Thursday, October 22, 2015

Book Review – Doubt is Their Product: How Industry’s Assault on Science Threatens Your Health by David Michaels

Given the recent revelations that Exxon knew how fossil fuels caused man-made climate change decades ago, then hid it, the following review of Doubt is Their Product: How Industry's Assault on Science Threatens Your Health, by David Michaels, is timely.

"Doubt is our product” is how a tobacco company executive once described the industry’s attempt to hide the fact that smoking cigarettes caused lung cancer and related diseases. And that is the theme that David Michaels uses throughout his book. He argues rather persuasively that the tactic of denying the science first perfected by the tobacco companies has been used over and over again by other industries. The goal – to protect profits and avoid litigation liability from exposing people to dangerous chemicals and other practices.

The book is replete with case studies and examples, many from his personal experience as an epidemiologist and a former Assistant Secretary of Energy responsible for protecting the health and safety of workers, neighboring communities, and the environment surrounding the nation’s nuclear weapons facilities. He talks about problems with lead and children, workplace cancers from beryllium, “popcorn lung” destruction from diacetyl, secondhand smoke, asbestos, chromium, vinyl chloride in plastics, diet drugs fen-phen, Vioxx, and nuclear radiation, among others. In each case the responsible industry delayed action and avoided taking responsibility while the regulators were hamstrung by a combination of insufficient authority, political unwillingness, and nearly always deficient resources.

Throughout the case studies Michaels also discusses some of the tactics and strategies used by industry to keep from being regulated. While he only gives a passing mention of climate change, the tactics he describes in this 2008 book are clearly evident in this new opportunity for delay. I’m familiar with most of the cases he mentions, some quite intimately and others less so, but I learned quite a bit more about the behind the scenes high jinks that frankly I found a bit startling. As the title suggests, the primary tactic is “create doubt,” otherwise known as “highlight the uncertainty.” Science can never be fully certain because there is always another question that can be asked. Industry has exploited this by emphasizing any uncertainty so that no regulatory decision can be made. One common method is to employ “reanalysis.” That is, get the raw data from a study that is adverse to your position, then reanalyze it over and over, changing assumptions and conditions, enough to get a different conclusion, which then can be used to cast doubt. If reanalysis doesn’t do it, then conduct a new study, often designed specifically to create conflicting data, so again there is uncertainty. Call whatever industry does “sound science” (a term invented by the lobbying firm Hill and Knowlton for the tobacco industry) and call whatever regulators do “junk science” (a term made famous by long-time industry propagandist Steven Milloy, who of course got his start from the tobacco industry).

There is much more, of course. The book is extremely well documented, with many pages of end notes. Michaels is himself a former regulator and so experienced many of his case studies first hand. For those who are not familiar with the history of industry-created doubt, the book will be a real eye-opener. Unfortunately, I found it all too familiar.