Merchants of Doubt Summary and Study Guide

Naomi Oreskes and Eric M. Conway

Merchants of Doubt

  • 81-page comprehensive study guide
  • Features 7 chapter summaries and 5 sections of expert analysis
  • Written by a professional writer with an MFA in Creative Writing
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Merchants of Doubt Summary and Study Guide

SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides for challenging works of literature. This 81-page guide for “Merchants of Doubt” by Naomi Oreskes and Eric M. Conway includes detailed chapter summaries and analysis covering 7 chapters, as well as several more in-depth sections of expert-written literary analysis. Featured content includes commentary on major characters, 25 important quotes, essay topics, and key themes like Certainty versus Uncertainty and The Appeal to Authority Fallacy (argumentum ad verecundiam).

Plot Summary

Merchants of Doubt is a nonfiction account of how a loose-knit group of scientists—Fred Seitz, Fred Singer, Bill Nierenberg, and Robert Jastrow—with similar political agendas worked to prevent government regulation by creating the appearance of scientific debate on several topics. These topics included smoking (both first- and secondhand hand smoke), acid rain, Regan’s Star Wars (or Strategic Defense Initiative), the ozone hole, global warming, and the use of pesticides, specifically DDT. These men were not experts on the issues; in fact, many of them were retired and no longer conducted research in the scientific community. They also did not specialize in any of these topics—epidemiology, ecology, atmospheric chemistry, or climate modeling—but rather received their scientific bona fides from their work as physicists during World War II and the beginning of the Cold War. Despite their relative lack of expertise, they used their political connections in order to deliberately distort “public debate, running effective campaigns to mislead the public and deny well-established scientific knowledge over four decades” (241).

The first of these issues—the health risks posed by tobacco usage—sets the stage for what the authors label as the Tobacco Strategy, or the usage of doubt in order to obfuscate scientific evidence, which the book presents as being the key idea used throughout all of the issues. The tobacco industry capitalized on the doubt inherent within scientific assertions of causality. Modern science usually cannot definitively prove that one thing causes another—that cigarette smoking causes cancer, as some people who smoke do not get cancer—and the tobacco industry used this uncertainty to claim that the evidence linking tobacco use to cancer was too uncertain. They attacked the very nature of science itself, using Seitz (among other scientists) to maintain that no one could definitively prove smoking caused cancer or other deadly diseases, even though industry executives privately acknowledged that it did. This campaign of misinformation was spread to politicians and the media in the nascence of the Tobacco Strategy.

In keeping with this strategy, Jastrow and Nierenberg defended Reagan’s Strategic Defense initiative, arguing that science was being misrepresented or ignored. Instead of attacking the facts as too uncertain, these scientists and the military industrial complex attacked the theory behind the opposition as too uncertain. In the debate concerning acid rain, Nierenberg and Singer reverted back to the Tobacco Strategy’s destruction of facts, arguing that science was too uncertain to present the causality between industrial chemical use and acid rain. They denied the gravity of the problem, tampering with the scientific peer review process and working with the Reagan administration to alter the appearance of scientific conclusions.

Instead of altering scientific conclusions, as in the case of acid rain, Singer completely denied the existence of the ozone hole, rejecting mainstream science’s evidence of ozone depletion. Singer and the Marshall Institute believed that environmental regulation would lead to socialism, and so they created a counter narrative of scientific corruption: that scientists were creating problems to make names for themselves and earn funding. Singer argued a similar case after the scientific community reached a consensus on the horrific reality of global warming, maintaining that the science was too uncertain to justify regulation proposed by government-funded scientists.

In the debate concerning the dangers of secondhand smoke, Seitz and the tobacco industry decided to tackle the problem by creating a false division between liberty and science—namely, the liberty to smoke and the science which said it was harmful, both to one’s self and to other people. This debate presented the dichotomy between capitalism and science which was then reiterated in the demonization of Rachel Carson and the argument for the benefit of DDT and other harmful pesticides. With the DDT argument, denial became a political strategy that flew in the face of both history and science, as industry powers and conservative scientists attempted to argue that something the government had regulated as being poisonous (DDT) in fact saved lives.

While scientific experts maintained that these beliefs were ridiculous, this small group of conservative scientists held enough political sway to ensure that their points of view, which aligned with those of conservative presidential administrations, were being equally represented in mass media. As a result, the public came to believe that many of these issues, especially global warming, were subject to debate within the scientific community. In reality, experts on these topics did not debate their existence; rather it was these scientists who were creating doubt out of thin air by attacking the science used to investigate these problems.

The opinions expressed by this small cadre of scientists represent a reaction against the shift towards regulatory environmentalism, which resulted from the realization that unrestricted commercial activity was committing real, lasting, and pervasive damage. Similarly, this narrative is told against the backdrop of the Cold War and its presented dichotomy between capitalism and communism—that is, that any government regulation represented a shift away from capitalism and a win for global communism. These scientists believed that science was being used to counteract liberties—such as the liberty to pollute—and so to ensure liberty, science must be demolished. These powers worked to overthrow government regulation in blind defense of the free market, spreading misinformation that continues today and demonstrating that controlling historical narratives is imperative to the maintenance of power. Throughout these arguments, the defense of the free market (and capitalism) links corporations (especially the tobacco industry), conservative think-tanks, and scientists as being culpable in the rampant spread of misinformation that plagues American society today. However, the book presents the argument that free enterprise brings real and profound costs the free market does not take into account, advocating for an alternative economic style to capitalism.

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Introduction