Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming.
Article Type: Book review
Subject: Books (Book reviews)
Author: Allchin, Douglas
Pub Date: 01/01/2011
Publication: Name: The American Biology Teacher Publisher: National Association of Biology Teachers Audience: Academic; Professional Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Biological sciences; Education Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2011 National Association of Biology Teachers ISSN: 0002-7685
Issue: Date: Jan, 2011 Source Volume: 73 Source Issue: 1
Topic: NamedWork: Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming (Nonfiction work)
Persons: Reviewee: Conway, Erik M.; Oreskes, Naomi
Accession Number: 259466257
Full Text: 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. 2010. Bloomsbury Press, New York (ISBN 7981596916104). 355 pp. Hardcover. $27.00.

Michael Behe, William Demski, Duane Gish--biology teachers often know these names (notorious creationists). But what about Fred Seitz, Fred Singer, Robert Jastrow, Bill Nierenberg, or Steve Milloy? These less widely known individuals posed equal threats to good science. In their eye-opening book, historians Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway detail how these individuals (and others) deliberately orchestrated public skepticism about scientific consensus on tobacco, nuclear winter, acid rain, the ozone hole, second-hand smoke, global warming, and DDT. Time and time again, the same cast of characters effectively stalled timely political action.

These critics were scientists, but scientists speaking outside their expertise. As the book documents, they were also typically funded by conservative organizations. They strove to defend "freedom"--free markets and Cold War conceptions of liberty--by confounding science that might justify government regulation. Understanding this type of abuse of science is critical to scientific literacy. This book is important, then, in alerting teachers: standard lessons about interpreting evidence are not enough. Students must also learn how systems of credibility work and how to assess expertise. Ideally, they also learn to interpret ideological context.

Ironically, the critics appealed to principles of good science. Yet they distorted its conclusions. If we expect good science to prevail in public and personal decision-making, we need to understand their rhetorical strategies. For example, they cherry-pick evidence and they quote selectively. They argue from extreme cases. They cite non-peer-reviewed journal articles. They capitalize on uncertainty and exaggerate its significance. "More proof," they say. They malign the scientists and impugn their motives. Most importantly, they leverage the journalist's doctrine of equal time and the American sense of fairness and free speech. Of course, the deniers do not need to win any argument. They need only breed sufficient skepticism to create a public image of ongoing debate. As the book's title announces, they are "merchants of doubt." That approach emerged as early as 1969, as documented in a tobacco industry memo.

The tactics generally parallel more familiar efforts to keep evolution out of the classroom. Those struggles have fostered an image that science and religion are at odds. But as Barbara Forrest and Paul Gross showed in Creationism's Trojan Horse, the recent "Intelligent Design" movement was crafted by political conservatives. It was neither science nor religion. It was a political strategy to wedge out evidence-based analytical perspectives. So, too, with the cases of environment and health profiled here. The contrarians have been financed by industry and free-market ideologues, whose values are frequently mingled with the science. The ultimate nemesis of science is power, not religion: another important lesson for students. The seven vivid and engaging historical cases in this book are valuable teaching resources. Explicit reflection on them can foster students' skills in analyzing the political structure of contemporary--and future--science "controversies."

Merchants of Doubt is alarming, yet important. It may remind teachers that, despite standardized tests, they have a civic responsibility to nurture scientifically literate citizens, else sheer economic power eclipses science.

DOI: 10.1525/abt.2011.73.1.11

Douglas Allchin

Research Associate

The Minnesota Center for the Philosophy of Science

University of Minnesota

Minneapolis, MN 54455
Gale Copyright: Copyright 2011 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.