The Intersection

Talk About a War on Science

i-318d08d7cedb3ddd54eb20c16ceb4667-michaels.jpgNot that you weren’t already–but if you want to be really, really outraged about the nefarious techniques used to undermine accepted scientific knowledge, you need to go get a book entitled Doubt is Their Product, by David Michaels. I just reviewed it for The American Prospect. By the end of the book–no, by the middle–you will be just sickened (just like so many people have been by dangerous chemicals and products defended by dubious science).

Here is part of what I say in my Prospect review:

Even most of us who have gone swimming in the litigation-generated stew of tobacco documents (you can never get the stink off of you again) don’t have a clue about the extent of the abuses. For the war on science described in Doubt is Their Product is so sweeping and fundamental as to make you question why we ever had the Enlightenment. There aren’t just a few scientists for hire — there are law firms, public-relations firms, think tanks, and entire product-defense companies that specialize in rejiggering epidemiological studies to make findings of endangerment to human health disappear.

For Michaels, these companies are the scientific equivalent of Arthur Andersen. He calls their work “mercenary” science, drawing an implicit analogy with private military firms like Blackwater. If the companies can get the raw data, so much the better, and if they can’t, they’ll find another way to make findings of statistically significant risk go away. Just throw out the animal studies or tinker with the subject groups. Perform a new meta-analysis. Conduct a selective literature review. Think up some potentially confounding variable. And so forth.

They can always get it published somewhere. And if they can’t, they can just start their own peer-reviewed journal, one likely to have an exceedingly low scientific impact but a potentially profound effect on the regulatory process.

You can read the full review here. And I recommend buying Michaels’ book–here.


  1. #1 Tulse
    April 2, 2008

    I honestly don’t want to make this blog all about the current framing controversy, but this particular post highlights a concern I have about framing, namely, how does one counter such misuse of data if the whole notion of critical thinking and understanding the data are deemed unimportant? You seem to cite the examples of corporate presentation of research as if this is an obvious abuse, but unless the public understands that there is a proper methodology for science, and that it produces the best approximation we have to “truth”, why should they care about how the tobacco companies “frame” the research? In other words, once we abandon notions like “truth” for notions like “utility” and “political expedience”, we’ve lost the main weapon we have to fight against this misuse, since without that weapon, it’s not even possible to explain how this is a misuse.

    Look at the implications of the passage you cite — the problem is that corporation are abusing science. That is a “frame” that has been applied pretty successfully, but largely because those using it have been committed to communicating the notion that science is in fact true, and that these companies are lying about the state of the world (recollect the derision when tobacco execs claimed in hearings that they weren’t certain whether nicotine is addictive, or whether tobacco causes cancer).

    I guess my point is that it seems bizarre on the one hand to get outraged at some sort of abuse of scientific truth, and then on the other to suggest that promoting the fact that science produces truth is counterproductive. How can one complain about:

    law firms, public-relations firms, think tanks, and entire product-defense companies that specialize in rejiggering epidemiological studies to make findings of endangerment to human health disappear

    if one doesn’t have a notion of what is objectively true, and a way of conveying that notion to the public? If one isn’t willing to push the truth-generating nature of science, in what way are the activities of these companies not just an “alternate frame”?

  2. #2 JRQ
    April 2, 2008

    Chris, I read with interest this statement from your review:

    “Science needs the allied power of outrage, political will, and a fundamental commitment to fighting back that, as of now, simply doesn’t exist. So enough of being shocked, shocked. It’s time for the merry, rampaging science-abusers themselves to be shocked as the sleeping giant of American science awakens and finally decides it isn’t going to take it anymore.”

    Is this not a call for MORE of the aggressive, uncompromising sort of criticism we get from folks like PZ?

  3. #3 Chris C. Mooney
    April 3, 2008

    I want science to wake up fight in as tough a way as possible. But I also want it to be strategically done–professional. Smart. There is a place for “uncompromising criticism” but we also need strategic communication campaigns, more scientists running for office, attempts to unelect science enemies in Congress….

  4. #4 impatientpatient
    April 14, 2008

    I have no idea if that book touches on the insurance/medical industry—

    if it does then what I say will be moot.

    Those people have totalled lives of perfectly ordinary people, and they have done it by meta analysis, making up “journals” and by the oodles. The “study” (meta analysis) that I read in a fake journal on the beauty of using neurontin for pain just about made my head spin.

    My question:

    How does one ordinary person or even an extraordinary journalist have any way of understanding the “frame” that a meta-analysis study has. Because they are being framed in a way most conducive to the purposes of those who do them. There are studies that are not used for various (and possibly nefarious) reasons, there are ways to emphasize other studies and weight them so that they have more inport—-and there is really no way of knowing which studies were looked at and disregarded or the reasons why. Meta-analysis seems like a way of spinning things for a certain side more often than not.

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