This is a must read for everyone intending to be politically active and successful, because when playing that sport you will encounter people gaming the rules. Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming illustrates how people with a point of view and unlimited access to money, influence and media can compel the entire world’s public to do things that are against their own self-interest. These unscrupulous people were able to convince the public that inhaling two billion pounds of toxic smoke per year was such a good idea that they should pay these unscrupulous people vast sums of money to provide it. The health risk of tobacco smoking was clearly known by 1960, when the rare disease lung cancer was rocketing into a common cause of death, but these hired merchants of doubt were able to manipulate the levers of government, media and the public mind in such a way as to make the obvious dangers vanish into a cloud of smoke. The results were half a million Americans dying per year from the results of smoking; a harsh person would say they were murdered by false information. After that horrible success those few scientists who were working for the tobacco corporations then moved on to supporting the coal and oil industries and convinced the public that acid rain falling from the sky, the equivalent to lemon juice, wasn’t hurting the Northeast United States, but the concluding sentence in the book, said by one of them, hit the insane point nicely with, “You just know in your heart that you can’t throw 25 million tons a year of sulfates into the North-east and not expect some . . . consequences.”
The modern propaganda began with the R. J. Reynolds tobacco company hiring the famous scientist Frederick Seitz, and the team later included other famous scientists such as Fred Singer and William Nierenberg. These hirelings and a handful of others were juxtaposed against the collective wisdom of thousands of other knowledgeable people. In the global warming issues, these same folks were opposed to thousands of IPCC scientists. But the media, by following their doctrine of balanced news in reporting both sides, gave these paid flunkies equal weight to the whole of the scientific community. These guys’ primary tactic was to promote doubt, and send already firm scientific evidence back for another review. Scientific ideas must be supported by evidence, and part of the scientific tradition is that anything can be challenged. But in the world of politics it is convincing rhetoric, backed up by monied manipulation of the media, not facts, that swings the public opinion. “C. P. Snow once argued that foolish faith in authority is the enemy of truth. But so is a foolish cynicism.”
In politics polemic argument is expected to last forever, but in the world of science, “If the claim is rejected, the honest scientist is expected to accept that judgment, and move on to other things. In science, you don’t get to keep harping on a subject until your opponents just give up in exhaustion” (p. 269). Some scientists do not promote their work, or even defend it in the public media, because their full-time job is to figure out what the truth is and to present their finding to properly juried publications. They believe in the honesty of the media and other people, to present facts clearly, and that ultimately the truth will win out; and when it is obvious that the media is promoting garbage scientists just ignore it, but unfortunately garbage just doesn’t go away, especially when people can make money promoting it. We must all struggle to get rid of intellectual garbage by challenging it whenever and wherever it appears.
The goal of this book is to expose the methods of unscrupulous Merchants of Doubt, so that we might protect ourselves from them. Unfortunately it is also an excellent handbook for studying the ways of manipulating the media and the public. It puts powerful tools into the hands of future people willing to lie to the public to gain a personal advantage.
If you can create doubt in an enemy’s knowledge his options become impossible for him to pursue effectively.