Book Review: Merchants of Doubt

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Merchants of Doubt is both an excellent book, by Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway, and an excellent documentary, by Robert Kenner. I highly recommend both of them for anyone that has any interests in what is going on in our society today.

The book is technical with lots of science, dates, and people. It is not an easy read, nor is it a pleasant one. The history of the people involved with deliberate deception for the sake of companies and at the expense of the public is alarming and, at times, depressing. Oreskes and Conway do a thorough job of exposing these people, providing a large amount of documentation in the process. While the book reads much like a newspaper article and is very in depth, the documentary is easier to follow, but does a much more superficial job. That is to be expected – the book is 274 pages long and the documentary is 93 minutes. You could not possibly cover the same amount of material in a documentary and, to their credit, they don’t try.

Reading the book brings out a few interesting points. The first, and most obvious, is the history of deception and the success these people have had in this regard. Take a look at the list of things the public has been deceived about by the Merchants of Doubt:

  • Smoking

  • Second-hand smoke

  • The Strategic Defense Initiative

  • Acid Rain

  • CFCs and the ozone hole

  • Global warming

  • DDT

In every case, conservative groups have put the public at risk while helping industry to make a bunch of money.  What really makes it alarming is they have routinely known they were wrong. The tobacco industry knew smoking causes cancer way back in the early-1950s. The fossil fuel industry knew manmade emissions cause global warming back in the 1960s. The dangers of second-hand smoke was proven and known in the 1980s. The Strategic Defense Initiative was well known to be unfeasible, even by the people pushing it, from the very beginning. The link between the ozone hole and CFCs was never in doubt scientifically (DuPont, one of the world’s largest chemical manufacturers, realized the danger of CFCs early on and quit making them). The economic and ecological damage as a result of acid rain (and the causes) was understood all along. And, the widespread danger of insecticides and DDT is fully known, even by the people pushing them.

Why is that? Why have the conservatives become the anti-public, anti-science group? Oreskes and Conway make the convincing case that it isn’t about money, it’s about ideology. To these people pushing anti-science, anyone that opposes them is a liberal and a liberal is someone who wants to destroy the country. To them, defending these horrible things is about freedom. We need to allow coal companies to belch out massive amounts of sulfur and carbon dioxide into the atmosphere in order for the country to be free. It is important people smoke so the country will be free. DDT, SDI, CFCs and every other cause of these groups is all about keeping the country free. Opposing them means you want to take freedom away from the American people.

It never seems to enter their minds that someone could be a liberal and loyal American at the same time. They accuse someone of being a ‘liberal’ the same way you accuse someone of being a murderer or rapist. To these people, ‘liberal’ means someone who wants to destroy the country and civilization. One of the terms these people use for people who oppose them is ‘watermelon’ – green on the outside but red on the inside. According to them, if you are concerned with the environment, you’re a communist, even though they know the science is correct.

I find this to be very interesting. Basically, I’m quite conservative on many things. After all, I spent 35 years in military intelligence. You don’t do that and walk away with a cheery viewpoint of the world at large. And, when it comes to fiscal matters, I am a definite hawk. Believe me, my family gets quite a laugh when someone accuses me of being a liberal. And yet, I find myself on the opposite side of the fence from the conservatives on each of these issues. The reason for that is I accept the science and go where it leads me.

You can deny the science all you want, but it will keep right on doing what it does. The universe is not sentient. There is no “Mother Nature” looking out for us with a gentle hand. If you say manmade emissions won’t cause global warming, that is your right. But, those manmade emissions will continue to cause global warming. And, if you say smoking doesn’t cause cancer, that is your right. But, people will continue to get cancer from smoking. Nature doesn’t need you to agree with it. It doesn’t need your permission.

So, these Merchants of Doubt have protected the industries by causing people to question the science. And, they continue to do it. Unfortunately, as we have all seen, it is very effective. After all, the truth caught up with the tobacco industry, but it took fifty years for it to happen and millions of people died in mean time. Eventually, the truth will catch-up to the fossil fuel industry. I just wonder how many people will eventually die because of them. It’s already in the millions. And, don’t forget about the irreversible damage to the environment.

Is ideology really that important?

In summary, if you have any interest in the topic at all, I highly recommend you watch the documentary (available over the Internet) and read the book.

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