How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Climate Change
By Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway
Find it on Bookshop
As I’m writing this in 2022, misinformation is everywhere, and it’s not subtle. Between the COVID-19 pandemic and climate change, there are a lot of facts that certain groups of people want to hide or cause confusion with falsehoods. But misinformation is not new. It’s been going on for decades, but when did it start and how did its strategies shift over time? Who were the first merchants of doubt?
The science is clear on the topics of nuclear winter, DDT, tobacco smoke, acid rain, and global warming. But a small group of well-connected scientists muddied that message, playing up the uncertainty and stoking controversy, all for the benefit of industry.
This book has been on my radar for a long time, but my library didn’t have it. I finally just bought it, since many people had recommended it to me and I knew how important the message was. Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway present some great reporting on the origins of false or misleading scientific messages. Merchants of Doubt was published in 2011, so its examples are not modern, but the lessons are timeless. These stories help provide context for what we are seeing today.
I read the 10th anniversary edition, with a foreword by Al Gore. It also contained a postscript by the authors, with some updates from the past decade and a look at the current state of action on climate.
This book is a must-read for anyone interested in the history of public perception of science, or anyone who is angry about misinformation, or in stories of large-scale deception for personal gain. The information in here is angering at times, but the knowledge is worth your while.
People who deny the facts do not do so because they are illiterate or gullible. They deny the facts because companies and industries have systematically manipulated them into doing so for corporate profit. These companies have undermined more than just public trust in science— they have obliterated the foundation of public trust in facts, period.
This is insidious because science is inherently self-regulating. Peer review of claims (i.e. hypotheses) is built into the process. Findings cannot be accepted by the broader scientific community until the results have been evaluated by others. And every once in a while, someone will go through the published literature and publish a review paper consolidating the current state of the science. Any questioning by the media or false experts of evidence that has already been vetted causes unnecessary and invalid additional doubt.
Doubt is crucial to science—in the version we call curiosity or healthy skepticism, it drives science forward—but it also makes science vulnerable to misrepresentation, because it is easy to take uncertainties out of context and create the impression that everything is unresolved. This was the tobacco industry’s key insight: that you could use normal scientific uncertainty to undermine the status of actual scientific knowledge.
The mis-portrayal of science began with the Cold War. Some people stated that the Soviet nuclear capabilities where much larger than there was any evidence for, and that they proved a great danger to the US. They convinced Congress to expand American capacity for nuclear warfare.
Science showed that the deployment of numerous atomic weapons would send the globe into a nuclear winter. Carl Sagan was a particularly loud proponent of this problem, publishing a summary in Parade magazine (10 million-strong readership) accompanied by scary drawings of dark nuclear clouds.
Unfortunately, Carl Sagan was criticized for calling attention to the possibility of nuclear winter. As a scientist, they asserted, he was compromising his objectivity by politicizing the results.
This places scientists in a double bind: the demands of objectivity suggest that they should keep aloof from contested issues, but if they don’t get involved, no one will know what an objective view of the matter looks like.
Misinformation tactics really took off with the attack on tobacco health concerns. This approach is so associated with that issue that some people call it the “Tobacco Strategy”.
Our society has always understood that freedoms are never absolute. This is what we mean by the rule of law. No one gets to do just whatever he feels like doing, whenever he feels like doing it. I don’t have the right to yell fire in a crowded theater; your right to throw a punch ends at my nose. All freedoms have their limits, and none more obviously than the freedom to kill other people, either directly with guns and knives, or indirectly with dangerous goods. Secondhand smoke was an indirect danger that killed people.
There were many tactics that were part of the Tobacco Strategy. One of them was the classic Republican refrain: “don’t take away my freedom”. They portrayed scientists as villains who were trying to take away your right to smoke. What would they take away next?
This was the Bad Science strategy in a nutshell: plant complaints in op-ed pieces, in letters to the editor, and in articles in mainstream journals to whom you’d supplied the “facts,” and then quote them as if they really were facts. Quote, in fact, yourself. A perfect rhetorical circle. A mass media echo chamber of your own construction.
The biggest hazard of them all—one that could truly affect the entire planet—was just at that moment coming to public attention: global warming. Global warming would become the mother of all environmental issues, because it struck at the very root of economic activity: the use of energy. So perhaps not surprisingly, the same people who had questioned acid rain, doubted the ozone hole, and defended tobacco now attacked the scientific evidence of global warming.
With the seeds of doubt in science sown in denial of nuclear winter and harmful tobacco, the next target became climate change. Several “scientists” purposefully made messaging designed to confuse the general public and portray the issue as much more confusing and complicated than it actually was. The main perpetrators, the big three merchants of doubt, were Bill Nierenberg, Fred Seitz, and Fred Singer.
Nierenberg didn’t deny the legitimacy of climate science. He simply ignored it in favor of the claims made by economists: that treating symptoms rather than causes would be less expensive, that new technology would solve the problems that might appear so long as government didn’t interfere, and that if technology couldn’t solve all the problems, we could just migrate.
Past environmental issues were mostly local and reversible. Global climate change presents a new challenge to the human race, pushing us to innovate and recreate large-scale systems in a very short time frame. This level of technological challenge requires politicians to work closely with scientists, which is a challenge in itself.
Scientists are not trained to communicate with nonscientists, e.g. politicians or the public. I know many scientists who have trouble communicating their results clearly. This gap is an unfortunate oversight that universities need to address. Schools should require communication courses to get a science degree, or any degree for that matter.
The panel began by noting a common problem among scientists: the tendency to emphasize uncertainties rather than settled knowledge. Scientists do this because it’s necessary for inquiry—the research frontier can’t be identified by focusing on what you already know—but it’s not very helpful when trying to create public policy.
One way research groups have tried to address the communication gap is by joining together to create collective working groups. This strategy is how the modern world makes scientific breakthroughs. Sometimes hundreds of researchers work together to synthesize results. Groups like the IPCC summarizes the work of thousands into a formal consensus on climate change. Unfortunately, the IPCC reports tend to be difficult to read, even for scientists. Often, media has to bridge the gap and some of the nuances get lost in translation.
Role of the Media
The media serves to provide information to the public that helps shape general opinions. They have to deliver it in a way that is understandable to their audience. This often means heavy simplification and sometimes mistranslation or misrepresentation of the facts.
Conflict, it is sometimes said, makes good copy.
Journalists, by training, look at the story from multiple angles, and give weight to both sides of an argument. This makes sense when reporting politics, where different opinions enrich the discussion. In reporting science, however, there is only the evidence. And sometimes the evidence is unequivocal. Science is not about opinion. Scientific claims have been tested through research, and critically reviewed by peers. But sometimes we don’t want to accept the science, especially when the truth is hard to hear. If the other side is saying that “everything is fine”, that is easier to accept. It allows us to cling to our blissful ignorance.
Maybe we need peer review to be more transparent. Maybe we all need to be able to see the criticism a theory has already overcome. We could see the trials passed, the way the evidence fits.
The authors conclude that this “balanced” coverage is a form of “informational bias,” that the ideal of balance leads journalists to give minority views more credence than they deserve. This divergence between the state of the science and how it was presented in the major media helped make it easy for our government to do nothing about global warming.
The other problem that media has with scientists is the tendency to see experts in a field as experts in everything. As Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway point out, “physicists have been consulted on everything from bee colony collapse to spelling reform and the prospects for world peace.” We need to remember that smart people are not smart about everything.
As will become a theme for Oreskes and Conway, the root of these denial tactics goes way back. It ramped up with the promotion of capitalism during the Reagan Era. They wrote a whole book about this, new in 2023, which I would highly recommend if this fascinates you. (Find The Big Myth on Bookshop).
The free market ran the way it willed, and the consequences to the environment are severe. Unintentionally, the bill is about to come due. The market failed us. It didn’t account for the consequences of environmental damage.
So when you boil everything down, the Merchants of Doubt were clinging to the idea that government has no place controlling markets. Science was telling us that fixing pollution and public health needed government intervention. These propagandists refused to accept the facts. And this is how science became the enemy: as an ally of governmental regulation.
Many liberals and academics agree that without change in our energy technologies, there will be no solution to global warming. The question is not whether we turn to technology for help; the question is whether we can assume that free markets will produce those technologies freely, of their own accord. The question is also whether they will do so in time—so we can relax in the comforting knowledge that they will—or whether we need to get out of our chairs and do something.
Unfortunately, these strategies worked. It’s going to take some time and effort to rectify the confusion the merchants of doubt have caused in the minds of the American public.
There are many ways to help address this, but the biggest one is education. The average American needs at least a basic knowledge of science, as well as critical thinking skills.
We all need a better understanding of what science really is, how to recognize real science when we see it, and how to separate it from the garbage.
The great economist John Maynard Keynes famously summarized all of economic theory in a single phrase: “There is no such thing as a free lunch.” And he was right. We have experienced prosperity unmatched in human history. We have feasted to our hearts’ content. But the lunch was not free.
Americans are divided on the topic of climate change. Some believe it is a real problem that is already having negative consequences, a stance which is backed by evidence-based research. Others believe it is a hoax, and that their comfortable way of life is threatened by scientists and liberals, rather than the communal third-party enemy of greenhouse gas emissions.
This idea was perpetuated on purpose by non-experts backed by some of the largest industries in the country. They used the same strategies to downplay the threats of nuclear winter, tobacco, DDT, acid rain, and now climate change. It is our duty as American citizens to educate ourselves on this history and the basic science, and not let ourselves be fooled by falsehoods.
These authors were inspired by their work here on Merchants of Doubt to look deeper into the root source of these propaganda strategies, and the result was just published as The Big Myth. It highlights how Americans were taught that capitalism is king, and the best way to improve society was just to let the markets “work their magic”, just like they had encouraged ignorance of climate change. I loved that book as well; check it out on Bookshop.
Want to read more? Find Merchants of Doubt here: Bookshop
This book made it onto my list of the Top 10 Best Books of 2022! See the full list here.
The quotes above were gathered using Readwise. It’s a truly amazing app to help you remember what you read. If you want to try it out, use my link and we both get a free month 🙂
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You might also like my notes on:
The Future We Choose by Christiana Figueres and Tom Rivett-Carnac
The Color of Law by Richard Rothstein