The Intersection

Industry’s Science Games

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.

Comments

  1. #1 Jon Winsor
    February 24, 2006

    The thing about the fundies is this: People cool off. They become reasonable again. You can rally people to defend scientific values. You can educate people who hold confused views. It doesn’t happen overnight, but it happens with some patience and persistence.

    Besides, as Dover demonstrated, fundies seem blind to their own faults. And they even have a certain capacity for self-parody.

    On the other hand, when Greenland’s ice pack melts, it’s going to be a lot harder to get that to cool off. It’s going to be hard to get things back to normal after a rise in sea level or a drastic change in ocean salinity. Practically speaking, that stuff is for keeps.

    And it would appear that there a lot of sophists and PR hacks in the fossil fuel industry who haven’t really lost much sleep over that possibility.

  2. #2 Fred Bortz
    February 24, 2006

    Interesting that you should blog about this today.

    I raised a similar issue about the worst science abusers of recent times on my blog this morning, thanks to a book review that I read. (The Master Plan: Himmler’s Scholars and the Holocaust by Heather Pringle)

    Link: http://www.scienceblog.com/cms/a_study_of_abuse_of_science_10099.html

    Science abuse generally takes the form of setting out to prove a preconceived notion rather than to discover something. The most pernicious abusers are those whose intent is the most evil. The most dangerous abusers are those whose distortions lead to the greatest harm.

    In both respects, perniciousness and danger, at least in recent history, the Nazis rank at the top of the scale.

    The Christian right is misguided and presents a danger to science education, but their position on global warming, probably the most clear and present danger to human survival, is no longer unified. Many evangelical leaders are now advocating environmental action to do “God’s work.” Most of them are true believers, not deliberate abusers.

    Industry’s vision is dominated by those who look to the short term, and thus they are in the forefront of advocating continued fiddling while a climatic tipping point looms. They and the politicians who support them are the most dangerous, no matter what their intentions. They abuse science deliberately for personal gain regardless of the societal costs. That, in my view, puts them much higher on the danger scale in the long run.

  3. #3 t.f.
    February 24, 2006

    I would have to agree with Fred. The difference in industry and the Christian Right is that although the leaders in both probably could give a sh*t less about the truth involved in their agendas, the workers/followers almost always do in the latter case, and almost never do in the former case. Enron comes floating to the top when I want to exemplify this. In corporations, a team vision really catches on and the underlings are willing to do a lot even if they know it isn’t ethical so long as someone above is promising to take responsibility and assuring them it’s okay.

    Most (emphasis “but not all”) Christians are not willing to do unethical things even if a “fall guy” is promised or a large benefits package. The problem is the Christians trust their leaders so much on these issues it is hard to tip them over to the point where they genuinely know they are abusing science and denying evidence (e.g. evolution).

  4. #4 JR
    February 24, 2006

    When industry manipulates evidence concerning the health or safety effects of a product or pollutant, people likely die – sometimes in large numbers. When religious conservatives argue against evolution, no one dies.

  5. #5 Dad of a Diabetic
    February 24, 2006

    When religious conservatives manipulate the evidence on Stem Cell research, and argue that adult stem cells make embryonic stem cell reseach unnecessary, the result is that potential cures are delayed for years. This may cause millions of people to suffer and die needlessly. If better treatments, or cures, for deadly diseases are found in embryonic stem cells, then Mr. Mooney will be correct in his assessment. The religious conservatives have put the brakes on embryonic stem cell research for six years by claiming, in part, that adult stem cells have the same or even greater potential for cures that embryonic stem cells have. The Senator from Kansas is an example of this. They have been very successful in delaying embryonic stem cell research. In those six years three million americans have died from diabetes. In those six years children with diabetes have had an unknown amount of damage inflicted on their eyes,heart,circulation, and kidneys(unlike the snow flake babies, none of these children have been invited to the White House for cake and candy). When religious conservatives argue that God will not allow Global Warming to occur and block attempts to stop Global Warming, then the result may be more deaths from hurricanes,drought,and other natural disasters. People may die because of the religious right, and they may die by the millions.

  6. #6 P.M.Bryant
    February 24, 2006

    When religious conservatives argue that God will not allow Global Warming to occur and block attempts to stop Global Warming, then the result may be more deaths from hurricanes,drought,and other natural disasters. People may die because of the religious right, and they may die by the millions.

    On global warming, it is not relgious conservatives who are doing this, but industry representatives (coal and oil, in particular) and their flunkies in Bush admin and Congress.

  7. #7 William Haywood
    February 25, 2006

    Un-intelligent design would seem to be the mantra of the G.W.Bush Administration when it comes to the Kyoto Protocals, and Bush’s denial of necessary participation. We are presently the laughing stock of the EU for our backward ways concerning environmental science and the problems of Global Warming. Thanks for keeping us all informed.

  8. #8 Andrew R.
    February 26, 2006

    Greetings Chris,
    Have you seen this review of RWOS?
    http://www.wsws.org/articles/2006/feb2006/scie-f09.shtml
    Your comments?
    Also, have you come accross any other critiques of your work from the LEFT?

    AR

  9. #9 Chris Mooney
    February 26, 2006

    Thanks. I think there was something else socialist-oriented written about the book but I forget. I’ll give this a read.

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