The Doubt Makers
By funding its own research, industry has raised unwarranted doubts about a range of scientific issues — from the risks of tobacco to the reality of climate change — delaying response to public dangers for decades. Can scientists and journalists learn to beat the doubt industry before our most serious problems beat us all?
In 1998, when an epidemiologist named David Michaels became assistant secretary of energy for environment, safety and health, the novice bureaucrat supported a proposal to strengthen the beryllium exposure limit for atomic-industry workers. He learned that the existing standard had been set, almost 50 years earlier, by two scientists on their way to a meeting at an Atomic Energy Commission facility. Despite substantial evidence that much lower exposures were causing debilitating lung disease, what Michaels calls the “taxicab standard” had not changed since 1949.
“When I looked at the materials submitted by the beryllium industry, their assertions jumped out at me,” he remembers. “Their goal was to emphasize uncertainty and stop us from moving forward in protecting workers. People within the regulatory world said, ‘Of course, we expect this.’ But I was new at this and I said, ‘Why is this acceptable? Responsible scientists, and responsible companies, shouldn’t be doing this.’”
Michaels left his post at the Department of Energy in 2001 and is now a professor in the department of environmental and occupational health at George Washington University. His current research has steeped him in the industry tactics he encountered in government service, but his outrage is undimmed. “The point is to establish controversy,” he says. “If you establish controversy, you can fight over the science rather than having to deal with the policy.”
Thanks to reform attempts by Michaels and others, the Department of Energy did eventually modernize its beryllium standards. But at the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which governs private-sector workplaces, the 1949 beryllium standard remains in place.
The delay is another win for a time-tested business strategy, one that creates and sustains public uncertainty in the face of significant scientific agreement. Pioneered by the tobacco industry, the strategy has raised unwarranted doubt about issues ranging from the risks of asbestos exposure to the role of chlorofluorocarbons in creating the hole in the atmospheric ozone layer — and also helped artificially prolong the national debate about the science of climate change.
The strategy, which exploits the weaknesses of scientists, journalists and the public alike, is now an expected — and, as at the Energy Department, often accepted — part of the public conversation about science and the policy it informs. But why, after half a century and innumerable exposés, does it continue to work so well? And how can it be beaten?
Late in 1953, Paul Hahn, the suave president of American Tobacco, called an urgent meeting of his fellow industry captains. After decades of popularity, cigarettes were in trouble. Several recent studies pointed to a link between tobacco and cancer; a young doctor had just published results showing that mice painted with tobacco tars developed cancerous tumors. Reporters were fascinated, and the public was fretting.
Though Hahn projected confidence, condemning “loose talk” about the recent research and promising that “impartial investigation” would prove tobacco’s safety, he gathered his colleagues on Dec. 14, 1953, at the Plaza Hotel in New York City. The companies, sensitive to charges of price-fixing, had not held such a meeting in more than a decade.
In these palatial surroundings, as Harvard medical historian Allan Brandt recounts in his book The Cigarette Century, Hahn and the leaders of R.J. Reynolds, Philip Morris, Benson and Hedges and other major tobacco companies contemplated their future. The conversation centered not on science but on spin: Since the 1920s, the industry had successfully marketed cigarettes as symbols of sophistication and youth. The worrisome health findings complicated that narrative, and the companies needed a new strategy.
The next day, the CEOs met with representatives from Hill and Knowlton, a public relations firm already known for its work with the chemical and liquor industries. Though firm president John Hill had himself quit smoking in the 1940s for health reasons, he apparently found the industry crisis an irresistible challenge. The answer, he and others at the meeting concluded, was not simply to assure consumers of cigarette safety or to question scientific findings. The industry would also produce its own science and use it to create uncertainty about the results of independent researchers.
By the end of the month, the cigarette manufacturers issued “A Frank Statement” to smokers, pledging “aid and assistance” to health research and announcing the formation of the Tobacco Industry Research Committee. The press broadly applauded the industry’s seemingly forthright approach.
What followed is well known: More than four decades of collusion and disinformation by tobacco industry leaders created public doubt about the risks of tobacco use and secondhand smoke despite a rising tide of credible, consistent research connecting tobacco and disease. In an internal meeting in the late 1960s, a Brown and Williamson executive famously crystallized the industry strategy: “Doubt is our product.”
The essential tactic of the tobacco strategy is to ignore the big picture and attack the details. Tobacco executives, after all, “didn’t deny the reality of the hazard,” says Robert Proctor, a professor of history at Stanford University and a longtime student of the industry. “They simply said that they needed more evidence and that both sides needed to be considered.”
In the 1960s and ’70s, as public-health concerns and federal regulatory agencies proliferated in the United States, many industries adopted the tobacco strategy as their own. In his new book, Doubt Is Their Product, Michaels relates how asbestos manufacturers, again with the advice of Hill and Knowlton, created the Asbestos Information Association to defend asbestos products against decades of evidence linking asbestos with lung disease and cancer.
In 1974, when California scientists Sherwood Rowland and his postdoctoral student Mario Molina published a study linking chlorofluorocarbons with ozone depletion, it was the CFC industry’s turn with Hill and Knowlton, which promptly sent British pollution researcher Barry Scorer on a speaking tour of the United States. “The only thing that has been accumulated so far is a number of theories … people have gone mad over this business of monitoring things,” Scorer said. Others (including Fred Singer, a physicist skeptical of the connection between secondhand smoke and lung cancer and more recently noted for his dogged criticism of climate science) would echo these sentiments for years, losing steam only in 1995 when Molina, Rowland and another researcher were awarded a Nobel Prize for their work on CFCs.
Yet the tobacco strategy’s greatest challenge — and, some would argue, greatest success — emerged with global climate change.
When nervous tobacco executives gathered at the Plaza Hotel in 1953, they faced a small handful of disturbing health studies. In the late 1980s, when leaders in the fossil-fuel industry began a concerted attempt to discredit climate science, they had to counter research already endorsed by U.S. presidents, high-level federal science committees and a solid and growing portion of the world’s scientists.
With the help of the tobacco strategy, they succeeded.
When the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change published its Third Assessment Report in 2001 — detailing “new and stronger evidence that most of the warming observed over the last 50 years is attributable to human activities,” fierce terms for a group of scientists — the interests that hoped to delay regulation of carbon dioxide emissions didn’t focus on these broad and solidly supported conclusions. Instead, they attacked a single, iconic, Cartesian graph of temperature over time.
The graph was nicknamed the “hockey stick” for its long, nearly flat start and abrupt upward turn — a turn that showed the 1990s were likely the warmest decade of the past 1,000 years in the Northern Hemisphere and that average temperatures were increasing rapidly. In 2003, astrophysicists Willie Soon and Sallie Baliunas — whose research was partly supported by the American Petroleum Institute, and both of whom have served as senior scientists with the George C. Marshall Institute, a longtime ExxonMobil beneficiary — published a critique of the hockey stick in the journal Climate Research; several members of the journal’s editorial board resigned in protest. Michael Mann, the lead author of the paper that produced the hockey stick, was called before Congress by climate science skeptic Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., placed on a Senate panel with Soon and another critic, and asked to defend himself and his work.
Also in 2003, Stephen McIntyre, who describes himself as a “Canadian businessman past my ‘best before’ date” with a talent for statistics, published a paper, with Canadian economist Ross McKitrick (a professor at the University of Guelph and a senior fellow at the Fraser Institute, a free-market think tank in Vancouver), that severely criticized Mann and his colleagues’ methods. Though McIntyre says he began and continues the project out of simple curiosity, his results were soon put to political ends. Prominent coverage of McIntyre in the Wall Street Journal led Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, one of the House’s foremost recipients of contributions from the oil and gas industry, to demand that Mann submit not only all of his data for the hockey stick graph but the data used in all of his previously published studies. The move was decried by observers ranging from the American Association for the Advancement of Science to Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who termed the request “highly irregular” and “a kind of intimidation.”
The brouhaha led to scrutiny of the hockey stick by the National Research Council and a trio of statisticians convened by Barton. Though McIntyre’s work led Mann and his co-authors to publish corrections to the supplementary information included with their original research, the IPCC stood by the researchers’ overall conclusions; when the panel published its Fourth Assessment Report this past year, it endorsed the hockey stick’s representation of rapidly rising temperatures and, with the support of other studies, extended the timescale in question from 1,000 to 1,300 years. But McIntyre stands by his criticism of the methods used in the past-climate studies, and as any Web search for Mann and the hockey stick shows, the cloud of public doubt is slow to disperse.
The hockey stick “is just one of many lines of evidence for the reality of human influence on the climate,” says Mann, a professor of climatology at Pennsylvania State University. “Even if they’d been able to take down our (conclusions) — and they weren’t —they would have had to take down a dozen others in order to prove their case. Their argument was based on a house of cards.”
And yet the political attack on the hockey stick — and myriad other attempts to inspire doubt about mainstream science’s conclusion that climate change was real — worked. A 2004 analysis by Naomi Oreskes, a professor at the University of California, San Diego, found that of more than 900 global climate-change papers published between 1993 and 2003, not a single paper disagreed with the big picture: The climate is indeed changing, and humans are largely to blame. Yet a 2006 ABC News poll reported that although 85 percent of those surveyed believe global warming is “probably” happening, more than 60 percent think scientists are still arguing about it.
While grassroots advocacy groups of all political stripes indulge in information manipulation, they can rarely underwrite what Proctor calls the “distraction research” integral to the tobacco strategy. Yet the strategy needs more than cash to survive. It needs a public willing to misunderstand science, a press willing to misrepresent it and scientists unwilling or unable to defend it.
“The public often thinks scientists have it all figured out,” says Gavin Schmidt, a climate modeler at the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York and a colleague of Mann. “They think the sky is blue for a very good reason, that Spock has all the answers, that there’s no doubt and uncertainty in the real world. But that’s not how science works.”
Climate scientists agree about the broad phenomenon of global warming. But even so, scientists are allergic to certainty; no matter how strong the evidence, an alternative explanation may exist somewhere, and scientists are trained to acknowledge that possibility. And scientists continue to argue about important aspects of climate change, such as exactly how much sea-level rise or drought certain regions can expect. Researchers accept such disagreements as a normal part of scientific debate, but to a public less familiar with the ways of science, they often sound like fundamental confusion — and a very good excuse not to act.
So when novelist Michael Crichton says, as he did during a 2007 public debate, that science has “postulated” but not demonstrated the connection between carbon dioxide and modern warming, or when Inhofe calls a recent U.S. Geological Survey report on the future of polar bears “a classic case of reality versus unproven computer models,” they’re focusing on — and thereby distorting — the inevitable uncertainty involved when science attempts to predict the future. Yet such claims still find a receptive audience — for wouldn’t we all welcome a reason not to worry about climate change, an issue that ABC News correspondent Bill Blakemore calls “more psychologically burdensome than war”?
The tobacco strategy is also sustained by the media’s — and the public’s — love of controversy and sympathy for the underdog. The cadre of ideologically motivated (and frequently industry-amplified) scientists and think-tank pundits that emerged in the late 1980s and early 1990s often displays what Blakemore calls “neo-Galilean romanticism,” portraying its members as enemies of unsubstantiated dogma and champions of fresh ideas.
“These scientists and economists deserve to be heard,” Joseph Bast, president of the free market-leaning Heartland Institute, told the audience at a conference of climate-change skeptics held by the institute this past March. “They have stood up to political correctness and defended the scientific method at a time when doing so threatens their research grants, tenure and ability to get published.” While this argument ignores the near-obsessive consideration of alternative hypotheses that underlies the existing body of climate research, the reasoning is seductive: Small bands of outsiders have been proven right before. Why not again?
Throughout the 1990s, journalists and their editors responded to claims about the supposedly unproven nature of climate-change science the same way the news media responded, generally, to the tobacco wars: In case of controversy, give equal time to both sides. Maxwell Boykoff, a researcher at the Environmental Change Institute at Oxford University, studied coverage of climate change in The New York Times, The Washington Post and other major newspapers between 1998 and 2002 and found that a reliance on balance actually led to bias: Minority opinions were overemphasized and majority views undercut. Coverage in the U.K., in contrast, more accurately represented prevailing scientific views and their detractors — a difference Boykoff attributes to the relatively weak political influence of the fossil-fuel industry in the U.K. and to British politicians’ bipartisan embrace of climate science.
“The nature of reporting is to get two sides to an issue. But the nature of science reporting is to get what’s really happening,” says Seth Borenstein, a veteran science reporter for The Associated Press. But in the early 1990s and early 2000s, with reporters and editors just beginning to understand the science of climate change and with many climate scientists loath to express the confidence they do today, many journalists found it quicker, and safer, to stick with old habits, devoting the same amount of space to both “sides” of the debate. And the industry and ideological ties of many climate-change skeptics, now widely reported, received little attention until a former Boston Globe editor, Ross Gelbspan, exposed those links in his 1997 investigative book The Heat Is On.
Scientists themselves also lend a hand to the tobacco strategy. Accustomed to the rational, understated nature of scientific debate, researchers are almost always unprepared for the rough-and-tumble world of public discourse, where personal attacks are common, science is easily politicized and the discussion is often anything but rational.
“Scientists like to think of ourselves as providing answers, while lawyers and politicians are in the business of changing the question,” says William Freudenburg, a sociologist at the University of California, Santa Barbara who studies what he calls “scientific certainty argumentation methods,” or SCAMs. “Scientists don’t recognize that technique for what it is, and that’s a big part of what makes this work.”
It’s easy to understand why many researchers choose to avoid the spotlight, retreating to their labs with the hope that their science will speak for itself. Many government scientists are also actively discouraged from speaking in public or with the press, according to research by the Union of Concerned Scientists.
Whether the target of ordinary misunderstanding, political rhetoric, industry-funded manipulation or all of the above, science —with its insistence on acknowledging even the smallest doubt and qualifying even the most likely finding — is ill-equipped to speak for itself in public. But by refusing to engage in public discourse, scientists reinforce the image of themselves as condescending elitists. The documentary film Flock of Dodos, in which an evolutionary biologist explores the creation-evolution controversy, deftly illustrates the problem: While Kansas creationists offer the filmmaker lemonade, smiles and well-honed talking points, a roomful of elite biologists, frustrated by what they see as an ignorant public and a clueless press, offers arguments that require explanatory footnotes.
“For the most part, the scientific community doesn’t follow the use of their science in the world of policy, and that’s unfortunate,” researcher Michaels says. “Scientists need to make sure their science is not distorted.”
By 2005, the obscurers’ influence on the climate debate was waning. The shocking aftermath of Hurricane Katrina — which coincided with two major academic papers suggesting a connection between climate change and more powerful hurricanes, though this particular scientific debate remains unresolved — helped shift U.S. press coverage and public opinion toward the scientific mainstream. The publicity surrounding Al Gore’s movie An Inconvenient Truth brought the issue to the forefront.
In 2006, President Bush acknowledged the connection between human activities and climate change, and the following year, Frank Luntz — the Republican strategist who wrote, in a 2003 memo to President Bush, that “you need to continue to make the lack of scientific certainty a primary issue in the debate” — conceded that human behavior was affecting the climate. And several corporations once complicit in the attempt to delay a response to climate change had long since begun positioning themselves for profits in a carbon-constrained world.
Steven Milloy, a well-known climate skeptic who runs JunkScience.com, concedes that his position has become lonely. “It used to be, when I first started out, that businesses were interested in supporting sound science and free markets and things like that, but no more — they’ve completely gone over to the other side,” he says. “I’m still playing from the same seat, but the table has rotated.”
The conference of climate skeptics held by the Heartland Institute this past March attracted muted press attention, most of which placed the conference in its context well outside the mainstream of scientific discourse. Steven Running, a University of Montana professor who shared the Nobel Peace Prize last year as a member of the IPCC, says he was once routinely confronted by climate skeptics and their followers during his public talks. While he still receives the occasional accusatory e-mail or anonymous letter, audiences now seem more accepting of the basic conclusions of climate science, especially since the release of the most recent, and most emphatic, IPCC report.
And if the conclusions of climate science are still viewed as controversial in some places, their suppression now causes an even greater uproar. When a young school superintendent in the small town of Choteau, Mont., canceled Running’s scheduled talk to local high school students, the resulting dustup landed in The New York Times.
But the tobacco strategy can still claim victory: Instead of spending the last two decades debating and testing strategies to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions, Congress — and U.S. society — have engaged in an exhausting tussle over the science of climate change, even though its main outlines are firmly established. “Eventually, the science wins,” Michaels says. “But at what cost?”
The strategy also persists on other fronts. While adherents of creationism are, in general, motivated not by money or political ideology but by faith, their methods of obfuscating science are nearly identical to those once used by Big Tobacco: The Discovery Institute, a Seattle-based think tank that supports the intelligent design movement, now echoes industry calls for “open debate” by calling for public schools to “teach the controversy.” Supporters of creationism have funded a research journal to lend legitimacy to creation science and last May opened the $27 million Creation Museum near Cincinnati, whose dioramas show dinosaurs and humans frolicking together. Such efforts may partly explain why, in a 2007 Newsweek poll, nearly 40 percent of respondents said the theory of evolution was not “well-supported by evidence and widely accepted within the scientific community” — despite overwhelming and well-documented support for evolution among Earth and life scientists.
In science, of course, there’s a vast difference between a testable hypothesis and an opinion rooted in faith — no matter how sincerely held the faith. Yet in the public realm, with the help of the tobacco strategy, evolution and creationism are easily cast as comparable explanations for life, with those opposing creation instruction in science classes cast as censors.
But it may be possible to preserve what both mainstream scientists and their detractors hold dear — open debate, vigilant skepticism — while avoiding cynical distortions of the public conversation. To control the reach of industry-funded research, as well as industry suppression of incriminating results in its own labs, Michaels advocates what he calls a “Sarbanes-Oxley for science,” after the 2002 federal legislation passed in the wake of the Enron and WorldCom accounting scandals. As the Sarbanes-Oxley law makes corporate executives responsible for the accuracy of the financial results they report to the public, Michaels says a similar strategy could make industry more responsible for the accuracy of the science it hires. He proposes that regulatory agencies require corporate officers to certify, under threat of legal penalty, that the scientific information they submit is both correct and complete. No more, Michaels says, should chromium executives be permitted to withhold data indicating high risk of lung cancer at low exposure levels; no more should a manufacturer of diacetyl, an ingredient in butter flavor, be free to conceal a study showing that a day’s exposure to the chemical could wreck the lungs of a lab rat.
Public agencies could also tamp down on industry influence within their walls; Michaels suggests that they follow the example of leading biomedical research journals, which banned industry-controlled studies in the early 2000s. (While the Food and Drug Administration has the authority to request raw data from those seeking its approval and scientists on staff to perform independent analyses of that data, other federal agencies lack such authority and resources and are often unable to identify conflicts of interest.) The International Agency for Research on Cancer, a branch of the World Health Organization, has taken influence control one step further, barring scientists with ‘‘real or apparent conflicts of interests” from serving on their panels and writing reports. They are sometimes invited to advise their colleagues, ensuring the free exchange of information, but scientists with conflicts are permitted no direct influence on the outcome.
The press has shifted away from the “false balance” so prevalent in climate-change coverage in the late 1990s and early 2000s, and leading science journalists are quick to acknowledge their profession’s past mistakes. ABC News correspondent Bill Blakemore says journalists must carefully distinguish between “opinion stories” and “event stories,” which include most science stories. “If the central issue is an event, then the other side is profoundly irrelevant,” he says. “It’s insane to think otherwise.”
But the probing reporting that can distinguish events from opinions and facts from spin faces its own challenges. The 2008 Project for Excellence in Journalism report on the state of the U.S. media says that as newspaper revenues decline, science is often among the first beats to be stripped of staff and resources, depriving reporters of the time, travel and experience they need in order to sniff out reality. It may increasingly fall to wire-service reporters — and perhaps to groups such as ProPublica, a nonprofit organization dedicated to producing investigative journalism — to thoroughly vet scientific sources and identify manufactured uncertainty where it exists.
Paul Steiger, a former Wall Street Journal editor and the president of ProPublica, says scientifically literate journalists can help remedy what he calls “balderdash on both sides” — he plans to have at least one science-trained reporter on staff. “The more we can do to encourage people with a scientific background to try journalism, the better science reporting will be,” he says.
But the most lasting legacy of climate science’s run-in with the tobacco strategy may be its effect on climate scientists themselves, who are increasingly willing to not only speak to the press but also learn the language of effective public discourse. “Once you’ve witnessed the intensity of the attempt to abuse science — anyone who’s seen that and who has a proper sense of right and wrong recognizes that you have a moral responsibility to stand up to that, not to allow those who use such methods to be successful,” Mann says. “If you do, you allow them to use the same mode of attack on other scientists.”
Industry-inspired arguments about climate change continue to echo through some hallways of the blogosphere, where fringe opinions often go unchallenged, easily lodging in the public consciousness; recent psychological research shows that even a single person’s repetition of an opinion can convince listeners that the stance is widespread. In the wake of the hockey-stick controversy, Mann and his colleague Gavin Schmidt noticed that an Internet search for global warming or climate change turned up only tidbits of reliable science amidst a slew of skeptic Web pages. As other scientists were beginning to do at the time, they decided to start their own blog, this one aimed at clarifying persistent public misconceptions about climate science.
During the first week of RealClimate.org, in December 2004, Mann, Schmidt and a handful of collaborators deconstructed the climate science in Crichton’s novel State of Fear and have since led in-depth discussions about An Inconvenient Truth, global warming and hurricanes, and tropical glacier retreat, with a stated goal not to advocate policy but to clarify science as it wends its way through the political and popular realm. Commentators on the site frequently disagree, and the site remains one voice among many. But it has helped show other scientists a new route into the public discussion and given the public more access to, and understanding of, the process by which science gets done.
Perhaps the best defense against the tobacco strategy is more awareness of its depth and breadth, which can help cut through the passive acceptance Michaels witnessed at the Energy Department during his run-in with the beryllium industry. In the wake of the two-decade-long derailment of climate-change policy, the public, the press and scientists themselves are, belatedly, less willing to tolerate tobacco tactics.
“We learned more quickly about global warming than tobacco, so maybe there’s hope,” Stanford’s Proctor says. “Then again, a lot of people have seen through this strategy, but a lot of people are still being fooled by it. There’s massive ignorance in the world that’s intentionally being kept alive, and it doesn’t simply disappear.
“There’s always going to be a need for education and enlightenment on these issues because these strategies are going to be around for a long time.”
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