We have known for decades that both the tobacco and fossil fuel industry have used scientists to defend their products and spread doubt and confusion over the health and environmental impact of smoking or burning oil and gas.
Both industries peddle a deadly product. Both have used the same playbook to conjure uncertainty and, in the words of the ground-breaking book written by Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway, be the merchants of doubt.
A central tenet of this strategy has been the so-called “third party technique,” where a distrusted or discredited industry buys credibility by using someone to speak on their behalf. It is no surprise that the fossil fuel and tobacco puppet masters have used scientists as one group of third parties to spin science on their behalf.
One now infamous project by tobacco giant Philip Morris was the “Whitecoat Project”, where scientists would help “resist and roll back smoking restrictions” but also “restore the social acceptability of smoking.” Hence paid-for scientists have been named white-coats.
One white-coat who has worked for both the oil and gas industry and the tobacco industry is Dr. Julie Goodman, an epidemiologist and board-certified toxicologist, from the consultancy Gradient (see picture).
Gradient says it is a U.S.-based risk consultancy science firm “committed to excellence in scientific analysis on complex environmental, health, and safety issues.” Goodman’s clients have included the American Petroleum Institute, American Chemistry Council, and Philip Morris, among many others.
Dr. Goodman is the subject of a recent highly revealing New York Times expose by Hiroko Tabuchi outlining how the scientist is helping front the gas industry’s pushback against the growing evidence of how harmful gas stoves can be to health.
The issue of polluting gas stoves is currently raging in the U.S. and represents a growing public relations crisis for the industry. Hardly a day now goes by without another story showing how polluting gas stoves can affect health.
For example, yesterday, the results of a study from the Bronx were released where households with electric ovens showed a 35% decrease in daily concentrations of the pollutant nitrogen dioxide and a nearly 43% difference in daily concentrations of carbon monoxide, compared to gas stoves.
The issue also became more prevalent after a peer-reviewed article in the international journal of Environmental Research and Public Health was published last December. This concluded, “12.7% of current childhood asthma nationwide is attributed to gas stove use, which is similar to the childhood asthma burden attributed to secondhand smoke.”
Responding to this, the gas industry spin doctors, the American Gas Association, (AGA) issued a press release trying to argue that the research was “not substantiated by sound science.”
Walking into this polarized debate has been Dr. Goodman. As she has done before, her job appears to be to downplay the health risks for her clients. To spread the doubt. To create uncertainty.
As Tabuchi reports: “When Multnomah County in Oregon convened a recent public hearing on the health hazards posed by pollution from gas stoves, a toxicologist named Julie Goodman was the first to testify.”
Dr Goodman said that “studies linking gas stoves to childhood asthma, which have prompted talk of gas-stove bans in recent weeks and months, were ‘missing important context.’”
However, the New York Times reports that “what Dr. Goodman didn’t tell the crowd was that she was paid to testify by a local gas provider.” The Times added that in recent months, Dr. Goodman had also been working with the spin doctors at the American Gas Association, to help it “counter health concerns linked to gas.”
Indeed, back in August 2022, Dr. Goodman wrote a letter that the current evidence did not “provide a reliable scientific basis…to make causal inferences regarding the relationship between the use of gas-fired residential cooking appliances and childhood asthma.”
Sentences like this should set the alarm bells going. Years ago, I wrote a report on the tobacco industry’s decades of denial. Having studied thousands of documents, I wrote that the industry statements are peppered with fudging comments such as “no clinical evidence,” “no substantial evidence,” “no laboratory proof,” “unresolved,” and “still open.” Nothing has been “statistically proven,” “scientifically proven,” “or “scientifically established.” There is no “scientific causality,” “conclusive proof,” or “scientific proof.”
The industry was buying time, as thousands died from their deadly product. As one tobacco scientist conceded: “a demand for scientific proof is always a formula for inaction and delay and usually the first reaction of the guilty.”
But Gradient and Goodman have a history of controversial research and of playing down the health risks. As Tabuchi outlined: “Gradient has a track record of working on behalf of its clients to push back against research on health risks associated with a range of products.”
Goodman has, for example, acted as an expert witness for Philip Morris, when Judge Edward Leibensperger from the Massachusetts Superior Court said Gradient’s analysis “was shown to be inconsistent and contrary to the consensus of the scientific community.”
Documents from the tobacco archive also show Dr. Goodman co-authored an article sponsored by the now-defunct American Plastics Council, criticizing dozens of academic studies that had raised concerns over the controversial chemical Bisphenol-A , or BPA, which is an endocrine disruptor and linked to reduced fertility, and behavioralproblems in children as well as diabetes, cancer, and heart disease.
The New York Times article is not the first time Goodman and Gradient have been under the spotlight either. In 2016, the Centre for Public Integrity published a series entitled: “Science for Sale,” outlining how “industry-backed research has exploded — often with the aim of obscuring the truth — as government-funded science dwindles”.
Some of the “white-coats” in the article were employed by Gradient, including Dr. Goodman. The Centre outlined how one “group of academic researchers were so outraged by an article on BPA written by Gradient’s Julie Goodman and Lorenz Rhomberg that they wrote a lengthy response with a table listing all the “false statements” in it.
Frederick vom Saal, a University of Missouri professor who has investigated BPA for more than two decades, told the Centre that “In this article, there is nothing that is true. It’s ridiculous. And that’s how they operate.”
Goodman’s colleague, Peter Valberg, was also exposed for promoting the idea from a lawyer who defended asbestos claims that maybe tobacco smoke was the cause of higher rates of mesothelioma, not asbestos, despite decades of evidence to the contrary. He went on to testify in a court proceeding to that effect too. The Tobacco document archives also show that Valberg appeared as an expert witness for Philip Morris using research from Goodman.
Scientist after scientist approached by the Centre criticized Goodman and Gradient. One scientist, Bert Brunekreef, director of the Institute for Risk Assessment Sciences at Universiteit Utrecht in the Netherlands, said that “Mrs. Goodman and the company she works for have a reputation of misrepresenting the science consistently.” Another, Bruce Lanphear, a Simon Fraser University Professor, added “They truly are the epitome of rented white coats”.
Undeterred, Goodman and Gradient will carry on representing their corporate clients. Yesterday, Goodman was due to testify before California’s Bay Area Air Quality Management District, appearing on behalf of the Western States Petroleum Association, a fossil fuel industry lobby group.
Meanwhile the AGA is trying to argue that concern about gas stoves is all one conspiracy by green groups and has nothing to do with peer-reviewed science. The diversionary messaging could have come straight from a spin doctor for the tobacco industry: