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Review: Merchants of Doubt by Naomi Oreskes and Erik M Conway (2010)

How the Doubt Cabal deliberately delayed action on Global Heating for 30 years

This is an immensely important book and getting more important with every year that passes. It’s particularly vital as more and more people are slowly waking up to the fix we’re in with global climate change – a.k.a. Global Heating. Yes, our house is on fire. Do you doubt it?


So imagine that there’s a small electrical fire in your attic and your alarm goes off, you can’t find any fire but you notice the ceiling is warm in one spot and you get the fire extinguisher and get ready to go up into the attic and put it out.

But then this guy wearing a fireman’s outfit turns up and he says, “Well, are you sure there’s a fire? That extinguisher’s pretty expensive. I mean, there’s no smoke, there’s just an alarm, are you sure the ceiling’s warm? It’s probably just a false alarm. Go back to sleep.”

So you go back to sleep.

And then a bit later, you wake and there’s a smell of smoke and the guy in fireman kit says, “It’s OK, stay calm, that’s just from a bonfire.”

And the next time you wake, the whole house is ablaze.

Where climate change deniers came from

“Merchants of Doubt” is about the guy pretending to be a fireman – or guys, rather. It’s about a small cabal of mostly ex-Manhattan-project retired nuclear physicists who started by defending Big Tobacco from those silly dangerous people who claimed that cigarettes were carcinogenic.

Their finely-honed Doubt Strategy works by blowing up the way good normal science works: science naturally asks questions, doubts results, insists on redoing research, and generally keeps itself honest through repeated experiment and peer reviewed articles.

The Doubt Strategy expands this and uses it against science itself. It works by delay, by emphasising that we’re not sure, there’s no proof, other things could cause it, don’t be hasty and (the killer) more research is needed instead of action. It’s deadly in its vagueness and comforting do-nothing blandness.

The Doubt Cabal

Now, don’t get me wrong. According to the shocking evidence piled up by Ms Oreskes and Mr Conway, the Doubt Cabal knew perfectly well that cigarettes are carcinogenic (and addictive) – as did the tobacco companies. Sure, they got paid for writing popular and well-disseminated articles casting doubt on and outright denying the validity of perfectly sound and well-conducted research that linked cigarettes with all sorts of horrible diseases. But mainly they did it because they were ideologically opposed to any kind of regulation by any authority. They were rabid anti-Communists and fanatical free-market fundamentalists.

Amusingly, most of the Doubt Cabal worked for the US government and had no experience whatever of commerce.

However they were very successful and delayed the popular realisation that cigarettes were disease-causing by around 30 years. How many people died of cancer in those years that might have otherwise given up cigarettes if they had realised how bad they were?

Ozone layer

What was the Doubt Cabal’s next target? Well they turned their doubt strategies on rubbishing the idea that CFCs could destroy the ozone layer. Luckily the science was so clear and the danger so scary that CFCs were banned.

They went back to their old friends the tobacco companies and helped them by rubbishing the idea that secondary smoke can also cause cancer – you don’t have to be a smoker to die from cancer, you just have to live with a smoker. That worked well. Again they delayed action by a couple of decades.

Oh dear

Now they had a problem. In 1989, Soviet communism effectively collapsed – so being anti-Communist was a bit obsolete. But one of them came up with a stroke of genius: they would go after the environmentalists who, they claimed, were like watermelons – green on the outside, red on the inside.

First target was acid rain which was killing the forests of North America and Europe. The science showed clearly that acid rain was due to coal-fired power station emissions and other industries. The same Doubt Cabal tactics were wheeled out and worked well: are you sure, is it really happening, maybe it’s volcanoes, it’s a natural process etc etc blah blah? And because the fossil fuel companies already knew the research into climate change and knew that they could be regulated, the Doubt Cabal had found themselves new and princely patrons for their Doubt Strategy. The fossil fuel companies were going to delay any effective regulation for just as long as they possibly could, and the natural world, which they thought was useless to them, could go hang.

Doubt strategy A1

The Doubt Strategy worked better than ever on climate change because most people in the rich West didn’t want to stop driving cars, stop flying, stop eating meat or do anything except vaguely worry a bit about global heating after they had seen movies like “An Inconvenient Truth.”

It’s working so well now, nearly ten years on from the book, that the Doubt Cabal don’t need to make any effort to cast doubt on good science with fatuous and incomplete data, butchered graphs, or outright lying: the Climate-Change Deniers do it for them, more and better. But they started the attack on good science. It’s out of control now.

Why did they do it?

It’s hard for me to understand why these ex-nuclear so-called scientists would do what they did – was it the money? obstinacy? The fun of the game? Maybe they really believed that global heating was all a Chinese hoax?

Actually does it matter? I assume that none of the Doubt Cabal have any children or grandchildren so they don’t care that global heating unchecked will certainly destroy our civilization and possibly humans as a species.


Well I care. And from being vaguely puzzled at the popularity of climate change denial in the once scientific-minded USA, I am now furious since I read this book.

I am furious with these pseudo-scientists who kept lulling us asleep as the fire in our atmosphere took hold. We should all be furious and we should all wake up to the fact that the Doubt Strategy works brilliantly and that the Doubt Cabal could still kill us all with their clever manipulation of doubt.

I haven’t named the Doubt Cabal because I want you to read this book – MERCHANTS OF DOUBT. Their names are all over it.

Read the book. The history in it is meticulous which means it isn’t an easy read, but read it anyway.


  1. Barbara Cantwell says:

    Thank you! I’ve just popped this title on hold at my library. It is wonderful getting a book suggested with such a good description that intrigues (and in this case, maddens) but does not give the whole book away.

    1. It’s a really good – and eye-opening – book.

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