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Merchants of Doubt

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

By Naomi Oreskes & Erik M. Conway
13-minute read
Audio available
Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues From Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming by Naomi Oreskes & Erik M. Conway

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.

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

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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Merchants of Doubt

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

By Naomi Oreskes & Erik M. Conway
  • Read in 13 minutes
  • Audio & text available
  • Contains 8 key ideas
Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues From Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming by Naomi Oreskes & Erik M. Conway
Synopsis

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.

Key idea 1 of 8

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?

Absolutely.

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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