Doubt Is Their Product: Scientists Who Spin the Science – An Excerpt

David Michaels is a scientist and former government regulator. During the Clinton Administration, he served as Assistant Secretary of Energy for Environment, Safety and Health, responsible for protecting the health and safety of the workers, neighboring communities, and the environment surrounding the nation’s nuclear weapons factories. He currently directs the Project on Scientific Knowledge and Public Policy at The George Washington University School of Public Health and Health Services. His most recent book, Doubt is Their Product: How Industry’s Assault on Science Threatens Your Health explains how many of the scientists who spun science for tobacco have become practitioners in the lucrative world of product defense. Whatever the story- global warming, toxic chemicals, sugar and obesity, secondhand smoke- these scientists generate studies designed to make dangerous exposures appear harmless. The excerpt below is taken from the introduction to Doubt Is Their Product.

Since 1986 every bottle of aspirin sold in the United States has included a label advising parents that consumption by children with viral illnesses greatly increases their risk of developing Reye’s syndrome, a serious illness that often involves sudden damage to the brain or liver. Before that mandatory warning was required by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the toll from this disease was substantial: In one year—1980—555 cases were reported, and many others quite likely occurred but went unreported because the syndrome is easily misdiagnosed. One in three diagnosed children died.

Today, less than a handful of Reye’s syndrome cases are reported each year—a public health triumph, surely, but a bittersweet one because a untold number of children died or were disabled while the aspirin manufacturers delayed the FDA’s regulation by arguing that the science establishing the aspirin link was incomplete, uncertain, and unclear. The industry raised seventeen specific ‘‘flaws’’ in the studies and insisted that more reliable ones were needed. The medical community knew of the danger, thanks to an alert issued by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), but parents were kept in the dark. Despite a federal advisory committee’s concurrence with the CDC’s conclusions about the link with aspirin, the industry even issued a public service announcement claiming ‘‘We do know that no medication has been proven to cause Reyes’’ (emphasis in the original). This campaign and the dilatory procedures of the White House’s Office of Management and Budget delayed a public education program for two years and mandatory labels for two more. Only litigation by Public Citizen’s Health Research Group forced the recalcitrant Reagan Administration to act. Thousands of lives have now been saved—but only after hundreds had been lost.

Of course, the aspirin manufacturers did not invent the strategy of preventing or postponing the regulation of hazardous products by questioning the science that reveals the hazards in the first place. I call this strategy ‘‘manufacturing uncertainty’’; individual companies—and entire industries—have been practicing it for decades. Without a doubt, Big Tobacco has manufactured more uncertainty over a longer period and more effectively than any other industry. The title of this book comes from a phrase unwisely committed to paper by a cigarette executive: ‘‘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. It is also the means of establishing a controversy’’ (emphasis added).

There you have it: the proverbial smoking gun. Big Tobacco, left now without a stitch of credibility or public esteem, has finally abandoned its strategy, but it showed the way. The practices it perfected are alive and well and ubiquitous today. We see this growing trend that disingenuously demands proof over precaution in the realm of public health. In field after field, year after year, conclusions that might support regulation are always disputed. Animal data are deemed not relevant, human data not representative, and exposure data not reliable. Whatever the story—global warming, sugar and obesity, secondhand smoke—scientists in what I call the ‘‘product defense industry’’ prepare for the release of unfavorable studies even before the studies are published. Public relations experts feed these for-hire scientists contrarian sound bites that play well with reporters, who are mired in the trap of believing there must be two sides to every story. Maybe there are two sides—and maybe one has been bought and paid for.
* * *

As it happens, I have had the opportunity to witness what is going on at close range. In the Clinton administration, I served as Assistant Secretary for Environment, Safety, and Health in the Department of Energy (DOE), the chief safety officer for the nation’s nuclear weapons facilities. I ran the process through which we issued a strong new rule to prevent chronic beryllium disease, a debilitating and sometimes fatal lung disease prevalent among nuclear weapons workers. The industry’s hired guns acknowledged that the current exposure standard for beryllium is not protective for employees. Nevertheless, they claimed, it should not be lowered by any amount until we know with certainty what the exact final number should be.

As a worker, how would you like to be on the receiving end of this logic?

Christie Todd Whitman, the first head of the Environmental Protection Agency under the second President Bush, once said, ‘‘The absence of certainty is not an excuse to do nothing.’’ But it is. Quite simply, the regulatory agencies in Washington, D.C., are intimidated and outgunned— and quiescent. While it is true that industry’s uncertainty campaigns exert their influence regardless of the party in power in the nation’s capital, I believe it is fair to say that, in the administration of President George W. Bush, corporate interests successfully infiltrated the federal government from top to bottom and shaped government science policies to their desires as never before. In October 2002 I was the first author of an editorial in Science that alerted the scientific community to the replacement of national experts in pediatric lead poisoning with lead industry consultants on the Pertinent advisory committee. Other such attempts to stack advisory panels with individuals chosen for their commitment to a cause—rather than for their expertise—abound.

Industry has learned that debating the science is much easier and more effective than debating the policy. Take global warming, for example. The vast majority of climate scientists believe there is adequate evidence of global warming to justify immediate intervention to reduce the human contribution. They understand that waiting for absolute certainty is far riskier—and potentially far more expensive—than acting responsibly now to control the causes of climate change. Opponents of action, led by the fossil fuels industry, delayed this policy debate by challenging the science with a classic uncertainty campaign. I need cite only a cynical memo that Republican political consultant Frank Luntz delivered to his clients in early 2003. In ‘‘Winning the Global Warming Debate,’’ Luntz wrote the following: ‘‘Voters believe that there is no consensus about global warming within the scientific community. Should the public come to believe that the scientific issues are settled, their views about global warming will change accordingly. Therefore, you need to continue to make the lack of scientific certainty a primary issue in the debate. . . . The scientific debate is closing [against us] but not yet closed. There is still a window of opportunity to challenge the science’’ (emphasis in original).

Sound familiar? In reality, there is a great deal of consensus among climate scientists about climate change, but Luntz understood that his clients can oppose (and delay) regulation without being branded as antienvironmental by simply manufacturing uncertainty.

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Denialism is a term used to describe the position of governments, business groups, interest groups, or individuals who reject propositions on which a scientific or scholarly consensus exists. Such groups and individuals are said to be engaging in denialism when they seek to influence policy processes and outcomes by illegitimate means.[1] The term has been used to describe ‘holocaust denial‘, ‘AIDS denialism‘,[2][3][4][5][6] and ‘climate change denial[7][8][9] and the creation-evolution conflict.[10]

Brothers Mark and Chris Hoofnagle describe the term as “the employment of rhetorical tactics to give the appearance of argument or legitimate debate, when in actuality there is none. These false arguments are used when one has few or no facts to support one’s viewpoint against a scientific consensus or against overwhelming evidence to the contrary. They are effective in distracting from actual useful debate using emotionally appealing, but ultimately empty and illogical assertions.”[11]

The terms “denialism” and “denialist” are therefore generally used pejoratively, carrying the implication that the person or group so labeled denies established scientific or historical truths by dishonest means.

Illegitimate Methodology and Tactics

Denialism is a form of propaganda covering a variety of activities. It can be as simple as like-minded individuals signing letters of dissent, or as elaborate as professional grey or black propaganda campaigns by advertising and marketing agencies.

Denialism can arise from personal ideologies, or desire for profit. Industry groups may seek to protect markets from damaging facts and information. Political groups may work to advance their agendas. Combinations of these may work in concert with interest groups on issues of mutual importance. Despite the disparity between these groups and the motives behind them, the tactics used by denialists are largely similar. Common features include:[12]

  • Conspiracism – Suggesting scientists have an ulterior motive for their research, or that they are part of some hidden plan or agenda.[13]
  • Selectivity – Relying upon discredited or flawed work supporting their idea while dismissing more credible work; presenting discredited or superseded papers to make a field look like it is based on weak research. Inflating favorable ‘evidence’ while discounting the contradictory, often while misrepresenting the significance of each. The selective use of evidence by denialists includes quote mining and cherry picking.
  • False experts – Citing paid, partisan scientists or self-appointed ‘experts,’ whose credentials are often in an unrelated field.[14][15][16]
  • Impossible expectations – Seeking to prevent the implementation of sound policies or acceptance of a theory by citing the absence of ‘complete’ or ‘absolute’ knowledge.
  • Misrepresentations and logical fallacies – Denialists sometimes employ logical fallacies: red herring; straw man; appeal to consequences; false analogy. An example of the misuse of analogy in arguments is the watchmaker analogy. A common misrepresentation used in the intelligent design movement is the intentional use of the term Darwinism when what is being objected to is evolution. An example of an appeal to consequences is the common neo-creationist claim that an acceptance of evolution (Darwinism) leads to social ills such as the atrocities committed by Hitler’s Nazi regime.[17] Which is furthermore, an example of cherry-picking, since Hitler also appealed to religion, germ theory, and animal husbandry.

Additional propaganda techniques that, while sometimes convincing, are not necessarily valid include: flag-waving, glittering generalities, intentional vagueness, oversimplification, rationalization, slogans, stereotyping, testimonial, unstated assumption.

[edit] Ideological denialism

Ideologies that conflict with commonly accepted scientific theories or facts can drive their holders to engage in personal forms of denial, either to favor their personal beliefs, or to avoid having to reconcile those beliefs with contradictory evidence.[18]

Common forms of denialism arising from ideologies are holocaust denial, AIDS denialism, the vaccine controversy, and the creation-evolution controversy.[19]

[edit] Corporate denialism

International corporations such as ExxonMobil have been heavily criticized for contributing to scientists and scientific experimentation disputing the scientific consensus on global climate change.[7] ExxonMobil has strenuously denied the accusations, stating that “The recycling of this type of discredited conspiracy theory diverts attention from the real challenge at hand: how to provide the energy needed to improve global living standards while also reducing greenhouse gas emissions.”[20] Newsweek[21] and Mother Jones[22] have published articles stating corporations are funding the climate change denial “denial industry”.