The May 12th issue of Newsweek contains Sharon Begley’s excellent review of Doubt is Their Product (which should now be available in your local bookstore). Naturally, we like it because it says nice things about David’s book, but we also think Begley does a terrific job describing the kinds of abuses the book chronicles. It’s not surprising to see her giving a pithy summary of how polluters manufacture uncertainty, since she wrote last year’s Newsweek cover story “Global-Warming Deniers: A Well-Funded Machine,” which provides one of the best overviews of the global warming denial movement I’ve seen.
The review is well worth a read; here’s a taste:
If anyone remakes “Erin Brockovich,” this is a scene I want to see. A scientist launches a study to determine the toxicity of hexavalent chromium, the drinking-water contaminant at the center of the lawsuits Brockovich spearheaded. The study will be a meta-analysis, combining existing individual studies to, he says, produce more-authoritative conclusions. Some of the earlier studies measured rates of lung cancer among pigment-factory workers exposed to airborne chromium, so it makes sense to include them. But the scientist is working for industry, so he chooses his other studies carefully: he includes those that assessed all forms of cancer among residents who drank chromium-laced water. Only the workers, not the residents, had increased rates of lung cancer. No surprise there: only inhaled—not ingested—chromium can cause lung cancer. Since there are many more residents than factory workers, the data showing no rise in lung cancer swamp the large numbers of lung cancers in the workers. Thanks to this sleight of hand, the study—which happened in real life, not a movie—concludes that chromium “is only weakly carcinogenic for the lungs,” giving the chemical a nice coat of whitewash.
That science can be bought is hardly news to anyone who knows about tobacco “scientists.” But how pervasive, effective and stealthy this science-for-hire is—as masterfully documented by David Michaels of George Washington University in his new book, “Doubt Is Their Product: How Industry’s Assault on Science Threatens Your Health”—will shock anyone who still believes that “science” and “integrity” are soulmates. In studies of how toxic chemicals affect human health, Michaels told me, “It’s quite easy to take a positive result [showing harmful effects] and turn it falsely negative. This epidemiological alchemy is used widely.”
How many of Doubt’s readers will be shocked? It depends who picks up the book. The reactions I’ve heard so far tend to praise it for exposing just how widespread and insidious manufactured uncertainty is, but these readers seem to have picked it up because they know the problem exists and want to learn more about it. How many people are there who don’t know that companies and industries manufacture “scientific controversies” in order to guard their products against regulation or falling sales? Begley’s global-warming denier piece contained one possible answer: “39 percent of those asked [in a 2007 Newsweek poll] say there is “a lot of disagreement among climate scientists” on the basic question of whether the planet is warming; 42 percent say there is a lot of disagreement that human activities are a major cause of global warming.”