Skewing Science

Four new books expose how government and industry manipulate science to fit their needs.

THE BUSH ERA IS OVER but the stain, including a string of last-minute legal changes, lingers. These “midnight regulations” made some things easier, such as dumping mine waste in streams and building power plants near parks. Other things became harder, such as using science to protect endangered species or to reduce workers’ exposure to hazards. Continuing that administration’s usual practice, these cuts to health and environmental safeguards were justified by manipulating the way science relates to policy.

THE BUSH ERA IS OVER but the stain, including a string of last-minute legal changes, lingers. These “midnight regulations” made some things easier, such as dumping mine waste in streams and building power plants near parks. Other things became harder, such as using science to protect endangered species or to reduce workers’ exposure to hazards. Continuing that administration’s usual practice, these cuts to health and environmental safeguards were justified by manipulating the way science relates to policy. Once again, the supposedly straightforward part of environmental affairs – determining the facts – was where the real manoeuvring took place.

But Bush didn’t invent this game. Ask who uses science to conceal hazards, and the answer is nearly everyone: car makers, lead refiners, asbestos miners, nuclear processors, chemical producers, drug manufacturers and on and on. The chemical industry’s attacks on Rachel Carson were among the more vicious efforts; cigarette makers’ denial that their products kill were the most persistent; cover-ups of the effects of asbestos and other toxic materials were among the deadliest. While there have been successes – gas is no longer leaded, big tobacco is in retreat – the manipulation of science has only accelerated, and corporate deviancy still flourishes. But the blame cannot be laid solely on industry and government: some universities prefer corporate partnerships to free exchange of knowledge, and scientists have often been unable, even unwilling, to defend scientific integrity. Science as objective and open? That’s a fantasy to be shelved next to the myths of free markets and sensible bankers. 

Many books have urged reform – testifying to how the written word can drive, not merely describe, history. Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle (1906) exposed the disgustingly unsanitary American meatpacking industry, and Ralph Nader, in Unsafe at Any Speed (1965), indicted the car industry. More recently, Dan Fagin and Marianne Lavelle, in Toxic Deception (1996), and Sheldon Rampton and John Stauber, in Trust Us, We’re Experts (2001), described how industry buys science. Now four more exposés have appeared, surveying both the corruption of science and the possibility of reform.

In Diagnosis: Mercury, Jane Hightower, a physician, describes how her patients’ inexplicable symptoms, including fainting and headaches, provoked her interest in this metal. She traced their ailments to mercury-laden fish (a connection that goes against the usual pattern of environmental injustice since wealthier consumers, who are able to afford large cuts, are most vulnerable). Pursuing the matter further, she uncovered how industry and government had obscured what they knew about mercury, or based exposure standards on faulty data from Iraq and elsewhere. Assessments of mercury, it turned out, mirrored economic interests. Hers is a doctor’s perspective, focused on determining a safe level of consumption, and consumers’ right to know what they are eating.

Devra Davis also begins her book with a mystery. As she describes in The Secret History of the War on Cancer, some time ago she and other epidemiologists began to notice that some cancers were becoming more common. Fifty years ago, one in 20 women got breast cancer; now it is one in seven. The explanation is that the intensive effort – the “war” – to cure cancer has focused on individuals and the illness itself, leaving its causes untouched. She eviscerates the usual suspects who have waged this misdirected war, including the tobacco industry and its campaign to prolong scientific debates about smoking. Unlikely alliances are also exposed: cancer scientists had covert ties to the chemical industry, and the American Medical Association worked closely with big tobacco. Some of those most involved in fighting this pervasive disease have profited mightily from selling cancer-causing chemicals, or producing anti-cancer drugs. Cancer care, she shows, is not just about curing people – it is a huge business, involving powerful interests.

In Bending Science, Thomas McGarity and Wendy Wagner provide a broader and more dispassionate perspective on science and regulation. Using several case studies, they analyze how corporations and governments “bend” science: shaping, hiding, attacking, harassing, packaging and spinning knowledge. Studies work backwards from the desired result. Scientists are hired to write articles or sit on committees that distill research in industry-friendly ways. Unwelcome results – say, evidence of industry hazards – are attacked by captive experts. Outfits such as the Center for Indoor Air Research (a front for the tobacco industry) impart a neutral image to sponsored research. The ways that science can be bent are both ingenious and insidious.

As a senior official for environment, safety and health in the Clinton administration, David Michaels, author of Doubt is Their Product, witnessed the manipulation of science first-hand. The title of his book, adapted from a notorious 1969 tobacco-industry memo that explained that “doubt is our product,” reflects his focus on industry’s efforts to instill uncertainty about evidence of harm. His account, based on case studies of benzene, beryllium, chromium and other toxic materials, complements Bending Science. He is particularly effective in explaining how manipulating science has become big business, with consulting firms providing scientific evidence on demand.

Together, these authors deliver many insights into health and environmental policy, the messy business of regulation, and the place of science in economic and political affairs. Much information is unsettling – for example, the fact that doctors and other health workers are unusually susceptible to cancer, and the chilling stories of industries knowingly exposing workers to deadly hazards. Other facts surprise. I never realized, for instance, that Mercurochrome, the standard antiseptic when I was a kid, contains mercury and is now considered toxic waste.

Above all, these books explain how science is manipulated, often with assistance from scientists. One common phenomenon is the “funding effect,” when results reflect the interests of those sponsoring the research. For instance, while 94 of 104 government- funded studies found that low doses of bisphenol A produce endocrine-disruptor effects, none of 11 industry-funded studies found any effect.

Such results may, but do not necessarily, indicate incompetence or carelessness. They have more to do with the inherent challenges of science. Understanding the factors that affect health, whether using animal trials (toxicology) or studies of human populations (epidemiology), is horrendously difficult. Much judgement is required when choosing methods, research subjects and statistical techniques – and all these choices can weave small biases into the research. These biases are often subtle enough to be virtually undetectable, even by expert reviewers and journal editors.

These choices also provide opponents of health and environmental protection with opportunities to attack scientific evidence of harm. When raising hypothetical concerns regarding methods, statistics or interpretations, the opponent’s goal is not to contribute knowledge (although these tactics are often camouflaged as legitimate scientific debate), but to raise doubts. This manufactured uncertainty is often accompanied by insistence that decisions be based on “sound science” – that is, proof of harm. As the climate “debate” illustrates, this double punch of tearing down evidence while demanding proof can be very effective in delaying action.

Shaping and skewing science is a big business, employing scientists, public relations agencies and, as Michaels explains, “product defence companies.” Consider Exponent, Inc., which employs several hundred scientists. It has a perfect record of doing “studies” that produce the results requested by its clients. Such firms also pick apart studies done by others, raising complex but irrelevant objections. When necessary, these firms fabricate data. It is a cynical business.

These books focus on the US. However, some Canadian incidents are described, such as the impacts of mercury on native communities in Northwestern Ontario (Hightower), and University of Toronto scientist Nancy Olivieri’s tangle with corporate drug makers (McGarity & Wagner). Davis condemns Canada’s efforts to obstruct regulation of the asbestos trade. The public relations firm Hill and Knowlton, which perfected techniques used to delay regulation of tobacco, asbestos, lead and other hazards, and is thus implicated in thousands of deaths (Michaels), has several offices in Canada. There is every reason to presume that the authors’ arguments are relevant to Canada.

Each author is armed with outrage, albeit expressed in different ways. McGarity and Wagner are reserved and academic, as is Michaels most of the time. In contrast, Hightower and, especially, Davis write passionately and in personal terms of the responsibilities that accompany having knowledge. Rightly so, because the consequences of manipulating science have been massive, tragic and often criminal. The essential point is not just that many thousands of lives have been cut short by lead, asbestos, tobacco and other hazards, but that this occurred while those responsible in industry and government knew the risks, but kept quiet. Moreover, the practice continues.

But these authors also believe the time is right for reform – and not just because President Obama has promised to restore science to its rightful place. Scientists are also urging attention to scientific integrity, and journal editors, fed up with commercialized biomedical research, are demanding that authors disclose conflicts of interest. The Canadian Cancer Society, which has always insisted on attention to personal habits (don’t smoke, eat right), recently acknowledged that carcinogens in the environment also require action.

Bending Science and Doubt is Their Product provide detailed prescriptions for reform. These include mandatory disclosure of research funding, standards requiring more rigorous and transparent use of science by industry, tougher penalties for those who use science to obstruct health and environmental protection, and a requirement that independent agencies assess the impacts of new products or developments, rather than allow companies to perform this role as is currently the case.

Collectively, these four books illuminate two challenges of environmental policy. One is to avoid defining political questions as matters of science, because that implies that unrealistic standards of proof are needed before action can be taken, while also privileging those who are able to buy expertise. The second relates to making decisions in the context of uncertainty. Acting in a complex world means gathering information, evaluating the weight of evidence, taking precautions and adapting to change. Too often, the chosen approach has been to wait for absolute proof – with the consequence being a toxic environment and loss of life. Even uncertain knowledge implies a responsibility to act. 

Stephen Bocking, a regular contributor to Alternatives, is professor at and chair of the Environmental and Resource Science/Studies Program at Trent University and author of A\J’s EcoLogic blog.

You can follow Stephen on Twitter at @BockingStephen or read his blog: Environment, History and Science.