The Merchants of Doubt: A Review … and the curious case of Michael Siegel


“The Merchants of Doubt” is a fascinating book by science historians Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway. I had an interest in the book because it explored how industry forces have used scientists to create doubt about their products and/or initiatives … and that all began with the tobacco industry back in the 1950s … hence my interest in the book.

Merchants of Doubt has a pair of chapters regarding the tobacco industry … first about the lies and obfuscation attempted by the industry when information first came out about the dangers of smoking and lung cancer, then 20-30 years later, the industry used many of the same techniques to try and deflect about the dangers to non-smokers from secondhand smoke.

One of the fascinating things about this book is that from the 1950s and the great tobacco coverup all the way to global warming cover-up 40-50 years later, a small cadre of ideologically driven scientists were involved in all these issues. Why scientists would involve themselves in science as disparate as lung health and oncology to global warming? The initial assumption would be that these scientists were all paid off by various industries to deflect and create doubt about their products, but actually money is a less important factor than you would think. Ideology is the biggest factor.

Fred Seitz
Fred Seitz

The book revolves around three Cold War physicists who got involved with the tobacco industry, the oil industry, the chemical industry, etc., primarily because of their politics. These guys — three guys — did a tremendous amount of damage over the past 50 years by being very, very loud and determined and having a lot of industry backing.

The book begins with a Cold War physicist named Frederick Seitz, who worked on the atomic bomb in the 1940s. I was fascinated by the description of Seitz; a conservative pro-business, anti-regulatory right-winger. He let his ideology drive

Seitz reminded me of a well-known scientist who has been involved in tobacco control, but several years ago, turned against the rest of the scientists in the tobacco control field. I’ll get to him later. “The Merchants of Doubt” doesn’t really get into this guy, because as near as I can tell, he became active about 10 years ago and the “Merchants of Doubt” stops exploring the area of tobacco control about 20 years ago.

Fred Singer

Anyway, the book explores several scientific/ environmental controversies and the roles played by the same very small and very determined group of scientists to deflect and confuse the public. It begins with tobacco and lung cancer, then “Nuclear Winter”, Ronald Reagan’s ridiculous “Star Wars Initiative”, the attacks on Rachel Carson and “Silent Spring”, back to the tobacco industry and the wars of words over secondhand smoke (of which I was involved for several years) and finally into the huge battle over global warming, which of course is still ongoing.

I’ll quote several passages here from the book:

The tobacco road would lead through Star Wars, nuclear winter, acid rain and the ozone hole, all the way to global warming. Frederick Seitz and his colleagues would fight the facts and merchandise doubt all the way.

When it came to the original fight over smoking and lung cancer, one would assume that after the 1964 Surgeon General’s report came out unequivocally showing the link between smoking and lung cancer, but the tobacco industry fought back, with help from Seitz and others, creating its own “science” simply to confuse people … ie, to create doubt in the minds of the consumers. It was a technique refined and perfected decades later by the fossil fuel industry to create doubt about global warming (97 percent to 98 percent of scientists believe global warming is a fact and that it is man-made. However, much of the public has been led to believe there is no consensus about global warming and that there is still a lot of “debate” over the issue.).

bill nierenberg
Bill Nierenberg

From the Merchants of Doubt:

(In science) a conclusion becomes established not when a clever person proposes it, or even a group of people begin to discuss it, but when the jury of peers — the community of researchers — reviews the evidence and concludes that it is sufficient to accept the claim. By the 1960s, the scientific community had done that with respect to tobacco. In contract, the tobacco industry was never able to support its claims with evidence, which is why they had to resort to obfuscation. Even after decades of tens of millions of dollars spent, the research they funded failed to supply evidence that smoking was really OK. But then, that was never really the point of it anyway.”

Hill and Knowlton documents showed that the tobacco industry knew the dangers of smoking as early as 1953 and conspired to suppress this knowledge. They conspired to fight the facts and to merchandise doubt.

Doubt mongering also works because we think science is about facts, cold hard definite facts. If someone tells us that things are uncertain, we think that means the science is muddled. This is a mistake. There are always uncertainties in any live science, because science is a process of discovery.

So what prompted these scientists like Seitz and a pair of  Cold War physicists — Bill Singer and Bill Nierenberg — to turn their back on the scientific method? They were all highly educated and brilliant in their fields, but in the end, they became nothing more than shills. In fact, Seitz was literally a paid shill for Big Tobacco.

The Merchants of Doubt offers an explanation:

“Bad, bad sicence. You can practically see the fingers wagging. Scientists had been bad boys; it was time for them to behave themselves. The tobacco industry would be the daddy who made sure they did. It wasn’t just money at stake; it was individual liberty. Today, smoking, tomorrow … who knew? By protecting smoking, we protected freedom.”

Later, a small but loud group of scientists was relied upon to fight against the rising tide of evidence that secondhand smoke was dangerous to non-smokers. Singer, a physicist, who had zero training in oncology or pathology or biology, led the charge. Again, it came down to a blind devotion to right-wing, pro-marketplace ideology.

From the book:

“One answer that has already emerged in our discussion of acid rain and ozone depletion: these scientists, and the think thanks that helped to promote their views, were implacably hostile to regulation. Regulation was the road to Socialism — the very thing the cold War was fought to defeat. This hostility to regulation was part of a larger political ideology, stated explicitly in a document developed by a British organization called FOREST — Freedom Organisation for the Right to Enjoy Smoking tobacco. And that was ideology of the free market. It was free market fundamentalism.”

“Our society has always understood that freedoms are never absolute. This is what we mean by the rule of law. No one gets to do just whatever he feels like doing, whenever he feels like doing it. I don’t have the right to yell fire in a crowded theater; your right to throw a punch ends at my nose. All freedoms have their limits, and none more obviously than the freedom to kill other people, either directly with guns and knives, or indirectly with dangerous goods. Secondhand smoke was an indirect danger that killed people.”

“Why did this group of Cold Warriors turn against the very science to which they had previously dedicated their lives? Because they felt they were working to ‘secure the blessings of liberty’ If science was being used against those blessings — in ways that challenged the freedom of free enterprise — then they would fight it as they would fight any enemy. For indeed, science was starting to show that certain kinds of liberties are not sustainable — like the liberty to pollute. Science was showing the Isaiah Berlin was right: Liberty for wolves does indeed mean death to lambs.”

Which brings us to the curious case of Michael Siegel.

Merchants of Doubt, part two —
the curious case of Michael Siegel

I’ve never met Michael Siegel, never corresponded with him, never interacted with him in any way, shape or form. So, any psychoanalysis I give about him is strictly based on what I’ve seen from his writing online. While reading “The Merchants of Doubt,” I kept thinking about this tobacco control scientist, really a leader in the movement for several years, who turned against the movement about 10 years ago. The story of Frederick Seitz really reminded me of this guy. I knew about him only because on old discussion forums about secondhand smoke, when the dangers of secondhand smoke were still being hotly debated, this guy’s name kept coming up over and over from Libertarians and smokers fighting smokefree laws, quoting him and his “studies” debunking the dangers of secondhand smoke. It took a couple of minutes of Google searches and I found his name — Michael Siegel. Like the line from “Star Wars”, that was a name I had not heard in a long time. I don’t think I had given him five minutes’ thought in the past five years.

Michael Siegel

I had assumed years ago that Siegel was just some tobacco industry paid shill, but believe it or not, he really isn’t. He was a guy who actually was pretty active in tobacco control for a number of years and is still quoted to this day by some media outlets as a “tobacco control expert.” However, Siegel pretty much turned against the tobacco control movement about 10 years ago when he got kicked out of a listserve of tobacco control experts and scientists for — depending on what side you’re on — being too contrarian or too argumentative.

Siegel then decided to make it his personal crusade to be the thorn in the side of the tobacco control movement. Seven, eight years ago, he was attacking pretty much any and all studies being done on secondhand smoke. Again, the EPA, Surgeon General, Centers for Disease Control, World Health Organization and vast majority of scientists have reached the unequivocal conclusion about the dangers of secondhand smoke. All I can do is laugh at this guy Siegel (again, he seems to be a pretty smart scientist, he worked at Boston U.), railing that the Centers for Disease Control and Surgeon General’s Office (and the Food and Drug Administration when it comes to e-cigs) have no idea what they are talking about. “The CDC and Surgeon General and FDA are wrong, but I’m right, because I’m smarter than all of them.” Seriously, read the guy’s blog … that’s what he’s saying.

hitler obama
Seriously, if this was the avatar of a member of my fan club, I would seriously be questioning if I was on the right path

Again, I was able to find his blog and found to my delight that he seems to have abandoned his personal crusade against secondhand smoke studies and has now decided to change course and go after any and all studies regarding e-cigarettes. I swear if this guy isn’t receiving a paycheque from Blu E-cigs, then he’s a schmuck, because he oughta be; he’s absolutely doing the bidding of the E-cig industry. His crusade now appears to be to defend the e-cig industry against all these nefarious studies making them look bad. I have to be honest, I just busted up laughing when I saw this.

This is how ridiculous this guy is. One of his posts is about recent studies showing that the use of e-cigs among teens has exploded in the past two years. Meanwhile, the use of cigarettes among teens has collapsed. It’s just plain simple common sense that teens are switching from cigarettes to e-cigs because they’re easier to buy and because they’ve been given the idea by e-cig marketing that e-cigs are cool and more harmless than cigarettes. This is what Michael Siegel writes about this. This is an example of just how far gone this guy really is. He’s so busy nitpicking others purely for the sake of nitpicking, he appears to have long since stopped seeing the forest for the trees:

However, it is not true that the progress we have made in reducing youth smoking is being threatened by youth experimentation with e-cigarettes. The only way that our progress in reducing youth smoking could be threatened by e-cigarette experimentation is if e-cigarettes were a gateway to youth smoking or if e-cigarettes were as hazardous as smoking.

I just want to say to this guy: “Dude, what the fuck? What is wrong with you?” No one is saying e-cigs are as bad as cigarettes. What people are saying is that they are a different nicotine delivery system and that kids are simply transitioning from one nicotine delivery system (cigarettes) to another (e-cigs) and that this is not necessarily a step in the right direction … because it’s STILL NICOTINE … and it’s still incredibly physically addictive. So, yeah, e-cigs are a threat to the progress in reducing youth smoking for that reason alone, douchebag. This guy spends all his energy parsing language from government agencies and it appears to me he has massively lost sight of the big picture … nicotine addiction by its very nature is not a good thing.

I thought it was just me about this guy, but I found two other bloggers who have had more direct interactions with him who reach the same conclusion … that he is one weird guy and one damned difficult guy to figure out.

One is a blog written by a guy who goes by the name “Orac” who starts a blog entry about Michael Siegel by saying, “I don’t know what to think of Michael Siegel.” This blog entry is great and articulates better than I can everything wrong with this guy (I will articulate my own misgivings about Michael Siegel later, but seriously, Orac does it better.). Orac says that while it appears Siegel makes a lot of good arguments in some of his posts about secondhand smoke, what gives him a “bad feeling in the pit of his stomach” is that Siegel relies a lot on the term “junk science,” which is a term actually invented by the tobacco industry and that Siegel on his blog literally has nothing whatsoever positive to say about any study on tobacco, secondhand smoke or e-cigs that he personally wasn’t a part of. I haven’t plowed through eight years of Siegel’s blog, who has the energy, but everything I’ve personally seen is to the effect of, “this person study was bullshit, I’m smarter than this guy…”

Like Orac (not me) says:

Looking through Dr. Siegel’s blog, in fact, I had a hard time finding any articles in which he had anything good to say about any studies of the effects of indoor smoking bans. Recent posts have savaged a studies from Scotland, Indiana, and Ireland. I looked for a single example of Dr. Siegel praising an SHS study, and I was unable to find one. Surely they can’t all be bad, can they? And if they’re all bad, then I have to wonder: Why does Dr. Siegel still believe that SHS is harmful to health if in his opinion the science of recent studies is so bad? A little balance every now and then would be helpful; it’s little wonder that tobacco cranks love to cite him, given that the overall gestalt of his blog, I’m sorry to have to say, is more than a little crank-like, at least to me. True, I could be mistaking passion for crankery, but even so that’s the impression that, try as I might, I can’t entirely shake.

Finally, what makes me uncomfortable about Dr. Siegel and his stance is that he’s inconsistent. For example, appropriately, he likes to rail against “science by press release.” Damn straight. I find such abuse of science as disturbing as he does. Unfortunately, when it serves his purposes, Dr. Siegel doesn’t appear to be above doing something rather similar, as I noted in July. That’s when he championed a “study” by David W. Kuneman and Michael J. McFadden (a study to which he claimed to have contributed by going over the authors’ data analysis) on his blog before it was ever published. McFadden is a die-hard anti-SHS regulation advocate who runs a website called Pennsylvania Smokers’ Action Network, which features a particularly stupid bit of propaganda called Dissecting Antismokers’ Brains, while Kuneman runs a website called The Smokers’ Club. The study, entitled Do Smoking Bans cause a 27 to 40% drop in admissions for myocardial infarction in hospitals? A preliminary study was published not in a peer-reviewed journal, but on Kuneman’s website.

Thank you, Orac. Thank you for convincing me it’s not just ME (and Michael McFadden is a total freaking Libertarian crank). If Siegel were interested in legitimate science, wouldn’t he be dissecting these secondhand smoke and e-cigarette studies and as part of a peer-review process rather than on his blog, rather than associating with idiot losers like Michael McFadden? I’d love to hear from Siegel about that. More on Siegel’s blog in a minute. In the end, Orac says Siegel basically  “comes off like a crank.”

I found another pretty hilarious post about Siegel from another blogger named Carl Phillips, who is a researcher in the field of alternatives to tobacco who has actually has dealt with Siegel. He rips into Siegel for attempting to start up a $4.5 million crowdfunding campaign to study e-cigs as a means of smoking cessation. Here are my two favourite passages from Phillips’ rant:

I wrote to Siegel about (speaking just for myself) is that what he was doing also appeared to violate the spirit, and perhaps the letter, of rules of public research ethics. It is extremely dicey to ask a threatened community for research funds. E-cigarette users are terribly worried about the political climate, and thus are likely to respond to any request for funds that comes with a promise of doing something about the regulatory threats to their ability to choose to vape. Thus anyone asking for such funds needs to be very careful to make sure they are not promising too much. … By contrast, Siegel presented only a hand-waving description of what he planned to do. When confronted with concerns with potentially problematic details of the (unspecified) protocol he or his staff always (to my knowledge) responded with some equivalent of “oh, we will take care of that — don’t worry.” This is the behavior of a shady corporate consultant, immediately responding to every question with reassurance in spite of apparently never having thought about it before, not of a careful researcher. I am certainly not calling either Siegel or his staff shady, but when your behavior looks like that of someone who is shady, it should be a red flag.

Siegel is notorious for being part of the cabal that blames evil corporate influences for never-specified nefarious impacts on research and policy. Funny how that does not seem to bother him when he wants to fund his own research with corporate donations.

So, I have one blogger saying he comes off like a crank and another saying he and his staff are behaving in a shady manner. Orac also posted a comment that Siegel seems to enjoy too much playing the role of gadfly. That really resonated with me and then there was this passage in “Merchants of Doubt” referring to scientists such as Seitz and Singer:

“They promoted claims that had already been refuted in the scientific literature, and the media became complicit as they reported these claims as if they were part of an ongoing scientific debate. Often the media did so without informing readers, viewers and listeners that the ‘experts’ being quoted had links to the tobacco industry, were affiliated with ideologically motivated think tanks that received money from the tobacco industry (or in later years the fossil fuel industry), or were simply habitual contrarians, who perhaps enjoyed the attention they got promoting outlier views.

I think that final sentence hits the nail on the head about Michael Siegel and here’s why I think that. Siegel definitely has a very ardent following. I saw it 7 or 8 years ago on old Topix message forums, Libertarians quoting his blog posts left, right and centre. Here’s what really bothers me about Michael Siegel. On his blog, one of his followers, someone who has posted repeatedly on his blog, in fact, has an avatar of Barack Obama with an Adolph Hitler mustache and hairstyle. I know if I considered myself a serious scientists and one of my ardent followers had an avatar mashing Adolph Hitler, arguably the most evil man in history, and Barack Obama, I certainly would be asking myself, “what the hell am I doing here?” I would be asking myself why people like that were a member of my fan club. It appears to me (I’m playing armchair psychiatrist here), that this is someone who enjoys being a “rebel” an “outlaw”, whatever and enjoys having a fan club of like-minded people … Internet cranks and Libertarians. Someone touched upon in “The Merchants of Doubt.”

I got a lot of out “Merchants of Doubt.” One of the things I didn’t expect to get out of it was that maybe I finally understand this secondhand smoke contrarian I remember hearing so much about 8 to 10 years ago.











One thought on “The Merchants of Doubt: A Review … and the curious case of Michael Siegel”

  1. Yuk. Creepy scientists. If my wife knew that her research was being used to lower the standard of living for humans or animals she would stop immediately.

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