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The Manufacture of Uncertainty

by Chris Mooney

The sabotage of science is now a routine part of American politics. The same corporate strategy of bombarding the courts and regulatory agencies with a barrage of dubious scientific information has been tried on innumerable occasions -- and it has nearly always worked, at least for a time. Tobacco. Asbestos. Lead. Vinyl chloride. Chromium. Formaldehyde. Arsenic. Atrazine. Benzene. Beryllium. Mercury. Vioxx. And on and on. In battles over regulating these and many other dangerous substances, money has bought science, and then science -- or, more precisely, artificially exaggerated uncertainty about scientific findings -- has greatly delayed action to protect public and worker safety. And in many cases, people have died.

Tobacco companies perfected the ruse, which was later copycatted by other polluting or health-endangering industries. One tobacco executive was even dumb enough to write it down in 1969. "Doubt is our product," reads the infamous memo, "since it is the best means of competing with the 'body of fact' that exists in the minds of the general public. It is also the means of establishing a controversy."

In his important new book, David Michaels calls the strategy "manufacturing uncertainty." A former Clinton administration Energy Department official and now associate chair of the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health at George Washington University, Michaels is a comprehensive and thorough chronicler -- indeed, almost too thorough a chronicler, at times overwhelming the reader with information.

But there's a lot to be learned here. 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.

All of science is subject to such exploitation because all of science is fundamentally characterized by uncertainty. No study is perfect; each one is subject to criticism both illegitimate and legitimate -- and so if you wish, you can make any scientific stance, even the most strongly established, appear weak and dubious. All you have to do is selectively highlight uncertainty, selectively attack the existing studies one by one, and ignore the weight of the evidence. Although Michaels focuses largely on the attempts to whitewash the risks that various chemicals pose to the workplace and public health, the same methods are also used to attack the scientific understanding of evolution and global warming.

And it happens virtually every time the government even dreams of regulating a substance. People know what's going on, but they respond as if they're simply shocked, shocked, to find science being tortured. And so the outgunned federal agencies that must consult science to take action -- the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, Environmental Protection Agency, and Food and Drug Administration, among others -- repeatedly capitulate to corporations that effectively purchase science on demand.

We used to have a regulatory system -- that was the dream, anyway, of the 1960s and 1970s. But in significant part due to the manufacturing-uncertainty strategy, we now have the bureaucratic equivalent of clotted arteries. And mercenary science hasn't just blinded federal agencies. It has also blinded the courts, where the same tactics apply. Indeed, recent changes to the role of science in the federal regulatory system and the courts have worsened the situation by making corporate sabotage of scientific research easier than ever.

The 1998 Data Access Act (or "Shelby Amendment") and the 2001 Data Quality Act, both originally a glint in Big Tobacco's eye, enable companies to get the data behind publicly funded studies and help them challenge research that might serve as the basis for regulatory action. Meanwhile, the 1993 Supreme Court decision in the little-known Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals case further facilitates the strategy, unwisely empowering trial court judges to determine what is and what isn't good science in civil cases. Under Daubert, judges have repeatedly spiked legitimate expert witnesses who were otherwise set to testify about the dangers demonstrated by epidemiological research. Often juries don't even hear the science any more because the defense can get it thrown out pre-trial.

It's all about questioning the science to gum up the works. The companies pose as if they are defending open debate and inquiry and are trying to make scientific data available to everyone. In reality, once they get the raw data, they spend the vast resources at their disposal to discredit independent research.

Michaels ends by proposing a series of reforms. He suggests giving citizens more access to the courts (since the regulatory agencies are broken), requiring full disclosure of all conflicts of interest in science submitted to the regulatory process (and discounting conflicted studies), getting rid of rigged reanalysis by promulgating scientific standards that forbid it, and returning to the practice of using the best available evidence to protect public health, rather than waiting for a degree of unassailable certainty that will never arrive.

With his extensive chronicling of just how many times the manufacturing-uncertainty strategy has been used to make our world more dangerous, Michaels has performed a great service. Moreover, because he's a scientist himself and has seen these abuses up close in government, he can go much further than muckraking journalists who have often sought to expose this kind of malfeasance. (Full disclosure: Michaels cites my own book The Republican War on Science and mentions me in his acknowledgments.) I support Michaels' regulatory solutions -- his "Sarbanes-Oxley for Science" proposal, as he calls it -- and would like to see them enacted into law or put into effect by administrative action. But if there's a problem with Doubt is Their Product, it's that Michaels is, in a way, too much of a scientist. Let me explain.

Michaels chronicles a long litany of outrageous abuses, nothing less than the undermining of reason itself from within. Yet despite just how vulnerable the book shows science to be, Michaels continues to have faith that the solution lies in science. No matter how many times we have seen the facts lose, he still writes as if he thinks the facts alone will win.

So Michaels slices and dices all the misinformation, as he's ideally equipped to do. Anyone who grasps the nature of science well enough to follow him will not only be convinced but also deeply angered by what's happening. But other readers will just feel dizzied by the complex analyses, confused and ready prey for the science sharks whom Michaels has worked so hard to expose. The manufacturing-uncertainty strategy works because it buries you in the facts, loses you in the woods of science. Sometimes, arguing back within that arena only makes it worse.

And so, while eminently rational critiques of the abuse of science have their place -- and Michaels' is excellent -- I worry that the defenders of science sometimes delude themselves into thinking rational criticism is enough. It isn't, however, because scientifically grounded argument will only persuade those inclined to defend science in the first place. In order to be protected from the kind of assault it now faces, science must do more than convince its own. 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.

Chris Mooney is a Prospect senior correspondent and a freelance writer living in Washington, D.C.

© 2008 The American Prospect

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