Book Review: Merchants of Doubt

Thanks to #readinghour increasing my reading pace, I recently finished reading Merchants of Doubt by Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway. I really enjoyed it and think it’s a very important book, including for those of us who are ecologists who also think about the factors that influence public views on science. The book demonstrates that the campaigns to deny the harms (and, in some cases, even the existence) of acid rain, the ozone hole, cigarette smoking, DDT, and climate change all used the same tactics – saying that the issue wasn’t totally settled, there was still work to do, that taking action would be premature, etc. That would be interesting on its own, but the really striking part is that, in addition to these campaigns using the same doubt-mongering strategies, it was often the exact same scientists making those claims. The book also has a good overview of how modern science works, which, in my opinion, would make it a really interesting book to use in an undergraduate course. This would obviously work well in a course related to climate change or environmental science, but it also would work in courses focused on information literacy or on biodiversity and conservation.

screen shot of cover of Merchants of Doubt

This won’t be a complete review, but there are a few points I thought worth blogging about, including:

  • the ends justify the means?
  • the dark flip side of “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world”
  • an all purpose expert is an oxymoron
  • harping on a subject until your opponents give up in exhaustion
  • science communication & intimidation
  • phosphorus

The ends justify the means?

One of the most obvious questions, after learning that a few physicists (including Fred Singer, Fred Seitz, and Bill Nierenberg) positioned themselves as experts in so many of these debates, and that they took a side that was opposed to the consensus scientific view, is: why they would do so? Oreskes & Conway argue that this relates to them having come-of-age scientifically during World War II and the Cold War, leading them to view communism as the ultimate enemy. In their minds, they had to stop regulations because regulations inhibit free markets, and anything that interferes with free markets is a slippery slope to communism.

They seem to have had an end-justifies-the-means view, as Oreskes and Conway note. At first, this made me think about some of the recent discussions of the appalling statistical analyses of Cornell food scientist Brian Wansink. But, with more reflection, it made me think of some areas of ecology (especially related to biodiversity), where there is a feeling that we need to put up a united front; this old post of Brian’s is definitely relevant, in my opinion. I can see people on both sides of the biodiversity debate viewing this book as supporting their views, which is part of why I think the book would be interesting for a course on biodiversity and conservation.

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world”

Another review of Merchants of Doubt noted that we tend to view the famous Margaret Mead quote,

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.

through an optimistic lens, but the darker flip side (as that post puts it) is also true. As Oreskes & Conway note

small numbers of people can have large, negative impacts, especially if they are organized, determined, and have access to power (p. 213).

For me, the take by Oreskes & Conway that the scientists who opposed a whole series of things (action on the ozone hole, climate change, etc.) did so because they viewed communism as an enemy that must be defeated at any cost seems like a charitable one. Perhaps it started that way, but it also seems likely that, at some point, the power and attention and money they received may have become a motivating factor.

Reading about the influence of how a few people managed to sow so much doubt and cause so much damage also made me think of vaccination and the outsized role of Andrew Wakefield in sowing so much doubt about vaccines. So, yes, it’s clear that there is a dark flip side of Mead’s famous quote, unfortunately.

“An all purpose expert is an oxymoron”

There’s also the question of how these physicists managed to seem like experts on so many different topics. I think the book has important insights on how science and expertise in modern science work. To quote two key paragraphs:

The fact is that these men were never really experts on the diverse issues to which they turned their attention in their golden years. They were physicists, not epidemiologists, ecologists, atmospheric chemists, or climate modelers. To have been truly expert on all the different topics on which they commented, they would have to have been all of these things: epidemiologist and ecologist, atmospheric chemist and climate modeler. No one in the modern world is all of those things. Modern science is far too specialized for that. It requires a degree of focus and dedication that makes it a daunting task to be an expert in any area of modern science, much less in several of them at once. If nothing else, this should have clued observers in that these men simply could not have been real experts. An all-purpose expert is an oxymoron.

Journalists were fooled by these men’s stature, and we are all fooled by the assumption that a smart person is smart about everything: physicists have been consulted on everything from bee colony collapse to spelling reform and the prospects for world peace. And, of course, smoking and cancer. But asking a physicist to comment on smoking and cancer is like asking an Air Force captain to comment on the design of a submarine. He might know something about it; then again, he might not. In any case, he’s not an expert. (p. 270-271)

As I was writing this post, I remembered that Brian had a post where he noted that, even as scientists, we are generally relying on our trust of other scientists rather than our actual scientific expertise. For example, I strongly believe that climate change is occurring and that humans are causing it and I teach about this, but I couldn’t explain the underlying climate models to you beyond saying that some include anthropogenic forcing and others do not and the ones that include anthropogenic forcing better match the observed data. It makes sense that I couldn’t give a detailed description of the models, because my scientific expertise does not include climate modeling. As I searched for that old post by Brian, I remembered that it was the second in Brian’s series on a post-fact world, and that his first post also discusses the Oreskes & Conway book and, indeed, that his post helped prompt me to move their book up my “to read” list!

Oreskes & Conway also note:

So it comes to this: we must trust our scientific experts on matters of science, because there isn’t a workable alternative. (p. 272)

but also:

The very features that create expertise in a specialized domain lead to ignorance in many others. (p. 273)

I think the whole epilogue would be a great reading for an undergraduate course. It notes:

science does not provide certainty. It does not provide proof. It only provides the consensus of experts, based on the organized accumulation and scrutiny of evidence. (p. 268)

It also notes that, for many people, when science is discussed, people think of individual great scientists (e.g., Darwin, Einstein), rather than the process of science. And, since we tend to think of those great past scientists as people who were misunderstood and who had to fight against conventions, it leads to people giving more credence to individual scientists who argue that their ideas are being suppressed because they are outside the conventional wisdom. This is especially true if they have shiny scientific baubles (e.g., Fred Seitz was the President of the US National Academy of Sciences and received the National Medal of Science). That, combined with the tendency of the media to feel like it’s only fair if we present both sides (even if one side has vastly more support than the other), has contributed to a lot of the doubt that exists around some of these issues, including climate change.

“In science, you don’t get to keep harping on a subject until your opponents just give up in exhaustion” (p. 269)

An interesting point in the book is how, in some cases, scientists ignored someone who opposed a particular view because it was clearly not good science, figuring that the process of science would lead to that work being recognized as incorrect. But, if the person who holds that view then takes it to the public (especially based on having strong political connections and financial backing), that work can be used to justify inaction (“the matter isn’t settled!”, “we need more research!”) It made me remember an analogy I heard when I was a grad student or postdoc, related to Intelligent Design creationism being taught in schools. I remember someone saying that it felt like playing whack-a-mole – even though there was no scientific question, ID advocates had strong backing and were media-savvy, and it was really exhausting for evolutionary biologists to keep trying to push back against efforts to get Intelligent Design taught in K-12 science classes.

The “you don’t get to keep harping on a subject until your opponents just give up in exhaustion” quote also seems relevant to some twitter discussions, unfortunately.

Science communication & intimidation

Scientists are finely honed specialists trained to create new knowledge, but they have little training in how to communicate to broad audiences, even less in how to defend scientific work against determined and well-financed contrarians (p 263)

I found the book interesting and enjoyable to read, but when I got to the part about the personal attacks on climate scientists, including one who was in very poor health, I had to put the book down for a bit because it was really upsetting me. I think the book raises excellent points about science communication, including discussing the downsides that scientists face if they speak out. There can be criticism from other scientists (who view them as unobjective or attention seekers). They write:

Scientists’ commitment to expertise and objectivity also places them in a delicate position when it comes to refuting false claims. If a scientist jumps into the fray on a politically contested issue, he may be accused of “politicizing” the science and compromising his objectivity – as Carl Sagan was when he tried to call public attention to the dangers of nuclear winter. 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. (p. 264)

They also note that the attacks from people with well-funded agendas end up changing the way scientists do their work and keeps some people from entering the fray in the first place, out of fears of personal attacks. As they say, “Intimidation works”. I sighed as I typed that, because I think it’s completely reasonable for people to factor in whether they want to take on the personal toll that might come with speaking out on these issues, but, of course, it’s also utterly depressing that scientists need to consider that.

Phosphorus, too?

And, finally, because I am a freshwater ecologist, I wondered whether there were links between the particular players featured in Merchants of Doubt and the campaign (led by the detergent industry) to sow doubt about whether phosphorus was really driving eutrophication of lakes. I saw David Schindler give a talk about his work on eutrophication at an ASLO meeting at some point; it was not the 2015 meeting (since I wasn’t there, and it was longer ago than that), but his plenary from 2015 talks about the same work. In his talk, he drew comparisons to the debate about whether cigarette smoking causes lung cancer. I still think of that talk regularly, so clearly it really resonated with me. Schindler seems to me to be a model for how to do really great science and translate it to policy. I’d love to hear from others if they know of links between the phosphorus debate and the key players in Merchants of Doubt.


In all, I found Merchants of Doubt really interesting and thought-provoking. If you’ve read it and think I missed something you found particularly interesting or thought-provoking, I’d love to hear about it! And I’d also love to hear if you’ve used the book in teaching.

13 thoughts on “Book Review: Merchants of Doubt

  1. Great review Meghan. It is a very rich book with many possible take-home messages. You’ve done a nice job of distilling them.

    I would only add that the movie is also worth watching. It largely parallels the book, so you may not get major new insights. But it has interviews with many of the key players. Since this is ultimately a media-based story, it is worth seeing the people on the screen. You really get a sense of the people involved (and yes I walked away feeling creeped out by a couple of the people).

  2. Great review Meghan.

    Re: a small committed group of people being able to change the world in either good or bad ways, yep. I think about the same issue in lots of contexts–thing X can be either a force for good or bad, depending on the circumstances. For instance, in many areas of life, there are lots of “procedural” or “structural” reforms that can lead to either better or worse substantive outcomes, depending on the context. Think for instance of recent arguments that the US form of federal government (checks & balances, legislature separate from executive, etc.) produces inferior outcomes to parliamentary government. That might be the case under current conditions, though given the large and increasing polarization in the US I’m not sure any form of government would work all that well. But one can point to examples that don’t look so good for parliamentary government either (e.g., Belgium keeps having elections that then fail to lead to formation of a stable government). Closer to home in science, think of various proposals to reform scientific peer review and publishing, to make them more “open” or whatever. Many of which have some good effects–but also some bad effects.

    Have some other thoughts but have to rush off, hopefully back later.

  3. Great review Meghan.

    I have not read the book but based on your review, it seems that there are certain contexts that the authors of the book might have overlooked.

    An all purpose expert is an oxymoron…Modern science is far too specialized…

    This is true but the authors might have missed an important point. The so called “all-purpose expert” are those who are willing to step outside the bounds of their disciplines. They read and interact broadly and sharpen their understanding through public debates. They also risk embarrassments in the process—something that most people tends to avoid. People that are too specialized and risk averse are not suited to those public debates for the obvious. I doubt it that anyone that showed little interest beyond evolution or string theory would have any meaningful contribution to discussion about world peace. The downside is when people expect the so called “all-purpose expert” to endorse one side of debates in areas where they lack depth. Some of them are humble enough to defer to experts but others just go with the flow. Coming back from or acknowledging a major blunder can be difficult.

    …physicists have been consulted on everything from bee colony collapse to spelling reform and the prospects for world peace…

    This is perhaps mostly true in America where celebrity culture is more pervasive. There are only a few fields outside of physics that are racking up prestigious awards that grab the headlines. It makes sense that the media and special interests are seeking out those individuals (and their affiliates) that might command some social influence. At the same time, I can think of an era (even in America) where physicists are not at the forefront. So, if things are placed in historical and cultural contexts, they are not necessarily unusual. I think the difference is in the level of outreach.

  4. Regarding the famous Margaret Mead quote. I have always been skeptical about the usefulness of it. In the negative, when the small group of people have access to power, it is of course true and well pointed out here. That’s the unhappy history of society, in a nutshell. But in the positive sense it Mead originally meant it, a small group of people only really get anywhere if they become a large group, and then a majority. One should not take solace in being in one such small group, unless the group is growing! Science communication can be a powerful tool to achieve that, for scientific issues at least.

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  6. I think your review sums up the book really well. I think the parallels with Intelligent Design and young earth creationism are quite strong.

    Brian, thanks for recommending the movie as worthwhile.

    As an earth scientist (which was among the most well known scientific field in the late 1800s based on my cursory reading of history), I have to confess being puzzled about why physicists are (seen as) the paradigm for science and thus all-around experts. I guess it’s partly early 20th century physics/chemistry with Einstein, Bohr, etc (with geology / earth science dropped from US high school curriculum in 1910s) and then amped up by the key role of physicists in developing nuclear weapons?

  7. Somewhat off topic (sorry): I find this sort of book review so much more interesting and useful than the sort one often sees in journals like Ecology. A typical book review in an ecology journal just summarizes the book, along with at most very brief and superficial evaluative comments. Rarely or never is there any attempt to link the book to larger issues. Which personally isn’t helpful to me at all. I can get a brief summary of the book from the table of contents and the summary blurb on Amazon or the publisher’s website. The only way a book review can add value for me is by engaging with the book in a thoughtful way and placing it in a broader context.

    But I assume that some readers must value the sorts of book reviews that journals like Ecology publish, or else the journals wouldn’t publish them (right?). Perhaps because some journal readers just want to be alerted to the existence of new books in their own specialized subfield? Curious what others think. Do you wish that scientific journals would publish book reviews like Meghan’s post?

    • Not sure if this is really an answer…I never read book reviews in journals but I read Meghan’s book review here.

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  9. Funny, I too finally bought a copy last week and immediately thought of the slippery arguments of the Soap and Detergent Association. There, certainly Schindler’s experiments demonstrated to anyone with color vision that phosphorous limited eutrophication of the experimental lakes, not C or N alone. There’s a neat Historical Perspective on the Phosphate Detergent Conflict online at CU.  It includes some ironic gems. “By September of 1970, eutrophication had been identified … as perhaps the single most difficult water pollution in the nation.”  I’d venture it still is. Further, the Soap and Detergent Association jumped on a 1971 paper showing that primary productivity in coastal areas was primarily N limited, and therefore national standards on P in would have little benefit considering the population concentration in coastal areas. 45+ years later there are still no national standards, so I’d say the slippery arguments stuck.

    Back to the Merchants of Doubt.  It might be an exquisitely researched and written book, but it is a thoroughly unpleasant read. Low-lights include the experiences of the ecologist Gene Likens, the attack on Roger Revelle in which the views and writings of a noted oceanographer were allegedly twisted, and when Revelle’s graduate student wrote in defense saying so, he was sued for libel. The student, Justin Lancaster, thought he could defend himself by having the facts on his side. However, deep pockets trumped facts, and Lancaster had to accept an onerous settlement. The risk of personal retribution, reputational attack, along with the many examples of how the Think Tank crowd can frame scientific issues to policy makers and the public, without doing any science themselves are cautionary tales.  Scientific-sounding arguments by credentialed authors published in credulous news outlets like the Wall Street Journal have much more pull than with policy makers than legitimate science journal articles. It’s not a fair fight, but what to do? Engaging as an honest broker as Brian advocates seems the only good path. Bringing up Merchants of Doubt in courses and seminars, along with a discussion of what’s liable to be libel would be good. Great review, Meghan.

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