Review of The Merchants of Doubt

Merchants of Doubt, Naomi Oreskes & Erik M. Conway, 2010, Bloomsbury Press, New York, New York.

This book came my way in a science communication class at UW-Madison.  The book provides extensive documentation on how elite scientists have used their impressive scientific credentials to call into question the work of reputable mainstream scientists.  These “outsiders” have worked consistently to undermine credible research on everything from DDT, the dangers of smoking, the Strategic Defense Initiative, acid rain, and global warming.  Their modus operandi generally involves accepting funds from right-wing foundations, who, in turn, are funded by corporations, to spread doubt and skepticism about American science that they deem ideologically motivated and inconvenient.  Journalists have unwittingly aided these groups in achieving their goals because journalists have an ethical obligation to balance different perspectives on an issue.  The problem is that the skepticism expressed by these merchants of doubt represents a minority view, casting doubt upon the research of a majority of mainstream scientists.  The doubting Thomases are bypassing the peer-review process of reputable science to go “public” with bad science and are themselves ideologically motivated. The book raises many questions.  It sounds a warning to journalists and the reading public.  Time after time, a small group of science outsiders has shaped the debate and changed public understanding of particular issues.  Masquerading as white knights, these outsiders have intentionally muddied the waters on any number of important issues and made it difficult for the public to make reasonable judgments about the underlying science.  That it was so easy for this relatively small group of outsiders to change the conversation on a host of important issues is deeply troubling.  This book should put journalists and the reading public on notice in the future and help people identify the modus operandi of these miscreants.

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