The fact that science is the foundation for civilization and democracy should be self-evident. Regrettably, that connection seems often to escape our collective consciousness. We tend to think of science narrowly as restricted to high-tech, laboratories, and the development of electric cars or travel to Mars. But everything we do collectively, from Medicare, to fighting climate change, to designing social programs, building infrastructure and tax policy, we take for granted is rooted in evidence, that is, science.
The advent of right-wing populist hostility towards evidence, and now extended by so-called alternate facts, threatens to take us down the dystopian road of the irrational. The spread of this trend in the U.S. — highlighted by the election of Donald Trump as president and the inability of U.S. culture to cope with gun violence — is as much a threat to the future of the human race as climate change.
The trend started in earnest in the 1990s, and it took a long time for scientists themselves to step up and defend their ground. An unprecedented and overt attack on public science by former Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper forced the traditionally apolitical science community to take a public stand for evidence-based policy. In the summer of 2012, hundreds of demonstrators marched from an Ottawa science conference to Parliament Hill under the banner the ‘Death of Evidence’. Many were working scientists wearing their lab coats. Last April, there was the worldwide Global March for Science in 600 cities coinciding with Earth Day.
The fight back for science and by scientists is one of the bright spots in the resistance against the rise of irrationalism. But there is another dark corner that has not had as much light shone on it and that is the pernicious corruption of science and scientists.
A recent book gives us a major resource for understanding and exposing the sinister trade in lies and obfuscation that results in hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of deaths every year. Corporate Ties that Bind: An Examination of Corporate Manipulation and Vested Interests in Public Health is a 450-page, 24-chapter compendium by an international group of scientists about how corporations routinely set out to undermine public interest science — and how they have found hundreds of scientists eager to do their bidding.
Those who consider themselves informed citizens know, of course, that science is often corrupted, with the tobacco industry being the poster child for deadly science fraud. But even the most disillusioned will have their breath taken away by the accounts in this book. One of the most compelling chapters is authored by Canadian Kathleen Ruff (a friend), who led the successful fight against asbestos in Canada.
Ruff documents how the strategy of the tobacco industry was adopted by virtually every other dirty industry eager to hide their toxic products. The advice received by the industry from the infamous Hill and Knowlton was “not to challenge scientific evidence but instead to seize and control it. …declare the value of scientific skepticism… creating an appearance of scientific controversy.” It was a brilliant strategy and is still being used today.
Perhaps the most chilling aspect of the book are the accounts of how world-renowned scientists working in the public sector (and genuinely in the public interest) casually switched sides giving cover to some of the deadliest industries on the planet. Ruff highlights the example of Paolo Boffetta who for 20 years until 2009 worked for the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer IARC), where he eventually became chief of Environmental Cancer Epidemiology.
While still with IARC, Boffetta in 2008 accepted a contract with the consulting company Exponent, a firm dedicated to countering critical independent and government research into toxic products. He prepared a paper for the styrene industry claiming there was no increased risk of cancer “among workers exposed to styrene.” The industry used the study effectively, citing Boffetta’s prestigious record with IARC. However, while Boffetta was at IARC in 1994, the agency had upgraded the styrene threat to “probably carcinogenic to humans.”
When research by the Harvard School of Public Health revealed that sugary drink consumption was responsible for roughly 180,000 deaths per annum worldwide, Boffetta’s own mercenary research firm, the International Prevention Research Institute (IPRI), published a review article, funded by Coca-Cola claiming there was “no link” between sugary drinks and cancer.
Ruff writes that Boffetta, still touting his IARC credentials, continues to take on projects defending products that have been judged to be carcinogenic or harmful by agencies like the WHO’s IARC: “whether it’s the issue of dioxin, acrylimides, beryllium, atrazine, formaldehyde, diesel fumes, vinyl chloride, endocrine disruptors, PCBs, continued exposure to asbestos or air pollution caused by heavy metals, Boffetta has come up with the findings desired by the industry.”
The book focuses almost exclusively on the role of corporations in the assault on public-interest science. It details the efforts of the pharmaceutical industry to cover up deadly drugs; the false science supporting the asbestos industry and the tens of thousands of deaths that resulted; the failure of many scientific journals to demand of contributors that they reveal corporate funding and their refusal to withdraw articles revealed to be fraudulent; and the systematic and sustained efforts to destroy the careers of scientists who have dared to simply tell the truth. It has a chapter on “Epidemiological War Crimes” detailing how a mass of German data on the toxicity of many drugs and chemicals was quietly handed over to U.S. corporations after WWII, never to be seen again.
There is also a chapter on that now almost quaint concept of the precautionary principle, the foundation of public health protection for decades that was disposed of under the Paul Martin government by then deputy minister of health David Dodge. The precautionary principle, said Dodge, was not geared to decision-making. “Risk management is about maximizing benefits and minimizing risks.”
It is encouraging to see scientists becoming “political”, because in a capitalist society science can’t be anything but. Yet fighting the overtly irrational is just one step. Scientists have to show similar courage in confronting the corruption in their own ranks. They should all read this book.