• Dan Connors

Are you sure about that?? Really?????


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

Naomi Oreskes, Erik M. Conway 2010



Finding out the truth about something has never been easy, but its gotten much harder since those with something to hide or protect learned how to barrage us with bullshit and wear us down. "Beyond a reasonable doubt" has been the gold standard for jury verdicts, scientific findings, and truth in general. Very few things can be ruled 100% true all of the time, but we get by in this confusing world by looking for things that are mostly true most of the time, so that we can make sense of things.


But "reasonable doubt" is a loophole that's been exploited by governments, businesses, and propagandists for centuries. In the Information Age, when reliable information is worth its weight in gold, the fight between doubt and certainty has enormous stakes. Merchants of Doubt takes a fascinating look at the history of campaigns of the last fifty years that's doubt-pushing campaigns with an emphasis on environmental and health issues. According to this book, there have been dedicated and well-planned campaigns to protect businesses by spreading doubt, even when scientific studies pointed to both health and environmental repercussions.


Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway, the authors of this powerful book, are professors who specialize in the history of science. Oreskes has written over a dozen books about science and society, with an emphasis on climate change. Merchants of Doubt is probably the best known of her books, and its message rings even more true today in the face of fake news and conspiracy theories.


The scientific method is well-known and has provided much of the progress that we see today. For review, here are the steps:


1- Observe something, as independently and detached as possible. (The sky, for instance)

2- Come up with a question about how that system works. (Why is the sky blue?)

3- Gather data and information. (What is the sky made of, for example.)

4- Form a hypothesis. (Air molecules bend the light from the sun)

5- Test the hypothesis. (Create miniature versions of the sun)

6- Make conclusions (Look at your test data and see if it confirms or disproves the hypothesis)

7- Report on the conclusions and get feedback from other scientists. If they agree independently, you've got a working theory, if not, back to the drawing board.


You'll notice that nowhere in there is a step where 100% certainty is ever attained. There are always exceptions and nature is way more complicated than our brains and models can comprehend. But science gives us a start. Merchants of Doubt tells the story of how large corporations, aided by scientists who have been corrupted by politics and money, have successfully sown doubt into the scientific method.


There is an alternate, much easier, pathway to "knowledge", the path of faith. It has only two steps.

1- Come up with some founding principles regarding political philosophy, economics, and religion.

2- Bend reality to serve those founding principles as much as possible.


In this book those founding principles are chiefly about making profits, and confounding data about environmental and health damage are conveniently ignored or explained away. Here are the six examples that the book covers in frustrating detail.


Tobacco and cancer. Since the 1930's there has been scientific data linking tobacco usage to lung cancer and other diseases. But tobacco has been a profitable and lucrative industry for centuries, and the addictive properties of nicotine make stopping smoking extremely difficult. It is here that the unholy alliance between corporations and bought and paid for scientists began. The tobacco industry hired PR firms, came up with its own "studies", and tried to throw doubt into the air that other things, not tobacco, could have been causing the lung cancers. While tobacco smoking is less common and accepted today, it's not gone, and its lessons have been taken to heart by other industries.


Star Wars. During the Ronald Reagan years, a group of politicians tried to argue for a "winnable" nuclear war. Satellites could shoot most of the bombs from space, and the few that got through wouldn't cause too much damage. During the 1980's there was a debate between scientists, who used models to predict nuclear winter, crop deaths, and the end of civilization, and the Reagan Administration, who tried to assert that the cooling temperatures and environmental damage would be survivable. Luckily, Star Wars never got off the ground though you wonder if the Pentagon still has it under consideration.


Acid Rain. It was noticed as early as 1963 that rainfall in certain areas was becoming too acidic because of nearby air pollutants. Sulfur and nitrate, a byproduct of coal and oil production and burning, were the main culprits, so the fossil fuel industry tried to combat efforts to combat acid rain. Biologists predicted damage to forests as well as fish in lakes, and this is a rare victory where regulation in the 80's and 90's actually worked. A cap and trade system was put in place, and industries figured out how to capture the pollutants at the source. But getting there was an ordeal, and the authors detail a major report in 1983 that the Reagan Administration had changed, claiming acid rain was too expensive to fix and the causes were too unknown.


Holes in the Ozone layer. Ozone is a type of Oxygen that forms in the upper atmosphere and protects life on earth from dangerous ultraviolet radiation. In the 1970's and 80's it was discovered that a large hole in the Ozone layer had formed over Antarctica. Had this hole grown big enough, the dangers of skin cancers and being outdoors would have skyrocketed. Eventually the cause was narrowed to certain gasses that were contained in consumer aerosol products. The aerosol industry, fearing for their profits, tried to confound the issue by blaming volcanoes. They claimed that the hole was far from civilization, and was temporary. Luckily, the Montreal Protocol of 1987 by most of the world's countries regulated the offending gasses and the problem has since faded from view.


Secondhand Cigarette Smoke. The Surgeon General in 1964 released a report linking cigarette smoking to cancer for the smoker, but its effects on non-smokers remained shrouded for decades. Again, the tobacco industry went into full obfuscation mode to throw doubts on any claims, for fear that smoking in public would become a taboo and profits would plummet. In 1981 as study came out definitively linking the deaths of wives of cigarette smokers to lung cancer, and the industry went into full attack. They tried to pin the deaths of these non-smokers on other causes, widening their attack on science to include government as well. And as the data piled up, eventually smoking began to be outlawed in public spaces and smokers were forced into their homes or outside.


Climate Change. Gradual warming of the earth's climate has been predicted for a long time, due to the greenhouse effect of massive emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere. As early as 1979, scientists have been sounding the warning, and all of the data since then has pointed to an inevitable rise in temperatures that threatens crops, cities, and livelihoods. The fossil fuel industry has fought the science ever since, with billions of dollars in revenues at stake if the planet was to seek other renewable energy sources. This has become the mother-load of doubt- with industry and its defenders pointing at the sun as the culprit, or even doubting whether the climate is changing at all or if it poses any dangers.


There have been many more examples of doubt-fueled debates recently, from those who doubt the Covid-19 epidemic and its treatments, to those who doubt the numbers from election results- with the result that the nature of reality is so confused now that multiple unfounded conspiracy theories seem to arise every week. By sowing so much doubt, people are more and more vulnerable to disinformation, claiming "nobody knows for sure." Merchants of Doubt even goes into a closed case of the pesticide DDT and cancer, showing that the assault on science has become so pervasive that denial of the truth is now a legitimate political strategy. In addition to science, environmentalists are now a target of the doubters, because so many of their findings and causes turn out to be inconvenient for the businesses that are involved.


The book points a finger at the media, who have shrugged their shoulders at the phoney debates, giving serious attention in the interest of fairness to both sides, and concluding "who can truly know?" The big villains of this book are a small group of scientists, many of whom participated in the nuclear weapon research, who sold their souls for a paycheck and gave cover to corporations who knew exactly what they were doing. And then there's the politicians who will gladly take campaign contributions to get re-elected, even if they have to go in on the con.


Confusion allows politicians and corporations to keep on doing what they've been doing, while the public doesn't know what's happening or who's to blame. Free market fundamentalists conveniently ignore the dark underbelly of capitalism, aka "negative externalities" (pollution, cancers, violent storms and crop failures) that often hit poorer people harder than those who benefit from the unregulated health problems that they are causing. Thanks to the high standards and safe distance of absolute proof, most companies and politicians never see any blame or repercussions from policies that they put in place.


This book is valuable in how it looks at how history has treated these "debates" and how science has so far come out on top, even if it took decades to happen. Tobacco smoking is much less common than it was fifty years ago, and its health dangers are well known. Acid rain and the Ozone hole are less of a problem, but climate change looms on the horizon as the challenge of the 21st century. Moving away from fossil fuels (which will run out at some point anyway), is going to be a huge battle between the mountains of data on climate effects and the billions of dollars spent by the industries with a lot to lose.



10 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All