consensus – not any arbitrary significance level – is the real gold standard of scientific evidence.” There will always be some level of uncertainty in this process, but there is a point at which there is enough evidence – i.e., the point beyond reasonable doubt – to take action. For each of the issues discussed in this book, including global warming, this point was pushed beyond where it should have been by merchants of doubt. By describing and documenting how these individuals operated, the authors provide an incredibly useful account of the strategies that need to be looked out for. They show just how effectively these strategies can delay action, and how harmful this can be. The lessons they take away from their case studies are especially critical in the digital age, when anyone’s voice can be boosted, diffused, and repeated on a loop in ideological echo chambers.

Aliénor Cameron, Research Fellow Can industrial competitiveness and decarbonization go hand in hand?

[1] Naomi Oreskes & Erik M. Conway Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming, Ed Bloomsbury Publishing USA, 2020, 368 p.