Inconvenient Science

The Challenge Of “Inconvenient” Science

Presenter: Barrie Webster

February, 2012

Humanists build their thinking on respect for scientific studies and research, and the results and interpretations derived from them. Doubt is an intrinsic part of the process that gets us there. Skepticism is one of the things that strengthens our approach to science, since proof through the use of credible investigation is what it is all about. But skepticism can be and has been intentionally misused and abused, especially with the general public and policy makers in mind. And prohibiting scientists from talking to the media – suppression – is a disturbing part of the picture.

A recent book by David Michaels[1][2] brings this problem into focus, describing in detail the misapplication of skepticism with respect to the reputable science on which well-founded regulation of industry is based. The history of this perversion of science begins with Big Tobacco in the US and continues with beryllium and lung cancer in the nuclear industry, aspirin and Reye’s syndrome in children, and asbestos and mesothelioma, lead (particularly in gasoline), mercury, chromium, benzene, nickel, vinyl chloride, pesticides of various sorts, a long list of other toxic chemicals, genetic engineering, endocrine disrupting environmental contaminants, and pharmaceutical medications. In each case, there are clear cases of interference with the regulatory system by PR firms employed by industry to cast doubt on the best science available at the time.

The technique used: given that independent scientific research has indicated that regulation of emission levels of a contaminant should be regulated, all of the following have been documented:

  1. employ a public relations firm to cast doubt on the reliability of the results
  2. fund your own research designed to generate results favourable to reduced or no regulation
  3. cherry-pick results from original research to generate the interpretation you want
  4. re-do the statistical analysis of results to generate the desired results
  5. dilute the data with the data from other studies so that problems become statistically insignificant

The overall objective is to subvert good science. In the vocabulary of the offending industry and its quest to undermine the respected original science, the inconvenient science is termed ‘junk science’ while the reworked results to generate the desired results are termed ‘sound science’. While the ‘sound science’ may sound like science, it is in fact anything but sound.

Recent experiences in Canada with the blocking of federal government laboratory scientists from talking with the media indicate that the long arm of large private sector interests is tampering with science in Canada, too.

How do we as Humanists deal with this problem? We profess to have faith in science, to base our world view or life-stance on science. Can we distinguish between the respectable science and the distorted science? Unfortunately, most of us cannot unless we have either the scientific expertise or the analytical persistence to tease the perverted science from the real thing.

[1] David Michaels, Doubt is Their Product – how industry’s assault on science threatens your health, Oxford University Press (2008).

[2] David Michaels is an epidemiologist and the director of the Project on Scientific Knowledge and Public Policy at The George Washington University School of Public Health and Health Services. During the Clinton years, he served as Assistant Secretary of Energy for Environment, Safety, and Health specifically for workers and the neighbouring communities and environment surrounding US nuclear weapons facilities. In 2006, he was given the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s Scientific Freedom and Responsibility Award.