Merchants of Doubt | Erik M. Conway

Summary of: Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming
By: Erik M. Conway


In ‘Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming,’ Erik M. Conway offers insights into how a small group of scientists with political connections and a network of right-wing think tanks, corporations, and institutions distorted public debate on various issues, including tobacco smoke and global warming. At the heart of this group are physicists Frederick Seitz and S. Fred Singer, who, with little original research to their name, cherry-picked data and launched attacks on scientific findings and the reputations of fellow scientists. This introduction aims to set the tone for the user to explore the key strategies used by this group to spread misinformation, their political affiliations, and a detailed look at their involvement in controversies involving tobacco smoke, acid rain, ozone depletion, and global warming.

The Dangerous Intersection of Science and Politics

The book highlights how a small group of scientists with deep political connections distorted public debate for four decades. During the Cold War, physicists Frederick Seitz and S. Fred Singer became prominent backers of Ronald Reagan’s “Star Wars” missile defense system. Their outspoken politics brought them into a network of right-wing think tanks, institutions, corporations and political figures. Seitz worked for R. J. Reynolds Tobacco Company which provided $45 million for research against those suing big tobacco. Singer attacked the EPA’s position on secondhand smoke, claiming it was harmless. In a report denying global warming, they were invited to George H. W. Bush’s White House. These men did almost no original scientific research, yet launched attacks on other scientists’ findings and reputations. They were on the wrong side of scientific consensus on every issue they covered publicly. The book explores the implications of this intersection of science and politics and how it has impacted public perception and policy decisions.

The Deceitful Science of Big Tobacco

When the tobacco industry needed to defend against anti-smoking legislation and lawsuits, Seitz and his colleagues were hired to fight science with science. Despite big tobacco’s own research confirming the dangers of smoking, they formulated a coordinated public relations policy to defend their industry. Seitz and his colleagues distorted their research findings and fought against any new data that emerged, spending over $100 million on biomedical research. The tobacco giants were found guilty of breaking racketeering laws and conspiring to conceal what they knew, while Seitz became the founding chairman of a conservative think tank promoting “science for better public policy.”

Science, Ideology and Anti-Soviet Hawks

A group of scientists, including Fred Singer and Fred Seitz, teamed up with think tanks and corporations to challenge scientific evidence and promote heavy government spending on weapons. Under the Marshall Institute’s auspices, Robert Jastrow launched personal attacks against astronomer Carl Sagan, who opposed the Star Wars defense system. Jastrow’s legitimately credentialed scientists presented “phony science” as a model for future ideological attacks. The right-wing think tanks that supported Seitz’s devout anticommunism included the Hoover Institution, the Hudson Institution, and the Heritage Foundation, who sought to wreck the notion of a peaceful détente with Russia. The USSR was cast as far weaker than the US, but Teller and his compatriots disagreed and created a coalition of noted anti-Soviet hawks called “team B.” Sagan argued that any atomic weapons battle would lock Earth in a “nuclear winter” and produced a report on everything untenable about Star Wars.

Acid Rain Politics

This section from the book explores the politicization of scientific information during the Reagan administration’s handling of the acid rain issue. The administration rejected scientific findings and delayed the release of reports to politicize acid rain’s effect. The result was a lack of legislation during his tenure. The author illustrates how this pattern is similar to the tobacco industry’s decades-long denial of the link between smoking and cancer. The section highlights the success of the strategy of sowing doubt and how it could lead to the rejection of science itself.

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