Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warning

By Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway

Why I Chose This Book
So long ago now I have moved from sadness to nostalgia, I was part of a podcast/book club at the International League of Skeptics that never quite launched. Not for lack of organization, of course; we had a full-on mission statement: “The purpose of the International League of Skeptical Readers is to apply skepticism and critical thinking to books on a variety of non-fiction topics.” We took turns suggesting books, and I’d always keep a lookout for new titles that might be worth discussing, even long after the podcast project was stalled. When author Naomi Oreskes was interviewed on a March 2010 episode of the SETI podcast, Are We Alone?, I was intrigued enough to note the title. Far too cheap (sadly) to pay for hardback copies of books, I put my name on the library waiting list. Last month it was finally my turn to read it.

Why I Chose Right Now to Review This Book
The book went back to the library a few days ago, and I wanted to write the review before I forgot absolutely everything about it. I’m also trying to connect myself to the world better with my various social media outlets, and spent the afternoon fussing with buttons for this and that (share me! tweet me!) because I have two sick kids at home and couldn’t really concentrate on anything that required thinking and didn’t feel like doing dishes. (Why do dishes now when you can do dishes to the NBC lineup of primetime shows later?) Plus I’ve been thinking about skepticism and the skeptics groups lately, which this book selection was inspired by, but mostly I want to post something to see what the Facebook and Twitter buttons do without resorting to some stupid “Is this thing on?” kind of post.

Nutshell Review of the Book
A significant portion of this book is footnotes and citations, and you can’t say that the authors have not backed up their claims. Orekse and Conway make the case that a very few number of scientists have gone out of their way to undermine and disparage research (by casting doubt upon it) calls into question the safety of certain business practices or political programs. These are the same few scientists again and again, and by the third example of this you’ve got your long list of targets for hate mail. By the sixth example, though, you’re just worn out and tired of being so angry. It was very difficult for me to finish the book, although I would not disrecommend it to anyone. Is that a word?

Detailed Review of the Book

This is a book I really wish I’d read with friends. I’m pretty good at figuring out when someone is blowing smoke, well, at me when I’m listening to them, but when I see things in print they just seem so plausible. Particularly when they are in a book by an author from a podcast I generally trust from a monthly skeptical episode with lots and lots of footnotes. I found absolutely everything the authors claimed completely believable and I am ready to repeat the information from the book to anyone who will listen. They paint a very disturbing picture of what is basically a conspiracy against science that exposes the dangers of an unregulated free market, or science that is performed just to support a political agenda (such as the science behind Ronald Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative). They follow one or two scientists from the nuclear research programs of World War II through the tobacco industry’s suppression of data about smoking and second hand smoke, though arguments against the hole in the ozone layer, acid rain and global warming, and then to a purported smear campaign against Rachel Carson and her book, Silent Spring, about DDT.

There are also about four pages just ranting about “free market capitalism” at the end of the book, which I enjoyed immensely for personal reasons, but which were so ranty and so enjoyable that I feel like I ought to go looking for the other side of the story out of principle. I mean, it’s a screed. It’s the kind of thing I want someone else to read so I can run my predispositions and biases past another brain just to keep my own enthusiasm in check. I don’t think that Oreske and Conway are making a sloppy case or letting the (manipulated) emotional responses of the readers do the hard work for them. I don’t think that’s what’s going on. I think they really are onto something reasonable and rational and well-documented, but if they are right and this is how people are behaving and the media outlets are just letting these behaviors slide (for a variety of reasons, and I didn’t come out here to slam journalists because I know what they’re all trying to do in the environment they’re in), well… it’s kind of awful to think about. If someone who I generally trust to read critically could tell me that they’ve come to the same conclusions or the opposite of that, I’d feel a lot more comfortable. And no, the reviewers on Amazon don’t count. For all I know half of them are performance artists.

As for what’s in the book, it’s not difficult to understand. There is science presented to some degree of technicality, but it was very easy to follow. I liked the tone of the book, and appreciated the sarcastic asides and running commentary that peppered it. It was not so conversational that it distracted from the message, and it was not the kind of Look at Me! I’m the Author! sort of interruption I’ve encountered in other books. Nonetheless, reading did become exhausting. I blew through the first two-thirds like there was no tomorrow, and then right before the global warming stuff–the reason Oreske was making the interview rounds and the most timely subject in the book–I maxed out. The same people were employing the same strategies for the same reason over and over and over again, and I just didn’t want to read anymore. A week after it was due back at the library (couldn’t renew it because there were holds) I finally just sat down and busted through the thing. My outraged flared up a little, but I’d gotten the point already and was just turning the pages to see what was left.

The Conclusion and Epilogue chapters were very important to read to get the full effect of the book, so I’m glad I pushed myself through it (and the screed was a fair reward), but I don’t know if starting at page 1 and reading through to page 270ish is a very good way to approach the book. It might be a good strategy to start at the epilogue and conclusion, and then read the tobacco stuff at the beginning, and then skip around according to what topics interest you. Information does build by chapter, but it’s not really confusing to fill in the blanks if you had to. It might keep you from also burning out on the book.

What’s on Deck
The Plague by Camus (in progress; people are dying in numbers large enough to interest the doctors)
Water for Elephants (for real-life book club)
Some memoir by Nabokov (too lazy to look up the name)
The second book in the Game of Thrones series

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