Merchants of Doubt

This book is a very interesting read on how greedy companies can go to any lengths for profits and also how few influential people can change the policy decisions of governments by using the “element of doubt” as their weapon.
Here is the summary of what the book is all about –

This book shows us how fear of something can make us do anything. Even highly talented scientists can go to the extent of twisting/ignoring the facts out of their fears. Post second world war, when the cold war was at its peak, I think many scientists who worked on the atomic bomb were still having the fear that Soviet Union might attack USA anytime. The fear of communism taking over capitalism, resulted in few of the distinguished scientists going about blindly supporting the capitalists even when there was more than enough evidence of the harm the companies are causing. All over the book, we can see that the same set of scientists were involved in the issues of tobacco smoking, acid rain, post war (World War – II) nuclear arms development, effects of passive smoking, global warming, ozone layer depletion. The principle of free-market capitalism and importance of hearing “both sides” has been used and abused by people who didn’t want to admit the truth about the impacts of industrial capitalism.

Secondly, it’s sad to see the extremes to which companies can go to defend their products and protect their profits even if it’s at the cost of people’s lives. Though the industries discussed about in the book had conclusive evidence of the ill effects of smoking, acid rain, passive smoking, global warming, etc they kept lobbying to stop any kind of restrictions from the government. Under the cover of capitalism and freedom of speech these companies have ruined the environment and misled millions of people.

The other interesting point is how to defend yourself from criticism. All the lobbyists follow a simple principle of instilling doubts to mislead people. The strategy is simple….just start a controversy against the research, get it published in major newspapers and magazines that common people read and the job is done. The actual research and the results are generally published in all the science magazines that the common people don’t read often or don’t have access to. So, what reaches the public is the controversy than the actual facts.
That brings us to the impact of media and internet. We see that with the scores of 24×7 news channels all over, rise of Internet, anyone can now have their opinion heard, whether it is true or false. You pick any topic and there will always be opposing views on the internet. The burden is now on the people to check the credibility before blindly believing anything.

In conclusion, the below snippet from the book is one of the takeaways for me –
We take it for granted that great individuals – Gandhi, Kennedy, Martin Luther King – can have great positive impacts on the world. But we are loath to believe the same about negative impacts – unless the individuals are obvious monsters like Hitler or Stalin. But small number of people can have large, negative impacts, especially if they are organised, determined, and have access to power.

I would strongly suggest this book to anyone who has any kind of doubts about global warming, effects of tobacco smoking, acid rain, etc. It’s an interesting coincidence that just when I finished reading this book, I came across this report from IPCC.  If you read the book, you will see that it’s this IPCC report of previous years that has been thrashed many a times by these handful of scientists.