Book Review

Book Review: Merchants of Doubt by Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway

All I can say is: wow. This is eye-opening. I mean, I knew that the climate-denialist movement was largely funded and organised by corporate foundations and industry think tanks who actively bypass the scientific process but I never imagined half of the revelations in this book.

I make no apologies for my view that the climate-denialist movement is malevolent in nature. I am not a ‘green fanatic’. I have very little time for Greenpeace or other pressure groups on “my side”; my interest in this issue is now and always has been based on the science. I have spent seven years researching and understanding it for myself and I use credible resources for my information every week. I feel that green activists can be as anti-science as creationists and the climate denialists so I’m as cautious about claims from both sides of the media and I will always (where possible if not behind a paywall) check the data.

Now we’ve got that out of the way, let’s get on with the review:

This is the story of two people named Fred (Seitz and Singer), both physicists who came to prominence in the Cold War later chose to make a career of spreading misinformation about the science behind some of the biggest social issues of the last half-century. Both were at the forefront of fostering doubt at the notion that cigarette smoke in general and later, passive smoking was harmful. Singer claimed it was a government plot to remove constitutional freedoms from the individual (sound familiar already?). As an aside, I cannot fathom how people can think that basic laws of physics can be overturned in the law courts but never mind.

These men recruited others and their movement went on to fight against the evidence of the causies of acid rain and CFCs damaging the ozone layer. They receivied a lot of money from industry in the process. What is worse (from a scientist’s perspective at least) is that over the period they conducted no research on the issues in which they were not qualified and published no papers through the academic press.

It is also a story of the corrupt nature of industries where, when challenged that their product is harmful, use underhand tactics, junk science, misinformation, mudslinging and cronies in governments to push their own interests. For example, when it was proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that tobacco smoke was harmful, industry leaders encouraged the media to promote the idea that the science was split down the middle and manufacture a debate about “The Controversy” and in some cases point to economic damage by “environmentalists”. This is a tactic that they used time and time again: “science not settled”, “may be natural causes”, “more research needed”, “costs to economy too high”.

Capped with a thorough refutation of a relentless 30 year long character assassination of Rachel Carson (a woman who hasn’t been able to defend herself for almost 50 years now), it paints a picture of malevolent forces it labels “free market fundamentalists”, people who think that business ought to be able to do whatever they please without comeback. It discusses how such people have lied and flung accusations of nazism and communist agendas while promoting destructive behaviour under the guise of liberty.

As for the writing style, it is approachable and educational having been written by two historians of science. This approachable writing style of science books is becoming a trend now. Perhaps started by Richard Dawkins, many of the works I’ve read over the last few years have used education, entertainment and a free-flowing writing style in equal measure.

Meticulously researched and referenced, they seem to leave no stone unturned in their investigation into the history behind the anti-science movement.

If you are interested in learning more about climate change and the problems we face, then Skeptical Science is a superb resource. Don’t be daunted, you can choose your access level depending on your education and experience.


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