Industry groups often attempt to block efforts to regulate them by attacking the science used to support those efforts. Host Jeff Young traces the history of this practice with public health researcher David Michaels and looks at how it has become entrenched in U.S. law.
YOUNG: From grazing out West to global warming, pesticides to painkillers, public policy questions often come down to one group’s science versus another’s. And increasingly those disputes include accusations of junk science. Scientific studies are attacked as invalid or inconclusive, and can leave the public with more doubt than answers. Dr. David Michaels looks into this trend in a recent supplement to the American Journal of Public Health. He argues that much of the squabbling over scientific certainty is the result of a concerted strategy by those who want to avoid government regulation. Dr. Michaels teaches environmental and occupational health at George Washington University. He joins us from the NPR studios in Washington. David Michaels, you title your article “Manufacturing Uncertainty.” What does that mean?
MICHAELS: Well, what I’m talking about here is a strategy of essentially creating doubt. The tobacco industry figured this out 50 years ago. By attacking the science behind the relationship between cigarette smoking and say lung cancer, they were able to keep producing their product and selling it and killing people for decades. That strategy has now been widely disseminated and it’s used by polluters and manufacturers of dangerous products who understand that they can slow down regulation and defeat it in many cases by attacking the science.
YOUNG: You know, I feel like backing up a little bit to gain a better understanding of why this approach works. And it only works because there is a certain degree of uncertainty in science and why is that, I mean we look to science to answer questions for us, why can’t they remove the doubt?
MICHAELS: We’re doing stories on people and on animals, when we do a story on animals we can control the laboratory procedures. We still have to extrapolate that to humans so it’s never a perfect, sort of if it causes something in animals it causes it in people. When we do studies in people, you know we’re thinking about exposures that occur over the course of 20, 30 years or more. Everybody has multiple exposures in their lifetime and so the answers are never precise. And so we have to, scientists and regulators are faced with the question, how do you weigh the evidence, how do you make the best judgment based on the best current available evidence.
YOUNG: I guess the comeback to that is, at what cost? At what point is it just so prohibitively costly to eke out these extra measures of public safety?
MICHAELS: Absolutely right. That’s one of the things we think about. That’s rarely discussed because a lot of the corporations have realized that once you get to the discussion of how much risk are we willing to allow, they’ve lost the debate. It’s already been acknowledged that their product causes the outcome in question. So instead they focus on the science. In fact, your question is a better one, saying okay there’s a risk here. How much risk will we allow at what cost and that’s a perfectly reasonable discussion to have and it’s reasonable for regulators to say it will cost too much to prevent this problem.
YOUNG: Another thing we should probably point out here is industry groups aren’t the only ones playing this game. I mean, environment and public health advocates will also be somewhat guilty of this, won’t they when they want a hundred percent assurance that say, a pesticide is not going to be harmful.
MICHAELS: I agree and I think there are actually examples where environmental groups have pushed far too hard and really made that demand. The difference is these groups have far less power than the chemical industry and the White House right now in making decisions and so I think we always have to look at this and we have to look at you know, what are the demands being made. But right now I think the threat to public health comes from the industries and unfortunately from the White House. They’re essentially demanding certainty when they can never have it.
YOUNG: So this was an industry strategy by and far, to fend off the federal government attempts to regulate things. But as I understand part of what you’re arguing here is that this has kind of hopped the fence now and has become part of the way the government is doing it’s work. Is that correct?
MICHAELS: It’s unfortunate. It mean, it really, we see it really in the last few years. There’s a very telling memo written by Frank Lutz who is the political consultant to the Republican party, who wrote a memo to the Republican party, essentially saying, how do you win the global warming debate? He said, ‘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 of global warming will change accordingly. Therefore you need to continue to make the lack of scientific certainty a primary issue in the debate.’
YOUNG: So is there evidence people in positions of power took Mr. Lutz’s advice?
MICHAELS: Well, it just came out a few months ago, there was a very telling revelation that a fellow named Phil Cooney, who was the chief of staff of the White House’s council on environmental equality actually rewrote a report written by the Environmental Protection Agency using exactly the strategy, changed the words around to say there’s a lot more uncertainty than the EPA suggested and essentially neutering the report saying we can’t do anything because there’s so much uncertainty.
YOUNG: In addition to the Frank Lutz example, you see this becoming "institutionalized," is the word that you use. How has this strategy worked its way into the way federal government does its business?
MICHAELS: Well, it’s done through a number of ways, the most important one probably is there’s some very obscure legislation called the Data Quality Act. A couple of lines snuck into a very large piece of legislation that had nothing to do with it a number of years ago that essentially requires federal agencies to set up a system where anybody who doesn’t like, not just regulation, but anything the government said and it forces the government to spend a lot of resources defending itself and in many cases it really, it’s discouraging agencies from taking on new issues because they know they’re going to end up in court.
YOUNG: What do we know about the lineage of that little piece of language there? Where did the Data Quality Act come from anyway?
MICHAELS: Well, it turns out some tobacco experts did some research and we have an article in this new supplement of the American Journal of Public Health where they actually find that the tobacco industry was very much behind it. They were very concerned about the EPA’s assessment of environmental tobacco smoke as being a cause of lung cancer among people who didn’t smoke.
YOUNG: The whole second-hand smoke thing.
MICHAELS: That’s exactly right, so they were the ones who wrote it and they were the ones who pushed it, but they did through some consultants and only through a great deal of research were there fingerprints found and that’s an interesting article. I think people might want to take a look at that.
YOUNG: David Michaels is a research professor in environmental and occupational health at George Washington University. He was contributor and editor on a recent supplement of the American Journal of Public Health. It looks at how science is used in public policy debates and a link to the supplement is available on our web site, loe.org. Thanks for being with us today.
MICHAELS: Thank you.
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