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Corporate bias

 

Corporate skepticism: Turning doubt into dollars

by Ted Dace


In her column for The Philosophers’ Magazine, Wendy Grossman laments that she and her fellow skeptics are routinely accused of being “in the pay of the military-industrial-Big Pharma complex.” Grossman, founder and former editor of The Skeptic, attributes this belief to her “interest in scientific proof.” Ah, the legions of fanatical science-haters. Will they ever learn?

What Grossman doesn’t realize is that big business peddles its own brand of rigid, unreflective skepticism. Indeed, corporate and ideological skepticism are as tightly coupled as paired threads of DNA. In both cases, when the evidence fails to verify predetermined belief, “interest in scientific proof” goes out the window.

Corporate skepticism was best summed up by an executive at cigarette maker Brown & Williamson in 1969: “Doubt is our product since it is the best means of competing with the ‘body of fact’ that exists in the mind of the general public.” According to epidemiologist David Michaels, who describes the methodology of corporate skeptics in a recent article for Scientific American, the cigarette strategy has been adopted by numerous industries defending such toxic chemicals as lead, mercury, vinyl chloride, chromium, benzene, nickel and many more.

As assistant secretary for environment, safety and health at the US Department of Energy in the late 90s, Michaels saw firsthand how corporate interests worked to defeat regulation of beryllium, a dangerous substance originally used to increase the yield of nuclear explosions and which now plays an important role in the manufacture of electronics and other consumer items.

Following the discovery in the late 40s that beryllium can scar lung tissue, the Atomic Energy Commission established a safe level of exposure at two micrograms per cubic meter of air. But by the 90s it was clear that people were falling sick at levels far lower. When the federal government began the process of revising exposure limits, the leading US producer of beryllium, Brush Wellman, fired back with a series of reports suggesting that the size, surface area and number of beryllium particles might influence its toxicity. Thus no action should be taken until these factors could be worked out more precisely. By “manufacturing uncertainty,” Brush Wellman staved off life-saving regulation.

When the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a report implicating beryllium in lung cancer, Brush Wellman scientists issued a response in which they altered key parameters, thereby raising the background rate of lung cancer so that the affect of beryllium was no longer statistically significant. By placing their report in a peer-reviewed journal, Inhalation Toxicology, industry scientists could claim their view was based on “sound science,” while the CDC was peddling “junk science.”

Michaels sees this pattern time and again. When confronted with evidence that its products are lethal, the offending industry hires researchers to tweak the data and muddy the waters. As Michaels notes, “Their conclusions are almost always the same: the evidence is ambiguous, so regulatory action is unwarranted.” Lacking the resources to beat back a noisy, well orchestrated campaign against proposed standards, government agencies often give up without a fight.

Dr. Arpad Pusztai, one of the world’s foremost experts on plant lectins, discovered the power of corporate skepticism when he took on the biotech industry in 1998. After submitting a paper to the British journal, Lancet, demonstrating that potatoes genetically modified to repel insects also have the unfortunate side effects of shrinking vital organs in rats and weakening their immune systems, Pusztai was accused of “deceptive practices,” threatened with legal action if he spoke publicly about his research, and brought before the House of Commons where he was informed that he would not be allowed to respond in detail to charges against him because the chair of the Science and Technology Select Committee wanted “to keep the science to a minimum” during testimony.

Though the editor of Lancet was pressured not to publish Pusztai’s paper, it appeared nonetheless in the October, 1999 issue. However, the harassment of Pusztai seems to have had its intended effect, as no one else has dared carry out research on this topic since.

A similar story unfolded in the US after UC Berkeley scientists Ignozio Chapela and David Quist submitted an article to Nature reporting that corn native to Mexico had been contaminated with unstable genes from engineered crops. In the face of industry pressure, Nature withdrew the article from publication. Then, as if to prove its compromised position, the esteemed journal ran a special issue a few weeks later, sponsored by the biotech giant Novartis, singing the praises of genetic engineering.

When it comes to skeptical abuse of science, the pharmaceutical industry has no peer. Rather than pull phenylpropanolamine (PPA) from the market after discovering that the appetite suppressant was giving young people strokes, Bayer, Sandoz (now part of Novartis) Wyeth and GlaxoSmithKline employed scientists to cast doubt onto studies demonstrating the drug’s danger. Finally, in 1999 the manufacturers agreed to fund a study by the Yale School of Medicine. When the link between PPA and hemorrhagic stroke was predictably confirmed, the corporations hired a product-defense firm to attack the study and take its researchers to court where they could be subjected to grueling rounds of questioning. By the time the FDA finally stepped in to put an end to the fiasco, upwards of 10,000 people under 50 had experienced strokes as a result of PPA.

With slight variations, this story repeats for numerous drugs, most recently in the case of Vioxx, a pain reliever that killed tens of thousands of people before its manufacturer, Merck, relented and pulled it from the market. But it’s not enough for Big Pharma to attack research demonstrating the dangers of its products. The industry must also cast doubt on the efficacy of natural alternatives.

Dr. Robert Verkerk, director of the Alliance for Natural Health, attributes a recent spate of studies tarnishing the reputations of vitamins and fish oils to Big Pharma’s latest and greatest effort to manage our health. When a conspiracy to corner the market in a range of key vitamins was exposed in the late 90s, the pharmaceutical industry, both European and stateside, was hit with the biggest anti-trust fines in history. Verkerk suggests that newfound media skepticism of food supplements is plan B in Big Pharma’s attack.

The first study, which appeared in the Lancet in 2003, claimed that beta-carotene and other antioxidants were not merely useless but harmful. Another report in 2004, published by the Annals of Internal Medicine, was trumpeted in the press as demonstrating the dangers of Vitamin E. Yet both reports concerned people with serious illnesses, not those who simply use vitamins to maintain their health. Earlier this year, the British Medical Journal published an analysis of studies which purported to show that fish oils don’t reduce the risk of heart attacks. As Dr. Andrew Weil noted in Time magazine, the only true implication of the analysis is that fish oils won’t necessarily benefit people with advanced heart disease. Left unsaid is that fish oils help healthy hearts stay that way.

Is Big Pharma manipulating the scientific press to echo its negative view of nutritional supplements? Given the industry’s intense pressure on scientific journals to get self-serving papers into print - - as recently described by Lancet editor Richard Horton to the British House of Commons - - Verkerk’s suggestion is not so farfetched.

Where corporate skeptics dismiss evidence they don’t like as “junk science,” ideological skeptics favor “pseudoscience” as the term of abuse. Where corporate skeptics oppose natural alternatives to high tech pharmaceutical engineering, ideologues disparage the holistic alternative to mechanistic biology. Just as ideological skepticism is based on the philosophy of reductionism, whereby life and consciousness are boiled down to the mechanics of molecules, corporate skepticism follows from a belief system that reduces all human values to the acquisition of money. In this context, “skepticism” means nothing more than identifying and attacking financially or ideologically incorrect values.

Since the passage of the so-called Data Quality Act of 2001, industry groups in the US can review, alter and even censor scientific reports prior to being issued by the government. As Michaels notes in his Scientific American article, the law has been used to discredit financially incorrect analyses of everything from dietary habits to global warming. While there’s no established, legally binding procedure by which ideologically incorrect papers can be banned from publication, such a framework seems unnecessary so long as the taboo on holistic theory remains embedded in the scientific mind.

Though executives at Merck appear to have intentionally lied about the danger of Vioxx, Michaels is willing to give them the benefit of the doubt. “It seems more likely that their allegiances were so tightly lined with the products they worked on, as well as the financial health of their employers, that their judgment became fatally impaired.” With only slight rewording, the same could be said of Robert Todd Carroll, author of The Skeptic’s Dictionary, who seems to believe that his shallow and entirely data-free dismissal of the statistical evidence for telepathy constitutes some kind of scientifically meaningful rebuttal. In keeping with Michaels, we may surmise that Carroll’s allegiances are so tightly lined with reductionism, as well as the biases of his readership, that his judgment has been fatally impaired.

Nearly 20 years ago, sociologist Marcello Truzzi observed that skepticism is an attitude of doubt, not denial. To doubt a given proposition is one thing. To be certain that it’s false is quite another. Those who claim to know but call themselves skeptics are in fact pseudoskeptics. Truzzi enumerated typical qualities of pseudoskepticism, such as the tendency to discredit without investigating, frequent use of ad hominem attacks, basing claims on “plausibility” rather than hard evidence, and on and on.

Whether corporate or ideological, the veneer of skepticism cloaks a core of self-certainty. For Merck, truth is money. The safety of Vioxx followed from the fact that it was profitable, while evidence of its danger was by necessity false. Carroll doesn’t just doubt the existence of telepathy (a perfectly reasonable position) but “knows” it’s impossible because the conscious mind, he fervently believes, is reducible to the chemical brain and therefore stuck inside the head.

Ideologically correct pseudoskeptics are defined by a schism between their unconscious sense of absolute certainty and their self-conscious preoccupation with denial of anything that contradicts their unexamined worldview. Wendy Grossman and Robert Todd Carroll think they’re skeptics insofar as denial resembles doubt. But whereas doubt entails reflecting and questioning, denial is merely certainty in the negative. Caught between “positivistic” reductionism and pharmaceutical-grade denial, true skepticism never has a chance.

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