Today, we all know that cigarette smoking causes lung cancer and a whole host of other diseases. Indeed, scientists learned of the connection between smoking and cancer a very long time ago, and by 1950 there were several formal scientific studies establishing such a connection. But just because all of us now accept that smoking causes cancer, we may tend to forget that the tobacco companies (aka “Big Tobacco”) waged a long public battle for decades to convince us otherwise. Remember, this is the same industry that, as recently as 1994, directed its executives to stand before Congress, swear to tell the truth, and then testify that nicotine is not addictive.
In 1969, almost 20 years after five major scientific studies had been published establishing the link between smoking and lung cancer, a Brown and Williamson executive wrote a memo explaining the industry’s approach to scientific evidence that threatened profits: “Doubt is our product since it is the best means of competing with the ‘body of fact’ that exists in the minds of the general public. It is also the means of establishing a controversy.” In other words, the makers of cigarettes determined that they could minimize the negative effects of scientific research showing the dangers of cigarettes by hiring scientists, public relations experts, and attorneys to manufacture doubt about that research. While Big Tobacco developed and fine-tuned this doubt paradigm for half a century, other industries that profit from sales of toxic chemicals and drugs adopted their own plans to manufacture doubt about any science showing that their products were dangerous.
Industry efforts to attack science have become standard practice. In fact, there is now a significant body of academic literature – from historians, public health officials, scientists, and law professors – which describes the efforts by multiple industries in multiple contexts to follow the example of Big Tobacco and establish “doubt as their product.” For example, David Michaels is the current head of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), the federal agency assigned the task of protecting workers from workplace hazards, including chemical exposures. Dr. Michaels is an epidemiologist — a type of scientist who studies the causes of disease. In 2008, Dr. Michaels published a book titled Doubt Is Their Product: How Industry’s Assault on Science Threatens Your Health, describing how Big Tobacco’s strategies for attacking science have been adopted by many other industries. Also in 2008, law professors Thomas O. McGarity and Wendy E. Wagner published the book Bending Science: How Special Interests Corrupt Public Health Research, addressing the very same subject matter. More recently, in 2010, science historian Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway published Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming. In 2006, Wendy Wagner and fellow law professor Rena Steinzor edited the book Rescuing Science from Politics: Regulation and the Distortion of Scientific Research. And even before these books were published, Dr. David Egilman, a medical doctor and epidemiologist, had published a series of articles in the peer-reviewed scientific literature describing efforts by multiple industries to corrupt science. Finally, in 2003, Sheldon Krimsky published the book Science in the Public Interest: Has the Lure of Profits Corrupted Biomedical Research. Dr. Krimsky is a professor at Tufts University whose research focuses on the interface between science, ethics, and policy.
I highly recommend all of these books and articles, which each describe different (albeit sometimes overlapping) examples of industry efforts to convince the government and the public that scientific evidence lacks sufficient certainty to support regulations or jury verdicts holding corporations accountable for product safety. Throughout my discussions of these topics on this blog, I will often refer to these sources.
Next time, I’ll set out some of the specific “tricks of the trade” that industry has used to manufacture doubt in the face of significant scientific evidence that its products are causing harm.
 Brown and Williamson, Smoking and health proposal. B&W document number 680561778-1786, 1969. Available at https://legacy.library.ucsf.edu/tid/nvs40f00/pdf?search=%22680561778%201786%22
 See, e.g., David Egilman and Susanna Rankin Bohme, “Over a Barrel: Corporate Corruption of Science and Its Effect on Workers and the Environment,” 11 Intl. J. Occup. & Env. Health 331 (2005); David Egilman, “Corporate Corruption of Science—the Case of Chromium (VI),” 12 Intl. J. Occup. & Env. Health 169 (2006). Both of these papers can be accessed on-line at: https://www.egilman.com/browse.php?display=list&dir=publications/
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