The Manufacture of Uncertainty

Published May 27, 2015 by wallacedarwin

(See “TheRepublicanWarOnScience”byChrisMooney)

The sabotage of science is now a routine part of American politics. The same corporate strategy of bombarding the courts and regulatory agencies with a barrage of dubious scientific information has been tried on innumerable occasions — and it has nearly always worked, at least for a time. Tobacco. Asbestos. Lead. Vinyl chloride. Chromium. Formaldehyde. Arsenic. Atrazine. Benzene. Beryllium. Mercury. Vioxx. And on and on. In battles over regulating these and many other dangerous substances, money has bought science, and then science — or, more precisely, artificially exaggerated uncertainty about scientific findings — has greatly delayed action to protect public and worker safety. And in many cases, people have died.

Tobacco companies perfected the ruse, which was later copycatted by other polluting or health-endangering industries. One tobacco executive was even dumb enough to write it down in 1969. “Doubt is our product,” reads the infamous memo, “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.”


He calls their work “mercenary” science, drawing an implicit analogy with private military firms like Blackwater. If the companies can get the raw data, so much the better, and if they can’t, they’ll find another way to make findings of statistically significant risk go away. Just throw out the animal studies or tinker with the subject groups. Perform a new meta-analysis. Conduct a selective literature review. Think up some potentially confounding variable. And so forth.

They can always get it published somewhere. And if they can’t, they can just start their own peer-reviewed journal, one likely to have an exceedingly low scientific impact but a potentially profound effect on the regulatory process.

All of science is subject to such exploitation because all of science is fundamentally characterized by uncertainty. No study is perfect; each one is subject to criticism both illegitimate and legitimate — and so if you wish, you can make any scientific stance, even the most strongly established, appear weak and dubious. All you have to do is selectively highlight uncertainty, selectively attack the existing studies one by one, and ignore the weight of the evidence. 


Meanwhile, the 1993 Supreme Court decision in the little-known Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals case further facilitates the strategy, unwisely empowering trial court judges to determine what is and what isn’t good science in civil cases. Under Daubert, judges have repeatedly spiked legitimate expert witnesses who were otherwise set to testify about the dangers demonstrated by epidemiological research. Often juries don’t even hear the science any more because the defense can get it thrown out pre-trial.

It’s all about questioning the science to gum up the works. The companies pose as if they are defending open debate and inquiry and are trying to make scientific data available to everyone. In reality, once they get the raw data, they spend the vast resources at their disposal to discredit independent research.


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