Book review: Merchants of Doubt

Short review

Excellent examination of the background and tactics used by “experts” to delay the implementation of regulation on important scientific issues. Journalists in particular should have a read but I’d think it would be interesting and comprehensible to anyone.

Long review

This is a somewhat worrying story about a small group of scientists with a disproportionate level of influence.

They successfully spread doubt about issues as wide-ranging as smoking, defence, acid rain, stratospheric ozone depletion, second-hand smoke and global warming. Their veneer of authority, despite a lack of relevant experience, appears to have been enough to manage it.

The book is very well researched and extensive references are provided. That said, the style and accessibility of the book remains at the “popular” end of the spectrum, which is good. There’s a website accompanying the book with many of the key documents cited in the book.

Most of the story takes place in the US but the lessons are not exclusive to that region.

There’s an awful lot of issues that come up from the book (media responsibility, motivation of the scientists in question, funding sources, ideology, scientists influencing policy) but I’ll just look at a couple of things here.

The Fairness Doctrine and journalistic balance

One theme that crops up over and over again is the insistence from the “doubt merchants” that they deserve equal time in media debates and discussions. This is really important and, I think, shows that this book should be required reading for journalists working on controversially perceived subjects. Because, as we see time and time again in the book, the controversy is often not based on the science.

I agree that there should be a responsibility placed on the media to be unbiased but, equally, journalists shouldn’t be pressured into presenting a debate as ongoing and/or equal simply because they have not researched the topic.

Or, as Oreskes and Conway put it:

“Balance was interpreted, it seems, as giving equal weight to both sides, rather than giving accurate weight to both sides.”

(Of course, this argument works both ways and also implies that scientists do not communicate well with journalists.)


One thing I had a little trouble with in the book was following the separate strands of the story. Whilst the 5 main strands occur pretty much one after another, almost one per decade, there is considerable overlap. It gets quite hard to follow the stories as the characters are involved with more than one strand at any particular moment. I suppose Oreskes and Conway could have overcome this by focusing on the “Merchants” but that would probably be more confusing. Of course this problem only arises because it’s the same people getting involved in each issue.

What might have been nice, though, is if the authors produced an interactive timeline with book, something a bit like this:

I knocked this up pretty quickly but it gives an idea of the overlap of the different strands. I chose the start and ends points based on key events described in the book. I

Sustainable solutions

This isn’t really something that comes up in the book but it was certainly where my train of thought kept going. (This may, however, be because I’m currently planning a new module for one of our courses on sustainable development.)

So, for action to be “sustainable” it needs to be analysed from (at least) 3 interlinking perspectives.

The triple bottom line

Ideally your solution falls in the centre of the Venn diagram but compromises in one direction or the other are probably necessary.

It seems to me that, in the same way that radical, back-to-the-land environmentalists would sacrifice the economy and technology for the sake of the environment, many of the key figures in the book show a willingness to endanger the environment and social development for the sake of the free market. I assume the reason that we think the “doubt merchants” solutions are seen as more feasible than equally single minded environmentalists are that they have a veneer of respectability and authority from academic careers. However, their solutions run the same risks of having few winners and potentially many losers.

How do we get into the middle section of the diagram then?

I don’t know. I’m kind of interested in all three areas but I only really know anything about a relatively small area of environmental science.

Monbiot covers some of this problem, from the perspective of just one area, here.

Other reviews for Merchants of Doubt

Gavin Schmidt in Chemical & Engineering News focusing mostly on the role of scientists.

Robin McKie in the Guardian focusing on the attack on environmentalism.

UPDATE: Naomi Oreskes has recently won the Climate Change Communicator of 2011 award from George Mason University. On the weight of this book alone, it is well deserved.

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10 Responses to “Book review: Merchants of Doubt”

  1. Maurizio Morabito Says:

    A few hints&tips to get into that Middle Section:

    1. Stop labelling anybody daring to ask question a “merchant of doubt” – debates can’t be closed by appealing to True Belief

    2. Stop deluding yourself that for each “merchant of doubt” there isn’t an equal and corresponding “huckster” – lobbysts work for all sides

    3. Stop pretending that it’s a battle of Good vs Evil – it will only mummify everybody’s stance

    4. Stop pontificating about the “fairness doctrine”…where in the world did that ever happen? Not at the BBC or in the UK media, for sure. Perhaps late-night shows on Fox News?

    In one sentence, no movement will ever move if their first objective is to exclude and morally mark every person that doesn’t fully share the movement’s tenets.

    • andyrussell Says:

      Maybe this wasn’t clear in the review but the term “Merchant of Doubt” doesn’t apply to anyone that dares to ask questions.

      It applies specifically to a small group of scientists (Nierenberg, Seitz, Singer etc.) who deliberately muddied the water on specific issues (smoking, acid rain, nuclear defence, ozone depletion, second-hand smoke, global warming) with funding from companies with obvious financial interests (tobacco firms, oil companies).

    • bjedwards Says:


      No one is labeling anyone “daring to ask questions.” That’s what true skeptics do. But when those “asking questions” refuse to acknowledge the answers repeatedly, and cannot refute them, then we are dealing with denialists.

  2. John Mashey Says:

    Nice suggestion on chronology graphic.

  3. Phil England Says:

    I also reviewed this for The Ecologist and The Morning Star. The review is archived here and focuses on the climate change and tobacco elements.

  4. pendantry Says:

    How to get to the middle section of the Venn diagram?
    Those In Power have no incentive to compromise, and every reason not to.

  5. jg Says:

    Regarding your venn diagram, let me ask: are you putting technology in the circle representing Society? I’m having trouble sorting the line between society and economics. I look forward to more examples as you develop your course module.


    • andyrussell Says:

      Only partly, it impacts on economic development and the environment too. But I’m no sustainability expert – if anything, I find it a little unsatisfying as a subject because, in one way or another, everything and everyone impacts and influences everything else. So any analysis could just go on forever. (Sorry for the slow response!)

  6. John Mashey Says:

    Note the somewhat incongruous location of the award: George Mason University.

    GMU gets a lot of money from the Koch brothers, Fred Singer was at one of its institutes, Pat Michaels taught there last Summer, the Koch-funded Mercatus Center is there, and so are Ed Wegman and Yasmin Said, i.e., Wegman Report (2006).

    On the other hand, thet Center for Climate Change Communication gave Naomi the award, and the ones I’ve had contact with are just fine.

  7. Michael Mann on TEDx – the scientization of politics « Our Clouded Hills Says:

    [...] the scientific findings that do not align with paticular political views. At one point he refers to Merchants of Doubt, a book which presents evidence from the last 50 years covering a number of scientific topics that [...]

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