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Skepchick Book Club: Merchants of Doubt

Note: next month’s book club pick is at the bottom of this post

Welcome back to the Skepchick Book Club! This month we read Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming by Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway.

The key word from this book is: obfuscation. In other words, if you dilute legitimate scientific research with nonsense, the result is confusion among the public. The merchants of doubt are a few well-funded scientists (notably, Fred Seitz, William Nierenberg, and S. Fred Singer) with an anti-regulation agenda whose purpose is to create the illusion that there is no scientific consensus about issues like global warming, pesticides, and the link between cancer and tobacco smoke. Interestingly, most of the scientists mentioned in the book were physicists who were part of the Manhattan Project.

I found this book to be riveting, or at least, as riveting as one could find a book that is also depressing. The damage these scientists did to public discourse may have had effects beyond just global warming and smoking–nowadays the public doesn’t know what to believe with regards to vaccines and GMOs. It’s easy to see how people can be so distrustful of the institution of science, unfortunately.


If you’re too busy to read the book, good news, it was made into a documentary!

Of course, I couldn’t read this book without thinking of Thank You for Smoking. Most notably, the scene where Nick Naylor (a tobacco industry lobbyist, played by Aaron Eckhart) shows up to his young son’s classroom for career day. Here’s one of the conversations he has with a young girl:

NN: (explaining what his job is) I speak on behalf of cigarettes.

Girl: My mom used to smoke. She says, cigarettes kill.

NN: Really? Now, is your mommy a doctor?

Girl: No…

NN: A scientific researcher of some kind?

Girl: No…

NN: Well, she doesn’t sound like a credible expert, now does she?

Girl: *shrinks down in chair*

Also, there’s another scene where Nick is talking to Jeff Megall, a powerful Hollywood agent, about using product placement in movies to promote cigarettes.

Nick: What we need is a smoking role model. A real winner.

Jeff: Indiana Jones meets Jerry Maguire!

Nick: Right–on two packs a day.

Jeff: Only, he can’t live in contemporary society.

Nick: Why not?

Jeff: The health issue is way too prevalent. People would constantly be asking the character why he’s smoking. And that should go unsaid. How do you feel about the future?

Nick: The future?

Jeff: Yeah, after the health thing’s blown over. A world where smokers and nonsmokers live together in perfect harmony. Sony has a futuristic sci-fi movie they’re looking to make, Message from Sector 6. All takes place in a space station. They’re actually looking for some co-financing.

Nick: Cigarettes in space.

Jeff: It’s the final frontier, Nick!

Nick: But wouldn’t they blow up in an all-oxygen environment?

Jeff: (pause) Probably. But, it’s an easy fix! One line of dialogue. Thank god we invented the, you know, whatever device. (Waves hands around.)

Anyway, back to our book discussion. (If you haven’t seen it, though, TYFS is great companion movie to this book.)

So, the main question now is, where do we go from here? How do we promote scientific consensus and science communication to the public in such a way that bypasses corporate astroturfing efforts and paid dissidents?

Fortunately, the BBC came out recently and said that they would no longer promote a “false balance”, which is one of the ways that the merchants of doubt spread their misinformation. When the media acts like every issue has two equal sides, despite the fact that 99% of scientists may be on one side and only paid shills on the other, it creates the illusion that both sides are equally important, which causes people to believe that there is more disagreement among scientists than may be true. Neil deGrasse Tyson and Bill Nye have also been more vocal recently about science deniers and the damage they’re doing to public discourse and policy.

If you learned something from this book, leave it in a comment below!


Next month’s book: The Double Helix

Our next book is The Double Helix by James Watson. (If you just heard a record scratching noise in your head, don’t be alarmed–the many faults with this book are well-known and will be discussed.) Thanks to the holidays, I’ll be posting again on January 9th (with a live meeting in Boston on Jan. 8th–details posted on the Boston Skeptics’ Facebook page). See you then!


Mary Brock works as an Immunology scientist by day and takes care of a pink-loving princess child by night. She likes cloudy days, crafting, cooking, and Fall weather in New England.

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