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Merchants of Doubt

Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming
Author Naomi Oreskes, Erik M. Conway
Subject Scientists—Professional Ethics
Science news—Moral and ethical aspects
Publisher Bloomsbury Press
Publication date
June 3, 2010
Pages 355 pp.
OCLC 461631066
LC Class Q147 .O74 2010

Merchants of Doubt is a 2010 non-fiction book by American historians of science Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway. It identifies parallels between the climate change debate and earlier controversies over tobacco smoking, acid rain and the hole in the ozone layer. Oreskes and Conway write that in each case "keeping the controversy alive" by spreading doubt and confusion after a scientific consensus had been reached, was the basic strategy of those opposing action.[1] In particular, they say that Fred Seitz, Fred Singer, and a few other contrarian scientists joined forces with conservative think tanks and private corporations to challenge the scientific consensus on many contemporary issues.[2]

The Marshall Institute and Fred Singer, two of the subjects, have been critical of the book, but most reviewers received it favorably. One reviewer said that Merchants of Doubt is exhaustively researched and documented, and may be one of the most important books of 2010. Another reviewer saw the book as his choice for best science book of the year.[3]


  • Themes 1
  • Reception 2
  • Authors 3
  • See also 4
  • References 5
  • External links 6


Oreskes and Conway write that a handful of politically conservative scientists, with strong ties to particular industries, have "played a disproportionate role in debates about controversial questions".[4] The authors write that this has resulted in "deliberate obfuscation" of the issues which has had an influence on public opinion and policy-making.[4]

The book criticizes the so-called Merchants of Doubt, some predominantly American science key players, above all [6]

The book states that Seitz, Singer, Nierenberg and [6]

The main conclusion of the book is that there would have been more progress in policymaking, if not for the influence of the contrarian experts, which tried on ideological reasons to undermine trust in the science base for regulation.[8] Similar conclusion were already drawn, among others on Frederick Seitz and William Nierenberg in the book Requiem for a Species: Why We Resist the Truth about Climate Change (2010) by Australian academic Clive Hamilton.


Philip Kitcher in Science says that Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway are "two outstanding historians".[4] He calls Merchants of Doubt a "fascinating and important study". Kitcher says that the apparently harsh claims against Nierenberg, Seitz, and Singer are "justified through a powerful dissection of the ways in which prominent climate scientists, such as Roger Revelle and Ben Santer, were exploited or viciously attacked in the press".[4]

In The Christian Science Monitor, Will Buchanan says that Merchants of Doubt is exhaustively researched and documented, and may be one of the most important books of 2010. Oreskes and Conway are seen to demonstrate that the doubt merchants are not "objective scientists" as the term is popularly understood. Instead, they are "science-speaking mercenaries" hired by corporations to process numbers to prove that the corporations’ products are safe and useful. Buchanan says they are salesmen, not scientists.[9]

Bud Ward published a review of the book in The Yale Forum on Climate and the Media. He wrote that Oreskes and Conway use a combination of thorough scholarly research combined with writing reminiscent of the best investigative journalism, to "unravel deep common links to past environmental and public health controversies".[10] In terms of climate science, the authors' leave "little doubt about their disdain for what they regard as the misuse and abuse of science by a small cabal of scientists they see as largely lacking in requisite climate science expertise".[10]

Phil England writes in Ross Gelbspan’s The Heat is On and Boiling Point. England also said that there is little coverage about the millions of dollars which Exxon Mobil has put into funding groups actively involved in promoting climate change denial and doubt.[11]

A review in The Economist calls this a powerful book which articulates the politics involved and the degree to which scientists have sometimes manufactured and exaggerated environmental uncertainties, but opines that the authors fail to fully explain how environmental action has still often proved possible despite countervailing factors.[12]

Robert N. Proctor, who coined the term "agnotology" to describe the study of culturally induced ignorance or doubt, wrote in American Scientist that Merchants of Doubt is a detailed and artfully written book. He set it in the context of other books which cover the "history of manufactured ignorance":[13] David Michaels’s Doubt is their Product (2008), Chris Mooney’s The Republican War on Science (2009), David Rosner and Gerald Markowitz’s Deceit and Denial (2002), and his own book Cancer Wars (1995).[13]

Robin McKie in The Guardian states that Oreskes and Conway deserve considerable praise for exposing the influence of a small group of Cold War ideologues. Their tactic of spreading doubt has confused the public about a series of key scientific issues such as global warming, even though scientists have actually become more certain about their research results. McKie says that Merchants of Doubt includes detailed notes on all sources used, is carefully paced, and is "my runaway contender for best science book of the year".[3]

Sociologist Reiner Grundmann's review in BioSocieties journal, is rather critical. He raises doubts about the beliefs of the authors that science serves as a factual basis of regulation.[8] Grundmann assumes a lack of basic understanding of the political process and the mechanisms of knowledge policy. While the book provides all the (formal) hallmarks of science, Grundmann sees it less as a scholarly work than a passionate attack with a biased perspective. He doubts whether it helps the causes it advocates.[8]

William O’Keefe and Jeff Kueter from the conservative think tank founded by Seitz[14] provide negative commentary on Merchants of Doubt. They say that although it has the appearance of a scholarly work, it discredits and undermines the reputations of people who in their lifetime contributed greatly to the American nation. They say that it does this by questioning their integrity, impugning their character, and questioning their judgement.[15]


Naomi Oreskes is Professor of History and Science Studies at Harvard University. She has degrees in geological science and a Ph.D. in Geological Research and the History of Science. Her work came to public attention in 2004 with the publication of "The Scientific Consensus on Climate Change," in Science, in which she wrote that there was no significant disagreement in the scientific community about the reality of global warming from human causes.[16] Erik M. Conway is the historian at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena.[16]

See also


  1. ^ Steketee, Mike (November 20, 2010). "Some sceptics make it a habit to be wrong".  
  2. ^ Oreskes, Naomi; Conway, Erik M. (2010). Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming. Bloomsbury Press. p. 6.
  3. ^ a b McKie, Robin (August 8, 2010). "Merchants of Doubt by Naomi Oreskes and Erik M Conway". The Guardian.
  4. ^ a b c d e  
  5. ^ Brown, Seth (May 31, 2010). Merchants of Doubt' delves into contrarian scientists"'".  
  6. ^ a b McKie, Robin (August 1, 2010). "A dark ideology is driving those who deny climate change". The Guardian. 
  7. ^ a b Oreskes & Conway 2010, pp. 248–255
  8. ^ a b c d Debunking sceptical propaganda Book review by Reiner Grundmann, BioSocieties (2013) 8, 370–374. doi:10.1057/biosoc.2013.15
  9. ^ Buchanan, Will (June 22, 2010). Merchants of Doubt: How “scientific” misinformation campaigns sold untruths to consumers The Christian Science Monitor.
  10. ^ a b Ward, Bud (July 8, 2010). Reviews: Leaving No Doubt on Tobacco, Acid Rain, Climate Change, The Yale Forum on Climate and the Media.
  11. ^ England, Phil (September 10, 2010). Merchants of Doubt The Ecologist.
  12. ^ All guns blazing: A question of dodgy science, (June 17, 2010), The Economist.
  13. ^ a b Proctor, Robert (September–October 2010). Book Review: Manufactured Ignorance, American Scientist.
  14. ^ "...a central cog in the denial machine...", August 13, 2007, Newsweek
  15. ^ O’Keefe, William; Kueter, Jeff (June 2010). "Clouding the Truth: A Critique of Merchants of Doubt". Policy Outlook.  
  16. ^ a b Collins Literary Agency Rights Guide/March 2008

External links

  • Merchants of Doubt, Public Lecture (2010), University of NSW, The Science Show, ABC Radio National, 8 January 2011.
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