There will always be those who try to challenge growing scientific consensus — indeed the challenge is fundamental to science. Motives, however, matter and not everyone has good intentions.
Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway’s masterful work Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming, was recommended by Elon Musk.
The book illuminates how the tobacco industry created doubt and kept the controversy alive well past scientific consensus. They call this the Tobacco Strategy. And the same playbook is happening all over again. This time with Global Warming.
The goal of the Tobacco Strategy is to create doubt about the causal link to protect the interests of incumbents.
Millions of pages of documents released during tobacco litigation demonstrate these links. They show the crucial role that scientists played in sowing doubt about the links between smoking and health risks. These documents— which have scarcely been studied except by lawyers and a handful of academics— also show that the same strategy was applied not only to global warming, but to a laundry list of environmental and health concerns, including asbestos, secondhand smoke, acid rain, and the ozone hole.
Interestingly, not only are the tactics the same when it comes to Global Warming, but so are the people.
They used their scientific credentials to present themselves as authorities, and they used their authority to try to discredit any science they didn’t like.
Over the course of more than twenty years, these men did almost no original scientific research on any of the issues on which they weighed in. Once they had been prominent researchers, but by the time they turned to the topics of our story, they were mostly attacking the work and the reputations of others. In fact, on every issue, they were on the wrong side of the scientific consensus. Smoking does kill— both directly and indirectly. Pollution does cause acid rain. Volcanoes are not the cause of the ozone hole. Our seas are rising and our glaciers are melting because of the mounting effects of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, produced by burning fossil fuels. Yet, for years the press quoted these men as experts, and politicians listened to them, using their claims as justification for inaction.
December 15, 1953, was a fateful day. A few months earlier, researchers at the Sloan-Kettering Institute in New York City had demonstrated that cigarette tar painted on the skin of mice caused fatal cancers. This work had attracted an enormous amount of press attention: the New York Times and Life magazine had both covered it, and Reader’s Digest— the most widely read publication in the world— ran a piece entitled “Cancer by the Carton.” Perhaps the journalists and editors were impressed by the scientific paper’s dramatic concluding sentences: “Such studies, in view of the corollary clinical data relating smoking to various types of cancer, appear urgent. They may not only result in furthering our knowledge of carcinogens, but in promoting some practical aspects of cancer prevention.”
These findings, however, shouldn’t have been a surprise. We’re often blinded by a ‘bad people can do no right’ line of thought.
German scientists had shown in the 1930s that cigarette smoking caused lung cancer, and the Nazi government had run major antismoking campaigns; Adolf Hitler forbade smoking in his presence. However, the German scientific work was tainted by its Nazi associations, and to some extent ignored, if not actually suppressed, after the war; it had taken some time to be rediscovered and independently confirmed. Now, however, American researchers— not Nazis— were calling the matter “urgent,” and the news media were reporting it. “Cancer by the carton” was not a slogan the tobacco industry would embrace.
With the mounting evidence, the tobacco industry was thrown into a panic.
So industry executives made a fateful decision, one that would later become the basis on which a federal judge would find the industry guilty of conspiracy to commit fraud— a massive and ongoing fraud to deceive the American public about the health effects of smoking. The decision was to hire a public relations firm to challenge the scientific evidence that smoking could kill you.
On that December morning (December 15th), the presidents of four of America’s largest tobacco companies— American Tobacco, Benson and Hedges, Philip Morris, and U.S. Tobacco— met at the venerable Plaza Hotel in New York City. The French Renaissance chateau-style building— in which unaccompanied ladies were not permitted in its famous Oak Room bar— was a fitting place for the task at hand: the protection of one of America’s oldest and most powerful industries. The man they had come to meet was equally powerful: John Hill, founder and CEO of one of America’s largest and most effective public relations firms, Hill and Knowlton.
The four company presidents— as well as the CEOs of R. J. Reynolds and Brown and Williamson— had agreed to cooperate on a public relations program to defend their product. They would work together to convince the public that there was “no sound scientific basis for the charges,” and that the recent reports were simply “sensational accusations” made by publicity-seeking scientists hoping to attract more funds for their research. They would not sit idly by while their product was vilified; instead, they would create a Tobacco Industry Committee for Public Information to supply a “positive” and “entirely ‘pro-cigarette’” message to counter the anti-cigarette scientific one. As the U.S. Department of Justice would later put it, they decided “to deceive the American public about the health effects of smoking.”
At first, the companies didn’t think they needed to fund new scientific research, thinking it would be sufficient to “disseminate information on hand.” John Hill disagreed, “emphatically warn[ing] … that they should … sponsor additional research,” and that this would be a long-term project. He also suggested including the word “research” in the title of their new committee, because a pro-cigarette message would need science to back it up. At the end of the day, Hill concluded, “scientific doubts must remain.” It would be his job to ensure it.
Over the next half century, the industry did what Hill and Knowlton advised. They created the “Tobacco Industry Research Committee” to challenge the mounting scientific evidence of the harms of tobacco. They funded alternative research to cast doubt on the tobacco-cancer link. They conducted polls to gauge public opinion and used the results to guide campaigns to sway it. They distributed pamphlets and booklets to doctors, the media, policy makers, and the general public insisting there was no cause for alarm.
The industry’s position was that there was “no proof” that tobacco was bad, and they fostered that position by manufacturing a “debate,” convincing the mass media that responsible journalists had an obligation to present “both sides” of it.
Of course there was more to it than that.
The industry did not leave it to journalists to seek out “all the facts.” They made sure they got them. The so-called balance campaign involved aggressive dissemination and promotion to editors and publishers of “information” that supported the industry’s position. But if the science was firm, how could they do that? Was the science firm?
The answer is yes, but. A scientific discovery is not an event; it’s a process, and often it takes time for the full picture to come into clear focus. By the late 1950s, mounting experimental and epidemiological data linked tobacco with cancer— which is why the industry took action to oppose it. In private, executives acknowledged this evidence. In hindsight it is fair to say— and science historians have said— that the link was already established beyond a reasonable doubt. Certainly no one could honestly say that science showed that smoking was safe.
But science involves many details, many of which remained unclear, such as why some smokers get lung cancer and others do not (a question that remains incompletely answered today). So some scientists remained skeptical.
The industry made its case in part by cherry-picking data and focusing on unexplained or anomalous details. No one in 1954 would have claimed that everything that needed to be known about smoking and cancer was known, and the industry exploited this normal scientific honesty to spin unreasonable doubt.
The industry had realized that you could create the impression of controversy simply by asking questions, even if you actually knew the answers and they didn’t help your case. And so the industry began to transmogrify emerging scientific consensus into raging scientific “debate.”
Merchants of Doubt is a fascinating look at how the process for sowing doubt in the minds of people remains the same today as it was in the 1950s. After all, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.