Industry Groups Ruining Science

Scientific American this month takes us into the heart of a marketing and pr fight that grows more bold every day. Industry groups, emboldened by the Bush administration's mistrust of science and all things "brainy," have begun pushing against scientific advisories designed to protect us. More and more, industry powerhouses are employing data analysts to look at findings through specific lenses, and they're discovering some shocking news. Harmful pharmaceuticals might not be as harmful as we thought, and--given enough time with the data--drinking mercury might be good for you!

Don't think for a moment that this is a new occurrence, however.

In 1969 an executive at Brown & Williamson, a cigarette maker now owned by R. J. Reynolds Tobacco Company, unwisely committed to paper the perfect slogan for his industry's disinformation campaign: "Doubt is our product since it is the best means of competing with the 'body of fact' that exists in the mind of the general public." In recent years, many other industries have eagerly adopted this strategy. Corporations have mounted campaigns to question studies documenting the adverse health effects of exposure to beryllium, lead, mercury, vinyl chloride, chromium, benzene, benzidine, nickel, and a long list of other toxic chemicals and medications. What is more, Congress and the administration of President George W. Bush have encouraged such tactics by making it easier for private groups to challenge government-funded research.

Hut people, of course, will applaud the trend as it bolsters their own case against fact. After all, if we can't be sure about science, then we might as well be sure of a talking snake who came down from the tree. And yes, we realize the logic is all fercockteh, but such is the nature of hut people.

It would appear the nature of industry is no less disturbing.

What is more, this administration has tried to facilitate and institutionalize the corporate strategy of manufacturing uncertainty. Its most significant tool is the Data Quality Act (DQA), a midnight rider attached to a 2001 appropriations bill and approved by Congress without hearings or debate. The DQA authorized the development of guidelines for "ensuring and maximizing the quality, objectivity, utility, and integrity of information." This sounds harmless, even beneficial; who wouldn't want to ensure the quality of government-disseminated information? In practice, however, industry groups use the DQA to slow or stop attempts at regulation by undercutting scientific reports. The law gives corporations an established procedure for killing or altering government documents with which they do not agree. It has been used by groups bankrolled by the oil industry to discredit the National Assessment on Climate Change, a federal report on global warming; by food industry interests to attack the World Health Organization's dietary guidelines, which recommend lower sugar intake to prevent obesity; and by the Salt Institute to challenge the advice of the National Institutes of Health that Americans should reduce their salt consumption. more...