I recently finished reading “Merchants of Doubt” by Naomi Oreskes. It documents the campaign of a handful of scientists to use their knowledge of how science works to undermine the public’s acceptance of that science for commercial or political gain. The motivation for these scientists, according to the author, was a belief in what George Soros calls “free market fundamentalism” - the idea that the free market must be defended at all costs.

I recently finished reading “Merchants of Doubt” by Naomi Oreskes.  It documents the campaign of a handful of scientists to use their knowledge of how science works to undermine the public’s acceptance of that science for commercial or political gain.  The motivation for these scientists, according to the author, was a belief in what George Soros calls “free market fundamentalism” - the idea that the free market must be defended at all costs.
The playbook for accomplishing this was honed in the 1960’s in the battles over cigarettes and cancer.  Although evidence for a link between the two dates back to the 1930’s, the Surgeon General’s report in 1964 brought the problem to the public’s attention.  The tobacco industry had two reasons to want to discredit the science - concern about declining profits if people gave up the habit, and concern about lawsuits.
Michael Shermer explains the strategy like this: “deny the problem, minimize the problem, call for more evidence, shift the blame, cherry-pick the data, shoot the messenger, attack alternatives, hire industry-friendly scientists, create front groups.”
To this end the industry established the Tobacco Institute to produce “papers” to cite to defend the industry.  They even established journals to publish their “research” implying that it was peer reviewed when it really wasn’t.  These included “Tobacco and Health,” and “Science Fortnightly.”  They also established a center for indoor air research to try to shift the blame for cancer to other possible pollutants publishing “The Indoor Air Journal.”
As a 1969 memo from a Brown & Williamson tobacco executive stated, “Doubt is our product.”  This is similar to Republican strategist Lee Atwater’s observation that “perception is reality” and Donald Trump’s advice to his sales force for Trump University, “You don’t sell product, benefits, or solutions, you sell feelings.”
The tactic was largely successful. It wasn’t until the 1990’s that people started to have success with lawsuits.  After all, smoking doesn’t kill everyone who takes up the habit, only about half of them. In 2006 a Federal court found the industry guilty of defrauding consumers under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act.  But the industry’s twisting of science had worked for half a century.
These same “merchant of doubt” scientists, none of whom were medical or environmental scientists, used the same techniques to cast doubt on the dangers of second-hand smoke, DDT, and acid rain; to promote Reagan’s “Star Wars” folly; and to deny the concept of nuclear winter, and the validity of the ozone hole.  The George C. Marshall Institute was established by the merchants in 1984 to promote their ideas, again with a veneer of scientific objectivity.
If the original battle is lost, “the merchants of doubt” often claim that fixing it would be too expensive.  Fred Singer, one of the Godfathers of the merchants, claimed that proposals to limit acid rain emissions was a “billion dollar solution to a million dollar problem.”  After a cap and trade system was enacted by Congress in 1990, sulfur dioxide emissions fell by 54% by 2007.  The EPA reported to Congress in 2003 that the total cost for all air pollution controls during the previous 10 years had been $8-9 billion and estimated the benefits as $101-119 billion.  There was no economic devastation, no massive job losses, no exaggerated expenses, and no rise in cost of products above the amount caused by inflation.
These same tactics are still in use today to convince the public that scientists are still debating issues like climate change, which in reality were resolved years ago.


James Rhoades writes a column for the Neosho Daily News.