Merchants of Doubt

I had the great pleasure of hosting Dr. Naomi Oreskes at UNC this week. She was here to give the Michael Polanyi lecture Wednesday evening (Polanyi was a scientist and philosopher famous for the development of the concept of tacit knowledge). She spoke to a packed room of 300 people about her incredible new book Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming.

Naomi has a PhD in Geology and is a Professor of history who studies the history of natural sciences. Her book with Erik Conway represents five years of research about why so many Americans and American Politicians don’t believe the science clearly indicating the earth is warming and that  human activities are the principal cause. Her book lays out broad evidence that a small group of individuals – several of whom are former scientists – and conservative think tanks worked for decades to create doubt in the mind of the public about threats including tobacco smoke, DDT, acid rain and anthropogenic climate change. More remarkably to me, most of these people believe the scientific evidence supporting the consensus view of these problems, yet justify their doubt mongering by invoking threats to freedom and free market economies. Sound strange?  It is. These folks view any government regulation, eg, even of clear dangers to public health, as threats to human freedom and a step towards communism or totalitarianism.  Watch the video below: you will be astonished. You can also listen to an NPR interview Naomi and I did on climate change here.


A repost on the book from SkepticalScience:

Merchants of Doubt examines the organised attack on scientific evidence and on science itself over the last 40 years. In the 1950s, as scientific evidence began to accumulate that smoking caused cancer, a small group of scientists actively campaigned to cast doubt on the evidence. When scientists calculated that nuclear war would cause a devastating nuclear winter, the same group of scientists sought to cast doubt not only on the science but on the entire scientific establishment.

What is striking is the same scientists keep appearing, casting doubts on each scientific consensus. A name that regularly appears is Fred Singer who continues to publish articles on global warming to this day. In 1983, Singer argued that evidence of acid rain damage was lacking, that much acidification was natural and was in some cases actually beneficial. When the ozone layer was found to be shrinking, Singer argued that ozone depletion was a natural variation being exploited by scientists eager for more grant money. When second hand smoking was found to cause cancer in non-smokers, Singer blamed the messenger, attacking the EPA.

Also striking is that the arguments used against acid rain, DDT, CFCs and smoking are the same arguments encountered now in global warming skepticism. Over the last 40 years, they argued that there’s no evidence. It’s not us. It’s beneficial. It’s a conspiracy. There’s no consensus. Ozone depletion was blamed on volcanoes. Human activity is too small. All the same argumentswere being repeated over and over… by the same people.


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