Q & A: How Corrupt Scientists Threaten Public Health

David Michaels, a GW professor and former Obama administration official, talks about his new book and how manufactured studies harm consumers.

February 4, 2020

David Michaels

Milken Institute School of Public Health Professor David Michaels worked as the assistant secretary of labor for occupational safety and health during President Barack Obama’s administration.

By Kristen Mitchell

A Milken Institute School of Public Health professor recently published a book that details how corporations manufacture scientific studies to create misinformation and potentially threaten public health. Under President Donald Trump’s administration, the business of misleading science is booming, he said.

David Michaels, a professor in the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health, worked as the assistant secretary of labor for occupational safety and health as part of President Barack Obama’s administration. His book, “The Triumph of Doubt: Dark Money and The Science of Deception,” was published this month.

Dr. Michaels recently spoke to GW Today about his work:

Q: Can you tell me about the premise of your book?
A: The message of the book is that when faced with concerns or allegations that their products or activities are causing harm, it’s become standard operating procedure for large, multinational corporations, to turn to mercenary scientists who will provide them with the excuse not to look further. Rather than saying, “let’s launch an investigation and determine whether these concerns are accurate and should be addressed,” they go to individuals or firms who manufacture uncertainty doubt about the scientific evidence to help the corporations oppose public health regulation or compensation of victims.

Q: What inspired you to write this book at this moment?
A: When I left the Obama administration, I saw that this strategy was very widespread. I saw it not just in industrial chemicals and environmental pollution—areas I focused on in the administration—but also in so many aspects of our daily lives. Furthermore, some of the corrupt scientists who were involved in manufacturing uncertainty for these corporations, who at one time were trying to influence agencies on behalf of these corporations, now we’re moving into senior positions in the Trump administration.

Q: Do you think this problem is getting worse?
A: There’s no question, this is getting worse. Unfortunately these consulting firms have established  a very lucrative business,  selling their services to corporations, and corporations are eager to use them. Now there have also been a few cases where the behavior of corporations in manufacturing doubt has certainly come back to bite them. You see this in Johnson & Johnson and Bayer.

Q: What does the public lose when scientific facts are called into question this way?
A: There are two parts to this. The first is that it’s very clear that the public pays the price in terms of disease and health. The most well-known example is tobacco. The tobacco industry was able to avoid regulation and convince people that the science was uncertain for decades. As a result, it contributed to the widespread addiction and eventual death of literally millions of people. But, as my book details, the success of this strategy in delaying public health protections in food, clean air and clean water and other realms has resulted in much additional illness and death.

The second part is that it leads to a cynicism about science. We need the best science to protect people and make their lives better. If everybody thinks scientists are easily corruptible, and they’re really is no certainty about science, it really sets back the scientific enterprise and the ability of science to improve lives.

Q: What is the best way to combat this problem?
A: There are solutions at different levels. The first is that the press should not fall for the “both siderisms.” Many of these issues I discuss really don’t have two sides; we certainly see that in tobacco, and we see that in climate change. The fossil fuel industry has bankrolled a small group of climate change deniers who have been rejected by the scientific community as a whole, but the press gives them a megaphone to project their lies. In covering stories, reporters may provide a comment from scientists or industries that don’t agree with what they are doing, but these must be framed with an explanation of who is paying for their work and, importantly, why.

From a regulatory point of view, I think government agencies need to be skeptical of studies done by “product defense” consultants whose business is to provide studies that oppose public health protections. The business model of these firms is to provide materials  - I am hesitant to call them “studies” - for corporations that are try to stop or slow regulation. If these firms produce materials that contradict the needs of the corporations that hire them, the firms would go out of business.

Q: Some of these corporations are well-known brands that people think they can trust. Given this, how can people protect themselves?
A: This is the great challenge— I don’t think individuals have the ability to fully protect themselves, and they shouldn’t have to. Most people can’t read the label on the back of a shampoo bottle and understand the 30 different chemicals with multisyllabic names. We need government agencies to do that for us, to decide what is safe and what’s not. We need corporations to follow those guidelines and those rules.

Q: How do you teach students how to identify these issues?
A: In most important public health issues, there is real scientific uncertainty.  The challenge of distinguishing between real and manufactured uncertainty, and how to consider scientific uncertainty in formulating public health protections is of great interest to our students at the Milken Institute School of Public Health. The basic principle in protecting the public health is that decisions mut be based on the best available evidence. One of the issues we try to address in our teaching here is how toevaluate evidence and design public health programs and policies within this framework.