Climate change isn’t real. Tobacco isn’t as bad as people say. Monsanto’s RoundUp doesn’t cause cancer. The fact that these statements are still considered valid by some people is not because they might be true or because some people are just stupid. That some deny these and other scientifically proven phenomena is testament to the power of what researcher David Michaels calls the product defense industry. His new book, titled The Triumph of Doubt: Dark Money and the Science of Deception, is an expose of this industry and how it works to enable those industries who profit from the sale of carcinogens and other poisons.
Michaels is a scientist who has spent much of his professional life researching and exposing products sold to the US public despite the manufacturer knowing of their potential dangers. When he worked for the US Occupational Safety and Health Association under Barack Obama, he brought his knowledge into a government regulatory agency. This work enabled him to help create regulations regarding the proliferation of silica dust in workplaces around the world. It also provided him with a close up look at the politics and commercial pressures involved in trying to make American workplaces safer places to work. Perhaps the ultimate expression of those pressures came after Donald Trump moved into the White House and appointed Michaels’ replacement—an industry hack who immediately challenged the silica dust regulations. Silica dust is created in many construction and industrial operations and has been linked to various lung diseases. Michaels describes the court case, astounded at the pathetic case put forth by the Trump administration. Fortunately for many US workers who work around this potentially deadly dust, the judge rejected the Trump administration’s joke of a case. Many of those workers whose jobs involve the creation of this dust are now protected by devices attached to all power tools and machines that might produce the poisonous dust.
Michaels introduces his book with a discussion of the 2015 Deflategate “scandal” around Tom Brady, the New England Patriots and the National Football League. After explaining the issue, he takes apart the NFL’s accusations and their use of a firm that “produce(s) reports that predictably reach conclusions favorable to their clients.” The point he is trying to make is that there is an entire industry devoted to lying for corporations and their profits. Furthermore, this industry has supposedly objective scientists in their back pocket; scientists willing to manipulate studies and the results of those studies to serve their paymasters. If these scientists cannot tell outright lies, they use their status to sow doubt about genuinely objective studies. Douglas appropriately labels such scientists “mercenary scientists.” He spends the rest of the book presenting this commonplace practice in the United States.
The boilerplate for the science of deception industry Michaels describes can be found in the decades-long battle against the tobacco industry. A chapter in the text briefly discusses this battle that ultimately found the industry liable for much of the damage its products caused. Throughout the rest of the text, the author refers the reader back to this string of cases and the firms hired by the tobacco giants. His point is that, although the product being fought over might have changed, the product defense industry’s tactics remain pretty much the same. Whether the product is OxyContin or sugar, alcoholic beverages or diesel engines, Michaels makes his point that corrupted science not only distorts public health and safety, it does so with intent and a callous disregard for the public. Furthermore, the government agencies and the politicians who are supposed to oversee them are all too often just as corrupt. In part, this is due to the defunding of the agencies by politicians beholden to industry. However, it is often considerably more blatant, with high-level executives appointed to head the very agencies their companies are subject to oversight from. This latter phenomenon tends to occur most often when the Republicans control the White House. Democrats are a bit more subtle, as a rule.
After presenting his case in a general way; then highlighting various industries and the attempts at lies and manufacturing doubt from paid-off scientists in the product defense business, Michaels closes the text with a brief list of suggestions he thinks are necessary to protect the US consumer. The specific steps he suggests include the use of scientists untainted by the product industry they are evaluating, complete disclosure of who funds the tests and the institutes conducting those tests, protecting the public from entire classes of chemicals, not just individual ones, and recognizing the important role litigation can play in protecting the public’s health. Ultimately, however, Michaels acknowledges (and clearly states) that as long as short term profits are considered more important than public and planetary health, there is little chance that the poisons unnecessarily present in our lives will go away. Most politicians and the profiteers so many of them serve will only do the right thing when they have little or no other choice. This, he insists, is why we must organize against the system that puts profits before people and change it to its opposite.