Review: Merchants of Doubt

This review will deal with both the book and the documentary based on it. The book was written by two historians of science Naomi Oreskes of Harvard University and Erik M. Conway and was published in 2010, while the documentary was directed by Robert Kenner and released in 2014 and has just been released on DVD. I can strongly recommend both. The book is very clearly written and makes a compelling case for the authors’ thesis. Although the documentary is based on the book, its emphasis is different (dealing mostly with the climate change debate) and provides new information that is not in the book. Here’s the trailer.

Oreskes was the person who first did an exhaustive search of all the peer-reviewed published literature on climate change that appeared from 1993 to 2003 that had the keywords ‘climate change’ and discovered that far from being the controversial issue that it was being portrayed in the media following the publication of the third IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) report, the overwhelming consensus was consistent with the IPCC report: that the Earth was warming, that it was being caused by a rise in carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, and that human activity was largely responsible for it.

Oreskes published her findings in the journal Science in 2004.

The 928 papers were divided into six categories: explicit endorsement of the consensus position, evaluation of impacts, mitigation proposals, methods, paleoclimate analysis, and rejection of the consensus position. Of all the papers, 75% fell into the first three categories, either explicitly or implicitly accepting the consensus view; 25% dealt with methods or paleoclimate, taking no position on current anthropogenic climate change. Remarkably, none of the papers disagreed with the consensus position.

Admittedly, authors evaluating impacts, developing methods, or studying paleoclimatic change might believe that current climate change is natural. However, none of these papers argued that point.

She then got interested in how it came to be that the media was portraying a scientific controversy when there was none in the scientific community itself and discovered that it was due to a concerted and well-organized effort by a group of people and organizations to propagate the deception that there was uncertainty and doubt when there was none. What was even more striking was that this was pretty much the same group of people who had done similar things in the past when it came to the perils of smoking tobacco, second-hand smoke, acid-rain, the ozone hole, and the revisionist attack on Rachel Carson. In other words this was a long-standing program of obfuscation that dated back more than half a century and spanned a variety of public health issues. The people behind this effort did this by creating ‘think tanks’ that acted as front organizations that hired superficially ‘objective’ people to provide ‘balance’ to the scientists in public debates and hide the fact that they were propagandists who were promoting a specific agenda.

What was that agenda? The main thesis of the book and the film is that this group of people has united around one aim: to get rid of as many existing government regulations as possible and to prevent any future ones being promulgated, unless they serve the interests of the groups involved. The various people and groups involved have different motives. The Koch brothers and ExxonMobil, for example, want the freedom to make money as freely as possible without having to incur the expense of irksome pollution controls. There are libertarian organizations like the Cato Institute that want to get rid of government altogether and getting rid of regulatory agencies was seen as an important part of the process. And then there are virulent anti-Communists who see government regulatory agencies as enemies of freedom and are determined to root them out. They see the environmental movement as the vanguard of the creeping subversive arm of Communist infiltration in the US that they describe as watermelons, i.e. green on the outside but red on the inside. All of them have united around the goal of fighting government regulations.

These groups hired some prominent scientists to be the public faces of their effort even though the expertise of these scientists was not in the areas under scrutiny. They were all, alas, physicists (Fred Seitz, Fred Singer, Robert Jastrow, and William Nierenberg) who had made their reputations during World War II and the subsequent Cold War and now carried that zeal into fighting what they saw as the reds hiding under the beds in the guise of regulatory agencies.

Their strategy was simple: to exploit the fact that science always acknowledges that we never know anything for certain and that judgments are made on the weight of evidence. But these merchants of doubt seized upon that ever-present element of doubt to magnify it out of all proportion and claim that since we did not know for certain about the dangers of any of these hazards, we should not take any action. They took advantage of the fact that in any situation where we are not sure what to do, most people choose to do nothing. The longer they could maintain doubt, the longer they could delay any action, and the longer they could take advantage of the status quo.

This strategy was first laid bare in the case of smoking. A whole trove of internal tobacco industry documents that were leaked by insiders (early whistleblowers) showed that the tobacco companies knew for decades that smoking was addictive and that it caused cancers and lung and heart disease even as they were denying it to the public and government agencies and Congress.

The same thing is happening with climate change now as they try to raise doubts and keep shifting their strategy as each of their claims get shot down. First they denied that there was any warming at all. Then they admitted that there was warming but that it was part of a natural cycle and caused by sunspots or other such things and not by human activities. Then they conceded that we were not sure if it was caused by humans but that it may not be so bad and that anyway the costs of taking action were too high to incur unless we had absolute certainty, which of course we never will. They simultaneously argue all three positions and have managed to garner considerable support for their idea that fears about global warming are somehow being spread by people with the hidden agenda of undermining freedom when it is the opponents of global warming who are guilty of that charge. They used the well-worn tactic that seems to never fail to dupe enough people and that is that if you yell loudly enough that some action will take away their freedom, even if it is not specified how exactly that will happen, then they will sign on to your cause.

The film shows how these shills for the doubt cabal get themselves into the media to spread their message of doubt and to goad their followers to threaten those scientists who oppose them by gleefully attacking scientists and revealing their home addresses, email addresses, and telephone numbers. These people are vicious and Oreskes has also been the target.

The film ends with the story of a six-term Republican congressman Bob Inglis who represented one of the reddest of red districts in South Carolina. As a member of the House Science and Technology Committee he went to Antarctica twice, examined the data from the ice cores, and became convinced that global warming is real and started saying so. He was roundly defeated in the 2010 primary by Trey Gowdy. Inglis continues to try to raise the alarm about climate change but his case illustrates how perilous this issue has become for politicians so that even Democrats and president Obama tread very gingerly around it.

The film is very well done and uses a magician periodically as a metaphor, as he explains that how magicians work is by taking advantage of the fact that people do not register everything they see and thus can be easily misdirected. These merchants of doubt do the same thing, shifting public attention away from the brutal reality that science reveals about the danger of climate change and onto extraneous issues.

As I said, I can recommend both the book and the film wholeheartedly as blistering exposes of a corrupt and venal group of individuals and groups who are willing to sacrifice the health of the planet and future generations for the sake of their greed and ideology.


  1. Nick Gotts says

    I endorse the book recommendation – haven’t seen the film yet. One of the most interesting points in the book was that 50 years ago, a slight majority of American scientists appear to have voted Republican. Now, the great majority vote Democrat.

  2. moarscienceplz says

    What was even more striking was that this was pretty much the same group of people who had done similar things in the past when it came to the perils of … the ozone hole, …

    The ozone hole? I don’t remember any serious attempts to downplay that one. Every news report that I can remember basically said this is a very bad thing. Yes, there were a lot of differing opinions on how quickly or slowly the hole could heal, and there was some of the usual grumbling by people who didn’t even know what they were talking about that replacements for CFCs would be too expensive to afford, but I can’t think of any instance where a real journalist ever made a report suggesting we should just do nothing.

  3. Mano Singham says


    The book has an entire chapter on the efforts by the same groups of people to derail any action on the ozone hole, using the same kind of obfuscatory and delaying tactics. But in that case, there was quite a rapid movement from identification of the problem to taking action and the political climate was more conducive to governmental responses so the ban on CFCs went ahead.

    But these groups have become more sophisticated since then and now strike more quickly and widely and have much greater penetration in the media.

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