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David Michaels on the Triumph Of Doubt Dark Money and The Science of Deception

Exponent. Gradient. ChemRisk. Ramboll Environ.

These are some of the companies that make up the product defense industry.

Their job – manufacture uncertainty on issues critical to public safety – issues like opioids, concussions, climate change, obesity, cancer, air and water pollution and worker safety.

“The science is unclear.” 

“The data are inconclusive.” 

“More research is needed.” 

“Regulation is unjustified.”

These companies provide the evidence that polluters or manufacturers of dangerous products need to delay regulations or fight lawsuits brought by people who believe they have been made sick by exposures to a companies’ chemicals or emissions.

Now comes David Michaels to call out the product defense industry.  

Michaels – a professor of public health at George Washington University, who ran the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) during the Obama administration, and was in charge of health, safety, and environmental protection at the U.S. nuclear weapons complex in the Clinton administration – is the author of Triumph of Doubt: Dark Money and the Science of Deception (Oxford University Press, 2020).

“The science underpinning our public health and environmental protections is under attack,” Michaels writes. “Dark money rules. Corrupt scientists are hired to defend dangerous products and pollutants. Corporations and rich individuals pour money into organizations set up as ‘educational’ non-profits, whose objective is to sow confusion and uncertainty on climate change, toxic chemicals or the health effects of soda or alcoholic beverages. There is no way to easily find out the secret funders of some of these groups…. The direct impact is millions of people needlessly sickened. There is no question that if these ‘uncertainty’ campaigns had not been waged, we’d have a far healthier population and a cleaner environment.”

The path was set for the triumph of doubt with the tobacco and sugar cases.

“Tobacco is the model,” Michaels told Corporate Crime Reporter in an interview last week. “They didn’t invent the playbook, but they did it so well, for so long and so many people died as a result, we call it the tobacco playbook. And we know so much about it because of the litigation against the tobacco industry that resulted in millions of pages of documents which were all made public. They are all online at the University of California San Francisco Tobacco Legacy Library.”

“We know exactly how it works. The model is to question the science that shows your product makes people sick. And tobacco did that both by hiring scientists to raise those questions. Occasionally they did their own studies. And if the studies came up with the wrong results, they would deep six them and you would never see the results. They would combine that with public relations and run campaigns raising all of these questions to the public, to regulators, to the courts.” 

“In some ways, product defense is public relations disguised as science. But it’s purpose is to convince people that a dangerous substance isn’t really dangerous. Tobacco did that starting in the 1950s. They had to do that because in the 1950s we had the first studies linking cigarette smoking with lung cancer. Smoking didn’t take off in the United States among men until World War I when soldiers were given cigarettes and became addicted.” 

“And women started smoking later. The big jump in lung cancer cases didn’t occur until the 1940s. And by the 1950s, you could do studies showing that lung cancer was overwhelmingly caused by cigarette smoke.” 

“The tobacco industry was approached by John Hill, the founder of the Hill & Knowlton public relations firm. He helped them set up this subterfuge –  this thing called the Tobacco Industry Research Committee. It really wasn’t a research committee. It was a public relations outfit to make it look like they were committed to research to find out whether tobacco really was dangerous. In fact, it took everything they could to convince people that the evidence wasn’t clear.”

“There is a connection to the sugar industry that isn’t that well known. The sugar industry was doing the same sort of work obscuring the truth for the sugar industry in the 1940s. In 1954, when the tobacco industry went public with this campaign, a retired director of the Sugar Research Foundation, said to them – look, I’ve been working with the sugar industry helping them address claims like sugar causes diabetes and obesity and dental cavities. You should hire me. And they did. And he became the deputy director of the Tobacco Research Committee.” 

“Tobacco was able to do that for a few decades. That changed when the first studies came out showing that the non smoking spouses of smokers were developing lung cancer at higher rates. At that point, it became a public health issue and the tobacco industry couldn’t keep saying what they were saying – which was that the science wasn’t clear and we’re doing more research. But whatever it is, you can read the science yourself. But you make the choice. It’s up to you.”

“Once non smokers started getting lung cancer, it became a public health issue. And activists were demanding that cigarettes be banned from airplanes and schools. And the tobacco industry recognized that this was a threat to their future existence. And they started hiring more scientists and going after the studies more resolutely. And some of those same scientists are the ones we see working in other areas now.”

You talk about corporate front groups. The one that caught my attention is one called the Global Energy Balance Network. This was an effort by Coca Cola and other companies to convince Americans that obesity and weight gain is not as much about sugar as it is about the lack of exercise.

“It was the brainchild of a Coca Cola executive. Coca Cola set this organization up. They funded it. They put up a website and administered it themselves. They found nutrition scientists who were willing to say – if you get enough exercise, you drink all of the sugar sweetened beverages you want. It was very much misleading to the public.” 

“It was so embarrassing that this was just a front for Coca Cola, that when it was reported on, Coca Cola pulled their funding and the organization disappeared. And a couple of the scientists lost their jobs at universities because they were not acknowledging what was going on – which was they were fronting for Coca Cola.”

What can you say about the corruption of schools of public health by this money?

“There are certainly faculty who have taken large amounts of money. There is pressure within academia to raise outside money. And it’s increasingly difficult to get federal money. And so the appeal of corporate money is great. There are certainly faculty all over the country who have given into this and said — yes, we are willing to accept this money to do research. Many of them do not even see that their work and the interpretation of this research is shaped by the money. We know that from the tobacco industry. And as a result, most schools of public health say – we will not accept money from the tobacco industry.” 

“We know that even if you are well meaning, if you take money from a corporate source, that shapes how you think about your data and what your research agenda is. And that is problematic.”

Have any schools of public health said – we won’t take corporate money?

“Schools are all quite different. Most schools now attempt to be very transparent about it. They will at least say to faculty – if you are going to take corporate money, you have to say exactly where it’s coming from. And the corporation can’t have any influence or any right of review.”

“It’s still problematic. But it’s better than not having that. Any research money is addictive. It’s as addictive as nicotine to a researcher. If you get a million dollar grant from a corporation, you buy some equipment and you hire graduate students and you hire research assistants to work for you for two years. At the end of two years, you have a staff of people who are dependent on you. And you worry about where you will get funding for the next two years for these young researchers and these students.” 

“You begin to worry about the source of that funding. You don’t want to do anything to offend the corporation because you really need a couple of more years in funding because you have all of these people depending on you.”

Is the corruption of science accelerating or is the integrity being restored?

“In the regulatory system, it’s obvious when you see these reports done by product defense consultants. When I was at OSHA and we saw them, we were able to identify them and see the limitations and the holes in their arguments. Under the Trump administration, some of the same scientists who were involved in manufacturing doubt are now being given important positions in the agencies. And that approach is being encouraged and embraced.”

How should this situation be reversed?

“How do we get science with integrity to help us understand what is going on? Let’s look at e-cigarettes. We want to know – does inhaling this mixture of oils, fragrances, flavors and nicotine cause long term health damage? We wouldn’t trust the tobacco companies to give us the answer. But we need to know the answer. To me the producer of these products have an obligation to fund the research. But to make sure the research has integrity, those same sponsors shouldn’t control the research. They shouldn’t hire the scientist to do the work.”

“The most important proposal I make is to change the way scientific research is done. We need a new set of institutions that can collect money from producers of dangerous chemicals or products or from polluters. And those institutions can oversee the research, can choose the scientists and methods, and make sure the science is done without any interference or conscious or unconscious shaping of the science by the corporations that are responsible for the problem.”

Is there a model that exists – where the government requires the companies to fund science that hurts their profits?

“There is a pretty good model at the Health Effects Institute. The motor vehicle industry and the EPA got together and they set up an organization that has a great deal of independence. Half the budget comes from the EPA and half the budget comes from the auto industry. And they have funded very high quality science for many years. And much of what we have learned about the health effects of air pollution come from studies they have done. And that system has insulated the researchers from the motor vehicle industry that has provided much of the funding for the institute.”

In a football game, when somebody triumphs, the game is over. When you say The Triumph of Doubt, are you saying the game is over, that this is a corrupt system through and through?

“No, I’m saying there is a tremendous amount of corruption in the science. My objective in this book is to point this out and show examples, some of which I saw while I was inside the government and could see it very close up and to say – we need to address this problem. I don’t think this triumph is permanent. It has affected all of us in many ways. It has affected what is in our refrigerator, what is in our medicine cabinet. It is what we watch on Sunday afternoons and what we drink when we watch it. It has been very effective. And identifying it is the first step. And then we have to talk about ways we can change that system.”

“We recognize that there is always uncertainty in science. There is real uncertainty. And we have to protect people, understanding that we may not have perfect science. We need to discard the manufactured uncertainty, examine the real uncertainty and issue our protections on the basis of the best available evidence. And even if there is uncertainty, we need to move forward and make sure people are safe.”

“It may mean we make some mistakes and we overprotect. There may be some products that may not be that dangerous and we may end up over restricting. But isn’t that better than getting it wrong and not restricting products that are killing people?”

What is the European law that allows them to do that?

“It’s called Registration, Evaluation, Authorization and Restriction of Chemicals (REACH). Companies have to provide some basic data to the European Chemicals Agency before they are allowed to market a product.” 

[For the complete q/a format Interview with David Michaels, see 34 Corporate Crime Reporter 11(10), March 16, 2020, print edition only.]

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