“The Triumph of Doubt”: Inside corporations’ war on science

Johnson & Johnson announced this week that it will stop putting talc, a mineral linked to asbestos, in its baby powder products. The move comes after years of lawsuits alleging that the powder causes various cancers.

It’s also a surprising turnaround. Johnson & Johnson has spent decades funding biased science and lobbying the government to avoid regulating its products or labeling them as cancer-causing. It’s a tactic deployed by many other industries that have a stake in stifling regulation and the science behind it.

The history of this practice is documented in a new book by David Michaels, the former assistant secretary of labor for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) under the Obama administration. It’s a close look at how powerful corporations fund junk science and misinformation campaigns in order to obscure evidence and undercut regulatory efforts.

Big Tobacco and the fossil fuels industry are obvious examples, but the problem goes well beyond that. From cancer-causing hair products and apparel to diabetes-linked food and sugary drinks, corporations have realized that you don’t have to convince the public or government officials of anything — all you have to do is create the illusion of doubt.

And they do that by piloting bogus studies, organizing partisan think tanks, supplying dubious congressional witnesses, and anything else they can think of to give regulators enough cover to plausibly look the other way. If you’ve ever heard a politician say “The science is still unclear” or “We need to keep researching the issue,” there’s a good chance that was made possible by industry-funded pseudo-science.

I spoke to Michaels about what this process looks like, why journalists and civic actors have been unable to stop it, and how the practice has become more pervasive in recent years. We also discussed the coronavirus pandemic and how the tactics he describes in this book helped lay the groundwork for the extreme skepticism of scientific expertise we’re seeing from conservatives.

“The Republican base,” Michaels told me, “has been acclimatized to be skeptical of mainstream science, and easily believe accusations that they are being manipulated by the deep state, the liberal media, and pointy-headed scientists.”

A lightly edited transcript of our conversation follows.

Sean Illing

When you say that big corporations like DuPont or Exxon manufacture doubt around their products, what do you mean?

David Michaels

I mean that they hire scientists who appear to be reputable to produce or obscure evidence about the products they make. If there are studies or even suggestions that their product is dangerous, you can hire a scientist who will say, “The evidence is in question,” or, “The study is wrong.”

Corporations make sure those scientists get their opinions into what look like credible peer-reviewed journals, then they get picked up by newspapers, then they have the sound bites that commentators repeat, and that’s enough to convince people that there’s uncertainty. Not necessarily that the product is safe, but that the scientific evidence isn’t there.

That’s basically how it works.

Sean Illing

You used the phrase “appear to be reputable.” What does that mean?

David Michaels

They are credentialed people, but they typically work for consulting firms whose business model is to provide any result their client needs.

Sean Illing

Where do these corrupt scientists come from? Are they just mercenaries for hire?

David Michaels

That’s a tough question. I’m often asked, “How do they sleep at night?” Ambien is probably the answer, but I don’t know. I think when you go back and look at the cases we really understand well, we could see that people convince themselves of a certain result and it’s often related to financial relationships.

The famous Upton Sinclair quote is helpful: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.” The most charitable view is that they’re not lying, but they’ve convinced themselves of what they’re selling.

Sean Illing

Is the tobacco industry the paradigmatic example here? Did they lay down the blueprint? Or does this phenomenon go back much further?

David Michaels

It goes back much further. We see it in the history of the lead industry, of the sugar industry. The reason Big Tobacco is the standard is that they did it so well, and they did it for so long. So many people have been killed by their products, and because of litigation, we now have millions of pages of documents that show exactly what they did and how. There’s just no comparable library of material for these older industries.

Sean Illing

I want to clarify that the strategy we’re talking about here, whether it’s Big Tobacco or the fossil fuels industry or whatever, isn’t to disprove anything or even convince the public of anything — it’s all about sowing confusion, right?

David Michaels

That’s exactly right. It’s very effective because the public believes that science should be definitive, that scientists should be able to give us the answers. If you insist that scientists disagree, the public says, “Well, I guess it’s still up in the air.”

The regulatory system is worse because the regulatory system is built on a legal structure where you have to prove certain things. Even though, philosophically, we should be protecting people on the basis of the best available evidence, these corporations know that by introducing doubt and by questioning some of the studies that regulators use, you can delay a regulatory proceeding for years.

Sean Illing

Beyond Big Tobacco and Big Oil, with which everyone is familiar, what are some of the clearest examples of successful “uncertainty” campaigns?

David Michaels

We’re starting to learn a lot about so-called “forever chemicals.” These are chemicals that went into Teflon and Gore-Tex and other products for several decades. There was evidence accumulating that these cause all sorts of health effects. DuPont, 3M, and other companies questioned that evidence until finally there were very powerful studies that were done only because of litigation, which showed pretty definitively that there are very significant health effects. But they got another 10 to 20 years of sales in spite of all that, and now virtually every person has these chemicals in their blood as a result.

The sugar industry, and by that I mean things like sugar-sweetened beverages, has been very successful in fighting off and disputing the science that sugar and sugar products increase the risk of obesity and diabetes. They use all sorts of different techniques, from insisting sugar is fine as long as you exercise to hiring scientists to pull apart the studies showing a relationship between sugar and bad health outcomes.

Sean Illing

And what are some examples of bad science becoming bad public policy?

David Michaels

Well, the main thing is that this stops public policy from moving forward — that’s the way this works. The alcohol industry has been very successful in stopping labeling here in the United States and other places, just as the sugar industry has.

Another example I talk about in the book is the contamination of baby powder and other talc powder products that contain asbestos. Talc is a mine product and almost every talc mine has asbestos. It’s very difficult — and from these mines, probably impossible — to have talc without asbestos. But for more than 40 years, Johnson & Johnson and the cosmetics industry have successfully stopped first the Food and Drug Administration and then the National Toxicology Program from either labeling the product as having asbestos or as cancer-causing.

The result is that the people who were the objects of the marketing of these products were never told that they contained asbestos. There were major lawsuits of women with ovarian cancer claiming that their ovarian cancer was caused by exposure to talc. Earlier this year, a government report said, “We have to be testing talc and treating it essentially like it has asbestos.”

[Author’s note: this conversation occurred before the news that Johnson & Johnson would discontinue the use of talc in its baby powder was announced.]

Sean Illing

What about the government side of this? Why can’t the EPA or the FDA or other public institutions fight back against this?

David Michaels

It’s mostly because the laws are written in a way that parallels the criminal justice system. So the assumption is that exposures, pollutants, chemicals are innocent until proven guilty. At OSHA, we call that “the body in the morgue” method. You had to show the people getting sick before you can regulate it. Then if you could do something, you’re going to still have people getting sick for years because of the exposures.

That’s a crazy system for these forever chemicals, these PFAS chemicals [PFAS refers to a group of synthetic chemicals found in the environment and our bodies that are resistant to disintegration]. We have good human data on two of them and there are roughly 5,000 of them, but we can’t move to regulate the other 4,500 because of the way the law is written, and the agencies are simply afraid to take this on.

Of course, that’s giving the agencies the benefit of the doubt. There’s also what’s called “agency capture,” in which industry works very closely with high-level scientists who know that they may want to be leaving the agencies to go work for those industries. One of the top people at the Food and Drug Administration who reviewed all the data on the addictive properties of opioids and allowed Purdue Pharma to market oxycodone as essentially a non-addictive or a very lightly addictive product later went to work for Purdue Pharma.

So there’s a revolving door between the private and public sectors here that’s deeply corrosive.

Sean Illing

The federal government doesn’t require that the funders of research be disclosed when that research is used to set regulations. How is that possible? Why do we not demand to know about conflicts of interest?

David Michaels

It’s truly astounding. When I pushed to change this at OSHA, the chair of the Senate Health Committee, Lamar Alexander (R-TN), along with 30 of his colleagues, demanded that I come down and explain to them why I would try to ask that very straightforward question.

And yet this is what every major medical and scientific journal does. You can’t publish an article in any reputable medical journal without providing information about the funding behind it, but the federal government never asks this question. And so when I did that, the Republicans went after me. Fortunately, the scientific community was behind me.

Nature magazine put in an editorial and the White House supported me and we were able to at least ask the question moving forward. We couldn’t require that funding be revealed but we could discount the results of studies when the funding is hidden. But this practice, of course, has been abandoned by the Trump administration.

Sean Illing

Speaking of the Trump administration, you claim in the book that this White House has taken this practice to an entirely different level. How so?

David Michaels

One of the things the Trump administration has done is essentially take the same mercenary scientists who have been working for corporations trying to influence the agencies to do the wrong thing and then given them high-level positions in these same agencies.

Sean Illing

Give me an example.

David Michaels

The example that I find most striking is a fellow named Tony Cox, who was appointed chairman of the Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee by former EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, who is himself a longtime lobbyist for the oil and coal industries.

I got to know Dr. Cox from a distance when he spoke at our hearing when we issued a new silica exposure standard. He is someone who always raises uncertainty. He actually said that he reviewed all the evidence we looked at and OSHA did not prove that silica causes silicosis. Needless to say, we were able to ignore his comments because they were so ludicrous.

Cox has consulted for the American Petroleum Institute, insisting that we over-regulate products that come from oil. And this is a guy who allows pro-industry lobbying groups to proofread his findings before he submits them. But this is how the system has worked for a long time, and it’s only gotten worse under Trump.

Sean Illing

So we’ve just made the process more efficient. Industry doesn’t even need middlemen to muddy the waters on their behalf now because they just have their own people appointed to run the agencies charged with regulating them.

David Michaels

I’m trying to be optimistic about all this. In some ways, President Trump has done us a favor because his administration has just amplified all these problems that preceded him. He’s made this breakdown of regulation more effective and we’re hemorrhaging people from critical agencies. But the limitations of the agencies predate Trump, and they go back to Democratic and Republican administrations. But now because of the damage that he’s done, we will have to rebuild these agencies once the political winds have shifted.

When we look at the recent Boeing 737 debacle, it’s crucial to remember that the FAA simply didn’t have the staff or the resources or the expertise to prevent that scandal and regulate that industry. They weren’t able to properly oversee the safety of those jets that literally carried hundreds of thousands of people every day. They allowed Boeing to take that responsibility and more than 300 people died as a result of that.

We can’t go back to systems like that. We have to eliminate this revolving door between the public and private sectors.

Sometimes we will get things wrong. Sometimes we will over-regulate certain industries. Sometimes a company won’t be able to sell a product that they probably should be able to sell. But this is a small price to pay to ensure that lives are saved and the environment isn’t destroyed.

Sean Illing

I have to ask about how all of this connects to our current crisis. We’re obviously in a moment in which there’s a lot of doubt about scientific expertise, and it seems to me that all of these efforts to obscure evidence and cast doubt on authoritative sources of knowledge helped create this climate.

Is that how you see it?

David Michaels

As the abject and enormously tragic failure of the Trump administration’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic becomes increasingly clear, the president and his supporters are taking the tobacco road, applying the same strategy used by cigarette manufacturers, fossil fuel corporations, and a host of other industries whose products and activities damage public health.

Not only is it the same strategy, it features the same cast of characters, and it is promoted in the same social media and cable TV venues, especially Fox News. Right-wing pundits, Trump administration officials, and scientists with long histories of discredited studies first declared the epidemic a hoax and then asserted the numbers of cases and deaths are wildly inflated. They have been eventually shown to be wildly wrong, but it has no impact on their credibility or their willingness to offer outrageous claims.

This strategy is successful because the Republican base has been acclimatized to be skeptical of mainstream science and easily believe accusations heard on Fox News or read on Facebook that they are being manipulated by the deep state, the liberal media, and pointy-headed scientists.

Sean Illing

What you’re describing is a fairly deep cultural problem that took decades to build and will, presumably, take decades to undo, if we can undo it all.

David Michaels

That is so true. The Trump administration has revealed two significant and related problems that predated the last presidential election. The first is that our current system of public health protections is weak and deeply flawed. And the second is that a sizable minority of the population has views on science that are easily manipulated by demagogues.

When the Trump administration is finally evicted from power, we will need to rebuild our system of public health protections, not simply by pouring more funding into federal agencies that were weak and flawed even before Trump, but by reimagining how they can be far more effective and inclusive, and are able to apply the best available science. And we must do this in a way that overcomes the anti-science culture fed by the current administration and the Republican party.

If we are unable to accomplish these goals, I fear that the nation’s disastrous response to Covid-19 is likely to be a preview of a very troubling future.

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