Debunking Oreskes part 2: The wicked “handful of scientists”

← Part 1: A wall of vagueness

Part 3: The “tobacco strategy” →

Part 4: Disinformation or debate? →

Part 5: Irrelevance to the current climate change debate →

Part 6: Is it all about the money? 

As mentioned in part 1 of this series, the book Merchants of Doubt by Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway focuses on the allegedly sinister actions of a “handful of scientists”. According to the book’s subtitle, these scientists “obscured the truth on issues from tobacco smoke to global warming”. Trying to deduce what this might mean in more specific terms, I wrote:

Obscuring the truth is a somewhat vague concept, but it seems to imply that these scientists been quite influential, and that their communication with the public has been untruthful and probably deliberately deceptive.

So let us assume that they intend to say that a “handful” (presumably three or more) of scientists have “obscured the truth” on both tobacco, climate change and other issues. Tobacco and climate change are by far the most relevant of these. Tobacco, since it’s a well-documented case of deliberate fraud; climate change, since it’s the only one over which there is still a strong active controversy.

To investigate what truth there might be to this, we first need to know who “the handful of scientists” (let’s call them the Handful) are supposed to have been. There is no definitive, exhaustive listing in the book, but the main ones that tend to appear together in different chapters are Fred Seitz, Fred Singer, William Nierenberg and Robert Jastrow. (Since the book mentions a large number of other, less significant characters, it’s a research project in itself to discover who recurs and therefore hard to be absolutely sure who should be included.)

These are my principal findings from studying the book: Given these main “bad guys”, I find that the links between these individuals and the two main issues are weak at best. The link between the Handful and tobacco is practically non-existent. The link between the Handful and climate change is based on old information (only Singer is still living) and has questionable relevance to the current controversy. The idea that they were obscuring the truth about global warming is based primarily on the idea that they were attacking a scientfic consensus, but according to Oreskes and Conway themselves, the period during which they were active hardly overlaps the time during which there has been a consensus.

To get into the specifics, let’s look at each person in turn.

Fred Seitz and tobacco

The book describes Seitz’ involvement with the tobacco industry in this way:

From 1979 to 1985, Fred Seitz directed a program for R. J. Reynolds Tobacco Company that distributed $45 million to scientists around the country for biomedical research that could generate evidence and cultivate experts to be used in court to defend the “product.”

This could be interpreted to mean, first, that the only motivation for the research program was to defend tobacco, and second, that this also was Seitz’ motivation for his participation.

A little later, they say:

All of the chosen studies addressed legitimate scientific questions, some that mainstream medicine had neglected—like the role of emotions and stress in somatic disease. All the investigators were credentialed researchers at respected institutions. Some of the work they were doing was pathbreaking. But was the purpose simply to advance science? Not exactly.

In other words, the research was valid in itself. But then they discuss evidence that seems to indicate that defending the industry was the primary motivation for Reynolds in funding these research projects. That may be true, but what is missing is evidence that Seitz was aware of or approved of it. Did he believe that the research he supported was important to the campaign to defend tobacco? Did he sympathize with the campaign? Was he aware of its deliberately deceptive aspects? Oreskes and Conway devote three pages to speculations about his possible (and mostly benign) motives, but answer none of these questions. As the Marshall Institute article puts it:

Was Reynolds interested in discrediting the links between tobacco and human health effects? Certainly, but that is irrelevant to the question of whether Seitz and his colleagues believed that or saw the research they were supporting as contributing to that goal. What Reynolds hoped the research would produce is not the same as proving that Reynolds forced Seitz and his colleagues to do anything untoward. In fact, the documents cited by Oreskes-Conway suggest the opposite — that Seitz and his colleagues operated independently and supported worthy research. And there is little question of the worth of the research. It supported work which eventually produced a Nobel Prize by Dr. Stanley Prusinerfor his work on prions.

Fred Singer and tobacco

In this matter, Singer can speak for himself.

No matter what the environmental issue — ozone depletion, acid rain, pesticides, etc. — any and all scientific opposition based on objective facts is blamed [by Oreskes and Conway] on an imagined involvement with tobacco companies.  None of this is true, of course. Oreskes and Conway claim to be academic historians, yet they have consistently ignored factual information, have not bothered to consult primary sources, have never interviewed any of the scientists they try to smear, and generally have operated in a completely unprofessional way.

The ultimate aim of these attacks, at least in my case, has been to discredit my work and publications on global warming.  I am a nonsmoker, find SHS [second-hand smoking] to be an irritant and unpleasant, have certainly not been paid by Philip Morris and the tobacco lobby, and have never joined any of their front organizations.  And I serve on the advisory board of an anti-smoking organization.  My father, who was a heavy smoker, died of emphysema while relatively young.  I personally believe that SHS, in addition to being objectionable, cannot possibly be healthy.

Clearly, if the information in the latter paragraph had been included in Merchants of Doubt, it would have seriously weakened its insinuation that the main characters in the book were intentionally working to defend the tobacco industry.

Robert Jastrow, William Nierenberg and tobacco

As for the two other members of the Handful—Nierenberg and Jastrow—Oreskes and Conway do not even suggest a link to tobacco.

In addition, there are any number of other players described in the book that were involved with the tobacco industry, but not with the other controversies, and certainly not the climate change issue.

The Handful and climate change

All the members of the Handful participated actively in the scientific debate on climate change. However, most of this happened at least 20 years ago. As mentioned, Singer is the only one of them who is still living. The others were involved mainly around 1990, at least from the account in the book. What does this imply for Oreskes and Conway’s claims that the Handful “obscured the truth”? Their concept of obscuring the truth is based primarily on the idea that they were attacking a scientfic consensus.

This gives them a problem with the timing of the events. And uf they are aware of this problem, they are not telling us about it. Oreskes and Conway themselves say there was a consensus since “the mid-1990s”.

In 2004, one of us showed that scientists had a consensus about the reality of global warming and its human causes—and had since the mid-1990s. (Page 215.)

This means that they date the consensus to the period from the mid-1990s until today. In contrast, the book’s account of the climate change issue is historical, focusing primarily on the period around 1980 to 1995. In fact, the main narrative on climate change ends in 1995, with an addtional three sentences about events in 1997. In other words, it hardly overlaps the “consensus” period.

But the idea that the Handful obscured the truth about climate change is essential to the book’s overall (implied) message. How can Oreskes and Conway make it seem that way when there was no “truth” (consensus) available at the time the Handful were operating? Part of the answer is that the chapter on climate change leaves a misleading impression which is at odds with the explicit admission that the consensus existed from the mid-1990s.

The account of climate change starts in 1979 and quotes statements that may give the impression that even at that point there was a consensus on anthropogenic global warming. But we are not given what is perhaps the most important background information we need in order to understand the situation then. The world had not warmed significantly in four decades.

Among other things, we are presented with the following quote from a report published in 1979:

The report concluded, “if carbon dioxide continues to increase, the study group finds no reason to doubt that climate changes will result and no reason to believe that these changes will be negligible.” (Page 173.)

It’s easy to think that this is almost the same as what the IPCC claimed in 2007 or 2013, or possibly in the 1990s. But the context makes all the difference. It’s fairly obvious that it was difficult to gain support for a theory of man-made global warming when there had been no global warming for decades. Scientifically speaking, the problem was that some of the most important data the theory is based on today, the surface temperature record from the last three decades of the 20th century, did not yet exist. A reader who is not aware of this may think that those who did not believe in human-caused global warming at the time should have known better. While Conway and Oreskes reviews objections this report met at the time, and admits that there was tremendous uncertainty, the overall impression is misleading.

How else do Oreskes and Conway foster the impression that skepticism about global warming was somehow shady even before 1990? Part of it comes from attributing motives to the skeptics. Conservative politics is one of these. Another example is their recounting of the response to James Hansen’s relatively strong claims about global warming in the late 1980s.

Some colleagues, uncomfortable with all the media attention—and maybe a bit jealous, too—attacked Hansen for going too far, thinking he had discounted the significant uncertainties that still remained.

A more unbiased and scientifically-minded way to refer this would been to report that some scientists disagreed and to cite the arguments they used. Instead, Conway and Oreskes choose to attribute motives such as envy, subtly implying that their reaction was irrational, although they also say that “Hansen’s claim of detection was unexpected and seemed perhaps premature”.

The contemporary article Oreskes and Conway themselves use as a reference, Hansen Vs. the World on the Greenhouse Threat, is more sympathetic to his critics.

The article states that Hansen “irked practically everyone in the field when, in the midst of a drought, he told Congress that the greenhouse warming is here. It was this sort of unconditional claim from Hansen and his group that had prompted this meeting. The greenhouse community was determined to set the record straight with hard facts, but now, even as they got their meeting under way, Hansen was at it once more on Capitol Hill.”

It looks as if Hansen was the “contrarian” at this point if judged by the standards and evidence available at the time; in other words, challenging a consensus representing the majority of scientists. And the Handful appear more like the defenders of the consensus, making them heroes rather than villians in the Merchants of Doubt dramaturgy. The same behavior that in the previous quote is called “setting the record straight with hard facts” could probably have been labeled “fact fighting” by Oreskes and Conway.

There may be a slight rhetorical twist here. According to the dictionary, consensus simply means unanimous agreement. But Oreskes and Conway use it preferentially to mean agreement about certainty and knowledge rather than about uncertainty and ignorance, implying a value judgment that uncertainty is less important than certainty.

Consensus is central concept in the book, but with very little discussion of what it actually means. So how can we understand it?

Consensus, what’s the point?

Oreskes has been nominated for unflattering titles like “queen of smear”, or “conspiracy queen”.  She herself seems to aspire to be the “queen of consensus”. Having researched and written extensively about it, you would think she would be able to provide at least a good definition, somewhat precise information about what it is and why it’s important. But no. As with many other ideas in the book, there is no clear and coherent exposition of the notion of scientific consensus in Merchants of Doubt. The best we can do is educated guessing. The book’s messages about consensus appear to be:

  1. Scientific consensus is an important and valuable concept.
  2. It’s a bad thing to oppose it.
  3. The Handful did just that, opposing the scientific consensus on climate change.

I have already shown that they have not demonstrated the truth of statement 3. To comment only briefly on statement 1, how do we know that a consensus is even desirable? The idea that scientific consensus is valuable is a unquestioned premise throughout the book. But it is not clear why and how it has value. It’s easy to see that it’s politically convenient to have simple answers, but from a scientfic point of view, is it a good thing to deliberately foster consensus? Or does it simply impede progress by making it harder to ask tough questions? Judith Curry offers the following opinion:

The manufactured consensus of the IPCC has had the unintended consequences of distorting the science, elevating the voices of scientists that dispute the consensus, and motivating actions by the consensus scientists and their supporters that have diminished the public’s trust in the IPCC.

Similar sentiments were expressed and developed in the debate on “the 97% consensus”.

But in the context of Merchants of Doubt, my key point is a different one: the fact that statement 2 does not follow from statement 1. However good, useful and important a consensus might be, it does not mean that it should never be challenged. On the contrary, challenging it can be an opportunity for the consensus to be adjusted, improved or even strengthened.

In general, Oreskes and Conway supply only rudimentary reasoning supporting their assumptions about consensus. We are never told clearly and logically how, when and why questioning a scientific consensus is a bad idea. However, there are some stray passages that touch on it. The reasoning rests primarily on blurring distinctions and conflating concepts. Superficially similar ideas are treated as if they were exact synonyms. In one case, they give the impression that a consensus is almost by definition final and infallible:

Research produces evidence, which in time may settle the question…After that point, there are no “sides.” There is simply accepted scientific knowledge. There may still be questions that remain unanswered—to which scientists then turn their attention—but for the question that has been answered, there is simply the consensus of expert opinion on that particular matter. That is what scientific knowledge is.

Here again, we find the idea of “settled science” which Gavin Schmidt and RealClimate has told us is not an accurate description of the current state of climate science. If consensus is “what scientific knowledge is”, it implies that if you challenge a consensus you are challenging “scientific knowledge” as such. But of course, this is not  the case. Scientific knowledge is above all the body of evidence on which a consensus, if any, rests. And when scientists challenge a consensus, typically their argument is that the evidence does not support the consensus position.

The political use of consensus has been characterized as “consensus as proxy for truth”.  Using consensus as a proxy for truth might be useful in a specific situation, but they are not the same, and attacking the consensus is not the moral or intellectual equivalent of attacking the truth.

And yet this is precisely what Oreskes and Conway imply. “Settled science” and “the consensus of expert opinion” are portrayed as indistinguishable. And as we have just seen, the consensus is equated with scientific knowledge as such. Knowledge, evidence and expert opinion are used interchangably in a way that makes them seem to be identical. Challenging a consensus then becomes “fighting facts” or even “disinformation”.

And although they posit a clear distinction between a consensus and a pre-consensus situation (in the previous quote the questions are either answered or unanswered), there is no discussion of where they want to draw the line. How strong a consensus is needed to ensure that a question is “settled”, and how do we measure the strength of that consensus? Oreskes and Conway never discuss any of this.

The next quote blurs a different distinction, this time between the issue and the people representing it.

Once [the Handful] 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.

Again, different concepts are being treated as if they were equivalent. Being “on the wrong side of the scientific consensus” apparently involves, not simply disagreeing, but attacking both the work and the personal reputations of other scientists.

And since attacking a consensus means attacking good people, it’s only natural that the people attacking it are bad people:

And it especially does not make sense to dismiss the consensus of experts if the dissenter is superannuated, disgruntled, a habitual contrarian, or in the pay of a group with an obvious ideological agenda or vested political or economic interest. Or in some cases, all of the above.

In other words, the degree to which a challenge to the consensus makes sense depends on the person proposing it. Again, this is clearly not the case. Scientific ideas, theories and hypotheses make sense or not depending on the evidence and the arguments given for or against them. At least that is how science is supposed to operate. Science is about what’s objectively verifiable, and the motivations of individuals typically aren’t. This is especially so if you choose not to ask the individual in question, and rely on the opinions of people who may have their own reasons for misinterpreting the person’s motives.

Of course some people question a scientific consensus for the “wrong” reasons. But people can be right for the wrong reasons and wrong for the right reasons. And of course, they can accept a consensus for the wrong reasons as well. Habitual people-pleasing biases you as much as habitual combativeness and is probably much more common, although combativeness may be more conspicuous. Turning their quote on its head, we might say that accepting a consensus “makes no sense” if those who accept it are…

…inexperienced, complacent, habitually servile or in the pay of a group with an obvious ideological agenda or vested political or economic interest [in favor of the consensus].

Oreskes and Conway never delve deeper into the discussion of these matters. Concepts such as groupthink and confirmation bias are absent in their analysis. And when we don’t consider the matter explicitly, we tend to fall back on our knee-jerk reflexes. All to often, that means prejudice and an almost instinctive dislike of disagreement. Any intolerant majority will tell the minority that their opinions are just an expression of an excessive and obsessive belligerence. And their personal problems and troubled feelings, of course.

What does this mean for the alleged link between tobacco and climate change?

We have seen that the link fails at both ends. There are only two among their Handful that they even try to link to tobacco, and only Seitz has an actual link to the tobacco companies.

Furthermore, they have not demonstrated that any of the Handful challenged an established consensus on climate change.

For the sake of completeness, even though they haven’t shown this, it is probably true in the case of case of Singer, since he is still an active climate skeptic. But the impression that these men are have somehow conspired to create current climate skepticism is clearly false.

So even if we accept their premise that challenging a scientific consensus as defined by them always implies “obscuring the truth”, there is no way we can make the number of people that have “obscured the truth on issues from tobacco smoke to global warming” more than one or two. A bit small for a handful.

In other words, even from Oreskes and Conway’s own perspective, given all their bias, rhetoric, value judgements and dubious assumptions, they have failed to demonstrate what is arguably their strongest message.

Part 3: The “tobacco strategy” ➡

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26 Responses

  1. Brad Keyes says:

    Make no mistake: Oreskes is engaged in a one-woman war on Western epistemology. In a sane world she’d be either pitied or despised as an anti-intellectual lunatic but in this world, her post as a Harvard Professor gives her the power to do a lot of damage to the understanding of a generation of students.

    Have you seen her cretinous definition of knowledge—elsewhere, I think in an essay—as:

    “what counts as knowledge is the ideas accepted by the fellowship of scholars”


    ROFL. Not for Naomi the proper, millennia-old concept of knowledge as justified true belief.

    I hardly need to point out that Oreskes is a creature of the climate movement. And since the climate alarmists are in the awkward position of having no evidentiary justification for the “truth” they want us to “believe,” real epistemology is an inconvenience to them. And it’s one that they have no qualms about trampling over to achieve their political goals. Oreskes is nothing more than the “respectable, legitimate” pseudo-academic “face” of their cunning plot to replace evidence with consensus. And what a repulsive face it is.

    By the way, you might like my post Consensus… what is it good for?

  2. dagfinn says:

    Well yes, “replacing evidence with consensus” is perhaps a succinct way of expressing the same idea as when I say, “knowledge, evidence and expert opinion are used interchangably in a way that makes them seem to be identical.” I don’t think it’s new, though. I’ve seen it in politicized science before.

    • Brad Keyes says:

      “I’ve seen it in politicized science before.”

      I’ve heard rumors. (In which fields/hypotheses have you seen it?) It’s sad.

      Dishonestly attempting to pass off consensus as a counterfeit for evidence in a particular field is one thing. But I wonder: has there ever been a time when a Harvard Professor of the History of Science teaches the Medieval doctrine that this is the way science should work? In other words, has there ever been an explicit academic assault on scientific epistemology itself? Or is Oreskes a new phenomenon?

      • dagfinn says:

        “Is Oreskes a new phenomenon?” Good question. I don’t know. Scientific consensus is such a politically useful idea that I wouldn’t be surprised if someone had said similar things before about how science should work.

  3. Iceman says:

    On the consensus issue I suggest reading Ben Pile. The problem is no one really defines it. A consensus without a subject.

  4. Well done, Dagfinn:-)

    Changing the “definition” of words seems to be a favourite pastime of those on the “hockey stick” team and their cheerleaders and supporters, does it not?!

    But that aside, a few years ago – on the heels of yet another of the BBC’s Richard Black’s rather convoluted consensus “discussion” – I attempted to gather some quotes pertaining to this so-called “consensus”.

    FYI, during the course of this exploration, I compiled some quotes from Mike Hulme (aka Mr. Teflon, in my books), long-time IPCC-nik, Richard Klein, Oreskes, Greenpeace, Union of Concerned Scientists and others, including the “UN Secretary General’s High-Level Panel on Global Sustainability”.

    Pls. see: if you’re interested:-)

    • dagfinn says:

      Thank Hillary. And yes, that is interesting. I’m sure you’re aware that there is also a lot of material on the issue of consensus at Judith Curry’s blog.

  5. Thanks for the kind words over at WUWT, and glad to tip you about Oreskes’ tie-in to Ross Gelbspan. Trust me on this, she potentially is a key figure in the Gelbspan-Gore accusation against skeptics, I have her tagged in 4 of my blog posts, two specifically all about her:

    As I said at the end of the first of the latter two posts, “What sets Oreskes apart from other repeating Gelbspan’s accusation is not what she repeats, but is instead what she says about the ICE memos and people having a direct association with the memos after they were leaked.”

    If you could among all your own studies of Oreskes, please keep an eye out for any time where she explains an association with Desmogblog, or anything where she mentions her initial fixation with the Western Fuels ICE memo set. She probably offers more unguarded moments of truth in such instances.

    • dagfinn says:

      I’ve only read the one book. Desmogblog is not mentioned; I’ve searched the ebook for it. This is the only mention of Western Fuels: “In the early 1990s, he [Patrick J. Michaels] had worked as a consultant to the Western Fuels Association—a coal mining industry group—to promote the idea that burning fossil fuels was good, because it would lead to higher crop yields as increased atmospheric CO2 led to increased photosynthesis and therefore increased agricultural productivity.”

  6. One more thing, on Dr Singer and the 2nd smoke deal: I’d heard about him “denying” the harm of cigarettes way back in 2008, but basic searches to find where he ever said any such thing eluded me, but plentiful results came in for this Desmogblog smear: The big hitch for Desmog is that they apparently never read their own evidence, since in one of the docs ( pg 6) of a draft of Dr Singer’s paper, he says as plain as day “The health risk from smoking is not the focus of this paper. Instead, this paper explores the EPA’s analysis of ETS or second hand smoke….In brief, EPA makes certain assumptions about ETS which are then used to buttress EPA’s scientific and economic conclusions. Moreover, the science as presented is insufficient…. In the process, it has engaged in both scientific overreach and regulatory overreach….”

    Much like the claim that ‘skeptic scientists are paid to reposition global warming as theory rather than fact’, pretty much all of the 2nd hand smoke diatribe against Dr Singer is based on garbage that the accusation promoters hope nobody will actually read.

    • dagfinn says:

      I’m a little bit confused by this. I’m not sure how the statement about “the health risk from smoking” is relevant to Desmog’s point. On the other hand, I see that Singer is not listed as author, only as reviewer.

      • That is precisely the point, the evidence Desmog cited as ‘devastating’ proof that Dr Singer denied harm from smoking was NOT there, no less than the same manner in which the ‘evidence’ that Michaels or anyone else was paid by Western Fuels to lie and misinform is NOT there. The entire Merchants of Doubt book serves to be little more than a vehicle to cobble all of the other ‘denier’ insinuations into something that could be tied into ‘industry-bought global warming denial’, but as you’ve discovered, it fails to deliver on its individual components, and I point out how it implodes on its truly weak end where it tries to insinuate there’s a quid pro quo arrangement between skeptics and industry. The only reason why Oreskes succeeds at all is because no one she encounters on her side dares to question her work.

    • dagfinn says:

      I found this when googling some of the info. Not directly relevant, but looks kind of interesting.

  7. Joshua says:

    Interesting excerpts from and interview with Seitz:

    I can’t imagine that R.J. Reynolds wanted you to do any specific research on the links between tobacco and cancer. Did they?

    No. I was asked at one point to see if I could find a group that would look into this question: How serious is cancer? The answer has actually been known for a long while. …

    Did this institution do any direct studies linking tobacco and cancer?

    I took it for granted. People are educated enough that they knew it was a hazard.

    This was at the same time that the tobacco companies were also skeptics who also claimed that scientists didn’t know; that there was still some doubt.

    Yes. Well, that wasn’t the case here.

    Did it bother you that they were using skeptics who said that science wasn’t sure?

    The blame for smoking should be placed upon smokers. … If they buy them, it’s their responsibility.

    But as long as the tobacco companies could say that science wasn’t sure, that there were skeptics, then the consumer could reasonably say, “Well, we don’t know.”

    I don’t know where you’re getting. The evidence was out; it’s been out for over a century. Remember, the French used to call cigarettes “coffin nails.” My father drilled this into my head, although I became a smoker.

    But you know that in the ’60s, the tobacco companies very clearly said that there wasn’t a direct linkage. It took a long time for them to say —

    The people wanted to believe that; it was their own doing.

    But do you think that was also political on the part of the tobacco companies?

    Well, they wanted to keep up sales.

    Was it irresponsible on the part of the tobacco companies?

    It was irresponsible on the part of the smokers. You see, you have a situation, again, somewhat like that you described. Wasn’t it wise to stop smoking even though it may be only a tenth of a percent chance? And yet people didn’t.

    Although I could make the same argument about the carbon emissions: Even if there was a 10 percent chance, should we not do something about that?

    Yes, you could. It’s a little different, however. In one case, you affect the health of the economy; the other case, you affect the person’s health. Each of us should look after our health. …

    I wanted to know if you got a stipend from R.J. Reynolds.

    Well, we got travel expenses; that was all, as I remember.

    Just travel expenses, although there are company documents, now public, that say you actually got more than travel expenses. You got about $65,000 in the time of that relationship.

    Quite possible. At the time, if it was true, [it was] just cash flow-through; I had other problems.

    But those documents say that money went in your pocket.


    And you don’t remember that?


    But you remember travel expenses?


    Did that relationship shape your ideas about smoking? … In terms of science, you were very much against those studies that were beginning to link secondhand smoke and cancer. … Have you changed your mind about secondhand smoke since then?

    No. I think if you were to smoke a cigarette in this room, I wouldn’t be at hazard.

  8. Joshua says:

    Also interesting:

    Now keep it in mind, as you read this document – where at the end Seitz is introduced, that in the interview above, Seitz says, in response to the following question:

    Did this institution do any direct studies linking tobacco and cancer?

    I took it for granted. People are educated enough that they knew it was a hazard.

    And in response to this question:

    This was at the same time that the tobacco companies were also skeptics who also claimed that scientists didn’t know; that there was still some doubt.

    He said the following:

    Yes. Well, that wasn’t the case here.

    Curious, don’t you think?

    • dagfinn says:

      Maybe I’m missing something, but I don’t see anything significant here beyond what I’ve already discussed based on Oreskes and Conway. If that’s what you’re suggesting.

      • Joshua says:

        The historical document makes it quite clear that Seitz was well-aware that he was employed by people who knowingly downplayed the evidence supporting a link between smoking and cancer and deliberately worked to undermine the validity of that evidence despite the implications to health outcomes in hundreds of millions.

        Yet his argument is that they weren’t accountable for having done so, and that educated people knew of the hazard (did he think that his employers were not educated?).

        Yet, he argued that it “wasn’t the case here” [wasn’t the case that there still was some doubt] even though as the document shows, he was introduced (and hired) by someone who said that claims of such a link were “scientifically unproven.”

        When asked if the tobacco companies acted irresponsibly, he answers that smokers were irresponsible – as if the two would necessarily be mutually exclusive, and as if downplaying solid scientific evidence (that he says educated people should have known about, evidence that had been out for decades) isn’t “irresponsible.”

        IMO, his actions are of someone who is ducking responsibility for supporting a disinformation campaign about the risks posed by smoking. Defending someone with such a history, in the context of the public disputes about climate change, seems significantly counterproductive, IMO.

  9. dagfinn says:

    The document seems to be consistent with Merchants of Doubt. “All of the chosen studies addressed legitimate scientific questions, some that mainstream medicine had neglected—like the role of emotions and stress in somatic disease. All the investigators were credentialed researchers at respected institutions. Some of the work they were doing was pathbreaking.”

    I interpret his statements in the interview as saying that the studies he was responsible for were not about smoking and cancer and therefore they were not drawing any conclusions either way about it. As for “knowingly downplayed”, he seems to be arguing that there was no point in downplaying it, that it was an exercise in futility. “The evidence was out; it’s been out for over a century.” It’s a bit hard to tell from an interview that doesn’t necessarily give a coherent picture of his thinking.

  10. Joshua says:

    ==> “I interpret his statements in the interview as saying that the studies he was responsible for were not about smoking and cancer and therefore they were not drawing any conclusions either way about it. ”


    He said more than that in the interview. Again, he indicated that no educated person would doubt that there was solid evidence for the link between smoking and seriously deleterious health outcomes, and that the evidence had been known for decades. Yet as the document shows, he was well-aware that he was being employed by people who knowingly downplayed the validity of that evidence. So he says that he knew that there was valid evidence of the harmful effects of smoking, in fact that there was no doubt that such evidence existed (among educated people) yet he sought employment from people who he knew deliberately promoted misinformation about that evidence, and further has gone on to dismiss them for being responsible for deliberately promoting evidence for harmful health impact to hundreds of millions of people.

    ==> “he seems to be arguing that there was no point in downplaying it, that it was an exercise in futility.”

    1) He argued that no one who was educated would doubt the evidence. Yet he clearly knew that well-educated people, in fact, the people who were employing him to do research, said there wasn’t valid evidence.

    2) He wasn’t arguing simply that it would be an exercise in futility to downplay the evidence. After wrongly indicating that no one educated would doubt the evidence (something that the document demonstrates he knows wasn’t true) – quite to the contrary. he rationalized his employers knowingly spreading misinformation about the evidence with the justification of that’s what you’d expect from someone trying to make money.

    • dagfinn says:

      There may be some element of rationalization in his response. But I really don’t think you can analyze an interview this way. You just can’t expect every word to be precisely considered. And when you say “misinformation” — every advertiser puts some amount of spin on the facts. It’s a far cry from the kind of deception that was eventually uncovered, such as the fact that the tobacco companies had in fact done research that showed nicotine was addictive and kept it hidden.

      Anyway, none of this has much bearing on the big picture and the totally misleading impression given by Oreskes and Conway.

      • Joshua says:

        ==> “There may be some element of rationalization in his response.”


        ==> ” And when you say “misinformation” — every advertiser puts some amount of spin on the facts.”

        Spin on the facts? So you’re offering the same rationalization that Seitz did?

        Again, Seitz indicates that the link was obvious, well-founded in evidence, known for decades, not doubted by anyone educated – yet the people that employed him to research the impact of smoking stated quite explicitly that there was no validated scientific evidence to show a link.

        Sorry, Dagfinn, but your logic doesn’t hold up.

        Either Seitz thought at the time that there was no valid evidence, in which case his repeated subsequent statements that the evidence wasn’t in doubt (as an explanation for why he wasn’t hired to produce misinformation) are meant to mislead.

        Or he did think that the evidence was solid, and so he then he clearly knew (as shown by the document I linked) that the people who employed him to do research were promoting misinformation, and then later claimed that he didn’t know that.

        And you see no difference between any old advertiser putting a spin on facts, and a company that produces a toxic substance deliberately promoting information that downplays evidence of harmful health impact to hundreds of millions from their product, or actually outright, knowingly, promotes misinformation that there are no such harmful health impacts?

        Dagfinn, do you seriously think that such an argument could possibly be productive towards disentangling the cross-over between ideology and vested interests with the question of whether ACO2 ennisions are potentially harmful?

        ==> “Anyway, none of this has much bearing on the big picture and the totally misleading impression given by Oreskes and Conway.”

        I’m not talking here about the “impression” they give. Impressions are quite variable depending on the person being impressed. I am talking about your argument about Seitz.

        You are rationalizing his arguments even though they are clearly fallacious.

        • dagfinn says:

          “Dagfinn, do you seriously think that such an argument could possibly be productive towards disentangling the cross-over between ideology and vested interests with the question of whether ACO2 ennisions are potentially harmful?”

          It’s not an argument in the logical sense at all. It’s about trying to understand how Seitz was thinking when he said that, and knowing that he was only human and that an interview is a rather unreliable source if you want to apply rigorous logic. And last but not least, giving him the benefit of the doubt as I have done with Oreskes and Conway also. I have been careful not to speculate too much on their motives.

          Disentangling the cross-over between vested interests and ideology is always difficult and will easily lead you astray. What is clear in the case of climate change is that the money is overwhelmingly on the CAGW, alarmist side, and that’s a problem. It would be better if it were more balanced.

    • Brad Keyes says:


      1) He argued that no one who was educated would doubt the evidence. Yet he clearly knew that well-educated people, in fact, the people who were employing him to do research, said there wasn’t valid evidence.

      There is no contradiction there.

      First, Seitz said educated people didn’t doubt the link. This is NOT to say that educated people (like “the cigarette companies”) didn’t DOWNPLAY the link—in other words, intentionally LIE about what they knew in order to trick the uneducated into smoking. The latter doesn’t require doubt, it just requires psychopathy.

      Secondly, he admitted that “the cigarette companies” were downplaying the link, but insisted “that wasn’t the case here.” To me this seems to be a claim that even though some, or most, cigarette companies were disinforming the public, R J Reynolds was NOT; or at least the division he worked for at R J Reynolds was NOT.

      (What else could “but that wasn’t the case here” signify??)

      The only way you can make a case for hypocrisy is to equate

      “the cigarette companies”


      “the people employing him to do research.”

      Otherwise, you have no evidence that the actual people who interviewed, approved, hired and paid him were complicit in the aforementioned campaign of disinformation. They may well have been, but nothing Seitz says is an admission to this effect. On the contrary, his qualification (“but that wasn’t the case here”) seems to have precisely the opposite meaning, though it’s sadly ambiguous.

      2) Assuming, for the sake of argument, that some other division at R J Reynolds was indeed disnforming the public, something that certainly isn’t clear from this interview:

      How would that incriminate Seitz, exactly? (Morally or legally.)

      Why would he need to “rationalize his employment” at a company that was doing evil things if he himself wasn’t participating in those evil things? Would you expect the janitor at R J Reynolds to feel guilty? Would you expect the cleaning staff to apologize? The window cleaners? The signmaker? The guy who sold them their computers? The guy who installed the computers on-site? The architect who designed their corporate HQ?

      What, exactly, is the radius of guilt and where, exactly, do you draw the perimeter?

      What makes you think that by blaming the consumer, Seitz wasn’t sincerely expounding his libertarian philosophy?

      Remember, Seitz himself was guilty of smoking. So it was hardly self-exculpatory of him to put the responsibility for smoking on the smoker (and therefore himself), is it? It may have been WRONG or even OFFENSIVE to do so, but it wasn’t SELF-SERVING, psychologically speaking, was it?

  11. Bob Smith says:

    At worst, Seitz may be the lone true example of a tainted scientist in Merchants of Doubt. It’s hard to say based on the dialogue that Joshua is focused on.

    But notice the unstated premise: Smoking tobacco is bad therefore anyone who does research for a tobacco company is bad.

    There’s real evidence that people overestimate the danger of smoking. Suppose 25% of smokers are killed by their habit, but the scientific, political, and public “consensus” is that 50% are killed. A scientist whose research supports the correct number, 25%, is not a villain, he’s just the proverbial messenger.

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