Introduction for 2015
This was probably the most substantial piece I’d ever written. I can’t take complete credit, as it builds from the work of a lot of other writers, and if there’s any prescience here it’s mainly because I made a few connections between public relations and the compromising of the scientific peer-review process. The main reason I’m posting it here is because of two recent news items. The first is Charles Seife’s recent Slate piece about how publishing houses like Springer and IEEE have had troubles with fraudulent papers. The second is a new documentary titled Merchants of Doubt, which details how corporations and PR firms have created a mini-industry of climate change “skepticism.” (One of the interviewees is Michael Shermer, the editor of Skeptic, who ran my article in the first place.)
Blue Smoke, Mirrors, and Designer Science
How the Public Relations Industry Compromises Democracy
by Brian Siano
(A shorter version of this article appeared in Skeptic magazine, Vol 7, No. 1, 1999)
“Nick,” Bill said, “this report was in the New England Journal of Medicine.”
“For which I have the highest respect. But can I ask just one question?”
“Where are the data?”
“What do you mean, where are the data? It’s The New England Journal of Medicine. It’s all data, for Crissake.”
“This was a double-blind study?”
Fatal hesitation. Attack! “And how big was the control group?”
“Come on, Nick.”
“Was this a prospective study?”
It is Nick Naylor’s fate in life to have a career that summons the sardonic grin to the faces of his countrymen. Naylor, the hero of Christopher Buckley’s novel Thank You for Smoking, is the spokesman for the Academy of Tobacco Studies, which presents the industry’s viewpoint to a skeptical (and increasingly antismoking) nation. It is his duty and his burden to remind us that there are two sides to the tobacco question, that the anti-smoking side is comprised of equal parts greed and hysteria and little else, that the thousands of former smokers on respirators or chemotherapy are grasping at straws in their extremity, and that the American People can make up its own mind about whether to smoke or not, dammit. And if this means nitpicking unto infinity about arcane technical points from the New England Journal of Medicine, JAMA, or the British Medical Journal, then so be it. His only gratitude comes from the tobacco company that pays his salary, and his only fellowship comes from the equally world-weary spokespeople from the Alcohol and Firearms lobbies. And halfway through Thank You for Smoking, Nick suffers a hilariously near-fatal episode of tachycardia— at the hands of kidnappers who cover his entire body with nicotine patches.
We can laugh at Nick Naylor because we know he’s a paid liar. Merely mention his job to most people, and the knowing smile comes forth. Spokesman for the tobacco lobby? Smoking doesn’t cause cancer? Yeah, right; and Jesse Helms marched on Selma with King. Tell me another one.
But Nick Naylor is a low man in the world of public relations. At best, he’s a talking head, paid to be recognized as the cigarette-pushing man. He’s the poor slob the company sticks with the “spokesman” job when catastrophe strikes, reassuring Ted Koppel that the damage has been contained and the company’s new task force is doing everything in its power to ensure public safety.
Beyond the Naylors of the world, there is the public relations industry— an estimated 150,000 theorists, writers, spokespeople, scientists, freelance writers, former journalists, and assorted organizers, who spend at least ten billion dollars a year to keep us compliant with their clients’ wishes. It’s admirably laid bare in Toxic Sludge is Good for You: Lies, Damn Lies and the Public Relations Industry, by John Stauber and Sheldon Rampton, publishers of a marvelous newsletter titled PR Watch.
PR isn’t about selling products; in fact, the best PR doesn’t look like advertising. It’s designed to win hearts and minds, to get you, the public, on their side. There’s a lot of arrows in the public-relations quiver, and they include planted news stories, newspaper editorials, and preproduced television news segments. There are conscripted journalists, expert witnesses for lawsuits, and selected scientific experts. A PR campaign may include educational materials for public schools, phony ‘grass-roots citizens’ campaigns, planted public referenda and legislation, and the pre-editing and rewriting of scientific papers for the best ‘spin.’ In some cases, there has been espionage, infiltration of civic groups, and the occasional strategic lawsuit.
It’s an arsenal of fakery that would astound David Copperfield. Millions of dollars have been spent in managing public opinion. There’s a good chance you’ve been snookered into believing something that just isn’t true, or doubting something that is true. Your own respect for science, and suspicion of pseudoscience, may have even helped the process along. So don’t feel so confident anymore.
“The chant was Hill’s idea: explaining its usefulness, he once spat upon a polished board of director’s table. The act was disgusting, he said, wiping up the bubbly spittle with his silk handkerchief, but for that very reason you would never forget it.”
William Manchester, The Glory and the Dream, on George Washington Hill’s 1930’s slogan “Lucky Strike means Fine Tobacco.”
Let’s return to tobacco for a moment. There’s a good chance you’ve seen a full-page ad in a newspaper for something called the National Smokers’ Alliance, a “grass-roots” coalition of smokers who want to protect their right to puff. The NSA’s recruited an estimated three million members, who are urged to “speak up” when “‘Anti’ America is pushing a discriminatory smoking ban in your workplace.” It might be as simple as leaving a preprinted note at the restaurant table that reads, “I am a smoker and have spent $___ in your establishment.” Or maybe it’s circulating a petition, or adding names to a letter-writing campaign demanding fewer restrictions on smoking.
Now, this might sound harmlessly democratic — a bunch of cranky smokers get a newsletter and write a few letters on behalf of their favorite industry. But in fact, the National Smokers’ Alliance was developed by Burson-Marsteller, one of the largest PR firms around. Startup costs were estimated at seven million dollars, and most of the NSA’s $10 million annual budget comes from Philip Morris. In other words, the industry decided to organize its clients to do some politicking on its behalf.
In 1994, Philip Morris also contracted with the California PR firm The Dolphin Group to organize something called “Californians for Statewide Smoking Restrictions.” This effort was directed at putting Referendum 188 onto the November 1994 ballot. The referendum would have undermined a number of anti-smoking ordinancies, so Dolphin also put up billboards reading “Yes on 188— Tough Statewide Smoking Restrictions— The Right Choice.” It’s nice to know that, once the campaign was exposed, Prop. 188 was voted down by the good people of Califor nia.
On the other hand, if you were a grammar-school student in October of 1994, you may have read an article in the Weekly Reader titled “Does Smoking Have a Future?” Illustrated with drawings of men with signs reading “Freedom of Choice” and “No More Taxes,” the article stressed that anti-smoking efforts have caused tobacco farmers to lose their jobs. Long-term effects of smoking went unmentioned. The Weekly Reader was owned by K-III Holdings, which is owned by Kohlberg, Kravis and Roberts— which, at the time, was the majority owner of RJR Nabisco, the nation’s second largest cigarette manufacturer.
The Weekly Reader’s editor denied that the ownership of the journal had affected its content. But the American Journal of Public Health compared the Weekly Reader’s coverage of cigarettes with that of its family-owned competitor, the Scholastic News. Unsurprisingly, the researchers found that the Weekly Reader was more likely to present the tobacco industry’s positions, and was less likely to present a clear anti-smoking message— and that these trends had worsened once K-III had purchased the journal. Joe Camel turned up a lot more often in the Weekly Reader, too. (Balbach and Glantz, 1995)
The alternative health industry isn’t innocent of the use of PR techniques, either. Some readers may recall a series of advertisements portraying the Food and Drug Administration as a group of bureaucratic thugs out to deny citizens access to healthy vitamin supplements— one ad showed the FDA raiding Mel Gibson’s house for contraband, while other public-service announcements starred Whoopi Goldberg, Laura Dern, and Randy Travis. These ads were produced and circulated by the Nutritional Health Alliance, ostensibly a “grassroots” organization out to “protect your right to use safe vitamins, minerals, herbs and other dietary supplements of your choice.”
In fact, the NHA was founded by the PR firm Rogers and Cowan, at the behest of the vitamin supplements industry. The main goal of the NHA was to mobilize popular support for Orrin Hatch’s Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994— which would limit the FDA’s powers and allow supplement manufacturers to make wider health claims for their products. Hatch’s home state, Utah, is home to a number of supplement companies, and his son Scott is a lobbyist who works for Herbalife International. (Rampton and Stauber 1997)
One couldn’t imagine a magazine like Mother Jones letting a PR firm hijack its news content on behalf of, say, Eli Lilly. But in September 1998, health columnist Michael Castleman heard the magic word “homeopathy” and rolled over. Castleman reported on chemist Shui-Yin Lo, who was researching ice formations that gave off “a unique electrical field.” This ice, termed IE clusters, forms in water containing extreme dilutions of sodium phosphate. Castleman also cited UCLA immunologist Benjamin Bonavida, who claimed that water with IE crystals “significantly increases the production of several components of the immune system.” The implication, drawn by Dana Ullman of Homeopathic Educational Services, is that homeopathy works by creating IE crystals that stimulate the immune system. (Castleman 1998)
All of the claims in Castleman’s article, regarding Lo and Bonavida’s work, can be found in a homeopathy-boosting January 1998 press release written by Ullman for HES. Ullman, in turn, appears to have derived his press release’s claims from a symposium held by the American Technologies Group (ATG). Castleman’s article didn’t mention ATG— nor did it mention such ATG products as its doubtful fuel additive called “The Force,” or the Superglobe, a variant on the “laundry ball” scam. In October 1997, three months before Ullman‘s announcement, the Oregon Department of Justice investigated ATG’s products and found no evidence for the existence of IE crystals. (ATG Website 1998, Touretzky and Dallara 1998)
Los Angeles readers may recall an eight-part series of two-full-page advertisements that ran in the Los Angeles Times this past November. Although the air quality of Los Angeles was better than it had been, the ads said, industry had done all that it could to reduce smog. Emissions by automobiles were now “90 percent cleaner,” but people were driving much more. Sections titled “What You Can Do to Help” listed ways in which individual citizens could help, by combining errands, buying energy-efficient cars, etc. Little was said about what industrial polluters could do.
The ads were developed by K2 Communications and Californians for Clean Air Progress, a coalition that includes ARCO, Honda, Ford and Toyota. Southern California Edison and the Los Angeles airport authority, two of the region’s heaviest polluters, were also signatories to the campaign. Government agencies contributed cash and support, and The South Coast Air Quality Management District, a government regulatory agency which was being sued over its weakening of clean-air regulations, signed on as well. (Among the groups that declined to participate were the National Lung Association, the Coalition for Clean Air, and the Natural Resources Defense Council.) Not only was the Times also a sponsor of the campaign, but a November 11 editorial sang the praises of L.A.’s clean air— using data provided by the coalition. (Blume 1997)
The case for tort reform goes something like this. Recent years have seen an “explosion” of lawsuits against businesses, frequently trivial in nature, and encouraged by greedy trial lawyers. Juries, inherently anti-business and unable to recognize “junk science,” award punitive damages to the plaintiffs that are excessive and damaging to innocent people. Anecdotes of certain striking cases— the elderly woman scalded by McDonald’s coffee, the Philadelphia “psychic” who lost her powers in a CAT scan— are circulated as typical examples. Thus, “tort reform” advocates call for limits on court-awarded damages, penalties for unsuccessful plaintiffs to discourage trivial lawsuits, and a shift to simpler-and-fairer mediation and arbitration to resolve disputes.
Most of this is mythology. At best, perhaps 2% of all trial court cases are tort cases, and only 4% of these are product liability cases. Only 10% of people injured in accidents ever seek compensation; in fact, litigation’s down, mainly because it’s such an expensive mess for an ordinary citizen to file a lawsuit. As for anti-business biases: Juries award for plaintiffs approximately 52% of the time, and it usually takes truly egregious behavior on the part of a defendant for a jury to award punitive damages. (And even then, the plaintiffs settle for a lower amount when the defendant corporation offers not to appeal the decision for the rest of their natural lives.) As for arbitration and mediation, these methods tend to favor corporations— and any evidence unearthed can be kept sealed from public review. (Nader and Smith, 1996)
Yet for several years, various politicians, spokespeople, and other “experts” promoted the “litigation explosion” as a national menace. Philip K. Howard’s book The Death of Common Sense claimed that defensive medicine costs $200 billion annually— a spurious figure five times higher than the American Medical Association’s estimates. And when Rep. Christopher Cox (R-California) says that 100 million lawsuits are filed annually, it helps to remember that 59% percent of these are over traffic violations.
So, why are these myths so widespread? Two organizations devoted to tort reform— the American Tort Reform Association (ATRA) and the Product Liability Coordinating Committee (PLCC)— are all funded by the same powerful industries. Aetna, Eli Lilly, Monsanto, Dow, Philip Morris, Humana, General Motors, Dupont, Metropolitan Life, and many others contribute heavily, either directly or through such lobbying organizations as the Chamber of Commerce. A third group, the Civil Justice Reform Group, is made up of the in-house lawyers from forty of the biggest U.S. corporations— each of whom has to pay $100,000 to join.
In December 1992, APCO and Associates’ Neal Cohen was approached by a client about a bill in the Mississippi legislature. “We want to pass a bill in Mississippi,” the client told Cohen, “and we’ve got a problem: Our industry can’t pass the bill. If the legislators know we’re the only industry that wants this bill, it’s an automatic killer. And just to make it a little more difficult, we’ve joined up with one other industry to fund this effort and they are worse than us. People dislike them more intensely and in fact they don’t even have any facilities in the state of Mississippi, not to mention the product they manufacture… The issue is tort reform.”
Cohen’s first project was a poll to gauge public opinion on two issues; fear of litigation, and mistrust of lawyers. The latter was doubly important, in that trial lawyers were a large source of campaign contributions, and Cohen wanted to make their money “radioactive” in most people’s minds. Information in hand, Cohen and APCO flooded Mississippi with ads, billboards, studies, press releases, and much more, all devoted to the previously unglamorous issue of “tort reform.” It didn’t take long for ordinary citizens to begin writing letters and phoning their representatives about those evil, greedy lawyers. Cohen was proudest of a newscast on Channel 13, in Jackson, which said the campaign was to “clean up the legal system,” and flashed the 800 number of Cohen’s astroturf coalition “if you want to learn more.” (Stauber and Rampton 1996)
On a different scale, we have the campaign waged on behalf of Monsanto and its bid for biotechnology greatness, recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH). Between 1988 and 1991, oceans of videotapes, brochures, and presentation materials flooded the concerned public, accompanied by armies of lobbyists and spokespersons extolling the benefits of rBGH. Most of it was directed at assuring the then-skeptical majority of parents of children under 18 that rBGH wasn’t going to have any undiscovered drawbacks waiting in the future. Monsanto stood to make over $1 billion a year on rBGH— that is, if the FDA were to overlook the reports of increased bovine udder infections, birth defects, and allegations that rBGH companies had manipulated the data they’d submitted.
Another complication of using rBGH was illustrated by Michael Hanson, an advisor to the the Consumers Union (publishers of Consumer Reports). Hanson testified to the possibility of a spread of bovine spongiform encephalopathy, better known as ‘mad cow disease.’ Cows on rBGH require a high protein feed, and a major source for protein is rendered cattle— which is a mode of transmission of a suspected agent for BSE. In turn, Jeremy Rifkin’s Foundation on Economic Trends petitioned the FDA for a ban on the feeding of rendered animals to cattle— a ban which had been recommended by an NIH roundtable four years before.
So, Rifkin’s group got a lot of attention. Seymour ‘Bud’ Vestermark began turning up at the offices of food safety, environmentalist, and animal rights groups, claiming variously to be a freelance writer or ‘concerned citizen.’ A reporter, recalling Vestermark as an employee of the McDonald’s corporation, spotted him at one of Rifkin’s Beyond Beef press conferences. One animal-rights activist reports that Vestermark, in a clumsy attempt to intimidate her, followed her to her children’s school. After ‘Bud’ obtained Rifkin’s itinerary to promote his 1992 book Beyond Beef, talk show producers began receiving calls from people claiming to be Rifkin’s publicist, cancelling his scheduled appearances.
Subsequent investigation reported ‘Bud’ making frequent appearances at the offices of Mongoven, Biscoe and Duchin, a PR firm which specializes in ‘public policy intelligence’ for such firms as Philip Morris, DuPont, Shell Oil and Monsanto. MBD assembles extensive files on church groups, activist organizations, and private citizens, and provides outlines to Fortune 500 companies on how to damage or neutralize their effectiveness. One MBD staffer, Kara Ziegler, was fond of pumping activists for information by representing herself as a writer for the left-wing Z magazine. And “Bud” Vestermark was a thuggish Army analyst who’d marketed his banana-republic skills into consultancies on school security and “anti-terrorism.”
“The public’s side of the argument is described as ‘emotional,’ whereas those who govern are said to be making ‘rational’ or ‘responsible’ choices. In the masculine culture of management, ‘emotion’ is assigned a position of weakness whereas ‘facts’ are hard and potent. The reality, of course, is that the ability to define what is or isn’t ‘rational’ is itself laden with political self-interest, whether the definition comes from a corporate lobbyist or from a federal agency. One way or another, information is loaded.”
William Greider, Who Will Tell the People
When people are asked their opinion of some scientific debate— whether we should patent genes, or journey to Mars, or use or ban a suspected carcinogen — we hope that they base their opinions on an understanding of science. We tell ourselves that, if people would only be a little more scientifically literate, our democracy and its policy decisions can function at a more responsible level.
It’s a nice sentiment, but it does have a few problems. For one thing, it’s easy to think that it’s only other people who are ill-informed, ignorant, or prone to “hysterias” and “panics.” We’re all part of this same ill-informed public, regardless of our education or professional level. And “Educating the public” is sometimes a euphemism for persuading people to merely agree with someone’s agenda—that is, public relations.
But the biggest problem is that most people simply do not have the opportunity to learn about a lot of science. According to a 1996 survey by the National Science Board, about 40 percent of all Americans have expressed a strong interest in science and technology. Interest varies according to subject, of course: 70 percent expressed a strong interest in medical issues, 54 percent in environmental issues, and a relatively paltry 25 percent was interested in the space program. However, only 23 percent of us “understand the nature of scientific inquiry well enough to make informed judgments about the scientific basis of results reported in the media”— that is, knowing what theories and experiments are. And only ten percent of all Americans can be said to be “attentive” to science issues. I don’t see this as evidence that people are stupid or lazy: a single mother of two just might have more important things on her mind than the Hubble Telescope, that’s all.
Closer to our purposes, the survey also took note of how Americans keep up with science issues. In a typical year, the average American will read 200 newspapers, 2.6 news magazines, and 1.5 science magazines. He or she will watch a total of 408 hours of TV news (where stories average 60 to 90 seconds in length). Those without cable TV watch 42 hours of science shows; cable viewers watch 97 hours’ worth. (Happily, libraries are still popular— 43 percent visits one at least five times a year— but how much of that is spent reading about science and technology is unknown.) In short, on a typical day, 63 percent of us are watching at least an hour of TV news, and 47 percent of us are reading a daily newspaper. These are the two most common ways people learn about science issues. (National Science Board 1996)
There are strong indications that these figures are already out of date. According to a Pew Research Center survey on news consumption, the percentage of Americans who get their news solely through TV news has dropped from 30% to 15% over the past four years. Newspapers and television are still the main source of news for most Americans, but the Internet has become a major source of supplementary information for 36 million “news users.” Science and health information was the Net’s second-highest draw, behind hobbies. (Pew Research Center 1998)
(Personally, I suspect this is because the Net is better suited for such information than television. The Net gives its audience a little more control over what they want to look at. They can read at their own pace, follow the links at their own discretion, and come back to an earlier point in their progress. It’s hard to do this with, say, 20/20 or 60 Minutes.)
So even those of us who have the luxury of keeping up with science tend to do so through channels that don’t have such safeguards as peer-review or even conflict-of-interest statements— like ABC News, or the New York Times, or Discover magazine.
So how do newspapers and TV news shows get their science stories?
The news wires, UPI and the Associated Press, are the main sources for national and international news for most papers. Occasionally a local angle will be added by a reporter, but usually the paper will run the wire story with minimal editing. Most dailies are owned by national chains (such as Gannett or Knight-Ridder) which offer syndicated materials such as regular columnists, editorials, comics, etc.
The national newspapers of record (the New York Times, the Washington Post, and for the business sections, the Wall Street Journal) influence the news far beyond their immediate readerships. The Times, for example, sends out a daily listing of its main feature stories to news media outlets around the country, and the local editors usually ape the Times’s choices on their front pages. (Nelkin 1987) So, when The New York Times’s Keith Schneider writes in that dioxin exposure is “no more risky than spending a week sunbathing,” or when The New York Times’s Gina Kolata dismisses claims of cancer-causing toxins in the environment, they can be given credit for substantially shifting public opinion. (Dowie 1998, Fragin 1998)
More recently, Gina Kolata sparked a stock run when she reported on the cancer tumor research of Dr. Judah Folkman of the Children’s Hospital of Boston. Entremed, the company that licensed the research, saw its stock almost quadruple in price almost overnight on the basis of Kolata’s well-circulated article. (Kolata’s agent began shopping a book proposal around the next day.) It turned out that Kolata’s story arose not from peer-reviewed journal publications, but from a press tour run by Entremed, and that rival studies of anti-angiogenesis may actually be further along than Folkman’s. Folkman himself was said to be embarassed by the coverage. Time magazine’s Christine Gorman summed up the story simply: “When announcements like this are made, if you dig a little deeper you can find a biotech company in need of capital.” (Karon 1998)
And then there are press releases. Most editors maintain that their people aren’t swayed very much by public relations efforts, and that most of the press releases they receive usually wind up in the wastebaskets. However, the Columbia Journalism Review once examined the 111 stories in an issue of the Wall Street Journal, and compared them to the press releases they were able to acquire.
“In 53 cases— 72 percent of our responses— news stories were based solely on press releases; in 32 of these examples, the releases were reprinted almost verbatim or in paraphrase, while in 21 other cases only the most perfunctory additional reporting had been done… Based on these returns, we project that 84 stories were based on press releases in the October 4  Journal— 45 percent of the day’s 188 news items…” (Ambrosio 1980, cited in Blyskal, 1985)
Business reporting shares many of the same problems as science reporting: it requires reporters who not only understand its complexities, but can communicate that understanding to the average reader. (It’s actually tougher: businesses don’t have to publish detailed articles about their activities in peer-reviewed journals.) Since these skills are rare, and a demand has to be met, materials provided by public relations are a godsend to any editor who needs to fill his pages or evening report.
It’d be nice if the local newspaper or TV station could keep some trained reporters on the science beat, to evaluate breaking research or cover international conferences. But reporters and editors operate under strict deadlines and limited resources. Only the largest newspapers and television networks can afford the luxury of even a single science reporter— and even then it’s no guarantee that a story about a treatment for Alzheimer’s won’t get bumped off the page by a celebrity murder trial, or that the travel budget won’t go to the camera crew covering the Super Bowl.
And it’s difficult to imagine a reporter doing a science story right when he or she operates under the productivity methods of many local newspapers. The Winston-Salem Journal, for example, designates stories according to labor required: “An A-1 story should be six inches or less… [A reporter] should take 0.9 hours to do each story and should be able to produce 40 of those in a week…A B3 story should come from a longer event and/or some uncooperative sources. It should be six inches to 12 inches, and the ideal reporter should churn out seven of them per week.” Columnist Richard Reeves terms much of this process “ATM journalism,” where “the government, corporations, and public relations types will be able to deposit or withdraw news anytime day or night, without having their transactions scrutinized by human beings— if you consider reporters human beings.” (Reeves 1998)
Editors operate under a number of limitations— the pressures of deadlines, the demands of advertisers, the financial costs of investigative reporting, the need for able and literate reporters, and much more. So they are always looking for efficient, cost-effective ways of obtaining and selecting news stories with a degree of quality. But All the President’s Men, it isn’t: the process is closer to the food-prep system behind a McDonald’s Happy Meal, optimized for speed and uniformity. Dorothy Nelkin, in her book Selling Science, observes that “most articles on a given subject focus on the same issues, use the same sources of information, and interpret the material in similar terms.” It’s a system where the important decisions are made at a small number of key points in the process— an especially important fact, in terms of public relations. It’s fair to say that the news that we read or watch is shaped by the public relations industry to some degree.
So it’s not surprising that a press release will get into the paper before any checks and balances kick in. In February of 1995, a press release about a study on extreme weather and global warming, assembled by the commercial forecasting company Accu-Weather, turned up in several newspapers. The report stated that hurricanes, tornadoes, and temperature and precipitation extremes were “no more common now than they were 50 to 100 years ago.” The study’s sample base? Three sites, all within the United States. (Paul Ehrlich compared this to predicting Mickey Mantle’s lifetime batting average from a single month’s performance.)
The study had been funded by a front group called the Global Climate Coalition, and its press release had been issued by the E. Bruce Harrison PR firm. When several of the climatologists named in the draft report complained that their positions were misstated or misrepresented, the Harrison PR firm agreed to issue a retraction. (Ehrlich and Ehrlich 1996)
Television news, being a far more expensive (and lucrative) medium, is probably more susceptible to compromise. Most TV news figures aren’t reporters in the strict sense. They are performers, and they’re known to take outside gigs which compromise any impariality they may claim. In 1994, Cokie Roberts was paid $20,000 to denounce single-payer health care at a luncheon for the Group Health Association of America. That same year, Leslie Stahl earned close to that for moderating a panel of HMOs and drug companies on health care reform. Sam Donaldson, Brit Hume, and Bob Arnot earn similar amounts for giving 40-minute speeches to industry groups. During the late 1980’s, 20/20 executive producer Victor Neufield spiked several stories critical of nuclear power and environental issues. His wife, Lois, was a publicist for Media Access Inc., and the Industry Coalition for the Environment, and 20/20 staffers recall her calling about the proposed segments, accusing them of “getting things wrong.” Not surprisingly, when David Brinkley retired to become a commercial spokesman for food producer Archer Daniels Midland, his colleagues at ABC denied that this undermined the integrity of television news. (Extra!, Nov.-Dec. 1996, July-August 1994, Cohen and Solomon 1995)
ABC’s John Stossel has cultivated a special reputation for his willingness to use his position as a television journalist on behalf of advertisers and industry. At one point in his past, Stossel was known for inventive and hard-hitting consumer-advocate stories. “I started out by viewing the marketplace as a cruel place, where you need intervention by government and lawyers to protect people,” he told The Oregonian. “But after watching the regulators work, I have come to believe that markets are magical and the best protectors of the consumer. It is my job to explain the beauties of the free market.”
Stossel spoke more candidly about his change of heart in a talk for the Federalist Society, a conservative lawyers’ group. “I got sick of it. I also now make so much money, I lost interest in saving a buck on a can of peas.” He also said that “I certainly would encourage any of you who knows somebody who buys advertising on television to say ‘please buy a couple of ads on those Stossel specials.’” Since his conversion, Stossel’s broadcasts now dwell on such questions as “The Blame Game; Are We Becoming a Nation of Victims?” and “Are We Scaring Ourselves to Death?” (Extra! Nov.-Dec. 1996, Cohen and Solomon 1995)
The increasing concentration of global mass-media ownership is only going to make this situation worse. Ben Bagdikian, in the 1982 edition his book The Media Monopoly, reported that “there are 1,700 daily newspapers, 11,000 magazines, 9,000 radio and 1,000 television stations, 2,500 book publishers and 7 movie studios.” However, five years later, he wrote:
In 1982, when I completed research for my book, The Media Monopoly, 50 corporations controlled half or more of the media business. By December 1986, when I finished a revision for a second edition, the 50 had shrunk to 29. The last time I counted, it was down to 26. A number of serious Wall Street media analysts are predicting that by the 1990s, a half-dozen giant firms will control most of our media. (Bagdikian 1987)
The 1993 edition of Bagdikian’s book placed the number at twenty, and in 1995 alone, Disney purchased Capital Cities/ABC, Time-Warner absorbed Ted Turner’s empire, and Westinghouse offered more than $5 billion for CBS. In other words; although we may have hundreds of TV channels and thousands of magazines, they’re owned by a handful of corporations.
The result of these acquisitions is a news media that is discouraged from performing the task of substantive journalism. A Columbia Journalism Review cover story describes a “new era” where “editors collude ever more willingly with marketers, promotion ‘experts’ and advertisers, [and] shrink from tough coverage of major advertisers lest they jeopardize ad revenue… as news executives cut muscle and sinew from budgets to satisfy their corporate overseers’ demands for higher profit margins each year.” (Hickey 1998)
In 1996, Chrysler’s advertising agency issued a letter to more than fifty magazines stating that “It is required that Chrysler Corporation be alerted in advance of any and all editorial content that encompasses sexual, political, social issues or any editorial that might be construed as provocative or offensive.” This is not a trivial demand: Chrysler is the nation’s fifth-largest magazine advertiser. Kimberly-Clark, manufacturers of Huggies diapers, demands that its ads be placed “adjacent to black and white happy baby editorial,” and emphatically not next to stories on SIDS, child abuse, or Down’s Syndrome. As a result, magazines like Child, Parenting, and Sesame Street Parents are forced into changing their editorial priorities. Women’s magazines are so dependent upon cigarette advertising that articles on the related health hazards are relatively rare events. (Baker 1997)
Sometimes, magazines are eager to bend their spines for an advertiser. The National Review once sent advance copies of an article on utilities deregulation to an energy company mentioned in the piece— to attract it as an advertiser. Forbes magazine solicited insurance companies to advertise in upcoming issues, with cover stories attacking personal-injury lawyers and Ralph Nader— and over the next 24 issues, Forbes made over six million dollars from insurance-company ads. (Extra! 1991)
The Chinese government was angered over the BBC’s coverage of its human rights abuses, so Rupert Murdoch, in order to protect his negotiations to broadcast into China, pulled the Beeb from his Asian satellites. A 1985 memo from Philip Morris CEO Hamish Maxwell named Rupert Murdoch and Malcolm Forbes as “two good examples” of media proprietors sympathetic to tobacco’s concerns, writing that “Murdoch’s papers rarely publish anti-smoking articles these days.” Four years later, Murdoch was on PM’s board of directors, while PM’s current CEO, Geoffrey Bible, was recently named to the board of directors of Murdoch’s News Corporation. (Brookes 1998)
This is where “synergy” comes in— using the news media one owns as a way of furthering one’s other interests. A movie or TV series from Paramount will get coverage on MTV, Showtime, and the USA network, a couple of book tie-ins with Simon and Schuster or Pocket Books, and a “Making Of” special on UPN— and all are owned or partially owned by Viacom. NBC is less likely to do stories critical of nuclear power, because it’s owned by General Electric, which builds nuclear power plants. Not even comedy is safe; a recent “Saturday Night Live” segment lampooning media ownership and corporate pollution was removed from reruns. With this kind of cross-marketing at stake, we’re also less likely to see critical reporting on those interrelated interests. In fact, this process of concentrated ownership has been reported on exclusively outside of the mainstream news media.
So the next time you wonder why the public— that is, all the rest of us— are so ill-informed about science, now you have a partial answer. The system which provides us with 90% of our news just can’t do a very good job. Science reporters are rare. Skilled science reporters are rarer still. And even the best of them work under conditions that prevent them from doing their jobs as well as they could. They, and their editors, are subject to a flood of material, and few people have the time or the skill to filter the valuable and true from the trivial and false. We, the public, are left to navigate our way through half-liquid swamps of propaganda.
And nobody whose decision actually matters has any pressing need to change this situation at all.
“Rule number one for me is stay away from substance. Don’t talk about the details of legislation… Talk about… a broader issue such as ‘lawsuit abuse,’ ‘trial lawyer greed,’ ‘increasing jobs.’”
Neal Cohen, Vice President of APCO and Associates, speaking on how he jump-started the “tort reform” movement
When we think of grass-roots politics, we think of ordinary citizens getting together to work towards a common goal. However, within the PR industry, Cohen’s efforts on behalf of tort reform are termed “grass-roots organizing.” These are tightly centralized units which mobilize ordinary citizens into campaigns on behalf of Philip Morris, or Northrop Grumman, Ford, or McDonald’s. William Greider has called this “democracy for hire,” but Lloyd Bentsen gets credited for its best name: “astroturf,” i.e., artificial grass roots organizing. According to Campaigns and Elections magazine, it’s an $800 million industry.
Bonner and Associates is a Washington PR firm specializing in astroturf lobbying. In 1990, Jack Bonner was hired by the automobile industry to mobilize opposition to clean-air legislation, which would require improvements in fuel efficiency. The auto industry’s position is that this legislation would cost jobs, and end the production of vans, high-speed police cruisers, and cars larger than Honda Civics. (Similar complaints are always made by the auto industry whenever legislation looms.)
Bonner’s technique was to target legislators whose votes were needed by the auto industry, and then search their constituents for citizens willing to participate in modern democracy. The first questions, Bonner says, go to the lobbyists: “How much heat do you want on these guys?,” that is, the lawmakers. “Do you want one hundred phone calls from constituents or a thousand phone calls?”
“We bring to the table a third party— ‘white hat’ groups who have no financial interest,” Bonner told William Greider. “Now it’s senior citizens worried about getting out of cars with walkers. Easter Seal, Multiple Sclerosis— a lot of these people have braces, wheelchairs, walkers. It’s farm groups worrying about small trucks.” Match these legitimate concerns to the client’s propaganda, and suddenly it’s easy for PR firms to get a lot of otherwise respectable and concerned organizations to do their organizing work for them. So our legislators were astounded to learn that groups as disparate as the Easter Seal Society, the Georgia Baptist Convention, and the Big Brothers and Big Sisters were opposed to stricter auto emissions legislation. Bonner’s work cost the industry somewhere between $500,000 and a full million. As Greider says, “This is democracy, and it’s expensive.” (Greider 1992)
At the 1994 Public Affairs Council National Grassroots Conference, former Christian Coalition director Ralph Reed let his hair down among his fellow PR specialists— and explained how Robertson’s Army stays mobilized.
“There is no replacement for knowing what somebody cares about,” Reed said, and the CC stays informed by obtaining the voter rolls of nearly every precinct in the country. Each of its 1,200 chapters is provided with this data, and the chapters get busy calling every voter in their county. Voters are asked their opinions on three questions: raising taxes (which picks out economic conservatives), abortion (pro-life or pro-choice), and what they think is the most important issue in their community (coded into one of 43 issues, like crime or homosexuality). Thus, when the Christian Coalition needs to mobilize the troops, they can send a truly personalized direct-mail letter that really punches the voter’s buttons. For example, Florida state senator Ken Stolle got elected after a wave of letters were sent to properly targeted voters— pushing him as the “water” candidate, or the “pro-family” candidate, or the “crime” candidate…
Davies Communications is another specialist in astroturf support. Mailing lists and computer databases put the firm in touch with receptive citizens, who are asked to write letters to their representatives. And if they don’t have the time, Davies Communications offers to write the letter for them, adding their signature under their consent. “We hand write it out on ‘little kitty cat stationery’ if it’s a little old lady,” says John Davies. “If it’s a business we take it over to be photocopied on someone’s letterhead. [We] use different stamps, different envelopes… Getting a pile of personalized letters that have a different look to them is what you want to strive for.”
Bonner and Associates has pioneered a technique known as the “virtual petition.” When the Bonner solicitors make their phone calls, they offer to fax over a “letter of support.” The recipient is asked to sign their name in a box, and fax it back. Bonner and associates then scan the signature into their computer system. There, it is re-printed onto a petition which, to the untrained eye, looks as though it was assembled the old-fashioned door-to-door way.
One of Bonner’s projects was a full-page “Open Letter” ad in the Des Moines Register, signed by prominent Iowans, denouncing the Rio Treaty on global warming. (Western Fuels Association, a coal industry group, is a client of Bonner’s.) As it turned out, many of the signatories had no idea their names were being used this way: they’d signed a statement on “changes in the environment” that might cost jobs, without reading the fine print that gave Bonner and Associates permission to use the signatures. (Silverstein, 1997)
“VNRs are legitimate news stories. They are paid-for by corporations, agencies, associations and other groups, and offered to television newsrooms for their free and unrestricted use or consideration. They are not a form of ‘free advertising.’”
Medialink’s “Ethical Guidelines for Video Public Relations Practitioners” (Medialink web site)
In January of 1997, you may have seen a segment on your local news program devoted to how frequent flyers rate airline food. Or, Sony’s announcement that 1998 would be the “Year of the Microdisk” might have rated thirty seconds on Action News. Perhaps you learned from the Charles Schwab company that new tax laws made IRAs more attractive to investors, or that Ford was adding doors to its pickup trucks, or that chocolate was not a trigger of migraine headaches. It’s nice to learn something new every day. But did you ask yourself, “Why did the station suddenly decide to cover that particular story?”
Well, as far as the above stories are concerned, they got’em free from a company called Medialink, which produces about 2,000 such segments a year for their clients.
Video new releases are commercials produced as “news” segments, ready for airing during your local TV station’s evening news. Most VNRs cost between $20,000-$30,000 to produce. They usually consist of a 1 minute, 30 second news story, edited and mixed for nearly instant broadcast. Accompanying this is a five minute “B-roll” of unedited footage, in case the local stations want to make it fit their requirements; a script of “happy talk’ for the local news anchors to recite; blank sections, where the local station can edit in their local personnel asking the questions in the interviews; and pre-edited “teaser” commercials for the news story to come. VNRs are usually distributed for free over satellite feeds, and the local TV stations can simply tape them and air them later.
The Franco Public Relations Group’s web page presents a situation where the hypothetical QRS Drugs promotes Compound B, a blood pressure medicine.
“The VNR would describe the problems with existing drugs, run interviews with doctors… hear from patients… and here’s the crux of the piece as far as the company is concerned— hear from a spokesman from the drug industry, who happens to be an executive of QRS Drugs. While he is talking, we see the QRS compound on a bottle or box as it is administered to a patient on a test basis. In the end, the VNR is produced as a medical story, but the company has placed its executive in the piece as an authority and as the representative to the industry.” (Franco web site 1998)
In early 1991, The Upjohn Company produced a VNR about the virtues of Xanax, which the FDA had recently approved for panic disorders. The VNR included statements by Jerilyn Ross, president of the Anxiety Disorder Association of America— whose financial support from Upjohn exceeds that of its paid membership. Ross, whose segment was filmed at an Upjohn press conference shortly after the FDA’s approval, was identified as a “panic attack expert.”
In 1983, roughly 170 local news stations ran segments discussing the possibility that a computer hacker might break into the NORAD system and start World War Three. The segment consisted of several scenes from the then-recently-released film Wargames, while a “computer security specialist” assured us that the film’s events could very well happen. Or, maybe the local news station ran one of the other segments from the same package, like “From Pac Man Junkies to Computer Wizards,” or “Re-Creating NORAD for Hollywood.” The segments were provided by MGM/United Artists to promote the film Wargames. (Blyskal 1985) And that’s how people learned about computers in the early 1980s.
VNRs are extremely cost-effective public relations. Actual commercials are considerably expensive to produce, and a thirty-second slot on a popular TV show can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. And, perhaps most damaging to the advertiser, people know they’re being pitched to when they see the commercial. A VNR, on the other hand, is presented to the viewing audience as a news story— and it’s broadcast free of charge, with trusted local spokespeople thrown in as a bonus. PR firms Hill and Knowlton, Burson-Marsteller, and Carl Byoir and Associates maintain video production studios for developing VNRs. (Blyskal 1985)
A 1991 survey conducted by MediaLink and Neilsen Media Research revealed that VNRs are as much a part of the evening news as the weather report. Out of 92 newsrooms in the survey, all 92 had used VNRs at some point in 1991. Each week, 15.2% TV stations used at least one unedited VNR. Neilsen also reported that news stations preferred VNRs on health and medical issues— topics which required specialized information to evaluate properly, and are thus difficult for television news. One CIBA-Geigy official stated that “about 300” TV stations usually pick up their VNRs. (Taylor and Mintz, 1991)
When pressed on the matter, most TV stations deny using VNRs— despite the fact that PR executives report that the stations are usally so hungry for material that they request satellite rebroadcasts and Fed Ex deliveries of footage.
And when all else fails, change the language. Consider Nutrasweet. After “many years of defending the ingredient using hard scientific facts,” Monsanto hired PR expert Pat Farrell to try to “change the conversation,” and discover “what’s behind these emotional and seemingly illogical responses.”
Farrell’s researcher reported that the phrase artificial sweetener, which Monsanto had used for years, “conjures up cancer, headaches, rat studies, laboratories” and the like. So, Farrell developed a lexicon of what he termed “Sweetspeak.” “Words such as substitute, artificial, chemical, laboratory, and scientist were removed forever from our lexicon, and replaced with such words as discovered, choice, variety, unique, different, new taste.”
So, if one is asked whether the stuff is safe or not, Farrell suggests the following reply:
“Aspartame was discovered nearly 30 years ago. Since that time, hundreds of people in our company and elsewhere around the world— people with families like yours and mine— have devoted themselves to making sure consumers can be confident of their choice when they choose the taste of Nutrasweet. People have looked at our ingredient in every which way possible and we encourage that because we want consumers to be comfortable when they choose Nutrasweet. That has been our commitment for nearly three decades, and it will always be our commitment. You can feel confident choosing products that contain our ingredient, but if you don’t, you have other choices.” (Bleifuss 1996)
Now, isn’t that reassuring?
PR expert Fred Evans introduces his book Managing the Media by announcing the “heretical notion that business should attempt to manipulate the press in order to accomplish its objectives and defend its interests.” The media, Evans contends, is a channel to the public that is subject to “great and pervasive distortion,” i.e., the alleged anti-business bias of journalists, the liberal intelligentsia’s jockeying for hegemony in the postindustrial society, etc., etc. Thus, “If the object is to present the company’s message to the public with as little distortion as possible, the press must be manipulated.” This heresy, Evans says, will appear “Machiavellian” to PR professionals, who feel “there should never be an attempt to manipulate or deceive.” (Evans 1987)
Evans’s remarks could be taken as those of a particularly aggressive strategist— or as a rare outburst of blunt honesty. In its literature, the PR industry makes a number of calls for integrity— characterizing its mission as “education,” professing revulsion over lies and distortions of fact, and composing various Oaths and Manifestos and Codes by which the flacks should live.
But this is an industry of appearances, after all. Behind this professed integrity lurks a deep contempt for those who don’t share the interests of the business, such as journalists, activists, and ordinary citizens. The literature written for the business executive, frequently portrays public relations in a more mercenary light.
“Today, companies truly have no place to hide. Activists, gadflies, legislator and regulators— even your own employees— are watching more closely than ever to see if your company is an asset to the community or a decided liability. Each of these audiences, and may others, has a vested interest in how your company behaves… If they don’t like what they see, they can literally shut you down.” (Sauerhaft and Atkins, 1989)
One good distillation of this attitude can be found in Image Wars, a PR guide for businesses. Authors Stan Sauerhaft and Chris Atkins (of Burson-Marsteller) present the fable of “Dedmete Industries” and its PR woes. In this fable, hardworking self-starter and CEO Sam Jones steps into his “handsomely panelled office,” one arcadian Monday morning only to find a stack of phone messages from the restless natives. These include “Mr. Skull and his assistant, Ms. Crossbones, from the Environmental Protection Agency,” “the fractious head of the local consumer activist group,” “someone from the Bureau of Indian Affairs,” “the Right Reverend Hy N. Mighty, representing something called the ‘Ecumenical Council Against Corporate Irresponsibility’” and the factory shop steward. “Ultimately,” the authors say, “filing for Chapter 11 protection might be necessary.”
But the authors also show how things could be sunnier. In the Disney version, Dedmete Industries has been letting Indians dig for artifacts on company property. Jones’s lawyers are prepped for the EPA’s visit. He’s already called the Mayor to express his alarm at the local water-supply dangers, and to offer him Dedmete’s assistance in tracking down the problem. He’s scheduled to make a sizable donation to the local consumer activist group, and Rgt. Rev. Mighty is just delighted about the offer to sit on Jones’s committee on the local homeless problem. (Sauerhaft and Atkins, 1989)
The guiding principle here is to avoid a situation that calls for “Crisis PR.” When something goes horribly wrong— a chemical spill, a lawsuit from a local church, an EPA report saying your product kills children at fifty paces— you want people to be predisposed to give you the benefit of the doubt. Usually, PR keeps things nice and pretty. Crisis PR, on the other hand, is like a chest wound: it happens suddenly, there’s a lot of panic and scrambling to get things under control, but it’s a great chance to look inside and see all that stuff that’s usually covered up.
The BKK corporation had been dumping hazardous waste into a landfill in West Covina, California, and by 1980, housing had reached the edges of the site. Residents began complaining about noxious odors, tanker traffic, and the like, and by 1981 a proposition (Proposition K) to prohibit dumping of waste in the landfill was on the ballot.
BKK’s strategist, Lynn Wessell, went to work. First order of business was to put another proposition on the ballot, which would raise taxes by a million dollars if Prop. K were passed. Next was to spend roughly $30,000 opposing a city petition for a recall of city councilmen who supported BKK. The core of Wessel’s strategy was to persuade the resident who didn’t live near the landfill that BKK provided benefits to the city, and “to isolate the opponents of the landfill by portraying them as irrational and sometimes fanatical citizens who had the misfortune to live next to the landfill.” So, Wessell also established a BKK-owned newspaper, the Chronicle, whose pro-BKK stories stressed that “its opponents were not entirely rational.” The result, writes Fred Evans, was “a success in that it prolonged the economic life of the landfill by at least five years.” (Evans 1987)
Zomax was a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) developed by McNeilab in the early 1970s. It differs from another McNeilab product, Tolectin, by one molecule; doses of Tolectin had been associated with several cases of anaphylactic shock, a severe allergic reaction in which the tongue swells and the heart stops, sometimes killing the patient. But in 1980 the FDA awarded Zomax approval as a prescription pain medication. McNeilab’s package insert warned against long-term use or prescribing it to children, but an estimated 20% of its users took it regularly over several months.
By 1981, the FDA was reporting that Zomax had an adverse-reaction rate of 5.5 per million prescriptions— the highest of any drug at the time, even above Tolectin (4.3 per million). Subsequent investigation found that several such cases turned up during clinical trials in the 1970s.
McNeilabs responded with swift and responsible action: they changed the drug’s package insert to state that “anaphylactic reactions have been reported.” Doctors in Texas, Michigan and Ohio, where clusters of allergic reactions were turning up, were told by McNeilabs that their cases were unusual and atypical. It wasn’t until 1983, the day after a news broadcaster interviewed Zomax survivors, that McNeilab announced it was taking the drug off the market. At that point, there had been 2,161 allergic reactions to Zomax acknowledged by McNeilab, and at least nine deaths from anaphylactic shock clearly attributable to Zomax— a low estimate, since postmortem symptoms can be mistaken for those of cardiac arrest or respiratory failure. (Bell 1992)
Sometimes the literature carries a just a whiff of the mercenary. PR specialist Marion Pinsdorf discusses the “communications lesson” taught to Union Carbide in1984, after the disastrous gas leak in Bhopal, India. While CEO Warren Anderson’s initial visit to the site was probably made with good intentions, Pinsdorf would have stressed the “Indian realities,” such as how the living conditions of the workers made them more accident-prone. It’s also interesting to note that, while the casualties of Bhopal were estimated at 4,000 deaths and 200,000 injuries, Pinsdorf— writing for a corporate audience— writes that the Bhopal death toll was “1,700.” (Pinsdorf 1987)
Dean Rotbart, a former Wall Street Journal reporter, works the more paranoid and aggressive end of PR. His firm, TJFR Products and Services, has compiled dossiers on more than 6,000 reporters. “Let us be your eyes and ears when the environmental media convene,” Rotbart tells his subscribers. “If at any point you get a call from a journalist and don’t know who it is, call up and we will fax you that bio within an hour.” These bios are published in his TJFR Environmental News Reporter, a $395-per-year newsletter. (GET REF)
Another private-sector Stasi is the PR firm of Mongoven, Biscoe and Duchin, which specializes in “neutralizing” activist groups. In 1991, Ronald Duchin delivered a speech to the National Cattlemen’s Association, titled “Take an Activist Apart and What Do You Have?” in which he outlined four distinct categories of concerned citizens who might present a problem. They are radicals, opportunists, idealists, and realists.
Radicals, according to Duchin, “want to change the system; have underlying socio-political motives… I would categorize their principal aims right now as social justice and political empowerment.” As far as PR is concerned, these people are unruly, obstreperous, and intractable. So one doesn’t try to sway them at all. One must isolate them from the three other, more tractable categories.
Idealists “want a perfect world,” according to Duchin, and their evident altruism can make them very persuasive to the news media and politicians. But, “if they can be shown that their position in oppositon to an industry or its products causes harm to others and cannot be ethically justified, they are forced to change their position… Thus, while a realist must be negotiated with, an idealist must be educated.” For example; sure, it’s nice if you want to save the spotted owls… but what about all those lumberjacks and their families? Are birdwatchers and conservancy rangers going to put food on their tables? Seed a little doubt, appeal to their idealism, maybe play the reliable “you’re not offering solutions” card, and their indecision helps them blow away like so much summer chaff.
Opportunists, according to Duchin, are people who seek in activism something other than political goals— personal power, glory, followers, employment, whatever. These people can be won over with a partial victory or two. Maybe the company announces the formation of a “bipartisan commission” to “look at and evaluate the problem.” When opportunists are invited to participate in some capacity, they experience a bureaucratic delaying tactic as a victory. The company waits out the review period until the commission spits out a report it can live with, and everybody who matters is happy.
But the “Realists” should receive the highest priority, says Duchin. He characterizes this all-important segment as willing to “live with trade-offs; willing to work within the system; not interested in radical change; pragmatic.” They know the score; sometimes we have to take the bad with the good, that nothing’s perfect, that a risk-free world is a pipe-dream of deluded idealists and resentful radicals. “In most issues, it is the solution agreed upon by the realists which becomes the accepted solution.” (Stauber and Rampton 1995)
Before we move on, please take a moment and imagine where you might be placed in Duchin’s taxonomy. I suspect we would find very few self-identified Opportunists, perhaps a marginally larger number of Radicals, and the Idealist tag may not suit a reader proud of his or her ability to analyze and detect falsehoods. Nobody but us Realists here; hot passions of ideology or fanciful dreams of perfect worlds just ain’t our style. Careful consideration of reliable, peer-reviewed scientific knowledge is our method, tempered with a pragmatic recognition that we don’t live in Utopia. No, we’re not swayed by cheap propaganda.
We’re swayed by expensive propaganda.
“Chemophobia, the unreasonable fear of chemicals, is a common public reaction to scientific or media reports suggesting that exposure to various environmental contaminants may pose a threat to health.”
Stephen Safe, editorial, New England Journal of Medicine
An Idaho teenager recently won his high school’s science fair by indulging in a little PR work of his own. Noting the dangerous properties of tap water— inhaling it can kill you, its gaseous state can cause burns, it’s present in acid rain and tumor tissue— the student went door to door with a petition that called for its strict control or elimination. 43 of his 50 respondents said they’d support such a ban. This isn’t surprising, considering that the kid spun the issue; rather than simply calling it water, he used the term “dihydrogen monoxide,”
My reaction to the story was pretty simple: this tired gag won a science contest? The joke has been circulating among science geeks for years; a Web search on “dihydrogen monoxide” will reveal several venerable sites, well-stocked with H2O dangers. Skeptic magazine didn’t see it as plagiarism; it stated that the student “was attempting to show how conditioned we have become to alarmists practicing junk science and spreading fear of everything in our environment.”
This isn’t science. It’s PR, and the kid’s future lies not at MIT or Caltech but among the wizards of Hill and Knowlton. For one thing, the experiment requires using a chemical name for an everyday substance, i.e., trying to mislead people. Ask yourself: if the kid had been honest and forthright, and called it ‘water,’ would he have gotten one name on that petition? Of course not. But as long as we don’t ask that question, we can tell ourselves that the “dihydrogen monoxide scare” is somehow instructive of a Chicken Little syndrome among all those gullible fools who aren’t constantly decoding chemistry terms every waking hour.
In Who Will Tell the People, William Greider sketched the theme and the counterpoint to this particular tune:
“A favorite put-down of the unreasoning public, for instance, is the accusation that Americans wish to live in a ‘risk-free society’— a desire that is obviously utopian, too costly to achieve and ignorant of scientific uncertainty. The complaint is usually expressed by business leaders or conservative scholars who do not themselves live next door to a hazardous-waste dump or downwind from a factory spewing dangerous chemicals into the air. Their economic status and political power protect them from such risks, though they think others ought to be willing to accept them.”
The role of scientists-as-spokesmen, and the portrayal of average citizens as hysteria-prone know-nothings, are integral to the pseudo-controversies over “junk science.” Consider Stephen Safe’s pithy “chemophobia” remark. It doesn’t quite read the same way once you learn that, at the time he wrote that editorial, 20% of Safe’s research funding was coming from the Chemical Manufacturers Association (roughly $150,000), and he regularly provides anti-environmental soundbites on behalf of other industry groups. Regarding his NEJM editorial, Safe said he’d felt a “not much of a twinge” over the potential for a conflict of interest. One is left imagining the level of funding guaranteed to draw a full twinge. (Montague 1998, Boston Globe 1/6/98)
“It’s a battle of opinions, but there is a basic body of science buried under those opinions. There is a body of information that says dioxin is bad; there is another body of information that says it is not so bad… There are one or two things that may indicate there is a problem with dioxin and there is a lot of anecdotal stuff— but anecdotes are not science.”
Jim Callaghan, head of Hill and Knowlton’s environmental and consumer division, discussing his campaign on behalf of Dow Chemical (Blyskal 1985)
“Balance,” according to Paul Ehrlich, “generally means giving undue prominence to the opinions of one or a handful of contrarian scientists who are at odds with the consensus of the scientific community at large.” The “undue prominence” arises from two factors. First, contrarian experts are always needed, to avoid the appearance of ideology or bias on the part of the news media, and debates are always more interesting to watch.
But not all contrarians have an equal chance. The powerless Flat-Earth Society isn’t going to turn up on Nightline anytime in the near future, except as a novelty for Ted Koppel to poke at. But Rush Limbaugh once turned up to debate the environment, and in the mid-1980’s, the Rev. Jerry Falwell would routinely appear as an expert voice on anything from evolution to preschool education. It’s not as if either of these men had any real understanding of these issues; in fact, much of Limbaugh’s anti-environmental evidence came from the LaRouche publication 21st Century Science and Technology. This is that second factor needed to be a successful contrarian: the juice of celebrity, political organization, and deep-pocketed backers.
It’s not difficult to find such contrarians. For example, the National Center for Public Policy Research (NCPPR) offers a directory of experts on environmental issues. A close look at its 1996 edition reveals how much of the “junk science” movement is merely industry PR. More than half of the people therein are listed as “public policy experts,” i.e., not scientists or economists. And they’re usually listed as “experts” in several policy fields; Ike Sugg, of the Competitive Enterprise Institute, is listed as an expert on animal rights, endangered species, land issues, wilderness issues and “innovative environmental solutions.” James Streeter of the National Wilderness Institute holds a degree in Soviet studies, but he’s touted as an “expert” on wilderness issues.
The most frequently cited “experts” in the directory come from a core group of five anti-regulatory lobbies and think-tanks— the Cato Institute, the Political Economy Research Center (PERC), the Competitive Enterprise Institute, the Advancement of Sound Science Coalition, and the American Council on Science and Health— all of which receive substantial funding from the industries whose interests they promote. (CLEAR, 1997)
“What we’re talking about is a temporary loss in lung function of 20 to 30 percent. That’s not really a health effect.”
Richard Klimisch, employee of the American Automobile Manufacturers Asscoiation and spokesman for the Air Quality Standards Coalition, on ozone levels in smog. (Helvarg 1997)
“This President doesn’t want yes-men. What we want are independent men of integrity who will agree with all our decisions after we make them. You’ll be entirely on your own.”
Joseph Heller, Good as Gold
Shortly after the adoption of the Kyoto Treaty, and its provisions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, officials at the America Petroleum Institute outlined a five million dollar proposal for a “Global Climate Science Data Center.” This “action plan”— leaked to the New York Times in April 1998— was developed by industry think-tanks and PR personnel, including the Committee for a Constructive Tomorrow, Americans for Tax Reform, the Exxon Corporation, and Steven “Junkman” Milloy.
The plan’s goal is to push the “uncertainties” about global warming. The media should reflect “balance” of the sort Ehrlich describes, industry leaders are to be made “stronger ambassadors to those who shape climate policy,” and “those promoting the Kyoto treaty on the basis of extant science appear to be out of touch with reality.” [Italics added] The overall target is the Buenos Aires meeting on global warming in November 1998: “American policy makers will not only refuse to endorse it, they will seek to prevent progress toward implementation.”
A team of “five independent scientists,” who “do not have a long history of visibility and/or participation in the climate change debate” are to participate in media outreach. Media kits are to be assembled, science writers are to be bombarded with fax and Email, and newspapers are to receive a “steady stream” of op-ed columns and letters. Journalists are to be recruited— ABC’s John Stossel is cited as a likely candidate. A “non-profit educational foundation,” tentatively called the Global Climate Science Data Center, is to be established as a one-stop source of information for the media and Congress. Its staffers will initially consist of “professionals on loan from various companies and associations with a major interest in the climate issue.” (Cushman 1998: text of proposal from National Environmental Trust 1998)
The Washington Times runs a regular column by Fred Singer, director of the Science and Environmental Policy project. He’s been a paid consultant to ARCO, Exxon, Shell, Sun Oil, and Unocal, and many of his column inches are expended in denouncing claims of global warming. In one 1994 column, Singer claimed that climate models had overestimated increases in temperature; Paul Ehrlich notes that Singer hadn’t included 1980’s data in his graph (“the warmest years in recorded history,”) and that the models Singer attacked hadn’t incorporated the cooling effect of aerosols. The models that did do this were closer to the recorded trends. (Ehrlich and Ehrlich 1996)
When Minnesota held hearings on coal burning in state power plants, the Western Fuels Association brought in three of its prize “skeptics” to testify at the hearings. Richard Lindzen of MIT, Patrick Michaels of the University of Virginia, and Robert Balling of Arizona State testified on the flaws of the models of global warming. (Balling has received over $300,000 in honoraria and research funding from oil companies.)
The Advancement of Sound Science Coalition (TASSC), a main source of compliant experts, is an instructive example of the “junk science” debate. Its list of advisors includes pesticide defender Bruce Ames, and global warming critics Fred Singer and Patrick Michaels. The groups’ original leader was Garrey Carruthers, a former governor of New Mexico and undersecretary to former Interior secretary and Second Coming prophet James Watt. Recently named as Executive Director is Stephen Milloy, whose book Science Without Sense was published by the Cato Institute. Milloy, touted as “The Junkman” on his Junk Science web pages, is the former creator of the “Environmental Policy Analysis Network.” He’s also a lobbyist for the EOP Group, which represents Monsanto, the Chlorine Chemistry Council, the Global Climate Coalition, the American Petroleum Institute, and the International Food Additives Council. TASSC’s original base was in the Washington D.C. offices of APCO Associates— the PR firm which gave us the tort reform movement—and its funding sources include 3M, General Motors, Dow, Philip Morris, and W.R. Grace and Co. (CLEAR, 1997)
The American Council on Science and Health (ACSH) boasts a number of impressive names among its advisors, such as Kenneth Rothman and Lester Grinspoon. Among the experts are the usual industry spokespeople, such as Stephen Safe, Bruce Ames, Fred Singer and Patrick Michaels. But the voice of the ACSH is Elizabeth Whelan, who combines a gift for soundbites with an antiregulatory agenda. She wants people to make decisions based on sound science, yet she dismisses standard carcinogen testing by saying “mice are not little men,” and she regards mandatory nutrition labeling as a waste of money, saying that current labels “have conferred no benefit that I’m aware of.”
Sometimes, in her zeal to represent the scientific consensus, Whelan doesn’t wait for it to develop. In 1996, she claimed that the National Cancer Institute and the AMA had issued statements exonerating the pesticide Alar as a carcinogen. They hadn’t. In fact, the NCI, the American Cancer Society and the American Academy of Pediatrics had declined to issue such a statement when Whelan lobbied them in 1992. Their reticence, Whelan complained, “only serves to make consumers worry more” and that the statements they did issue “play right into the hands of those who seek to convince us that the American food supply is not safe because of the presence of pesticide residues.” (Consumer Reports 1996, Kurtz 1990, Montague 1997)
Voice 1: Hey Dad!
Voice 2: Hi, son, how’s the new job?
Voice 1: I’m worried. It’s the impact those proposed EPA regulations will have on my job. You’re a doctor. What do you make of the health claims from the EPA?
Voice 2: Son, they just don’t have the science to back’em up.
—Radio ad prepared by Citizens for a Sound Economy. (Helvarg 1997)
In 1978, Dr. Richard Kociba, a pathologist working for Dow Chemical, conducted one of the most influential studies on dioxin. Finding that rats which ate food spiked with diozin had higher rates of cancer, Kociba estimated that daily doses of billionths of a gram would lead to tumor development.
Twelve years later, a team of pathologists was assembled by the American Paper Institute to examine Kociba’s slides. Each tumor slide was subjected to a vote: does it show a “benign” tumor or a cancer tumor? The API team found about half as many cancerous tumors as Kociba had reported. “There wasn’t much unanimity,” said one pathologist. “This was an uncertain finding.” Still, the Washington Post ran with a May 1990 story announcing that “Enough experts have joined the revisionist chorus” that dioxin wasn’t so bad.
The Chlorine Institute, in turn, assembled more than thirty experts at a conference on dioxin in October of 1990. They also hired, at $150 an hour, an observer named George Carlo to attend the conference and write up what was said. Carlo’s account, trumpeting the kindler, gentler consensus on dioxin, was then circulated by the Chlorine Institute to the press and regulatory officials. Later, the Institute acknowledged that Carlo’s account wasn’t an accurate account of the conference, and conceded that the account was a “botched publicity effort.” By this time, William Reilly, chief of the EPA, had read Carlo’s account and called for a reassessment of dioxin— a decision which spun off a few “dioxin’s misunderstood” headlines of its own. (Montague 1992, Bailey 1992)
In the fall of 1994, despite strenuous lobbying efforts by industry, the EPA issued a report on dioxin that sent the Chlorine Chemistry Council into a tizzy. One of the first efforts at damage control was a September 28th seminar for industry spokespeople called “Chlorine Chemistry: the Future is In Our Hands.” The overall plan was to portray the EPA’s recommendations for chlorine substitutes as “an inflexible ban,” and to “use the public distrust of government and regulations to get this message across.” Throughout, environmentalists, the EPA, and the government were to be spoken of as one group, “and to emphasize that once again the government is trying to restrict and kill jobs.” Since people don’t think badly of chlorine, but they do about dioxin, spokespeople were cautioned ‘to downplay the connection.” And if anyone asked if chlorinated hydrocarbons acted as estrogen mimickers, “we were advised to respond to questions with long-term scientific predictions— 10 years in the future— that cannot be verified… And they advised, ‘If you ever come across research that is negative just talk about the need to do more research and study the issue.’” (Bleifuss 1995)
Ketchum Communcations, the PR firm most often associated with efforts to rehabilitate dioxin’s image in the public mind, has been known to recommend more drastic measures. In a 1991 “Crisis Management Plan” sent to Clorox, Ketchum Communications outlined a worst-case scenario in which a respected columnist calls for a boycott of Clorox. One step is an ad campaign titled “Stop Environmental Terrorism.” Another bit of Ketchum advice is to “conduct research to determine if and how a slander lawsuit against the columnist and/or Greenpeace could be effective.” (Bleifuss, 1995)
Three years later, a similar memo from MBD’s Jack Mongoven was leaked. Since 1991, following a somewhat damning EPA report on dioxin, various activist groups (Greenpeace, the Clean Water Network, U.S. PIRG, and others) had been calling for efforts to reduce its presence in the environment (for example, reductions in the use of chlorine). Mongoven’s August 1994 memo included a list of recommendations to the Chlorine Chemistry Council “as to how best to counter the activists.”
“Move quickly to take advantage of the visibility of the shortcomings of the current system,” Mongoven writes, “by having scientists and Congressmen ready to call for the process on risk assessment CCC and CMA [Chemical Manufacturers Association] would like to see put in place.” After this “agreed-upon risk assessment policy” is established, “Establish third-party entities devoted to developing these standards in the near future,” and “Take steps to discredit the precautionary principle within the more moderate environmental groups as well as within the scientific and medical communities.”
The “precautionary principle” is a major problem, Mongoven says. One reason is that it “shifts the burden of establishing a chemical’s safety to industry.” So the public must be made to understand “the damage it inflicts on the role of science in modern development and production.” Another reason is that the activists keep bringing up children, and policies based on their needs “would reduce all exposure standards to the lowest possible levels.” So, “the tone of the debate will focus on the needs of children and insist that all safeguards be taken to ensure their safety in development.”
One major thrust of Mongoven’s plan, “Prevent Medical Associations from Joining Anti-Chlorine Movement,” is worth quoting in full:
- Create panel of eminent physicians and invite them to review data regarding chlorine as a health risk and as a key chemical in pharmaceuticals and medical devices.
- Publish panel’s findings and distribute them widely to medical associations and publications.
- Stimulate peer-reviewed articles for publication in the [Journal of the American Medical Association] on the role of chlorine chemistry in treating disease. . . .
- Convince through carefully crafted meetings of industry representatives (in pharmaceuticals) with organizations devoted to specific illnesses, e.g., arthritis, cystic fibrosis, etc., that the cure for their specific disease may well come through chlorine chemistry and ask them to pass resolutions endorsing chlorine chemistry and communicate their resolutions to medical societies… (Stauber and Rampton 1996)
Beyond the use of scientists as spokespeople, there’s another sinister, anti-science stance in the junk science debate. The “skeptics,” for want of a better term, are intolerant of the ambiguity and tentative conclusions of responsible science; thus, differences of opinion and calls for caution have a kind of traitorous dissent. Their opponents are portrayed as caterwauling weaklings, hysterical over their “victimhood” and resentful of the bold, manly advances of the world’s producers of value. SUNY law professor Lucinda Finley has observed, in reference to debates on breast implants,
“What’s starting to happen is that this term, ‘junk science,’ is being thrown around all the time. People are calling scientists who disagree with them purveyors of ‘junk.’ But what we’re really talking about is a very normal process is scientific disagreement and give-and-take. Calling someone a ‘junk scientist’ is just a way of shutting them up.” (Conniff 1997)
Well, it’s one way. Researchers who receive public funds are vulnerable to other, more jurisprudential tactics. Dr. Paul Fischer published a survey on the effects of tobacco advertising on children, and a series of FOIA requests filed by the tobacco industry forced him to abandon his research. Deborah Swackhamer of the University of Minnesota has been an internationally-known expert on the pesticide toxaphene since she was a post-grad student. Her recent research indicated that toxaphene levels in the Great Lakes were higher than expected since the pesticide’s phase-out in the mid-1980’s. Her husband David DeVault, then an EPA researcher, wondered if paper mills in the area were producing toxaphene in their bleaching process.
Ever since then, the paper industry has demanded to see Swackhamer’s raw data, even prior to its publication. (This hasn’t deterred industry scientists from denouncing her research at conferences.) Researchers and universities regard such data as their intellectual property and as trade secrets. So in 1996, the university and the EPA began getting FOIA requests for any and all documents written by or about the couple since 1984– including phone logs, financial records, and public personnel data. The requests came from the law firm of Cravath, Swaine and Moore, on behalf of an anonymous client. The University has stood by Swackhamer, regarding the requests as an abuse of the FOIA. (Lerner 1998)
“… There is a morality in science that is further advanced than anywhere else. If you find a person in science who has faked his results, who has lied as far as his findings are concerned, who has tried to steal the work of another, who has done something other scientists consider unethical— well, his scientific reputation is ruined, his scientific life is over. There is no forgiveness… You make a misstep in science, and you’re through. Really through.”
Isaac Asimov, in conversation with Bill Moyers.
Asimov expressed a desire for honesty and integrity that we demand not only from science. It’s a rationalist’s idealism; there’s a truth out there, and we can probably grasp it once we can jettison all those biases and opinions and beliefs. We want a method to truth.
No matter how good these methods are, they take work. And there’s a lot of news out there. We just don’t have enough time and energy and expertise to go grasping after every “truth” offered to us. We wind up having to rely on the say-so of others, like doctors, journalists, brokers, consumer advocates and salespeople.
The modern American myth of an “unbiased” and “impartial” journalism has an echo of the peer-review process. Journalists are trained to be “impartial” and to stick to the facts, and their stern-but-fair editors rein in any excesses. Editorial pages pay lip service to a “balance” of columnists. But as we’ve seen, this self-correcting nature of journalism has failed; journalists are disposable serfs, editors are susceptible to the PR materials that lighten their workload, and the “balance” of the editorials is a starboard-listing point between George Will and Charles Krauthammer.
So we hope that scientists, whatever their spiritual and ethical beliefs, or their personal or financial concerns, will make an honest attempt to shed these biases. And if these don’t work, well, there’s always replication of experiments and the prophylaxis of peer-review to keep our scientists on the straight and narrow. It’s a bit like being a medieval churchgoer with doubts about the priest’s reading of Scripture: if we only knew a little Latin, we could check the Good Book ourselves and verify it first-hand.
“Despite this system, anyone who reads journals widely and critically is forced to realize that there are scarcely any bars to eventual publication.”
JAMA editor Drummond Rennie, on the peer-review system.
Consider, for the moment, the work we’d have to do if we were to thoroughly evaluate just one manuscript. Unless we get access to the original data, it’s virtually impossible to detect scientific fraud. We’d have to get ahold of what could be thousands of sheets of raw data and check it against what was put into the computers. There might be a few weeks worth of statistical analysis under SAS or STATA, or we might verify whether confounders were properly controlled for or not. We might consult with experts in those fields outside of our specialty, and have them give the review a once-over as well.
The people who actually do the work of “peer review” are working solely with the manuscripts submitted to journals. This limits the reviewers’s comments to such questions as internal consistency and reasoning. Journal editors may be aware of these limitations, but Drummond Rennie writes that this “seems to work well when the questions being asked of it are the questions of science; but, when the questions have to do with whether the data points were entirely fabricated, editors and reviewers are helpless.” Jacques Derrida was right: in peer review, there is nothing outside of the text.
Lawrence Altman of the New York Times points out a number of disturbing facts about this “peer-review” myth:
“Index Medicus is the standard reference of citations in the medical literature, but officials of the National Library of medicine have told me that they do not have a standard definition of ‘peer-reviewed journal’ to determine whether to cite a particular journal’s articles in the Index Medicus…. As to the text of peer-reviewed journals, many sections are not always peer-reviewed. Among the examples are letters, editorials, and proceedings of conferences and seminars… Thus, peer review seems to be confined to a small portion of many journals.” (Altman 1990)
And there’s a lot of stuff to review. There are over 15,000 journals devoted to biomedical issues alone, and this translates into nearly a quarter of a million articles published per month. And many of these magazines require at least three reviewers per manuscript. There is, literally, too much science to review, and no shortage of places to publish it. As a result, says Rennie,
“there seems to be no study too fragmented, no hypothesis too trivial, no literature too biased or egotistical, no design too warped, no methodology too bungled, no presentation of results too inaccurate, too obscure and too contradictory, no analysis too self-serving, no argument too circular, no conclusions too trifling or too unjustified, and no grammar or syntax too offensive for a paper to end up in print. The function of peer review, then, may be to help decide not whether, but where papers are published.” (Crossen 1994)
This matter of “where” brings us to the hierarchy of the scientific journals. The top tier is where JAMA, the New England Journal of Medicine, and the Lancet rank; an article published here will be cited far more often, and have greater weight on a curriculum vitae, and maybe get the author on CNN. In the middle are the journals which tend to be well-regarded within a specialty (like Cell or Kidney International). These journals tend to work more closely with the researchers in their respective fields, and they can have a lot of prestige, but they don’t have the same mass-media juice as the top-tier journals. And at the bottom are the scientific “vanity” presses: uncritical journals which publish almost anything, perhaps charging the author on a per-page basis.
(The theory-to-evidence ratios are more forgiving in economics, where a cottage industry of vanity-press journals has developed. Economics professors who publish their research get reduced teaching responsibilities, which frees them to do more consulting to private industry. So, the pressures of the market have produced a number of journals whose main purpose is to pad resumes and CVs. The per-page expenses and subscription costs are paid for by the universities.) (Soley 1995)
Now prestige and reputation are nice, and one could decide that articles in the pretigious journals are the ones to be trusted— assuming we know which ones are the prestigious journals, that is. Either way, we’re judging the claims by the source’s reputation, which isn’t the best basis for a decision. JAMA editor Rennie tells of a study he helped publish, which he cited in his own lectures as an example of a well-designed and well-conducted study— but an audit by the FDA found that the author, one Wilbert Aronow, had fabricated much of his data. (Rennie 1990) Former Harvard cardiologist John Darsee managed to publish more than two dozen articles using fraudulent data in the more prestigious journals.
NIH investigators Walter Stewart and Ned Feder used the Darsee case to try to understand how he could’ve gotten past peer review. Despite the fact that Darsee had several co-authors, including some very experienced investigators, and that his papers had passed under the eyes of equally qualified experts, Darsee’s papers contained errors and discrepancies that should have turned up under a careful read of the manuscripts. There were mismatches of values in number tables, their descriptions in the text, and their citations in subsequent papers. Experimental procedures, and the measured variabilities of certain values, would vary widely from paper to paper. One pedigree chart, for a family with heart disease, presented a 17-year-old man with four children, ages 8, 7, 5 and 4. (Stewart and Feder, 1987)
The New England Journal of Medicine, which ran two of Darsee’s articles, issued this editorial comment while retracting them:
“What kind of protection against fraud does peer review offer? The Darsee affair gives a clear answer: Little or none. Most of Darsee’s fraudulent work was published in peer-reviewed journals, some with very exacting standards, and yet in none of the reviews was there enough suspicion to warrant rejection… although I recall thinking at the time that some of the data seemed almost too neat… The lesson seems evident: Unless a maladroit cheat fabricates results that are manifestly impossible or inherently contradictory, even the most rigorous peer review is not likely to uncover fraud.” (Relman 1983)
A MEDLINE search showed that fourteen of Darsee’s 27 major articles now have “Retracted” tags attached. This isn’t much of a safeguard. Since 1966, only 235 biomedical articles have ever been retracted, for various reasons (failure of replication, misconduct, etc.) These articles have been cited more than 2,000 times since their retraction notices, and out of a sample of 299 of these citations, only 19 mentioned the retraction. (Budd 1998)
It may be more realistic to regard science publication, and the peer-review system, as more a form of journalism than as something unique and special to science. There is greater review of material, of course, and cross-referencing helps establish overall consistency and a “baseline” of what’s established. But it is vulnerable to many of the same weaknesses that we’ve seen in the mainstream news media.
In 1994 Troyen Brennan, of the Harvard School of Public Health, was asked to contribute an editorial to a medical journal. The editorial would be about the legal liability faced by physicians who prescribe drugs which have sedative side-effects. Brennan was told by the caller that the editorial really wouldn’t require very much work; in fact, all Brennan had to do was discuss the matter with a staff writer, who’d do the actual writing of the editorial. Then Brennan could just sign his name to the text and cash his check. (Nixon 1995)
Needless to say, the request for the editorial did not come from a medical journal. The request came from Edelman Medical Communications, a medical PR firm which had been hired by a pharmaceutical manufacturer to respond to bad publicity and the public’s “negative reactions.” Brennan wrote about the exchange in the New England Journal of Medicine;
“I was also sent copies of several editorial and articles commissioned by the firm. Some were in journals that do not use peer review… Other editorials were in peer-reviewed journals, including one editorial… in a journal I read weekly… With this new information, the editorial seemed part of a deliberate strategy to change the opinion of readers, a goal that was also suggested by the memorandum from Edelman that accompanied the articles. The memorandum stated, ‘We are providing these materials to you in confidence, as we do not generally divulge the specific nature of projects conducted on behalf of our clients.’ At that point, I declined the offer to participate in this project.” (Brennan 1994)
American University biostatistician Nathan Mantel had no such qualms: the Tobacco Institute paid him $10,000 to write a letter to JAMA criticizing a study on secondhand smoke. Statisician Gino Batta Gori received nearly the same amount for letters written to the Journal of the National Cancer Insititute and the Wall Street Journal. Both were among thirteen scientists who were paid a total of $156,000 by the tobacco companies for similar attack letters, many targeted at the EPA’s 1993 report on secondhand smoke. (It’s interesting to speculate on whether these letters influenced a judge’s recent ruling that this EPA study was “junk science.”) In many cases, the letters were edited by the tobacco industry’s lawyers beforehand. USCF cardiologist Stanton Glantz, author of The Cigarette Papers, called it “a systematic effort to pollute the scientific literature.” Gori defended his position by saying, “Do you think scientists live out of air? Everybody gets paid by somebody.” (Science 1998, Associated Press 1998)
Sometimes one has to find a journal with a friendly or compliant editor. There is the case of Peter Schur, a Harvard rheumatologist and editor of Arthritis and Rheumatism, and his enthusiasm for silicone breast implants. As editor, he rejected several articles showing that the implants were harmful— and published his own research showing that they weren’t. His own article was accompanied by another no-harm-here piece, written by three medical officials of Dow Corning. Now, it’s perfectly possible that the rejected articles were the “junk science” we keep hearing about, and Schur was merely being vigilant. And the $300,000 Schur received as a consultant to Dow Corning should have no bearing on the validity of his study, which should be evaluated solely by its scientific merit. (Nixon 1985)
When the New England Journal of Medicine assigns a book to a reviewer, they ask for a signed statement saying that there is no conflict of interest. And that’s what Dr. Jerry H. Berke provided, when he was asked to review Sandra Steingraber’s book Living Downstream: An Ecologist Looks at Cancer. In his review, Berke made such ad hominem remarks as “the work product of an environmentalist is controversy,” and that Steingraber was “obsessed with environmental pollution.” It turned out that Berke was the head of toxicology for W.R. Grace, a chemical firm best known for providing leukemia to a number of residents of Woburn, Massachusetts.
But the blame for this can’t be placed solely on Berke’s shoulders. A previous NEJM book review he’d written had stated his affiliation, and all correspondence went to his address at Grace as well. (He did admit that Grace officials had asked him to remove his affiliation from the Steingraber review.) The NEJM’s defenses have included, variously, that they had no such admission from Berke, that they do track affiliations but they’d missed this one, and that they saw the affiliation but thought W.R Grace was a hospital, and that if they’d known about Berke’s job they wouldn’t have given him the book to review. (Montague 1998)
You’ve probably already raised the inevitable, reasonable question; what do we do, throw out science just because the researchers work in the private sector? What does the source of the science have to do with the quality of the science? After all, facts are facts, and the Universe doesn’t change itself when the scientist goes to work for Upjohn or Wyeth-Ayerst. And there aren’t many researchers whose paychecks haven’t been augmented with some form of funding, subcontracting, honoraria, consultancies, expert-witness fees, free samples, seminars, conferences, or publication in industry-sponsored journals.
It’s a good question. This has become an area of considerable debate, especially in medicine. In 1995, the NSF and the U.S. Public Health Service issued a set of policies that require authors to disclose any financial interest they have in the research presented. Most of the more influential journals (JAMA, NEJM, the Lancet) have put similar guidelines into effect. Other journals require disclosures, but they don’t publish them. And some journals won’t accept editorials by researchers with financial ties to their subjects.
Some researchers have complained that this requirement is tantamount to censorship, or worse. In a recent editorial in JAMA, noted epidemiologist Kenneth Rothman argued that conflicts of interest are nearly inevitable, and that the existence of a temptation is not the same as committing a sin. Thus, the process of open dialogue is threatened “by editorial policies that focus attention on the circumstances of the writer rather than on the substance of the writing.” The result, Rothman writes, is “to stifle objectivity, by taking our attention away from substance and shifting it towards credentials.” This, Rothman claims, is a “new McCarthyism in science.” (Rothman 1993) Monsanto researcher John Acquavella, claiming that industry scientists are excluded from scientific conferences because of their affiliations, describes the conflict-of-interest argument as “a prejudice against certain scientists due to their affiliation with an unpopular special interest group,” and so constitutes a “politics of identity.” (Acquavella 1997)
Most of Rothman’s case rests on the claim that providing more information will encourage a less informed appraisal. Rothman maintains that scientists are wise enough to judge their conflicts of interest, and will reveal them voluntarily and responsibly in their own papers. However, Rothman also maintains that when scientists read the disclosure information in the work of others, this wisdom suddenly vanishes, and they revert to all kinds of unwise, unscientific and prejudicial assessments about conflicts of interest. (And when Rothman bandies the term “McCarthyism” about, or Acquavella decides to equate financial interest with “identity politics,” they’re indulging in a little spin-management of their own.)
Second, Rothman and Acquavella seem to equate the exercise of skepticism with “making a guilty judgement before proper trial.” But it’s not unreasonable for someone to decide that the funding source provides grounds for skepticism. If one chooses to regard a study as suspect because it’s funded by Dow, or the Heritage Foundation, or the Church of Scientology, one is just being wary.
There is compelling research indicating that the funding source can affect the results of the science. It may be a subtle influence— a predisposition to think well of the company, perhaps, or a researcher may start a study expecting not to find any problems. Or it may be an incentive to scientific fraud. But it’s there.
In 1998, the New England Journal of Medicine published the results of a survey of researchers who had published articles about the safety of calcium-channel antagonists. The papers were classified into three categories: supportive, neutral, and critical. The authors of these papers were surveyed as to their financial relationships with the manufacturers of these drugs and of competing products. 96 percent of the supportive authors had financial relationship with the drug manufacturer, as opposed to only 60 percent of the neutral authors and 37 percent of the critical authors. Similar percentages were found when researchers were asked about any financial relationship with a pharmaceutical manufacturer. (Stelfox 1998)
The NEJM study echoed the results of Frances Lynn’s 1983 survey on attitudes towards risk analysis. Lynn conducted interviews with 137 industrial hygienists and occupational physicians in industry, government, and academia, and found “statistically significant relationships between attitudes towards issues of science… and place of employment.” Similar disparities turn up among corporate executives, federal regulators, and the public (Harris 1980).
For example, Lynn asked her subjects about their belief in threshhold exposures for carcinogens— an exposure to a substance below which there are no negative effects. (At the time, the National Academy of Sciences had found no evidence for or against their existence.) Among industry scientists, 80% believed in threshhold exposures, as opposed to 61% of academic researchers and 37% of government researchers. Lynn’s subjects were also asked about a situation where a substance was shown to cause tumors in animals, and whether it should be considered to be a carcinogen for humans. Government and university researchers tended to agree that it should (69% and 52%). Industry researchers, however, were significantly less likely to agree (27%). This, Lynn says, supports an NAS observation that risk assessment choices “are a mixture of fact, experience (often called intuition) and personal values that cannot be disentangled easily.” (NAS 1983)
And when Lynn asked about society’s attitudes towards technological risks, 44% of industry researchers felt the public was “overly sensitive” on the matter— an opinion shared by only 14% of government and university researchers. Lynn found it significant that “scientific attitudes which are less protective of human health [are linked with] perceptions and attitudes which suggest that American society is overreacting to environmental and health and safety risks.” (Lynn 1983).
As Stelfox and his co-authors note, such studies provide little insight into why these disparities exist. It may be that the researchers who supported the use of calcium-channel antagonists came to their opinions on the basis of sound scientific evidence acquired during their study, and the critical ones are jealous of their colleagues’ ample funding. In the Lynn study, it may be that researchers who already regard the public as panic-stricken boobs will actively seek out work in the private sector— or that researchers who see science as a service to the public would be more inclined to work in government or academia.
These are just guesses, of varying degrees of plausibility. We don’t know. All we do know is that at least in these areas, scientific consensus is correlated with the source of the paychecks involved.
Still, Rothman and Acquavella need not worry. The mild request for financial information may not do very much. In a pilot study to measure conflicts of interest in the published literature, Sheldon Krimsky surveyed over 700 articles, which appeared in 14 medical and biological journals during 1992. (For logistic reasons, Krimsky’s survey was limited to the Massachusetts area.) Author lists were checked for possible conflicts of interest, i.e., holding a patent in the research area, serving on an advisory board to a biotech company, or owning 10% of the stock in such a company. On average, 34 percent of the articles had at least one lead author who met at least one of the conflict-of-interest criteria. And Krimsky reports that “we could find no statements of disclosure for any of the three indicators of financial interest linked to a lead author who gave an academic affiliation.” (Krimsky 1996)
Krimsky’s study actually underestimates conflict of interest in scientific publication. Most biotech companies are privately held, so their ownership data isn’t public record. The number of academic faculty who are officers in such companies was underestimated, and memberships in advisory boards in firms outside of the Massachusetts area were not examined. And there are more than just three ways by which a researcher’s interests are affected by the company’s success.
Industries do science for many reasons. There’s research and development of new and potentially lucrative products, of course. Another reason is that industries are required to demonstrate the safety of their products. In part, it’s to satisfy government regulations, but it’s also done to protect their own liabilities, and to demonstrate prior “good faith” in case of the unforeseen disaster.
But corporations, like other living things, have needs, and their priorities aren’t the same as those of mortal men. If one scientist won’t satisfy these needs, they’ll spend their money on another one who will. Paul Light, of the University of Minnesota, puts it this way:
“A funder will never come to an academic and say, ‘I want you to produce finding X and here’s a million dollars to do it. But it’s a subtle influence. It looks like if you produce finding X, you might have another study in your future. And once you’re on that treadmill, it’s hard to get off.” (Crossen 1994)
For nearly 30 years, Industrial Bio-Test was the leading toxicology testing firm. By 1981, IBT had conducted an estimated 22,500 tests for toxicity and carcinogenic properties of the products of Upjohn, Dow, Shell, 3M and Proctor and Gamble— 35 to 40 percent of all toxicology testing in the U.S.
The trouble began when the results on naprosyn, an arthritis drug, looked “too good to be true” to an FDA toxicologist. A initial investigation found that the study was riddled with fraud: sick animals were listed as healthy, or dropped from the study, and some study reports were complete fictions. Federal investigators descended on the company’s Illinois labs to find something of a scientific charnel-house. In a study for monosodium cyanurate, animal deaths had been concealed, and missing data had been replaced with invented records. Mice had been added to skew the sample in a study on Machete, a rice herbicide. IBT had become a laboratory-for-hire with an added bonus: its results were almost guaranteed to be favorable to the client. “They did not care about science,” said FDA pharmacologist Dowell Davis. “It was about money. They really had what was almost an assembly line for acceptable studies.”
There is still some question as to whether IBT’s clients knew that the lab was engaged in scientific fraud. The most compelling evidence concerns Paul Wright, a Monsanto chemist who’d worked for IBT for eighteen months on the studies mentioned above. Wright then returned to Monsanto as its Manager of Toxicology. Wright, and two other IBT executives, were tried and convicted in 1983— for fraudulent reporting on studies concerning Monsanto’s anti-bacterial agent TCC. (Dowie, 1982) In 1991, Monsanto was charged with using falsified animal study data in studies on polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs)— in studies conducted by IBT between 1969 and 1971.
More recently, a lab employee at Craven Laboratories notified some of the company’s clients (including Monsanto and DuPont) that the lab had submitted fraudulent studies on pesticide residues. This time, the companies tipped off the EPA, which launched an investigation. Initially, the investigators found nothing wrong— until the employee stepped forward and explained the subtle methods used by Craven. The faked studies involved 20 different pesticides. Don Allen Craven and 14 other employees pleaded guilty to fraud charges, the company was fined $3.7 million, and a nationwide review of pesticides prompted by the Craven case cost an additional $15 million.
There are other cases, of course, which aren’t quite as spectacular. In 1994, the people of Industrial Testing Labs of St. Louis and Thermal Science, Inc. were indicted for conspiring to fabricate tests of its fire retardant ThermoLag. (Which, you’ll be happy to know, is used in 70 nuclear power plants.) (Fagin and Lavelle 1997, Chicago Sun Times, 9/30/94)
How difficult is it to provide science made to order? In many areas, the answer would be “Not very.” Take the standard and most reliable test for determining whether a substance is toxic or not, i.e., bombarding lab rats with massive amounts of the stuff and comparing them against controls. Usually such studies take two years or more, and when properly conducted, they can be highly reliable. (It’s also a method that’s been portrayed as Chicken-Little overkill in a lot of PR for any number of causes, such as smoker’s rights groups, the chemical industry, and supporters of marijuana legalization.)
It’s a simple, straightforward test that an adept high-school student could do, assuming he isn’t busy bugging his neighbors about dihydrogen monoxide. But what if we don’t want to find out that the substance is harmful? Simple. Lower the doses of the substance, and cut the study before the animals start developing a lot of symptoms. You might want to choose to use animals that are a little tougher when it comes to cancer. Try adding a few more subjects to the data pool to thicken the mix. If you can’t certify a substance as safe after those little adjustments, then get into another line of work.
In 1980, the Chemical Industry Institute of Toxicology (CIIT)— which has little oversight or control from its member corporations— was reporting that rats exposed to formaldehyde were sprouting tumors. Georgia-Pacific, whose wood products use formaldehyde, wasn’t pleased. The head of its safety and environmental department, one “Kip” Howlett, urged a four-point strategy to counter the study’s PR impact— including denouncing the cancerous rats as “dumb” rats because they actually continued breathing normally when formaldehyde was in the air.
But the chemical industry had already founded the Formaldehyde Institute, which would be the main clearinghouse for more user-friendly research. At first, they began lobbing spurious criticisms of the CIIT study, such as claiming that the species of rat was known for spurious tumors and that a virus may have been the culprit. They also hired a company called Bio/Dynamics to conduct a second test— using the same species of rat.
CIIT’s study exposed the rats to formaldehyde at 15 parts per million, and tumors turned up after twelve months. Bio-Dynamics’ study exposed the rats— as well as a few monkeys and hamsters— to three parts per million, and lasted six months. When the dosages crept to four parts per million for some of the animals, the Formaldehyde Institute ordered these “high-dose” animals scrubbed from the study. And before the study was completed, the Institute announced that “there should be no chronic health effect from exposure to the level of formaldehyde normally encountered in the home.” (Fagan and Lavelle 1997)
In 1980, the Bayh-Dole Act gave educational institutions ownership of inventions created with federal grant funds. This has generated an immense amount of revenue for many universities: in 1993, the top 10 universities made about $170 million in royalties. Partnerships with the private sector can be beneficial for all parties involved. The University gets a much-needed influx of cash. Businesses get the intellectual and technical resources of the university— including the efforts of graduate students, who also benefit by establishing professional careers in the private sector. Establishing a good track record of such patents helps the university by attracting a more talented applicant pool, and in soliciting donations from foundations and alumni.
But there are a few flies in the ointment. For one thing, such arrangements almost never lower tuition. The connection to a university and its reputation can encourage some misleading PR (“…developed in conjunction with UCLA scientists…”). Most universities operate under non-profit status, so they don’t have to pay taxes on the revenues generated by such partnerships. In the case of the Harvard Medical School, the taxpayers lose out on a lot; more than half of the yearly budget comes from the U.S. Government. Michigan State University has made over $60 million on the anti-cancer drug cisplatin, even though it was developed on the taxpayer’s dollar; MSU’s granting an exclusive license to Bristol-Myers Squibb was far more lucrative. And Dana-Farber Institute’s contract with Sandoz Pharmaceuticals was such that it gave the company commercial rights to a colon cancer gene— found through a $100 million research grant from Uncle Sam. The Scripps Institute was offered $300 million from the same company, in exchange for ten years of exclusive patents, and a first crack at its research results that superceded the NIH’s. (Soley 1995)
The incentives for desired results filter down to the individual researchers, who receive speaker’s fees, honoraria, stock options and other perks from the funding companies. Take the case of Dr. Scheffer Teng, a Harvard researcher hired by Spectra Pharmaceuticals to study their Vitamin A ointment. Teng’s initial research showed that it was ineffective, a finding that wouldn’t have had a good effect on the large amounts of Spectra stock Teng owned. So he and supervisor Kenneth Kenyon— another stockholder— altered the placebo, added a few more patients to the study sample, and treated patients with additional drugs. By the time the original research was revealed, Spectra’s stock had gone public, and Teng and his relatives had made more than a million dollars. (Soley 1995)
Or, when the New England Journal of Medicine reported that Genetech’s t-PA was twice as effective at dissolving blood clots than the other leading brand, the company’s stock jumped by fifty percent within five months. Five of the study’s authors were Genetech stockholders, and they’d made no mention that the stuff could cause bleeding— a fact that turned up in subsequent research. (Soley 1995)
In 1985, researchers at UC San Diego discovered antibodies that bound to bacteria, which prevented inhibited the bacteria’s effects in lab animals. The antibody was licensed to Centocor, which planned to market it under the name “Centoxin.” If approved by the FDA, Centoxin would be administered to half a million patients annually— at a cost of $4,000 a dose.
In 1991, the NEJM was once again the vehicle for the Good News: Centoxin was a miracle. “The reduction in mortality [among patients with sepsis and bacteremia] was apparent as early as day 1 after treatment…” Among patients with sepsis and bacteremia, 49% in the placebo group died; but only 30% in the Centoxin group died. Centocor’s stock value shot from $15 to $60 a share by January 1992, and it seemed that FDA approval was all but certain.
But the Centocor study couldn’t be replicated by other researchers. In fact, an NIH study found higher death rates among Centoxin patients. And given that the Centocor study had changed its measure of effectiveness about halfway through, a new study was comissioned. This new study was discontinued when it confirmed that Centoxin was doing more harm than good. Centocor’s stock dropped to about six bucks. (Soley 1995)
The connections between business and industry have another, more corrosive effect on scientific integrity. Universities can develop a disincentive to investigate and punish fraud, because of the financial risks involved in exposure.
University of Pittsburgh researchers Charles Bluestone and Erdem Cantekin were conducting a federally-funded randomized clinical trial on amoxicillin, an antibiotic used for children’s ear infections. Bluestone was also receiving honoraria, speaking fees, and research funds from various drug companies. Cantekin had developed misgivings about the private-sector funding, but he stuck with the federally-funded study.
Halfway through the study, Bluestone said the drug’s efficacy had been proven— and with another $160,000 in hand from drug companies, he expanded the study to include Ceclor and Pediazole. Both researchers wrote up their research, based on the same data set— but where Bluestone found a wonder drug, Cantekin found nothing. One reason they disagreed was that Bluestone used an otoscope to visually measure fluid in the ear, while Cantekin favored the more objective measure of tympanometry (bouncing sound waves into the ear). Bluestone also cut his observations off at four weeks, while Cantekin felt that eight weeks was necessary to measure any recurrences of ear infections— and frequently, the cases Bluestone marked as “cured” recurred within six weeks. The NEJM published Bluestone’s paper in 1987.
When Cantekin submitted his paper to JAMA, the University charged him with misconduct, placed him on probation, and took away his copy of the data set. JAMA didn’t publish Cantekin’s paper until five years later— after another group of researchers published findings that matched Cantekin’s and contradicted Bluestone’s, and a Congressional committee of inquiry found that Bluestone’s methods of diagnosis tended to vary in favor of the drug. (Soley 1995, Crossen 1994)
The research of Stephen Breuning, a researcher at the University of Pittsburgh, contrasted with that of others in his field. Breuning advocated prescribing stimulants to retarded children; others, citing self-injury and behavior problems, advocated using tranqulizers. In 1984, Robert Sprague, the Principal Investigator on Breuning’s NIMH grants, became suspicious at Breuning’s claiming 100% agreement between observers of test subjects. Further investigation revealed that Breuning’s research at a prior post could not have taken place, that Breuning’s log of research days exceeded his total number of working hours, and that the original data sheets were nonexistent.
Sprague called for investigations. The University of Pittsburgh merely checked if Breuning’s prior, nonexistent research affected papers published while he was at the University. They also threatened Sprague with a lawsuit if he persisted. The NIMH waited almost a year and a half before launching an investigation— of Sprague. Science interviewed Sprague, but waited ten months before publishing it. During this time, Breuning continued to speak, publish, and consult on using medication for behavior control. It wasn’t until 1988, when he’d published 24 of the 70 papers on the subject, that Breuning pleaded guilty to fraud. (Bell 1992)
“People exposed to ozone actually adapt to it.”
Paul Bailey, Director of Health and Environmental Affairs, American Petroleum Institute. (Helvarg 1997)
We could use our imaginations to put all of the above into a single, worst-case scenario… but it’s happened already, so we can learn from the past. One of the greatest examples of how PR, power, and corrupt science can work, at the expense of millions of Americans, is the story of how the automobile and petroleum industries promoted the use of leaded gasoline in the 1920s. In 1922, General Motors researcher Thomas Midgley discovered that adding tetraethyl lead to gasoline would allow engines to run faster, and the “knock” of the combustion was eliminated. Although industrial hygienist Alice Hamilton had already identified lead as an industrial toxin, by 1924 the Ethyl Gasoline Corporation (a joint effort of GM and DuPont) was founded to produce leaded gasoline.
In October 1924, an accident at a Standard Oil tetraethyl processing plant killed five workers, and provided 35 others with severe lead-poisoning symptoms, such as palsies, tremors and hallucinations. While Standard Oil blamed the workers for negligence, other investigators reported that the workers had never been warned of the dangers of lead exposure. (It wasn’t exactly hard to notice: workers at a DuPont facility in New Jersey dubbed the place “The House of the Butterflies,” because of the high incidence of insect hallucinations.) Yandell Henderson, a Yale physician, urged the Workers’ Health Bureau to organize around a ban on leaded gasoline.
So in 1924, GM contracted with the Bureau of Mines to study any potential health effects of large-scale leaded-gasoline emissions. During the course of the study, GM demanded (and won) an agreement that no publicity on the study would be given to the press, and that any scientific articles drawn from the research would have to pass muster through Ethyl Corporation first. The report gave leaded gasoline a clean bill of health, of course— though not without considerable criticism from researchers and leading journals.
Dr. Emory Hayhurst, a respected hygienist at the Ohio Department of Health, now became a central figure in the controversy. Hayhurst was an industrial-hygiene advisor to the Worker’s Health Bureau— but, at the same time, Hayhurst was a consultant to the Ethyl Corporation. Surviving correspondence indicates that Hayhurst was informing the Department of Mines, as well as the Ethyl corporation, about the anti-lead forces’ arguments, so that lead advocates would have ready answers.
On May 20, 1925, the Surgeon General convened a conference on the matter of tetraethyl lead. The industry leaders present argued that lead was essential to industrial progress, that all innovations carry risks, and the publicized industrial accidents were a result of workers not following instructions. C.F. Kettering said that lead was essential for fuel conservation (concurring with his employer, GM President Alfred Sloan). Frank Howard of Ethyl put the critics on the defensive, arguing that their only concern was the health risk: Howard, however, saw the additive as a “gift from God” that contributed to the necessary growth of civilization. “Because some animals die and some do not die in some experiments,” Howard asked, “must we give this thing up entirely?” But the most striking display at the conference was given by Thomas Midgely. When a reporter asked him if contact with tetraethyl lead was dangerous, Midgley had an assistant bring him a canister of the stuff. Midgley then washed his hands in it, calmly announcing “I’m not taking any chance whatsoever.” (The previous year, Midgley had taken a prolonged vacation— to cure himself of lead poisoning.)
As with many issues of public health made “controversial,” public health researchers adopted a wait-and-see stance that must have felt reasonable. Henry Vaughan of the Public Health Association felt that current studies didn’t show enough harm being done to ban lead— which was sorely needed because of the oil shortage of the time. Hayhurst, of course, said that the twenty-seven months since lead’s introduction “should have sufficed to bring out some mishaps and poisonings.”
Privately, Hayhurst had his doubts. In a letter to the Bureau of Mines, Hayhurst stated his agreement with a Public Health official’s statement that “Lead has no business in the human body,” and “everyone agrees that lead is an undesirable hazard and the only way to control it is to stop its use by the general public.” “Personally I can quite agree with Dr. Thompson’s wholesome point of view,” Hayhurst wrote, “but still I am afraid human progress cannot go on under such restrictions and that where things can be handled safely by proper supervision and regulation they must be allowed to proceed if we are to survive among the nations.”
The conference resulted in two victories for the anti-lead forces; a pledge from Ethyl to suspend production of leaded gasoline, and the appointment of a blue-ribbon panel to research the matter. Seven months later, the panel issued an interim study of 252 chauffeurs and garage workers— and found no grounds for banning lead. The panel did caution that follow-up studies should be conducted, since the small scale of this initial study could not address all possible dangers of leaded gasoline (for example, the increase in use that would accompany the coming expansion of the automotive industry). These follow-up studies were conducted by Ethyl Corporation scientists, with predictable results. (Rosner and Markowitz, 1982)
How might this situation play out today? We might begin by casting Ronald Duchin’s taxonomy of radicals, idealists, opportunists, and realists from the 1920’s. The radicals would certainly be Hamilton and Henderson, and it wouldn’t take much work to cast the labor leaders into the roles of the opportunists. Ethyl’s Frank Howard probably swayed a few idealists when he pitted their desires for safety against the progress of civilization and his “Gift from God.” And once the studies from the Ethyl Corporation were released to the public, the “realists” will have been neatly rendered into a compliant and comfortably misled segment of the population.
Throughout the debate, we’d be that our courts are jam-packed with baseless lawsuits from infantile complainers who want industry to foot the bill for their tragic misfortunes. We’d be reminded that the public’s right to purchase leaded gasoline far outweighs the baseless fears of a mob driven hysterical with “junk science.” While we struggled to make up our minds, the research demonstrating the health risks of tetraethyl lead would gradually accumulate, spurring more debate, more panels, more commissions, and— maybe, eventually— a ban.
In the real world, this process took nearly fifty years.
Writing about the role of “climate skeptics” in national debate, Ross Gelbspan observed;
“If, at the cost of corporate pocket change, industrial giants can control the publicly perceived reality of the condition of the planet and state of our scientific knowledge, what would they do if their survival were truly put at risk? Billions would be spent on the creation of information and the control of politicians. Glad-handing oil company ads… would give way to a new stream of selective findings by privatized scientists. Long before the planet itself collapsed, democracy would break apart under the stress of ‘natural’ causes. It is not difficult to foresee that in an ecological state of emergency our political liberties would be the first casualties.” (Gelbspan 1995)
Science is one of those casualties. Someone once noticed that, for every Ph.D., there is an equal and opposite Ph.D. Whoever he was, he was right. Science, or something that looks a lot like it, can be manufactured and promoted by those with the deepest pockets. And the more we have of something, the cheaper it becomes.
You may have read accounts of postmodern academics who dismiss science as just “another way of knowing.” That’s nothing. In the richly funded realms of the public-relations industry, we find contempt for science practiced on a scale that the pomo theorists can’t even imagine.
Maybe you see science as a tool, like a telescope, with which we expand our vision and understand the Universe. But to the PR industry, science is just a kind of laser show or a handful of glitter, to capture the eye with interesting confetti. Science is merely a style, like a Karl Lagerfield techno-attitude fashion show or the “extreme sports” ads for Mountain Dew. The trappings of science— the studies, the doctorates, the peer-reviewed journals— are mise en scene to cue the audience’s respect. Here, scientists are just mouthpieces whose credibility can be bought a lot cheaper than, say, Michael Jordan’s, and if they yap about “scientific ethics,” it’s handled in the same patronizing manner of a stage manager massaging his performers’ prima-donna egos.
So when you hear that people don’t trust science as much as you’d like them to, well, don’t blame them. People are suspicious of science because they see how cynically it’s used. It’s like asking people to trust the legal system, or the government, or the private sector— it sure sounds nice, but it’s not working for them.
It’s not a bad thing to trust science. But like any institution, science has to earn our trust. Not just once, or on the basis of laurels won in the past, but every day. How can we ask people to respect scientific fact, when the facts they’re given are cheap, plentiful, and tailor-made for any occasion?
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Copyright 2000-15 Brian Siano
(unless otherwise noted)