Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful people can change the world.”
– Margaret Mead

Because Americans are optimists we tend to see Mead’s observation as upbeat and life-affirming (as it was probably intended). Blinkered by optimism, however, we miss the dark flip side of her observation — that a few fanatics can do immense harm.

Book cover. In their sweeping and comprehensive new book Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming, historians Naomi Oreskes and Erick M. Conway document how a handful of right-wing ideologues — all scientists — have (mis)shaped U.S. policy for decades, delaying government action on life-and-death issues from cigarettes and second-hand smoke, to acid rain, and now, finally, to climate change. The book is similar to the popular Discovery Channel show “How Do They Do It?” Only instead of investigating quirky mysteries like how stripes get into toothpaste, Merchants of Doubt looks at exactly how we arrived at the gravest crisis in the history of our species — one we created ourselves.

Although most of these scientists were influential men in themselves (and they are all men), they could not have done as much damage without powerful allies. Whole industries bankrolled their research, sometimes laundering the money through front groups with innocuous names. Think tanks like the George C. Marshall Institute were financed specifically to publish and disseminate their papers — junk science that couldn’t survive the rigors of peer-reviewed journals. Oreskes and Conway also devote an insightful section to the mass media’s mostly unwitting complicity in this scandal.

This premise may sound like a conspiracy theory, but the truth Oreskes and Conway elucidate is more banal and convincing. The title, Merchants of Doubt, frames the authors’ argument, echoing an internal memo from the Brown & Williamson tobacco company that declared: “Doubt is our product since it is the best means of competing with the ‘body of fact’ that exists in the mind of the general public.” Big tobacco helped finance the industry of doubt in its modern form, run by the scientists whose schemes this book details. In a sense, this is an industrial history and it should be no more shocking to see the same names continually popping up than it is to see Lee Iacocca’s in a history of the auto industry.

Fred SeitzFred SeitzThe central characters in Merchants of Doubt include Fred Seitz, S. Fred Singer, William Nierenberg, and Robert Jastrow. These may not exactly be household names, but it’s probably not much of a stretch to call them the founding fathers of industrial-strength doubt.

Fred Seitz was a pioneer of solid-state physics who helped develop the atom bomb. From the end of World War II until his death in 2008, Seitz devoted himself to protecting laissez-faire capitalism from communism. He moved quickly from scientific research to administrative work, serving as president of the National Academy of Sciences from 1962 to 1969. When the Soviet Union broke a moratorium on atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons, Seitz immediately urged President John Kennedy to respond in kind, despite evidence that radioactive fallout contaminated swaths of land for more than a thousand miles. Innocent people would die, but some collateral damage is inevitable when fighting a war, even a cold one.

Fred SingerFred SingerFred Singer is another physicist turned cold warrior. He began his career developing the government’s earth observation satellite system. Along the way, Singer took up the cudgel defending free enterprise by opposing environmental regulations. The other “merchants of doubt” profiled by Oreskes and Conway traveled a similar path. Physicist William Nierenberg’s work on the Manhattan Project led him in the early 1960s to become NATO’s chief scientist working on developing weapons to use against the Soviets. Astrophysicist Robert Jastrow moved from NASA into a leading position supporting Ronald Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI, aka, Star Wars) to counter “Soviet hegemony,” which he called the “greatest peril” in U.S. history.

What all these men have in common (aside from their background in physics) is the belief that the Cold War didn’t end with the collapse of the Soviet Union. In their minds, and in the minds of their followers, “real Americans” are still battling socialism, only now the threat comes primarily from within. Grasping that bizarre and paranoid notion is central to understanding their motivations and methods.

In the 1950s, Big Tobacco had begun using scientists to sow doubt about links between their product and cancer. As the evidence against them mounted in the 1970s, the tobacco industry realized they needed something more. They found it in Seitz, who was not merely a scientist, but the former president of the Academy of Sciences.

Indecision. R. J. Reynolds put Seitz in charge of the company’s biomedical research grant program. The amount of money available was staggering. In 1981, Oreskes and Conway write, the American Cancer Society and the American Lung Association together contributed $300,000 to research. In that same year, Big Tobacco directed $6.3 million to researchers who consistently found no evidence conclusively linking tobacco to serious medical problems.

Seitz and the tobacco industry were a perfect fit. Environmental and industrial regulations were anathema to each. For the industry, it was a simple matter of self-interest. While Seitz was well-paid for his work, ideology may have been the more important factor. Over the years Seitz’s conservative views had grown ever more extreme. He found himself alienated from many of his scientific colleagues over the Vietnam War (many of them were against the war; Seitz was an enthusiastic supporter). He also became convinced that environmentalists were dupes of communist propaganda, if not outright traitors.

Eventually, Seitz’s right-wing views would become too much for even the tobacco industry. Seitz was, in their view, “not sufficiently rational” to maintain a public connection with the industry.