A scientist to head OSHA? Quelle horreur!

It seems our enthusiasm for Obama's nomination of epidemiologist David Michaels to be the next head of OSHA was noted over at the high profile Science Magazine blog, ScienceInsider by Jocelyn Kaiser. Ms. Kaiser is among an elite group of science reporters and she almost always gets things right. Recognizing the importance of this nomination is certainly getting things right. My only complaint is that after noting that we (and many others) are delighted by the choice, she also notes that Michaels "is not without critics." That would be fair enough if the "critics" were fair enough. You'll find that the "critics" are hyperlinked. I am not providing the link because I don't want to send any traffic there. Clicking on the link would send you unawares to the blog of notorious climate change denier, Fox News commentator and extreme right wing corporate pimp (Philip Morris, ExxonMobil and the far right Advancement of Sound Science Center) Steven Milloy. Milloy's post accuses Michaels of practicing "junk science," the same charge he makes about scientists who believe there is evidence for anthropgenic climate change. If you insist on going there (and let's face it, it's like a grisly traffic accident; people feel compelled to look), I'll give you fair warning you will be subjected in the comments to Obama "birther" whackos, natural allies with as much respect for evidence as Milloy himself.

It's true that Milloy is a small fry. No one pays much attention to him because he's such a nutcase. But he's part of something much bigger which I wrote about a little over a year ago (pre-Obama). This seems like a good time to put it up again. It explains Milloy to a tee, and it turns out that since then David Michaels's superb book has come out, complete with original documents, that lays it all out. Its title, appropriately enough, is Doubt is Their Product: How Industry's Assault on Science Threatens Your Health. No wonder Milloy hates him.

From Effect Measure, June 11, 2008:

Why the Right Wing attacks science

If you want to see what difference environmental protection enforcement makes, just go to eastern Europe or the former Soviet Union. Or China. In the 1970s the US led the world in cleaning its environment and was consolidating its gains with well-staffed, motivated federal and state environment agencies. But that was then. Last weekend the US Senate couldn't even manage a paltry 60 votes to stop a filibuster of a bipartisan and none too strong global warming bill. This kind of failure isn't new. The US slow motion fall in environmental leadership has been going on for decades. In the Bush administration it is no longer covert but displayed blatantly and without shame. The lack of commitment is not a result of public disinterest or hostility. Polling throughout this period shows continuing support for environmental protection, and mainstream environmental organizations have even increased their membership. So what's going on? A recent scholarly paper pulls back the curtain on one reason for the long slide (cf. Jacques, Dunlap and Freeman, "The organisation of denial: Conservative think tanks and environmental scepticism", Environmental Politics 17:349 - 385, 2008).

To get the Big Picture, we have to return to the sixties and the extraordinary forces it unleashed: the civil rights movement and its struggle against institutionalized racism; the anti-war movement, which didn't disappear with the end of the Vietnam war but transformed into a potent intellectual critique of Great Power economic, cultural and military imperialism (an old fashioned but apt word for what was happening); the woman's movement, with its probing deconstruction of everyday social relations; the consumer movement, and its demystification of marketing techniques; and the environmental movement, which seemed to burst onto the scene fully formed on Earth Day 1970. Gay rights was still to come, but by the early 70s the platter of status quo changing social forces was already heaped pretty high.

The challenges were intellectual and ideological as well as political and they called forth a predictable and well financed right wing response in the form of ideologically based professional advocacy groups. Jacques et al. refer to them as CTTs, Conservative Think Tanks, a network of paid consulting groups supported by multinational corporations and foundations bankrolled by wealthy far-right ideologues like Richard Mellon Scaife. Examples include the American Enterprise Institute, the Hoover Foundation, the Heritage Foundation, the Cato Institute, and many others. These bastard offspring of wealthy elites and Far Right anti-communist crazies have achieved a surprising respectability. All it takes is money.

For their first 20 years the CTTs concentrated on traditional right wing pre-occupations, typically, anti-communism and its phantom variants like "creeping socialism." they linked communism to various threats to the interests of their patrons to produce a typical menu of anti-regulation, anti-corporate liability (aka, "tort reform") and the promotion of an idealized and distorted version of competition and free-markets. The environmental movement figured into the mix in obvious ways, but wasn't the centerpiece until the 1990s.

Two factors in the early 90s pushed the environmental movement to center stage. One was the vacuum produced by the disappearance of a favorite right wing bogeyman, the "international communist menace." The other was the growing global environmental movement, most conspicuously on display at the Earth Summit in Rio, 1992. Globalization was well underway and "free-trade" for the CTTs meant trade free of any constraints -- constraints on how workers were treated and paid, how the environment was treated and paid for, how consumers were treated and how much they paid. You can get a glimpse of the power of the moment by watcjomg the show stopping 5 minute performance of 12 year old Severn Suzuki at the 1992 Rio Summit. If you've never seen it, take a look. It represented the kind of developing political and ideological power the Right feared most.

In 1992 it wasn't yet feasible to destroy the government mechanism of environmental protection by executive fiat. Reagan tried it in the 1980s and it produced a serious public backlash. Reagan did a lot of damage but the experienced showed the environmental movement couldn't be attacked head-on. A new method would have to be found. It was time to turn the Red Scare into the Green Scare.

The key was a unique feature of the environmental movement: its reliance on science. The new strategy (not just a tactic) was to create an environmental skepticism, a contrarian counter-argument, superficially also based on science. This wasn't an easy trick because environmental science was based on a robust scientific consensus, international in scope and as deep as it was wide. the environmental movement held the scientific high ground. So an ingenious and simple method was used. Accuse environmental science of environmental skepticism's own defects, reducing environmental science to the CTT's own level. Environmental science, the CTTs would claim, exaggerated, or even fabricated, the seriousness of environmental problems by manipulating data. Its scientists were corrupted by a political agenda.

The sheer audacity of this has to be admired. The strategy was to go directly at the single thing the environmental movement depended upon most, the science, and to reject its validity outright. It was a jiu-jitsu move, using the authority and language of science to discredit it while simultaneously giving it an extra push by giving a new priority to economic considerations. If you could convince people the benefits were in doubt but the costs were certain, you would have a strategy that fit beautifully with anti-regulation and anti-corporate liability objectives. Throw in the claim that environmental regulation would threaten progress and prosperity and the Green Scare would be bearing Right wing fruit.

In establishing a foot hold in the scientific arena, peer review was an obstacle. The science of environmental skepticism was weak. So the full length book became the preferred vehicle. No independent reviewers. This is where the paper by Jacques et al. makes its primary contribution (the background to this paper also has much useful background and analysis, some of which I have used here). They assembled a dataset of all English language books (141 of them) that had International Standard Book Numbers (ISBN) from the earliest example in 1972 through to 2005, whose subject could be identified as environmental skepticism. Their definition of environmental skepticism was "denying or downplaying the seriousness of problems such as climate change; stratospheric ozone depletion; biodiversity loss; resource shortages; chemicals and other pollutants in the air, water or soil; threats of trace chemical exposure to human health and the potential risks of genetic modification (Jacques et al,, p. 358). If the book merely questioned environmental values while not denying some specific environmental problem, it was not included. The researchers then tried to determine if there was a relationship between the authors or publishers each of these 141 books and the CTTs, using only publicly declared information, not inference. The paper has a 14 page table giving the details in each case so the reader can check the judgments (Appendix 1).

The results are not surprising but still stunning. Over 92% of the book length literature denying the seriousness of the major environmental problems was written by authors affiliated with the network of CTTs or actually published by a CTT itself. An examination of the CTT websites showed that environmental skepticism was a major theme in 90%, a sign of the extent to which the environmental movement has become a specific target of the Far Right.

The success and potency of the assault on environmental science is not due solely, or even primarily, to the persuasiveness of the arguments. Refuting the arguments of environmental skeptics is usually easily done but the volume of their assertions is so large and so indifferent to counter-argument that cutting off the heads of the CTT hydra has become a major distraction for environmental science and a significant cost in time and money. That is a side show, however, a "watch the birdie" effect that tends to obscure another major factor. The Republican take-over of Congress in 1994 resulted in a major ally for the Right Wing attack, and the subsequent control of the Executive Branch in 2001 by George Bush allowed the CTTs to become the source for political appointments into the regulatory and research agencies central to environmental regulation. With the conversation sufficiently confused by years of right wing static supported by CTT publications and the preoccupation with "national security" in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, the same kind of dismantling attempted by the Reagan administration could be carried out with less opposition. It is a tribute to the strength of public support that even under these conditions the attack has not gone smoothly and without significant pushback.

And in some areas, like climate change, the attack on the science is failing. The major flack for environmental skepticism in the US Senate, Oklahoma's knuckle dragging Far Right homophobic crazy James Imhofe, sat silently in the debate. His arguments now endanger the credibility of the opposition and the Republican leadership chose to fight on economic grounds first, and ultimately, via a filibuster, since the bill looked like it was headed for passage.

Attacking science is a tool to attack the environmental movement. The Republican attack on science is therefore a means to something else, not an end in itself. It has gotten its power from having had a Republican congress until 2006, a weak and sometimes cowardly Democratic opposition, and the power of the Bush Executive Branch who used the Global War on Terror to obscure its domestic agenda, a central feature of which is to trash environmental protection. We can hope we are entering a new era where two of the three, the Congress and the Executive Branch, will no longer be in play.

The attack on science will continue, no doubt. But between a Democratic congress and a Democratic Whitehouse, it will begin to lose any salience it had. The Conservative Think Tanks will continue to spew out their books, but the revolving door between government and the corporate board room will slow its rate of spin.

To every thing there is a season.

* * *

If you're still there, you might be interested in a post script we added the next day.


More like this

Very, very well put, Revere.

Attacking science is a tool to attack the environmental movement.

What is wrong with taking care of the environment?

The air is cleaner than it was 30 years ago.

Recently on a hot day, I went swimming in a river. Thirty years ago, no one in their right mind would have gotten in. It was crowded and if the water wasn't crystal clear, it was much clearer than in was decades ago. I even saw a lot of fish.

Yeah, Milloy's a nutcase, and he drives me crazy. Here's why. For those of us who are try to counter the lies of the anti-vaccine movement, Milloy's particularly annoying in that he's right about there being no evidence that vaccines cause autism and a lot of evidence that they do not, but he's right for the wrong reasons, namely his being an indefatigable apologist for industry, in this case the pharmaceutical industry. So what happens is that sometimes people on "our" side will quote Milloy in countering the anti-vaccine movement, and I'll have to point out to them that Milloy is a total anti-science crank who denies AGW, health problems due to secondhand smoke and all manner of environmental pollution, etc., etc.

Paul Offit even did it in his book Autism's False Prophets. (Hell, he even quoted the equally cranky Michael Fumento.) I had no choice but to take him to task for that, as much as I liked the book otherwise. Seeing Milloy and Fumento quoted was a jarring counterpoint to the otherwise excellent analysis.

Is it your position Revere that if one does not conform to the "consensus" then one is an idiot? This sounds more like religious dogma to me than science.
With regard to AGW;
1. point to the evidence that man made co2 causes global warming.
2. where is the greenhouse hot spot?
3. The alarmist hockey stick temperature graph has been quietly retired. Was that "unpolitical" "disinterested" science that produced it in the first place?
4. co2 and temperature are related. co2 increases roughly 800 years after the temperature increases!
5. US gov has spent $30 bil over the last 20 years on "climate science" a pretty big incentive to stick to a consensus view! Even Exxon does not come close to this kind of expenditure!

Stan: Consensus means each expert, on their own, looks at the evidence and decides what they think it points to. Then, in conferences and university faculties, they argue with people who found different conclusions from the same evidence, and generally, if there is a clear picture to be drawn, one or other of them will see new evidence, or the same evidence in a new light, and alter their opinion. Over five or six years, generally, this happens with every expert in the field until you get people who know what they're talking about agreeing on what the evidence says, because each of them examined it on their own and found it to be so.

Dogma is pronounced by a guy in a funny hat.

See the difference?

I have nothing against David Michaels in general but I don't like the mindset that any science that casts "doubt" on some public health venture is likely to be industry-sponsored somehow. Actually exactly the opposite can also be true - excess certainty about, say, the value of drug treatments of levels of blood pressure or blood glucose that used to be considered "normal" levels can serve the ends of a different industry, and the doubters may be the honest scientists.

Carolyn: Of course that's not his mindset. I know him quite well and we both believe that questioning received opinion is important. What he was writing about (and I, also, in the post) was the deliberate use of specious argument to cast doubt on well supported policies because they are inconvenient.

I do understand what he was writing about, but I have also seen reasonable scientific arguments against policies that weren't really well-supported attacked on the same kind of grounds - with the claim these are specious arguments and any doubters must be somehow in the service of some special interests. I am just questioning whether lumping specious arguments under the general rubric of "doubt" or "denialism" is helpful. Sometimes reasonable critiques of received opinion can be dismissed as simply being the typical approach of special interests (even if there is no apparent involvement of special interests whatsoever, there's always the possibility that one is lurking somewhere).

Dear Revere,

150 years ago, John Stuart Mill wrote the following:

There must be discussion to show how experience is to be interpreted. Wrong opinions and practices gradually yield to fact and argument; but facts and arguments, to produce any effect on the mind, must be brought before it.

Very few facts are able to tell their own story, without comments to bring out their meaning. The whole strength and value, then, of human judgment, depending on the one property, that it can be set right when it is wrong, reliance can be placed on it only when the means of setting it right are kept constantly at hand.

In the case of any person whose judgment is really deserving of confidence, how has it become so? Because he has kept his mind open to criticism of his opinions and conduct. Because it has been his practice to listen to all that can be said against him, to profit by as much of it as was just, and to expound to himself and upon occasion to others, the fallacy of what was fallacious. Because he has felt that the only way in which a human being can make some approach to knowing the whole of a subject is by hearing what can be said about it by persons of every variety of opinion and by studying all modes in which in can be looked at by every character of mind. No wise man ever acquired his wisdom in any mode but this; nor is it in the nature of the human intellect to become wise in any other manner.

The steady habit of correcting and completing his own opinion by collating it with those of others, so far from causing doubt and hesitation in carrying it into practice, is the only stable foundation for a just reliance on it; for being cognizant of all that can at least obviously be said against him, and having taken up his position against all gainsayers - knowing that he has sought for objections and difficulties instead of avoiding them and has shut out no light which can be thrown upon the subject from any quarter - he has a right to think his judgment better than that of any person, or multitude, who have not gone through a similar process.

At least when you engage in these tussles, there's a rather striking symmetry between your writing and that of a Milloy. Both you and he believe firmly that their opponents are thoroughly disingenuous and insincere shills, whose views are dictated by their (undeniable) financial and/or political connections to corporations or trial lawyers, conservative activists or progressive activists, etc, etc. (As they say on the Sopranos, everybody's gotta eat.) Friends and allies are always right; enemies are always wrong. And hardly a sentence is seen without contempt, ridicule or disdain.

This is not the attitude that Mill describes. I for one (if you click my URL, you'll see that I am far to the right of both you and Milloy) think you are both perfectly sincere, just subject to the common human propensity for tribal identification. As to the facts in each case, they of course vary as to the case.

I am not under the illusion that you are young enough to change the way you think. However, if you do want your writing to convince those of us who find Mill's exercise useful - and why wouldn't you? - you might find yourself more effective if you at least pretended to think this way.

If by some strange chance you feel inspired by Mill and you're looking for someone with the true scientific mindset who disagrees with you, you could do a lot worse than (liberal Canadian) Steve McIntyre. Note the tipjar on the upper left side of the page. I'm confident that neither ExxonMobil nor Fenton Communications has ever clicked it. (BTW, my own mother was a GS-15 at DOE in renewables policy, so I have some idea how this crowd operates.)

Here, for example, is a good example of McIntyre's approach. Note how different the tone is from Milloy.

moldbug; I'm not sure exactly what you are saying, but if you have read this site over the years you will see we engage in reasoned discussion or argument with all sorts of views here. Milloy is aligned with the far right because they pay him. I doubt he has any politics of his own. So I'm not sure if your comment was a general one (in which case I'd agree with it in principle) or one about Milloy specifically (in which case I'd strenuously disagree). The man is notorious and this is not an isolated instance. It is the general pattern. I'm all for open mindedness, just not being stupidly generous to those who don't deserve any generosity or giving the benefit of the doubt to those who don't deserve it. If you believe there is no such person (and I don't think Mill did believe that), then we part ways. Mill's System of Logic is one of the foundations upon which much contemporary notions of causation are built in epidemiology, so I have the utmost respect for him as a philosopher. But the Milloy matter has been around for a long time and much discussed. Most of us have better ways to spend our time these days.

Milloy isn't the far right. I'm the far right. Trust me on this, bro. And if you don't care about Milloy - if you have better ways to spend your time - why post on him?

And who pays you? Excuse me, but I'm a child of Washington. My mother was at DOE; my father was at State. USG is not Mount Olympus. It is no different from ExxonMobil - an organization with its own interests, perspectives and prejudices. Bureaucrats - excuse me, public servants - have interests and agendas of their own. And moreover, they have alliances. Does the phrase "iron triangle" ring a bell for you? How about "Beltway bandit?" My first job was for one of the latter.

For example, if I actually look up what Milloy says about Michaels - a post you could easily have linked to, despite your grave moral compunctions - I see this:

But just what does Michaels do now?

He runs something called the Project on Scientific Knowledge and Public Policy (SKAPP) at the George Washington University. While its university affiliation and academic name would seem to lend it a modicum of credibility, in fact, SKAPPâs origins are much more revealing.

As I first reported in the Wall Street Journal in October 2003, SKAPP was launched by something called the Common Benefit Trust -- an expense account originally established for the purpose of compensating silicone breast implant (SBI) plaintiff lawyers for legitimate services and expenses incurred in connection with the multi-billion dollar SBI litigation.

Oddly enough, some of that money was diverted to form SKAPP, whose mission was to work to overturn the 1993 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals -- the landmark decision that permits judges to set up scientific review panels in federal litigation to keep junk science out of the courtroom. One Daubert panel played a pivotal role in stopping SBI litigation in federal courts.

Now, I realize that as a career employee of USG, your belief is that a public servant is a public servant and nothing else. Certainly very different from a petroleum mogul. But do you extend the same regard to the tort bar? Come to think of it, how do you feel about Daubert? Is it pro-science, or anti-science? Do tell.

Presumably you have counter-arguments to these arguments. To my mind, your rhetorical skills could be much more effectively employed in stating them. As it is, when I google past your non-link to find what Milloy actually says about Michaels, I see an argument that you appear to have avoided engaging. Point to Milloy. You despise this person - do you want to give him points?

Alternatively, if you don't want to engage with the likes of Milloy, you could follow my advice and engage with the better critics of your movement, rather than the worse. As I said, I dislike Milloy's tone myself. But finding the worst of enemies is effectively a way to construct a strawman argument. Your statistical training, for instance, should easily enable you to engage with McIntyre.

Or you could take a whack at this BPA review, which is straight up your alley - and, worse, academically affiliated. If ever it was time to dust off the ol' Malleus Malleficarum...

moldbug: Milloy works for the far right because that's who pays him -- as I said. Your definition of far right -- I'm presuming you consider yourself a libertarian but whatever -- is not everyone's nor is it necessarily the appropriate one in every context -- trust me. I don't work for the USG and I have been extremely critical of them. But I respect public service. As regards the tort system, since you folks have destroyed the regulatory apparatus it's the only way we have to keep people honest. It's the market, you might say (OK, I doubt you would say that, but if you keep an open mind, you might think it has its merits to express it that way). Regarding Daubert, I agree with SKAPP's position: that it tilts towards defendants and is not based on scientific method (Blackmun quotes two diametrically opposite philosophies of science in his decision because he didn't know any better; interestingly, the one who got it right was Rehnquist in his Dissent). David Michaels is someone I know and have worked with and whose integrity and competence are not in doubt for me. It's not because I agree with his politics. Milloy is also a known quantity. It's not just based on this single link, which is all you may know about either of them but that's not true for us. I didn't link to Milloy's post on purpose -- as I said. It was easy enough to find and you found it.

What Michaels "does now" is the same as what I do: he is an academic. He is not funded by SKAPP as far as I know, even if he was in the past. As for the ExxonMobil and Philip Morris connection, if you are a client change denier and pimp for tobacco, that isn't likely to be something a person who has spent his entire professional life in medicine and public health is going to respect.. If you've seen enough people die of COPD or lung cancer you would understand, perhaps. Perhaps not. Regarding BPA, we've posted on it plenty here. Use the Google search in the left sidebar if you are interested

"destroyed the regulatory apparatus" - is that one of your scientific analyses? Was that before or after SarbOx? Are you refering to the time the President joined Chris Dodd's filibuster of additional regulatory oversite?

(A objective analysis of the regulatory apparatus might include a review of the size of the CFR, 1989, 1994, 1999, 2004, 2009. One might rate whether it was "gutted" based on the change in size and scope over time). Noting also that regulations are written by the civil service, not elected or appointed officials, and this civil service consists of the same people regardless of who is elected. This has been the case since the late 19th century. As an educated man, you must know all these things.

But, I digress. It's clear your reply to Moldbug's rather civil if disputatious comment is a ideological polemic, and banning him from commenting here.

So, lest someone think that "boy, you showed him! He slunk off in disgrace rather than continue to dispute your mighty logic", I'll note that he posted what his last attempted reply to you with, here:


Anyhow, it's nice that you revealed what you think of open dialogue, civic discourse, and debate. When you banned Moldbug, you revealed it.

I suspect I won't be posting here anymore either, after this one. No loss - I never posted here before. But some things vex me so much...

By Porphyrogenitus (not verified) on 13 Aug 2009 #permalink

porphyro-whatnot: Don't be an ass. You will see in the comments on his site that I state quite clearly I did not ban him and moreover, checked forthwith to the pending comments and there were none from him. He did, however, send me an email the day of the alleged comment and I suspect he mistakenly sent his screed that way instead of posting it properly. It happens. Now you may slink off in disgrace. On your own. Without my help .But I digress. Like Moldbug, I return to my vacation.