The Manufactured Doubt Industry and the Hacked Email Controversy

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Weather Underground

The Manufactured Doubt Industry and the Hacked Email Controversy

by
Jeff Masters

In 1954, the tobacco industry realized it had a serious problem. Thirteen scientific studies had been published over the preceding five years linking smoking to lung cancer. With the public growing increasingly alarmed about the health effects of smoking, the tobacco industry had to move quickly to protect profits and stem the tide of increasingly worrisome scientific news. Big Tobacco turned to one the world's five largest public relations firms, Hill and Knowlton, to help out. Hill and Knowlton designed a brilliant Public Relations (PR) campaign to convince the public that smoking is not dangerous. They encouraged the tobacco industry to set up their own research organization, the Council for Tobacco Research (CTR), which would produce science favorable to the industry, emphasize doubt in all the science linking smoking to lung cancer, and question all independent research unfavorable to the tobacco industry. The CTR did a masterful job at this for decades, significantly delaying and reducing regulation of tobacco products. George Washington University epidemiologist David Michaels, who is President Obama's nominee to head the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA), wrote a meticulously researched 2008 book called, Doubt is Their Product: How Industry's Assault on Science Threatens Your Health. In the book, he wrote: "the industry understood that the public is in no position to distinguish good science from bad. Create doubt, uncertainty, and confusion. Throw mud at the anti-smoking research under the assumption that some of it is bound to stick. And buy time, lots of it, in the bargain". The title of Michaels' book comes from a 1969 memo from a tobacco company executive: "Doubt is our product 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". Hill and Knowlton, on behalf of the tobacco industry, had founded the "Manufactured Doubt" industry.

The Manufactured Doubt industry grows up

As the success of Hill and Knowlton's brilliant Manufactured Doubt campaign became apparent, other industries manufacturing dangerous products hired the firm to design similar PR campaigns. In 1967, Hill and Knowlton helped asbestos industry giant Johns-Manville set up the Asbestos Information Association (AIA). The official-sounding AIA produced "sound science" that questioned the link between asbestos and lung diseases (asbestos currently kills 90,000 people per year, according to the World Health Organization). Manufacturers of lead, vinyl chloride, beryllium, and dioxin products also hired Hill and Knowlton to devise product defense strategies to combat the numerous scientific studies showing that their products were harmful to human health.

By the 1980s, the Manufactured Doubt industry gradually began to be dominated by more specialized "product defense" firms and free enterprise "think tanks". Michaels wrote in Doubt is Their Product about the specialized "product defense" firms: "Having cut their teeth manufacturing uncertainty for Big Tobacco, scientists at ChemRisk, the Weinberg Group, Exponent, Inc., and other consulting firms now battle the regulatory agencies on behalf of the manufacturers of benzene, beryllium, chromium, MTBE, perchlorates, phthalates, and virtually every other toxic chemical in the news today....Public health interests are beside the point. This is science for hire, period, and it is extremely lucrative".

Joining the specialized "product defense" firms were the so-called "think tanks". These front groups received funding from manufacturers of dangerous products and produced "sound science" in support of their funders' products, in the name of free enterprise and free markets. Think tanks such as the George C. Marshall Institute, Competitive Enterprise Institute, Heartland Institute, and Dr. Fred Singer's SEPP (Science and Environmental Policy Project) have all been active for decades in the Manufactured Doubt business, generating misleading science and false controversy to protect the profits of their clients who manufacture dangerous products.

The ozone hole battle

In 1975, the chlorofluorocarbon (CFC) industry realized it had a serious problem. The previous year, Sherry Rowland and Mario Molina, chemists at the University of California, Irvine, had published a scientific paper warning that human-generated CFCs could cause serious harm to Earth's protective ozone layer. They warned that the loss of ozone would significantly increase the amount of skin-damaging ultraviolet UV-B light reaching the surface, greatly increasing skin cancer and cataracts. The loss of stratospheric ozone could also significantly cool the stratosphere, potentially causing destructive climate change. Although no stratospheric ozone loss had been observed yet, CFCs should be banned, they said. The CFC industry hired Hill and Knowlton to fight back. As is essential in any Manufactured Doubt campaign, Hill and Knowlton found a respected scientist to lead the effort--noted British scientist Richard Scorer, a former editor of the International Journal of Air Pollution and author of several books on pollution. In 1975, Scorer went on a month-long PR tour, blasting Molina and Rowland, calling them "doomsayers", and remarking, "The only thing that has been accumulated so far is a number of theories." To complement Scorer's efforts, Hill and Knowlton unleashed their standard package of tricks learned from decades of serving the tobacco industry:

  • Launch a public relations campaign disputing the evidence.
  • Predict dire economic consequences, and ignore the cost benefits.
  • Use non-peer reviewed scientific publications or industry-funded scientists who don't publish original peer-reviewed scientific work to support your point of view.
  • Trumpet discredited scientific studies and myths supporting your point of view as scientific fact.
  • Point to the substantial scientific uncertainty, and the certainty of economic loss if immediate action is taken.
  • Use data from a local area to support your views, and ignore the global evidence.
  • Disparage scientists, saying they are playing up uncertain predictions of doom in order to get research funding.
  • Disparage environmentalists, claiming they are hyping environmental problems in order to further their ideological goals.
  • Complain that it is unfair to require regulatory action in the U.S., as it would put the nation at an economic disadvantage compared to the rest of the world.
  • Claim that more research is needed before action should be taken.
  • Argue that it is less expensive to live with the effects.

The campaign worked, and CFC regulations were delayed many years, as Hill and Knowlton boasted in internal documents. The PR firm also took credit for keeping public opinion against buying CFC aerosols to a minimum, and helping change the editorial positions of many newspapers.

In the end, Hill and Knowlton's PR campaign casting doubt on the science of ozone depletion by CFCs turned out to have no merit. Molina and Rowland were awarded the Nobel Prize in 1995. The citation from the Nobel committee credited them with helping to deliver the Earth from a potential environmental disaster.

The battle over global warming

In 1988, the fossil fuel industry realized it had a serious problem. The summer of 1988 had shattered century-old records for heat and drought in the U.S., and NASA's Dr. James Hansen, one of the foremost climate scientists in the world, testified before Congress that human-caused global warming was partially to blame. A swelling number of scientific studies were warning of the threat posed by human-cause climate change, and that consumption of fossil fuels needed to slow down. Naturally, the fossil fuel industry fought back. They launched a massive PR campaign that continues to this day, led by the same think tanks that worked to discredit the ozone depletion theory. The George C. Marshall Institute, the Competitive Enterprise Institute, Heartland Institute, and Dr. Fred Singer's SEPP (Science and Environmental Policy Project) have all been key players in both fights, and there are numerous other think tanks involved. Many of the same experts who had worked hard to discredit the science of the well-established link between cigarette smoke and cancer, the danger the CFCs posed to the ozone layer, and the dangers to health posed by a whole host of toxic chemicals, were now hard at work to discredit the peer-reviewed science supporting human-caused climate change.

As is the case with any Manufactured Doubt campaign, a respected scientist was needed to lead the battle. One such scientist was Dr. Frederick Seitz, a physicist who in the 1960s chaired the organization many feel to be the most prestigious science organization in the world--the National Academy of Sciences. Seitz took a position as a paid consultant for R.J. Reynolds tobacco company beginning in 1978, so was well-versed in the art of Manufactured Doubt. According to the excellent new book, Climate Cover-up, written by desmogblog.com co-founder James Hoggan and Richard Littlemore, over a 10-year period Seitz was responsible for handing out $45 million in tobacco company money to researchers who overwhelmingly failed to link tobacco to anything the least bit negative. Seitz received over $900,000 in compensation for his efforts. He later became a founder of the George C. Marshall Institute, and used his old National Academy of Sciences affiliation to lend credibility to his attacks on global warming science until his death in 2008 at the age of ninety-six. It was Seitz who launched the "Oregon Petition", which contains the signatures of more than 34,000 scientists saying global warming is probably natural and not a crisis. The petition is a regular feature of the Manufactured Doubt campaign against human-caused global warming. The petition lists the "Oregon Institute of Science and Medicine" as its parent organization. According to Climate Cover-up, the Institute is a farm shed situated a couple of miles outside of Cave Junction, OR (population 17,000). The Institute lists seven faculty members, two of whom are dead, and has no ongoing research and no students. It publishes creationist-friendly homeschooler curriculums books on surviving nuclear war. The petition was sent to scientists and was accompanied by a 12-page review printed in exactly the same style used for the prestigious journal, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. A letter from Seitz, who is prominently identified as a former National Academy of Sciences president, accompanied the petition and review. Naturally, many recipients took this to be an official National Academy of Sciences communication, and signed the petition as a result. The National Academy issued a statement in April 2008, clarifying that it had not issued the petition, and that its position on global warming was the opposite. The petition contains no contact information for the signers, making it impossible to verify. In its August 2006 issue, Scientific American presented its attempt to verify the petition. They found that the scientists were almost all people with undergraduate degrees, with no record of research and no expertise in climatology. Scientific American contacted a random sample of 26 of the 1,400 signatories claiming to have a Ph.D. in a climate related science. Eleven said they agreed with the petition, six said they would not sign the petition today, three did not remember the petition, one had died, and five did not respond.

I could say much more about the Manufactured Doubt campaign being waged against the science of climate change and global warming, but it would fill an entire book. In fact, it has, and I recommend reading Climate Cover-up to learn more. The main author, James Hoggan, owns a Canadian public relations firm, and is intimately familiar with how public relations campaigns work. Suffice to say, the Manufactured Doubt campaign against global warming--funded by the richest corporations in world history--is probably the most extensive and expensive such effort ever. We don't really know how much money the fossil fuel industry has pumped into its Manufactured Doubt campaign, since they don't have to tell us. The website exxonsecrets.org estimates that ExxonMobil alone spent $20 million between 1998 - 2007 on the effort. An analysis done by Desmogblog's Kevin Grandia done in January 2009 found that skeptical global warming content on the web had doubled over the past year. Someone is paying for all that content.

Lobbyists, not skeptical scientists

The history of the Manufactured Doubt industry provides clear lessons in evaluating the validity of their attacks on the published peer-reviewed climate change science. One should trust that the think tanks and allied "skeptic" bloggers such as Steve McIntyre of Climate Audit and Anthony Watts of Watts Up With That will give information designed to protect the profits of the fossil fuel industry. Yes, there are respected scientists with impressive credentials that these think tanks use to voice their views, but these scientists have given up their objectivity and are now working as lobbyists. I don't like to call them skeptics, because all good scientists should be skeptics. Rather, the think tanks scientists are contrarians, bent on discrediting an accepted body of published scientific research for the benefit of the richest and most powerful corporations in history. Virtually none of the "sound science" they are pushing would ever get published in a serious peer-reviewed scientific journal, and indeed the contrarians are not scientific researchers. They are lobbyists. Many of them seem to believe their tactics are justified, since they are fighting a righteous war against eco-freaks determined to trash the economy.

I will give a small amount of credit to some of their work, however. I have at times picked up some useful information from the contrarians, and have used it to temper my blogs to make them more balanced. For example, I no longer rely just on the National Climatic Data Center for my monthly climate summaries, but instead look at data from NASA and the UK HADCRU source as well. When the Hurricane Season of 2005 brought unfounded claims that global warming was to blame for Hurricane Katrina, and a rather flawed paper by researchers at Georgia Tech showing a large increase in global Category 4 and 5 hurricanes, I found myself agreeing with the contrarians' analysis of the matter, and my blogs at the time reflected this.

The contrarians and the hacked CRU emails

A hacker broke into an email server at the Climate Research Unit of the UK's University of East Anglia last week and posted ten years worth of private email exchanges between leading scientists who've published research linking humans to climate change. Naturally, the contrarians have seized upon this golden opportunity, and are working hard to discredit several of these scientists. You'll hear claims by some contrarians that the emails discovered invalidate the whole theory of human-caused global warming. Well, all I can say is, consider the source. We can trust the contrarians to say whatever is in the best interests of the fossil fuel industry. What I see when I read the various stolen emails and explanations posted at Realclimate.org is scientists acting as scientists--pursuing the truth. I can see no clear evidence that calls into question the scientific validity of the research done by the scientists victimized by the stolen emails. There is no sign of a conspiracy to alter data to fit a pre-conceived ideological view. Rather, I see dedicated scientists attempting to make the truth known in face of what is probably the world's most pervasive and best-funded disinformation campaign against science in history. Even if every bit of mud slung at these scientists were true, the body of scientific work supporting the theory of human-caused climate change--which spans hundreds of thousands of scientific papers written by tens of thousands of scientists in dozens of different scientific disciplines--is too vast to be budged by the flaws in the works of the three or four scientists being subject to the fiercest attacks.

Exaggerated claims by environmentalists

Climate change contrarians regularly complain about false and misleading claims made by ideologically-driven environmental groups regarding climate change, and the heavy lobbying these groups do to influence public opinion. Such efforts confuse the real science and make climate change seem more dangerous than it really is, the contrarians argue. To some extent, these concerns are valid. In particular, environmentalists are too quick to blame any perceived increase in hurricane activity on climate change, when such a link has yet to be proven. While Al Gore's movie mostly had good science, I thought he botched the treatment of hurricanes as well, and the movie looked too much like a campaign ad. In general, environmental groups present better science than the think tanks do, but you're still better off getting your climate information directly from the scientists doing the research, via the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report. Another good source is Bob Henson's Rough Guide to Climate Change, aimed at people with high-school level science backgrounds.

Let's look at the amount of money being spent on lobbying efforts by the fossil fuel industry compared to environmental groups to see their relative influence. According to Center for Public Integrity, there are currently 2,663 climate change lobbyists working on Capitol Hill. That's five lobbyists for every member of Congress. Climate lobbyists working for major industries outnumber those working for environmental, health, and alternative energy groups by more than seven to one. For the second quarter of 2009, here is a list compiled by the Center for Public Integrity of all the oil, gas, and coal mining groups that spent more than $100,000 on lobbying (this includes all lobbying, not just climate change lobbying):

Chevron $6,485,000
Exxon Mobil $4,657,000
BP America $4,270,000
ConocoPhillips $3,300,000
American Petroleum Institute $2,120,000
Marathon Oil Corporation $2,110,000
Peabody Investments Corp $1,110,000
Bituminous Coal Operators Association $980,000
Shell Oil Company $950,000
Arch Coal, Inc $940,000
Williams Companies $920,000
Flint Hills Resources $820,000
Occidental Petroleum Corporation $794,000
National Mining Association $770,000
American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity $714,000
Devon Energy $695,000 Sunoco $585,000
Independent Petroleum Association of America $434,000
Murphy Oil USA, Inc $430,000
Peabody Energy $420,000
Rio Tinto Services, Inc $394,000
America's Natural Gas Alliance $300,000
Interstate Natural Gas Association of America $290,000
El Paso Corporation $261,000 Spectra Energy $279,000
National Propane Gas Association $242,000
National Petrochemical & Refiners Association $240,000
Nexen, Inc $230,000
Denbury Resources $200,000
Nisource, Inc $180,000
Petroleum Marketers Association of America $170,000
Valero Energy Corporation $160,000
Bituminous Coal Operators Association $131,000
Natural Gas Supply Association $114,000
Tesoro Companies $119,000

Here are the environmental groups that spent more than $100,000:

Environmental Defense Action Fund $937,500
Nature Conservancy $650,000
Natural Resources Defense Council $277,000
Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund $243,000
National Parks and Conservation Association $175,000
Sierra Club $120,000
Defenders of Wildlife $120,000
Environmental Defense Fund $100,000

If you add it all up, the fossil fuel industry outspent the environmental groups by $36.8 million to $2.6 million in the second quarter, a factor of 14 to 1. To be fair, not all of that lobbying is climate change lobbying, but that affects both sets of numbers. The numbers don't even include lobbying money from other industries lobbying against climate change, such as the auto industry, U.S. Chamber of Commerce, etc.

Corporate profits vs. corporate social responsibility

I'm sure I've left the impression that I disapprove of what the Manufactured Doubt industry is doing. On the contrary, I believe that for the most part, the corporations involved have little choice under the law but to protect their profits by pursuing Manufactured Doubt campaigns, as long as they are legal. The law in all 50 U.S. states has a provision similar to Maine's section 716, "The directors and officers of a corporation shall exercise their powers and discharge their duties with a view to the interest of the corporation and of the shareholders". There is no clause at the end that adds, "...but not at the expense of the environment, human rights, the public safety, the communities in which the corporation operates, or the dignity of employees". The law makes a company's board of directors legally liable for "breach of fiduciary responsibility" if they knowingly manage a company in a way that reduces profits. Shareholders can and have sued companies for being overly socially responsible, and not paying enough attention to the bottom line. We can reward corporations that are managed in a socially responsible way with our business and give them incentives to act thusly, but there are limits to how far Corporate Socially Responsibility (CSR) can go. For example, car manufacturer Henry Ford was successfully sued by stockholders in 1919 for raising the minimum wage of his workers to $5 per day. The courts declared that, while Ford's humanitarian sentiments about his employees were nice, his business existed to make profits for its stockholders.

So, what is needed is a fundamental change to the laws regarding the purpose of a corporation, or new regulations forcing corporations to limit Manufactured Doubt campaigns. Legislation has been introduced in Minnesota to create a new section of law for an alternative kind of corporation, the SR (Socially Responsible) corporation, but it would be a long uphill battle to get such legislation passed in all 50 states. Increased regulation limiting Manufactured Doubt campaigns is possible to do for drugs and hazardous chemicals--Doubt is Their Product has some excellent suggestions on that, with the first principle being, "use the best science available; do not demand certainty where it does not and cannot exist". However, I think such legislation would be difficult to implement for environmental crises such as global warming. In the end, we're stuck with the current system, forced to make critical decisions affecting all of humanity in the face of the Frankenstein monster our corporate system of law has created--the most vigorous and well-funded disinformation campaign against science ever conducted.

Jeff co-founded the Weather Underground in 1995 while working on his Ph.D. He flew with the NOAA Hurricane Hunters from 1986-1990.

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