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).
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.