Merchants of Doubt: the Film and the Book That Inspired It

In the summer of 1990 I briefly worked as a temporary secretary at the Leo Burnett ad agency in the Chicago Loop. Tobacco giant Philip Morris was one of Burnett’s valued clients, and I remember being told that I should run instantly to find an appropriate account representative whenever there was a call from Philip Morris. (Burnett is well known for creating the Marlboro Man in the 1950s and the Virginia Slims “You’ve come a long way, baby” campaign in the late 1960s, both for Philip Morris products.) At the time it made me uncomfortable to be in such a tobacco-friendly environment — I knew that the link between cigarettes and cancer had been established in the early 1950s — and I quickly moved on to another workplace.

My Burnett experience came to mind again recently when I read Naomi Oreskes’ and Erik Conway’s Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming. This meticulously researched yet engaging book, published in 2010, describes in great detail the Tobacco Strategy, a game plan used by a few scientists who collaborated with lawyers and PR experts to cast doubt on the evidence that smoking is harmful (and later used the same tactics elsewhere, as the book’s subtitle implies). The Marlboro Man may have been the perfect embodiment of a sexy, freedom-loving smoker, but the ad agencies and PR companies couldn’t have succeeded without the scientists who encouraged people to doubt the dangers of tobacco. But why would scientists help undermine the mounting evidence against smoking (and help spread doubt about other issues), and why did so many people believe them? Merchants of Doubt gives very complete and sobering answers to these questions, and this ground-breaking book has inspired Robert Kenner’s 2015 film of the same name.

The Sony website describes Merchants of Doubt, the film, as a “satirically comedic, yet chillingly illuminating ride into the heart of conjuring American spin.” That’s another way of saying that it takes us to the place where scientific research confronts political ideology and human psychology – a complex territory, difficult to explore. Even so, the film moves along at a lively pace and immediately engages viewers by introducing us to Jamy Ian Swiss, a performing magician who specializes in “close-up card work” and who studies the reasons why we believe in his illusions. As Swiss notes, “The thing that sets magicians apart from con men and other kinds of thieves and liars is that we’re honest liars.” Then Kenner treats us to some creative card-trick-inspired opening credits before going on to focus on a group of pundits-for-hire and spin doctors who specialize in creating doubt and confusion about well-understood threats to human health and planet Earth.

This particular type of doubt-mongering had its origins in the 1950s when Big Tobacco was eager to spin the mounting evidence that cigarettes are harmful. Kenner interviews Stanton Glantz, an American Legacy Foundation Distinguished Professor of Tobacco Control, who cites the importance of the Legacy Tobacco Documents Library (which Glantz helped to make public and which inspires some of the film’s most creative graphics). This library contains more than 14 million documents, most notably the memos that indicate tobacco executives knew about the risks of smoking but denied that nicotine is addictive and smoking causes cancer until they were forced to acknowledge the truth. Nonetheless, during the 50 years that the tobacco companies successfully used this strategy, they continued to make money from a product that caused harm. The film includes some remarkable footage from the 1980s’ Morton Downey, Jr. Show, which shows Glantz taking on a tobacco industry rep and then being taunted by the chain-smoking host. Though Downey had a reputation for going way over the top, the tobacco rep’s comments sound equally absurd. It’s important to remember that the tobacco companies continued their doubt-mongering ways until 2006, which is when they were found guilty under the RICO (Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations) Act of conspiracy and judged to have “devised and executed a scheme to defraud consumers and potential consumers” about the negative health consequences of smoking. Unfortunately, by that time the Tobacco Strategy had been taken up by other corporate players.

After a disturbing look at the reasons why toxic flame retardant chemicals are so ubiquitous (essentially because big tobacco didn’t want to have to create a slower burning cigarette so that a smoker would be less likely to set the house on fire if he/she fell asleep while smoking), the film shifts its focus to James Hansen’s 1988 testimony before Congress concerning the reality of human-caused climate change. This was the point at which big energy companies began to adopt their own version of the Tobacco Strategy in order to foster climate change denial. Kenner interviews Naomi Oreskes, who says that it was the constant media reports about the supposed lack of consensus among climate scientists on climate change that prompted her to analyze “928 abstracts, published in refereed scientific journals between 1993 and 2003 and published in the ISI (Institute for Scientific Information) database with the keywords ‘climate change’” (see Science, December 3, 2004). She found that none of the scientists whose work she surveyed expressed doubt about the reality of human-caused global warming, yet doubt-mongering pundits continued to insist that the science was uncertain. When she published her findings in the journal Science, she was attacked by these same doubt-mongers.

Kenner also gives atmospheric scientists Katherine Hayhoe and Ben Santer a chance to tell how they’ve been subjected to threats and attacks because of their work, and we meet some of the pundits-for-hire who engage in this questionable behavior. Marc Morano, executive director of the climate-change-denying site, admits to posting climate scientists’ email addresses so his supporters can send them threatening messages, and he brags about playing a scientist on TV “more than occasionally.” Kenner also interviews James Taylor from the Heartland Institute and physicist Fred Singer, the only credentialed scientist in this group of doubt-mongers. Singer was also part of the campaign to deny the health risks of secondhand smoke.

Toward the end of this entertaining yet well-made film, Kenner does begin to sound a bit glib. It’s nice to see a conservative like former Republican Congressman Bob Inglis and a libertarian like Skeptics Society Executive Director Michael Shermer say that they’ve changed their positions on climate change and to see them speaking out about the overwhelming scientific evidence that influenced them. But the film also seems to imply that the tide is turning and that the doubt-mongers are on the losing side. Yet based on the evidence Kenner presents in the film, it’s unlikely that the Tobacco Strategy will be retired any time soon. Spin doctors will likely find other ways to exploit it for their own interests and those of their clients because they do what they do for money – and their clients (whether they are big tobacco companies or big energy companies) have plenty of cash.

But what about the few well-respected scientists who have been willing to lend credibility to the Tobacco Strategy? Were they also motivated by money? Due to his medium’s time limits Kenner is forced to gloss over most of the details about these men, but the book Merchants of Doubt fills in much more of the story. Co-author Naomi Oreskes is currently a Professor of the History of Science at Harvard, and as you might expect, she and Erik Conway provide lots of historical background. Though it seems improbable because we’ve grown accustomed to tobacco warnings and no-smoking policies, in the immediate aftermath of World War II cigarette smoking had positive connotations, even before the doubt-mongering began. This was in part because Adolf Hitler was intensely opposed to smoking, and though in the 1930s German scientists had shown that cigarettes caused lung cancer, after the War these studies were considered suspect because of their Nazi associations. It took some time for them to be taken seriously, and in the meantime respected public figures like TV newsman Edward R. Murrow could usually be seen clutching a smoldering cigarette.

Then in 1953, three things happened that were important to this story: Sloan-Kettering Institute in New York City demonstrated that cigarette tar caused fatal cancers in mice; Reader’s Digest (the most widely read publication in the world at that time) ran an article called “Cancer By the Carton”; and the presidents and CEOs of the largest tobacco companies in the U.S. decided to cooperate on a PR campaign to defend cigarettes. Over the next fifty years the bad news about tobacco was spun in as many ways as possible, and people were led to believe there was “reasonable doubt” about the harm to human health caused by smoking. Because science is a process of discovery, Oreskes and Conway tell us, it is “vulnerable to misinterpretation,” and the tobacco industry found they could use “normal scientific uncertainty to undermine the status of actual scientific knowledge.” One of the things the tobacco industry did to increase the sense of uncertainty about tobacco was to fund research that emphasized the doubt factor. When respected scientists, such as Dr. Frederick Seitz, were willing to run doubt-enhancing research programs, this gave the research credibility and amplified doubt. As one tobacco industry executive wrote in a now-notorious memo: “Doubt is our product since it is the best means of competing with the ‘body of fact’ that exists in the minds of the general public.”

But why would Seitz and other respected scientists help Big Tobacco in this way, and why would they later use the same strategies when scientific research proved to be a problem for other business interests? According to Oreskes and Conway, their behavior was motivated not by money but by political ideology. In particular the book looks at three scientists who were significantly involved in the development of weaponry and rocketry during the Cold War: Robert Jastrow, Astrophysicist and Head of Goddard Institute for Space Studies; Frederick Seitz, President of National Academy of Sciences, Rockefeller University, and Consultant to RJ Reynolds Tobacco; and William Nierenberg, Nuclear physicist and long-time Director of Scripps Institution of Oceanography. In the early 1980s these men were on a panel that advised the Reagan Administration on SDI (Strategic Defense Initiative, or “Star Wars”), and in 1984 they founded the George C. Marshall Institute to defend SDI against criticism from other scientists (i.e., the 6500 scientists and engineers who refused to work on SDI because it undermined the doctrine of Mutual Assured Destruction, which up to that point had kept both sides from launching a nuclear first strike).

By 1989, as the Cold War moved toward its conclusion, these Cold Warriors found a new enemy: Environmental “extremism,” which they defined as the exaggeration of environmental threats by people with a left wing agenda. Seitz was already involved with Big Tobacco, and the Marshall Institute began to use tactics very similar to the Tobacco Strategy – they worked to convince people that the science was unsettled on issues like secondhand smoke, acid rain, and climate change. The new enemy and the new threat, as they saw it, were the Watermelons — environmental activists who were green on the outside and red on the inside. And according to Oreskes and Conway, opposition to government regulation — seen as a slippery slope leading to socialism – is what motivated these respected scientists (who, by the way, were all addressing issues outside their specialties) to spread doubt about what the majority of scientists actually believed. The Marshall Institute – and later other conservative think tanks like the Heartland Institute and the Cato Institute — worked hard to deny the severity of these problems and insisted that the science was too uncertain to justify government action. (As an example of how effective this strategy is, a 2009 paper reports that “Fifty-two percent of Americans think most climate scientists agree that the Earth has been warming in recent years, and 47% think climate scientists agree (i.e., that there is a scientific consensus) that human activities are a major cause of that warming,” whereas in fact 97.4% of climate scientists actually do agree that climate change is real and humans are causing it.)

Oreskes’ and Conway’s book not only inspired the film version of Merchants of Doubt, but it also provides important background information to the film. And unlike the film, the book doesn’t end on a glib or overly upbeat note. Instead, in their final chapter, Oreskes and Conway ask us to “[i]magine a gigantic banquet” at which millions of people have been eating and drinking abundantly and well for many years, and then to imagine that these people receive a bill that many of them refuse to pay or even to acknowledge. “This is where we stand today on the subject of global warming. For the past 150 years, industrial civilization has been dining on the energy stored in fossil fuels, and the bill has come due,” the authors say. The reason we doubt our responsibility is not just because of the work of spin doctors and doubt mongers. Many of us didn’t even know we were at a banquet, and we were certainly not aware that the bill would include paying the price for acid rain, DDT and other pesticides, the ozone hole, and more. Oreskes and Conway even cite a book about decision theory to explain that we are reluctant to change our behavior because “acting to prevent future harm generally means giving up benefits in the present: certain benefits, to be weighed against uncertain gains.”

Science rarely provides certainty, but it does provide evidence – that cigarette smoking harms us, that our world is warming, and so on. The main message of Merchants of Doubt is that we should listen to those many scientists who are giving us a reality check rather than those merchants who want to sell us doubt. The future of our planet and our species depends on it.

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