Oxford University Press's
Academic Insights for the Thinking World

Doubt Is Their Product: An Excerpt

David Michaels is a scientist and former government regulator. During the Clinton Administration, he served as Assistant Secretary of Energy for Environment, Safety and Health, responsible for protecting the health and safety of the workers, neighboring communities, and the environment surrounding the nation’s nuclear weapons factories. He currently directs the Project on Scientific Knowledge and Public Policy at The George Washington University School of Public Health and Health Services. His most recent book, Doubt is Their Product: How Industry’s Assault on Science Threatens Your Health explains how many of the scientists who spun science for tobacco have become practitioners in the lucrative world of product defense. Whatever the story- global warming, toxic chemicals, sugar and obesity, secondhand smoke- these scientists generate studies designed to make dangerous exposures appear harmless. The excerpt below is taken from the introduction to Doubt Is Their Product.

Since 1986 every bottle of aspirin sold in the United States has included a label advising parents that consumption by children with viral illnesses greatly increases their risk of developing Reye’s syndrome, a serious illness that often involves sudden damage to the brain or liver. Before that mandatory warning was required by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the toll from this disease was substantial: In one year—1980—555 cases were reported, and many others quite likely occurred but went unreported because the syndrome is easily misdiagnosed. One in three diagnosed children died.

Today, less than a handful of Reye’s syndrome cases are reported each year—a public health triumph, surely, but a bittersweet one because a untold number of children died or were disabled while the aspirin manufacturers delayed the FDA’s regulation by arguing that the science establishing the aspirin link was incomplete, uncertain, and unclear. The industry raised seventeen specific ‘‘flaws’’ in the studies and insisted that more reliable ones were needed. The medical community knew of the danger, thanks to an alert issued by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), but parents were kept in the dark. Despite a federal advisory committee’s concurrence with the CDC’s conclusions about the link with aspirin, the industry even issued a public service announcement claiming ‘‘We do know that no medication has been proven to cause Reyes’’ (emphasis in the original). This campaign and the dilatory procedures of the White House’s Office of Management and Budget delayed a public education program for two years and mandatory labels for two more. Only litigation by Public Citizen’s Health Research Group forced the recalcitrant Reagan Administration to act. Thousands of lives have now been saved—but only after hundreds had been lost.

Of course, the aspirin manufacturers did not invent the strategy of preventing or postponing the regulation of hazardous products by questioning the science that reveals the hazards in the first place. I call this strategy ‘‘manufacturing uncertainty’’; individual companies—and entire industries—have been practicing it for decades. Without a doubt, Big Tobacco has manufactured more uncertainty over a longer period and more effectively than any other industry. The title of this book comes from a phrase unwisely committed to paper by a cigarette executive: ‘‘Doubt is our product since it is the best means of competing with the ‘body of fact’ that exists in the minds of the general public. It is also the means of establishing a controversy’’ (emphasis added).

There you have it: the proverbial smoking gun. Big Tobacco, left now without a stitch of credibility or public esteem, has finally abandoned its strategy, but it showed the way. The practices it perfected are alive and well and ubiquitous today. We see this growing trend that disingenuously demands proof over precaution in the realm of public health. In field after field, year after year, conclusions that might support regulation are always disputed. Animal data are deemed not relevant, human data not representative, and exposure data not reliable. Whatever the story—global warming, sugar and obesity, secondhand smoke—scientists in what I call the ‘‘product defense industry’’ prepare for the release of unfavorable studies even before the studies are published. Public relations experts feed these for-hire scientists contrarian sound bites that play well with reporters, who are mired in the trap of believing there must be two sides to every story. Maybe there are two sides—and maybe one has been bought and paid for.
* * *

As it happens, I have had the opportunity to witness what is going on at close range. In the Clinton administration, I served as Assistant Secretary for Environment, Safety, and Health in the Department of Energy (DOE), the chief safety officer for the nation’s nuclear weapons facilities. I ran the process through which we issued a strong new rule to prevent chronic beryllium disease, a debilitating and sometimes fatal lung disease prevalent among nuclear weapons workers. The industry’s hired guns acknowledged that the current exposure standard for beryllium is not protective for employees. Nevertheless, they claimed, it should not be lowered by any amount until we know with certainty what the exact final number should be.

As a worker, how would you like to be on the receiving end of this logic?

Christie Todd Whitman, the first head of the Environmental Protection Agency under the second President Bush, once said, ‘‘The absence of certainty is not an excuse to do nothing.’’ But it is. Quite simply, the regulatory agencies in Washington, D.C., are intimidated and outgunned— and quiescent. While it is true that industry’s uncertainty campaigns exert their influence regardless of the party in power in the nation’s capital, I believe it is fair to say that, in the administration of President George W. Bush, corporate interests successfully infiltrated the federal government from top to bottom and shaped government science policies to their desires as never before. In October 2002 I was the first author of an editorial in Science that alerted the scientific community to the replacement of national experts in pediatric lead poisoning with lead industry consultants on the Pertinent advisory committee. Other such attempts to stack advisory panels with individuals chosen for their commitment to a cause—rather than for their expertise—abound.

Industry has learned that debating the science is much easier and more effective than debating the policy. Take global warming, for example. The vast majority of climate scientists believe there is adequate evidence of global warming to justify immediate intervention to reduce the human contribution. They understand that waiting for absolute certainty is far riskier—and potentially far more expensive—than acting responsibly now to control the causes of climate change. Opponents of action, led by the fossil fuels industry, delayed this policy debate by challenging the science with a classic uncertainty campaign. I need cite only a cynical memo that Republican political consultant Frank Luntz delivered to his clients in early 2003. In ‘‘Winning the Global Warming Debate,’’ Luntz wrote the following: ‘‘Voters believe that there is no consensus about global warming within the scientific community. Should the public come to believe that the scientific issues are settled, their views about global warming will change accordingly. Therefore, you need to continue to make the lack of scientific certainty a primary issue in the debate. . . . The scientific debate is closing [against us] but not yet closed. There is still a window of opportunity to challenge the science’’ (emphasis in original).

Sound familiar? In reality, there is a great deal of consensus among climate scientists about climate change, but Luntz understood that his clients can oppose (and delay) regulation without being branded as antienvironmental by simply manufacturing uncertainty.

Recent Comments

  1. Pete

    Isn’t it strange that some of the same scientists who used to claim that smoking didn’t kill anyone are now the ones claiming that gobal warming is a hoax. It looks very much like the big oil and power companies are now working with big tobacco hacks.

  2. Harbinger

    Isn’t it strange that the very scientists who promote man-made global warming don’t admit that they haven’t a clue. This is from the foremost Climate Modelling centre, the UK Hadley Centre with major input to the IPCC: Stabilising climate to avoid dangerous climate change — a summary of relevant research at the Hadley Centre January 2005

    What constitutes ‘dangerous’ climate change, in the context of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, remains open to debate.

    Once we decide what degree of (for example) temperature rise the world can tolerate, we then have to estimate what greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere should be limited to, and how quickly they should be allowed to change.

    These are very uncertain because we do not know exactly how the climate system responds to greenhouse gases.

    The next stage is to calculate what emissions of greenhouse gases would be allowable, in order to keep below the limit of greenhouse gas concentrations. This is even more uncertain, thanks to our imperfect understanding of the carbon cycle (and chemical cycles) and how this feeds back into the climate system.

    In view of the above how can they make specific statements and say that the science is certain?

    The answer is they can’t, but to keep their jobs and funding they have to keep the ball in the air. The UK Tyndall Centre had the answer:

    The Social Simulation of the Public Perception of Weather Events and their Effect upon the Development of Belief in Anthropogenic Climate Change Dennis Bray and Simon Shackley, September 2004. Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research.

    Global warming (or climate change) is, without elaboration, a much debated and contested issue. Not only is it contested among scientists, but also among all those with vested interests.

    We suggest that, in the realm of the public, forces act to maintain or denounce a perceived reality which has already been constructed. That is, an issue introduced by science (or media for that matter) needs continual expression of confirmation if it is to be maintained as an issue.

    In this paper, we explore under what conditions belief in global warming or climate change, as identified and defined by experience, science and the media, can be maintained in the public’s perception.

    As the science itself is contested, needless to say, so are the potential policy changes. So how then do people make sense or construct a reality of something that they can never experience in its totality (climate) and a reality that has not yet manifest (i.e. climate change)?

    To endorse policy change people must ‘believe’ that global warming will become a reality some time in the future.

    Only the experience of positive temperature anomalies will be registered as indication of change if the issue is framed as global warming.

    Both positive and negative temperature anomalies will be registered in experience as indication of change if the issue is framed as climate change.

    We propose that in those countries where climate change has become the predominant popular term for the phenomenon, unseasonably cold temperatures, for example, are also interpreted to reflect climate change/global warming.

    How about the star scientist, James Hansen who keeps telling us how global temperatures are rising when he doesn’t even know what the global temperature is:


    To measure surface air temperature, (SAT), we have to agree on what it is and, as far as I know, no such standard has been suggested or generally adopted.

    For the global mean, the most trusted models produce a value of roughly 14 Celsius, i.e. 57.2 F, but it may easily be anywhere between 56 and 58 F and regionally, let alone locally, the situation is even worse.
    (Responsible NASA Official: James E. Hansen, 2005-07-12).

    Most people believe that “the science is certain” because these scientists keep saying they know more than they do. It is quite right that major policy initiatives on CO2 should be challenged when the claims are based on such flimsy evidence.

  3. floodguy

    The coldest winter in China in 50 years. Snow in Baghdad, record snowfall events in South Africa. Record lows in Australia, record snow in the US Rockies. Record Antartic sea ice. Strong east Pacific La Nina, back to back quiet Atlantic tropical seasons.

    There is enough to doubt if C02 is forcing higher temps considering that since 1988, global temps have only increased a fraction of a degree, while C02 has skyrocketed.

    Still, there is good reason to proceed with a global clean energy revolution, despite C02. Energy security, independence, and moral economic reasons are enough cause for any skeptic to firmly support a transformation from fossil consumption to cleaner.

  4. John Tertullian

    Isn’t it also strange that the noble warriors fighting global warming have given us biofuel mania which has ended up driving hundreds of millions of people into starvation. A confidential World Bank report has demonstrated that 75% of the huge rise in global food prices has been caused by the US biofuel industry.
    Here we have the ultimate irony. Michaels criticises those who demand final proof before taking action. Far greater criticism, and true moral guilt, however, can be levelled at those who are forcing responses to an unproven problem which is resulting in far far more untimely deaths than tobacco ever caused. But, then again, its only black and coloured poor people overseas who are being starved. Foreigners. They don’t count. Not really human, maybe?

  5. RickEdwards

    A nice balancing story for the Aspirin story would be the DDT story, where overly aggressive banning of the pesticide has resulted in likely over a million deaths (versus the ‘untold’ numbers hypothesized regarding Aspirin). (I’d be more definitive if I could find my copy of Booker’s book.)

    Taking political action at every possible threat falls somewhere in the direction of criminal or stupid (er – OK I guess that is typical of legislators).

  6. Bill Andersen

    Fascinating. Both book and review tacitly assume that “science” (in quotes to distinguish it from the ideal search for natural truths that is science simpliciter) occupies a morally unassailable position. This is far from clear — to pretend there are not fads and fashion in science funding is truly to have one’s head in the sand. Climate is a complex phenomenon and an epistemically murky one to access. That there is room in this murk for those on the side of GW fashion to have created a niche of mutual reinforcement and funding bias toward “positive” results is no surprise.

  7. Thomas Jefferson

    Which of the following are entirely man-made?
    Asbestos, Beryllium, CO2, Sun Spots, Anxiety.
    What kills more people every year?
    Out of a sense of ‘duty’, and the “responsibility to use their freedom of speech”, people like the author of this sad book will try to get rich while inflaming the emotions and anxiety of the nameless public.
    I hope they repent before the final accountability comes to pass.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *