‘The Triumph of Doubt’ digs into how dark money fuels mistrust of science

  • Kara Holsopple/The Allegheny Front

Science is supposed to be impartial. There’s a trusted method for collecting and analyzing data to test hypotheses. Scientific studies are the foundation for public health and environmental policies. But the Trump administration has not heeded the science when it comes to climate change, and the Environmental Protection Agency is moving ahead with a controversial rule to limit the use of scientific studies that don’t make underlying data public, when writing or revising public health and environmental policies. A 30-day public comment period opened March 3rd, and EPA administrators aim to have the rule finalized by May.

But science has been undermined by industry and corporate interests for years, long before the Trump administration, and with dire consequences.

David Michaels has been studying this phenomenon for a while. He’s an epidemiologist and professor at George Washington University. He’s also former Assistant Secretary of Labor for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration(OSHA) under President Obama, and worked in the Clinton administration as Assistant Secretary for Environment, Safety and Health at the Department of Energy. Now he’s the author of “The Triumph of Doubt: Dark Money and the Science of Deception.”

The Allegheny Front’s Kara Holsopple recently talked with Michaels about his new book for the podcast, Trump on Earth.

Kara Holsopple: First, could you describe how you started down this road of looking into misinformation campaigns, and the situation that you faced with nuclear workers exposed to beryllium, which is a metal that’s toxic to people, as the Assistant Secretary for Environment, Safety and Health at the Department of Energy under the Clinton administration?

David Michaels: We had hundreds of workers who had been made sick by exposure to beryllium, and they got a disease called Chronic Beryllium Disease. There’s not really much question about it. We were moving to issue a regulation to protect workers across the weapons complex. The beryllium industry was very concerned. They didn’t want more regulation, especially in the private sector, which wouldn’t even be covered by the regulation I was putting out.

But I read a number of reports that they issued. They hired scientists to say the evidence just isn’t clear enough, and we don’t really understand how beryllium causes beryllium disease. [They asked] is it breathing it in, or do we worry about skin contact, as well? They said we really need several more years of research before we can do anything.

I looked at that, said, ‘well, that’s crazy.’ You don’t wait for more research, you protect people on the basis of the best available evidence. And when I started to pull the string on that, I saw that there are a number of consulting companies whose businesses provide corporate clients with reports and studies that manufacture uncertainty.

I saw memos from Hill+Knowlton Strategies, a public relations firm, saying, ‘we’ve helped other industries stop government agencies or slow them down, and this is how we can do that.’ That intrigued me. I could tell it was the tobacco model, and when I started pursuing it, I saw that not just the beryllium industry, but many industries were essentially pursuing what we call the “tobacco playbook,” and using even the same scientists who worked for tobacco to do this sort of work. I’ve been writing about it really since then, which is the early 2000s.

KH: Right, you say that this corporate practice of sowing doubt in science started with the tobacco industry decades ago, and its development of something called “product defense.” You say the tobacco industry’s motto was “Doubt is our product.” What is product defense? 

DM: Product defense really comes out of the criminal justice system. It’s the idea that people are innocent until proven guilty, and what attorneys do, of course, is represent people in court and try to show that they’re not guilty–not necessarily innocent–but putting holes in the prosecution’s case that says that they’re guilty.

The scientists and lawyers who worked for product defense look at chemicals and other hazards the same way that the criminal justice system looks at people. They say, ‘we can stop regulation. We can cause enough confusion, and essentially raise questions enough that people will say these chemicals aren’t guilty.’ So these are scientists whose job it is to defend products. They’re businesses, and their business model is to provide exactly what their clients need. So you can always predict exactly what the scientists will say. They’ll say the evidence isn’t there to regulate the product, to protect people from this product.

KH: What are some of the tools of this product defense industry?

DM: One I like to look at is called mercenary re-analysis. I’m an epidemiologist. You do a study, you design the study, you put out your methods, and then you follow those methods and you’ll see what results you get. What industry does is demand the raw data from an epidemiological study, and they can re-analyze it by changing assumptions, by changing the cut points. There are lots of tricks of the trade, and you could turn a positive study into one that’s negative. Then all of a sudden you have these two studies.

They say, ‘well, look, we have opposite studies, opposite conclusions,’ and people throw their hands up and say, ‘well, what do we really know?’ It’s an unfortunate device, because to take a study that’s already been done and reanalyze it to find a different result isn’t the same validity as the study you did in the first place.

KH: Dark money, and these misinformation campaigns are often revealed much later by lawsuits or gaffes made by corporations. How does the system need to change so that corporate money doesn’t have an outsized influence on scientific studies for things like environmental toxins, lead and chemicals and how they’re eventually regulated? 

DM: Let me give you an example. We need to understand what the long term health effects are of e-cigarettes. We know combustible cigarettes are really dangerous. It’s great to get people off of them, and to move to vaping or e-cigarettes probably is a great advance. But we don’t really understand the actual long-term effects of pulling a mixture of oils, nicotine and flavors into your lungs, then expelling it.

To get that research done, we wouldn’t trust the tobacco industry after the long history of tobacco prevarications around science. But who’s going to do that research?

So I think for all of these toxins, what we need to do is set up a system where the producer pays for the research, because the research has to be done, but it’s done through a system where they don’t control which scientists are chosen to do the research, what the methods are, and how the results get interpreted. That way we can really trust the integrity of the science that we need to protect ourselves.

KH: You write that President Trump’s denial of climate science, and the distrust of scientists and scientific evidence in his administration are not unique, but cut from the same cloth as the past 50 years of Republican policy, where corporate capitalism is pitted against science and intellectualism. What do you mean by that?

DM: The tobacco industry, and then the fossil fuel industry, have poured tons of money into Republican politicians, and also these front groups, like Tea Party groups, that claim that the government is a nanny state that’s trying to control our lives. Of course, you can only say that if you can also say that the things the government is trying to do are unnecessary.

So the tobacco companies wanted these groups to say that cigarette smoking is not really a problem. The fossil fuel industry wants to say that greenhouse gases are not really a problem. But what’s happened is that this has gone on for so long, and so many Republicans have embraced it, particularly because the fossil fuel industry has been pouring money into Republican campaigns.

Republican senators, for example, no longer have to beg their constituents for campaign support. They can just get all the money they want from a couple of these big corporations. You buy into it, and it becomes part of your DNA. Then once that’s the case, you think that people who are raising these issues are wrong.

KH:  People like you. 

DM: Right. I actually had an experience like that recently. I ran OSHA for more than seven years. I probably know more about OSHA than most anybody in the country, and I’ve come back to being a professor at George Washington University.

So I was asked to testify at a congressional hearing about OSHA, and the panel was three lobbyists or people from industries, and me. One of the Republican congressmen, this fellow Glenn Grothman from Wisconsin, walked into the room and he looked at the panel and said, ‘Oh, the Democrats have invited another professor.’ Like, how could I really know anything about OSHA. That was his instinct.

We’re seeing a lot of that, this idea that public health scientists can’t really know anything. Because if we knew anything, then, you know, you’d have some responsibility to address the problems that we’re raising.

KH: So how does doubt about the efficacy and intention of science play out in a moment like we’re experiencing now, with this viral pandemic, where public health and millions of lives depend on good science and trusting scientists? 

DM: You know, anti-science, anti-intellectualism has become part of the Republican DNA. We see it not just in the White House, but on Fox News and Rush Limbaugh. There’s a whole echo chamber out there. When public health scientists started raising this issue, I think President Trump had other reasons. He said, ‘well, I don’t want to make this a big issue. It’ll look bad for me if this gets out of control. It’ll look like I have poor leadership.’

So he announced that this was a problem that was in control. He said ‘we have fifteen cases of coronavirus, it’s gonna go down to zero.’ And everybody just sort of bought into that because they’re used to discarding or rejecting concerns raised by people like me and the epidemiologists around the country. It’s easy to do that if you’ve been doing this for a long time.

It really delayed a response for almost two months, where we could have really moved quickly to address this problem, and we would have had things much more under control. We’d still have an epidemic, but if you look at the epidemic in South Korea, for example, or Singapore, where they immediately got on the case, and they used all of their resources to track cases and develop a testing program, they flattened their epidemiologic curve much more quickly than — well, we haven’t flattened ours at all yet.

We will pay a huge price in terms of deaths of people, and the overwhelming of our health care system. I say this a little bit in jest, but we’re fortunate that the coronavirus doesn’t have a lobbyist, because if they were actually lobbying, like the lead industry does or the fossil fuel industry does, it would’ve taken even longer for the government to come around to saying, ‘yes, this is a real problem.’

KH: Do you think this erosion of trust in science has trickled down to the general public? Are people cynical about science? 

DM: The polls seem to say so. For many years scientists were considered among the most trusted groups in America. That’s decreased a little bit — not as much as a lot of other occupations, but certainly gone down.

This idea that scientists can’t agree, and therefore they’re conflicted or they have their own vested interest, you know, it is a problem, because sometimes that’s the case right now, because [some] scientists are paid to say certain things.

Reporters and the media play a role in this, as well. They allow this confusion. You know, for many years, well-meaning reporters always said, ‘well, there’s two sides to every story. If a scientist is reporting a study, we’ll find someone who doesn’t agree.’ They’ll find, often with the help of public relations firms working for these corporations, a corporate scientist who will say, ‘no, no, the evidence isn’t there.’ So people read those newspaper articles, and they say, ‘well, you know, scientists just can’t agree on things. What good are they?’

I think that really does have an impact that in the long run makes people think, ‘well, science isn’t that useful.’ But it’s the most important tool we have to address and shape how we’re going to respond to these crises, not just COVID-19, but the climate crisis. We’ve got a looming crisis of antibiotic resistant bugs — there are lots of issues out there that need good science, and it’s an uphill battle right now.

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