I often get asked my opinion about who’s “worse” when it comes to manipulating and undermining scientific information: corporate America, or the Christian right. My usual answer is the Christian right, because its attacks on science are far more sweeping in their implications, and have the potential to undermine the very nature of scientific knowledge itself. Industry, by contrast, doesn’t want to change the definition of science to include the supernatural. It merely wants to conveniently attack and undermine certain isolated bits of scientifc information that have big potential economic consequences.
Still, industry behavior on this front can be pretty breathtaking. Everyone knows by now how the tobacco industry sought to undermine the science linking smoking to health risks. What’s less known is that such misbehavior appears to be widespread among companies whose products have been accused of causing environmental damage or health risks.
Paul Thacker gave us a taste of this recently with a great report on the Weinberg Group, a consulting company that specializes in, er, “science.” Thacker quotes from a Weinberg pitch to DuPont concerning a chemical called PFOA:
Passages from the letter describe how the firm will develop a defense strategy based on science. “[W]e will harness, focus and involve the scientific and intellectual capital of our company with one goal in mind–creating the outcome our client desires.” Another sentence reads, “This would include facilitating the publication of papers and articles dispelling the alleged nexus between PFOA and teratogenicity as well as other claimed harm.”
And today we get another report of this sort of behavior in the Post, on the subject of chromium risks. Again, it reports on exposed industry documents:
Among them are the 1996 minutes of Chromium Coalition meetings describing a decision to hire scientists to create and analyze data that would “challenge” OSHA’s nascent effort to impose low exposure limits.
“Although this route is expensive and success is not guaranteed, the longer we wait the more difficult the task becomes,” one document concludes.
How extensive is such behavior in corporate America? Nobody knows, really, although new examples frequently come to light. But the bigger question is, why do companies so frequently seek to attack inconvenient scientific information? That one happens to be easy to answer: Because they can.