Merchants of Doubt Book Summary - Merchants of Doubt Book explained in key points
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Merchants of Doubt summary

Naomi Oreskes & Erik M. Conway

How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues From Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming

3.8 (281 ratings)
18 mins

Brief summary

Merchants of Doubt exposes how a handful of scientists obscured the truth on issues from tobacco smoke to global warming, deceiving the public.

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    Merchants of Doubt
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    The tobacco industry intentionally misinformed the public about the dangers of smoking.

    Nowadays, even a kid could tell you that smoking kills. But this now well-known fact was not such common knowledge in the second half of the twentieth century. It’s shocking now, but plenty of people had no idea about smoking’s adverse health effects. But did the tobacco industry itself know about its product’s dirty secret?


    In fact, they knew that smoking was harmful as early as the 1950s, when the tobacco industry first came under scrutiny regarding the harmful effects of cigarettes. Realizing that they had to take action, in 1953, the four biggest tobacco companies in the United States – American Tobacco, Benson and Hedges, Philip Morris and US Tobacco – joined forces in defense of their industry.

    Their strategy?

    To hire a PR firm, Hill and Knowlton, to save tobacco’s deteriorating image. This same decision would later be used as evidence in court to prove that the tobacco industry was well aware of its product’s harmful effects, and had thus knowingly misled their customers.

    The strategy itself was simple: simply cast doubt upon the idea that smoking was bad for your health. So, as more research indicating tobacco’s harmful effects began to emerge in the 1960s and ‘70s, the tobacco companies opted for the only strategy at their disposal: challenging scientifically proven facts by propagating doubt about their validity.

    For instance, in 1979, the tobacco industry began a program that funded top universities like Harvard. They committed $45 million over six years for one purpose: to prove that smoking was not connected to health problems.

    But they didn’t just fund universities; they also hired a respected scientist by the name of Frederick Seitz, who distributed the money himself and gave the tobacco industry’s credibility an added boost.

    They even summoned scientists to testify in court that there was no connection between smoking tobacco and poor health. However, the industry could only suppress the truth for so long, and eventually people wisened up.

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    What is Merchants of Doubt about?

    Merchants of Doubt (2011) examines some of the world’s major scientific debates on topics including the environment, smoking and nuclear weapons. These blinks will explain how a handful of extremely vocal scientists have heavily misrepresented these issues through the mainstream media, often with the goal of aiding corporate and industry interests.

    Best quote from Merchants of Doubt

    A key strategy in the campaigns to market doubt was to create the appearance that the claims being promoted were scientific.

    —Naomi Oreskes & Erik M. Conway
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    Who should read Merchants of Doubt?

    • Anyone interested in politics, the media and public opinion
    • Journalists, activists and anyone with a social conscience

    About the Author

    Naomi Oreskes teaches at Harvard University where she specializes in the history of science. She has previously spent 15 years as a professor of history and science studies at the University of California, San Diego, and is also respected authority on geophysics and global warming.

    Erik M. Conway is a historian and author, and currently works at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena.

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