Monday, December 12, 2011

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

Book review by Richard L. Weaver II, Ph.D.

In this 355-page book (274 of text), there are 62 pages of notes.  Oreskes is a professor of history and science studies at the University of California, San Diego, and Conway has published four previous books, one of which was Atmosphere Science at NASA: A History.  Their reputations are impeccable.

With respect to “the story of the Tobacco Strategy, and how it was used to attack science and scientists, and to confuse us [the public] about major, important issues affecting our lives — and the planet we live on” (p. 7) — what this book is all about, the authors “trust our scientific experts on matters of science” (p. 272).  And, it appears that trust is faithfully and fairly placed, and readers can trust the authors to present it in the same manner.

This is an extremely well-written expos , and the story it tells about the tobacco industry and what they did to protect themselves from highly scientific studies about the harmful effects of tobacco could apply to any industry or situation (think pharmaceuticals, alcoholic beverages, nuclear development, foreign threats, outsourcing, antiballistic missel systems (ABMs), pesticides, space exploration, climate change, formaldehyde, pollution, environmental changes, acid rain, global warming, etc.) where large amounts of money can be used to influence honest, well-researched, scientific evidence of harm and destruction.

 In the case of smoking, the industry-based goons (scientists who sell their souls) had to counter the claims 1) that smokers lived sicker and died sooner than their nonsmoking counterparts, 2) that early deaths would not have occurred if these people had never smoked, and, 3) were it not for smoking “practically none of these early deaths from lung cancer would have occurred.  “Smoking killed people” (p. 23).  These are scientifically proven, well-established, accepted facts which affected tobacco sales and, thus, had to be refuted.

This is a thoroughly documented, richly detailed, expertly told story about how doubt is financed and marketed, how evidence can be suppressed, distorted, revised, manipulated, and deleted, how counter narratives are constructed, and how those who promote any program that counters large business, industry, or corporate  interests — whatever they are — can have his or her credibility destroyed, professional career undermined, or life threatened. 

This is not only a disturbing book about organized, scientific, disinformation campaigns, it is downright scary.  What a great book!

This book is available at Merchants of doubt: How a handful of scientists obscured the truth on issues from tobacco smoke to global warming

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