Merchants of Doubt

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Naomi Oreskes  discusses the small yet potent subset of the scientific community that leads the world in vehement denial of public health dangers such as DDT, tobacco smoke, acid rain, and global warming.


In Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming, Oreskes and Erik M. Conway explain how a loose-knit group of scientists and advisers, with deep connections in politics and industry, ran effective campaigns to mislead the public and deny well-established scientific knowledge over four decades—from the link between smoking and lung cancer to carbon dioxide and climate change.


Naomi Oreskes

Comments [22]


No scientific body of national or international standing has maintained a dissenting opinion since the American Association of Petroleum Geologists adopted its current position in 2007.

InterAcademy Council
European Academy of Sciences and Arts
International Council of Academies of Engineering and Technological Sciences
Network of African Science Academies
Royal Society of New Zealand
Royal Society of the United Kingdom
Polish Academy of Sciences
National Research Council (US)
General Science Societies:
American Association for the Advancement of Science, the world's largest general scientific society
American Chemical Society
American Institute of Physics
American Physical Society
Australian Institute of Physics
European Physical SocietyEuropean Science Foundation
Federation of Australian Scientific and Technological Societies
American Geophysical Union
European Federation of Geologists
European Geosciences Union
Geological Society of America
Geological Society of Australia
International Union of Geodesy and Geophysics
National Association of Geoscience Teachers
American Meteorological Society
Australian Meteorological and Oceanographic Society
Canadian Foundation for Climate and Atmospheric Sciences
Canadian Meteorological and Oceanographic Society
Royal Meteorological Society (UK)
World Meteorological Organization
American Quaternary Association
International Union for Quaternary Research
American Association of Wildlife Veterinarians
American Institute of Biological Sciences
American Society for Microbiology
Australian Coral Reef Society
Institute of Biology (UK)
Society of American Foresters
The Wildlife Society (international)
American Academy of Pediatrics
American College of Preventive Medicine
American Medical Association
American Public Health Association
Australian Medical Association
World Federation of Public Health Associations
World Health Organization
American Astronomical Society
American Statistical Association
Engineers Australia (The Institution of Engineers Australia)
International Association for Great Lakes Research
Institute of Professional Engineers New Zealand
US Department of Defense
US Securities and Exchange Commission
52 Nobel Laureates, 63 National Medal of Science recipients, 195 members of the National Academie11, and 11885+ other scientists sign support petition
2009 4th IPCC Report Working Group Included 920 Scientists

There's more.

Jun. 14 2010 01:45 PM

The only ones who are lying about tobacco are the anti-smokers. They are guilty of flagrant scientific fraud for ignoring more than 50 studies over a period of over 20 years, which prove that human papillomavirus infects at least a quarter of all non-small cell lung cancers. It doesn't require a university degree to figure out that ignoring evidence is fraud! And because the anti-smokers' studies are based on nothing but lifestyle, they're designed to cynically exploit the circumstance that smokers and passive smokers are more likely to have been infected, in falsely blame tobacco.

Furthermore, those so-called "opponents" she denounces are nothing but phonies, because they never mention HPV, or anything else that really refutes the anti-smokers. Their real job is to drown out the real critics, with the collaboration of lying media, to create the false impression of dissent, and their weak strawman arguments are intended to provoke provoke public derision. It's the anti-smokers themselves who give the phonies a forum, and censor the real critics, and then lie to us that they presented "both sides of the issue"!

And she is concealing the fact that the same anti-smoker who lobbied for the EPA to take up the issue of secondhand smoke, John C. Topping Jr., subsequently went on to found the Climate Institute.

And she's concealing the fact that Seitz' association with the tobacco industry was really to monitor Stanley Prusiner's work on prions, which was being funded by R.J. Reynolds after the Rockefeller Institute, with which Seitz had been associated, stopped doing so. (Why was smokers' money being used to fund prion research in the first place? Apparently purely as a crony favor.) Any so-called "historian of science" who can't ferret out the fact that Seitz was merely doing site visits on Prusiner, and had nothing to do with tobacco research, is nothing but a propagandist hack!

Yours truly,
Carol Thompson

Jun. 04 2010 12:02 AM
gaetano catelli from Greenpernt, Crooklyn

Lenny, your guest is way out of date.

though it used to be the prevailing 'theory' that all the world's problems are due to America's anti-Communism, nowadays the overwhelming (social-) scientific consensus is the 'theory' that all the world's problems, especially climate skepticism, are due to American racism, sexism, and homophobia.

May. 29 2010 12:44 AM
amalgam from Manhattan by day, NJ by night

@ Pat - First of all, the "painstaking science" pointing towards the "importance of the sun" (what?? - do you mean sunspots or solar change??) has amounted to nothing and provides no real alternative. There is no proven correspondence to our rising temperatures and the past 11-year fluctuation range of regular solar activity, for example.

[ read: ]

It seems to me that you're exactly the type that Naomi Oreskes writes about in this book: a "scientist" that runs in a small but potent "subset of the scientific community that leads the world in vehement denial of public health dangers such as DDT, tobacco smoke, acid rain, and global warming." [see intro. above]

I wonder what networks you are enmeshed, Pat?

May. 27 2010 10:17 AM


Skeptics have some alternatives, they point to the importance of the sun e.g..

That can only evaluated by painstaking science.

May. 26 2010 01:55 PM


Many interesting comments! Here are my responses:

a) The use of DDT in Africa varies, but there is no question that when it has been suspended, or stopped, people have died. A case I know of is South Africa. In the nineties they stopped using it and there was almost a 4 times increase in malaria and thousands of preventable deaths. Now, they have gone back to it, and there is hardly any cases.
b) DDT works regardless of being banned or not. At some point the insects will likely be immune to it. But now it saves lives.
c) Those who influenced govs. to stop using it by pointing only to its risks, are responsible for many lives lost.
d) I don't know why we should use it in the US, since we don't have malaria, the risk of using it may outweigh the benefits.

e) No, I am not partisan in any way. Banning DDT without finding a better alternative, was wrong. This is not a partisan statement, its simply how it looks to me.
f) My comment on Naomi as a scientist, was ironic, and snarky. What I mean is that she is complaining about scientists who embrace AGWH without being climatologists, while she KNOWS that they are wrong simply by being a historian.

May. 26 2010 01:43 PM
amalgam from Manhattan by day, NJ by night

(cont.)...when science is a verifiable endeavor?

If these anthropogenic climate deniers have a valid alternative theory, produce it. As of now, there is none.

May. 26 2010 01:42 PM
amalgam from Manhattan by day, NJ by night

Humanity's effect on the natural environment, which of course includes the atmosphere, is immense, and GHG do create climate change. We are involved in a climate feedback loop that is highly sensitive to GHG and no other theories displace the current understanding of human impact on climate.

Why is there NO valid scientific dispute against our current understanding when science

May. 26 2010 01:39 PM
Edward from NJ

@Pat: "I am not in any way politically partisan. Not at all."

Really? Really??

May. 26 2010 01:13 PM
Steve from Brooklyn

Re: PL Hayes

Agreed. Implying behavioral eco is on par with climate changes is not the best comparison. It just seemed the guest was suggesting a conspiracy b/w big oil and these anti-climate change Cold Warriors where one may not have existed. The Cold Warriors may have simply been wrong. I believe we need to present things honestly to be persuasive. On the other hand...


You're seriously misinformed. DDT and chemicals like it ARE used in tropical nations to prevent malaria. DDT is used in homes (not in fields) and it's not particularly safe, but better than malaria. So what's your point? Make DDT legal here because it's useful elsewhere? AND she's not a scientist, she's a historian.

May. 26 2010 01:08 PM
Kevin from New Jersey

A few months ago our university had first hand experience with climate deniers. We had one of our faculty members doing climate research. The local newspaper ran an article about the research.

While the article was non-controversial, the comments on the newspaper website were angry, nasty, and accused her of defrauding the taxpayers for working on such a non-issue instead of teaching something useful.

One reason why scientists do not speak out for forcefully is that there is no institutional support when the vitriol spews back. If there was a structure protecting the scientist the same way there was a structure supporting deniers, then we would hear more from them.

PS to Pat, The reason that DDT is so effective is precisely because of the ban. Insects have not had the chance to develop resistance. Thankfully, in an emergency situation we can use it to great effect because of the ban, and not in spite of it.

May. 26 2010 01:02 PM
Edward from NJ

People across the political spectrum seem to be perfectly able to deny scientific consensus if it doesn't jibe with their personal interest or anecdotal experience.

May. 26 2010 01:02 PM

I am skeptical about the global warming hypothesis, but burning fossil fuel is not the future.
We need nuclear plants, and exploration and investment in solar and wind another alternatives.

Even if GWH is false, it could have some good side effect.

It should however not distract us from issues of clean water access etc.

Yes, DDT is, over all, a good thing. If you prefer millions of people healthy and scores of lives saved, despite its risks. There is no sound argument against it. Bring it back or continue to have millions of infections a year.

May. 26 2010 12:56 PM
amalgam from Manhattan by day, NJ by night

People invested in the traditional and fossil fuel economy (coal, oil, combustion engine car manufacturing), more than even politics, will fight tooth-and-nail against any deviation from that economy.

Regardless of science, it's almost entirely predicated on the ECONOMY and the desire to keep subsidies headed towards their industries and not towards green tech.

May. 26 2010 12:50 PM

"Not get sucked in debating the science." Is she crazy? Should they just be politicians?

I am not in any way politically partisan. Not at all. And having read vastly on golbal warming and AGWH I believe:

a) Global warming trend is not certain. We need to look on a longer term to know.
b) Our effect is very small.
c) Many factors influence climate and there are many theories about this.

May. 26 2010 12:48 PM
Mitch from NYC

Years ago I attended a scientific panel here in NY city discussing science vs. public opinion. The panel seemed to agree that had DDT been used and applied properly it could have saved millions of lives in Africa. We can debate whether DDT should be used, and may agree it shouldn't be used on crops, or whether any environmental damage is worth saving lives. But the point being made was that "Silent Spring" had the unexpected consequence of banning its use in Africa where the debate about malaria vs. DDT should continue.

May. 26 2010 12:44 PM
PL Hayes from Aberystwyth

That may be so Steve but climate science is hardly a fledgling science or one as prone to the infiiltration of woolly nonsense as behavioural ecology may or may not be ;-) And it is often the case that big names stick their oars in without having bothered to bone up on the subject first*. When they do that their contributions are irrelevant and no more credible than the ramblings of any other layman.

* Sometimes they go cranky - and even in their own fields - too.

May. 26 2010 12:42 PM

The guest is an example of what she is arguing against. She is all politics. Here is a fact she should known:

In Sri Lanka, in 1948, there were 2.8 million malaria cases and 7,300 malaria deaths. With widespread DDT use, malaria cases fell to 17 and no deaths in 1963.

DDT like all similar products have dangers, but its about weighing these risks against the benefits. Millions of lives saved is a big plus.
What a joke she is. How can she be a scientist?

May. 26 2010 12:42 PM
Opal from NYC

I once worked for a health foundation dealing in preventative medicine. They had a smoking clinic which was headed by an epidemiologist. Many years later I met this woman again and she was working for Philip Morris on 42nd St. How come, I asked, and she went on and on about how the scientists have it all wrong. When I mentioned that I gave up smoking because it gave me a headache, she replied that it was because of my metabolism!!!

May. 26 2010 12:39 PM
Dave from Brookly

As someone who has worked in an applied scientific field for 40 years, I can attest that "science" is filled with the star system, truths that change with surprising regularity, and angry and vituperative people who are mainly concerned with furthering their reputations.

Holding up science as a standard is problematic. I neither know or care whether global warming is problems, but dishonesty among experts and other talking heads should not be discounted.

May. 26 2010 12:28 PM
Steve from Brooklyn

I believe climate change is real. But I'm a science graduate student, and I can say that major figures in a science niche often cross over into other niches. Big names from one field can bring a fresh perspective (and often a higher standard for strong evidence) to a fledgling and perhaps over-reaching niches. E.g. Stephen J Gould dropped the hammer of skepticism on behavioral ecology in the late 80s. I believe your guest has some strong points, but her argument should be viewed in a context where commentary from outside a science niche is common and sometimes necessary.

May. 26 2010 12:27 PM

What's new in this story?
Industries have been producing bunk scientific research and disinformation for decades. For example: the tobacco industry, the agribusiness oligopoly, the energy cartel, etc., etc.

May. 26 2010 12:13 PM

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