An Uncertain Truth

This is the second installment of a three-part series on radical skepticism and the rise of conspiratorial thinking about science.

In 1969, a series of historic memorandums began to circulate at a tobacco company in Kentucky. The documents addressed growing public concern over the health risks associated with smoking and outlined a brazen response: The cigarette manufacturers would “establish—once and for all—that no scientific evidence has ever been produced, presented or submitted to prove conclusively that cigarette smoking causes cancer.” To support this ludicrous assertion (which the tobacco executives knew to be false) would require a spin campaign of monumental proportions. That campaign’s inaugural words have now become a slogan for corporate connivery: “Doubt is our product,” read one infamous memo, “since it is the best means of competing with the ‘body of fact’ that exists in the mind of the general public.”

This corporate strategy of “manufactured uncertainty” has become only more refined in the last 40 years. According to former Assistant Secretary of Energy David Michaels, whose startling new book, Doubt Is Their Product: How Industry’s Assault on Science Threatens Your Health, comes out this week, manufacturers routinely hire “product defense” firms to challenge scientific findings and stave off government regulation. Scientific consultants are brought in to dust off and reanalyze data sets, group and regroup subject pools, and dream up confounding variables—all so that a given study can be discredited as inconclusive or, worse, labeled as “junk science.”

Indeed, corporations now use the manufactured-uncertainty strategy in almost every debate over environmental and public health. Energy companies wage doubt campaigns to delay action on climate change. Drug companies undercut results from clinical trials. Even the Indoor Tanning Association has lately gotten in on the action—touting the lack of “compelling evidence” that links UV exposure to melanoma. But the exploitation of uncertainty has become something larger and more significant than an industry PR tactic. It’s now a political instrument, even semi-official White House policy. And ideological groups—bible-thumpers and tree-huggers alike—embrace its doubt-spewing rhetoric.

What makes this mode of thinking so effective—and so prevalent? Like David Berlinski, the doubt-mongers swear by the foundational motto of organized science, first pronounced by the Royal Society of London in 1663: Nullius in verba, “on no man’s word.” They show a deep commitment to the evidentiary record, always testing the established theories and demanding more data; they attempt to undermine science from within, by aping its vaunted incredulity. But in practice their contrarian mode amounts to something like the opposite of science—a tireless search for nonanswers, a quest for the null hypothesis.

Michaels gives a detailed history of how the beryllium industry, for example, has put this anti-science to work. By 1991, academic researchers had gathered enough data to conclude that the metal was a potent carcinogen and a danger to factory workers. But a team of scientists hired by the manufacturers looked at the same studies and disagreed. The cancers, they argued in their own peer-reviewed study, might have been caused by sulfuric acid mist on the factory floor, not beryllium. When no evidence materialized to support the acid-mist hypothesis, the industry team shifted tactics: Beryllium may cause cancer, they said, but what if not all forms of the metal were equally toxic? What if particles of one size were more dangerous than others? After more than 10 years of debate, the federal government once again put off tightening the standards for workplace exposure—at least until more data could be collected.

The success of these programs shows how the public’s understanding of science has devolved into a perverse worship of uncertainty, a fanatical devotion to the god of the gaps. Nowhere is this more apparent than the debate over global warming, where the irresolute terms of responsible research have been a large liability: According to several major polls conducted last year, about 60 percent of Americans believe there’s no scientific consensus on climate change. “Therefore,” wrote Republican strategist Frank Lutz in a 2003 memo, “you need to continue to make the lack of scientific certainty a primary issue in the debate.” Now the scientists have launched a counterattack: Self-appointed “uncertainty cops” on the U.N.-sponsored Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change have persuaded their colleagues to buttress their statements of belief with arbitrary numerical values: Where once they said that a human cause for global warming was “very likely,” now it’s the more precise-sounding “90 percent.”

Meanwhile, environmental activists draw from their own ample reservoir of skepticism. If private industry can bewitch the government with contrarian science, so, too, can they. The greens pursue an equal-but-opposite approach: They warn of hidden dangers and put uncertainty in the mind of the consumer. If the PR flacks says there’s no proof that beryllium is a carcinogen, the activists point out there’s no proof it isn’t. Doubt is their product, too, in the form of the “precautionary principle.”

According to this moral and political dictum—which, like all visionary environmental legislation, has been embraced in the past few years by the European Commission and the city of San Francisco—the manufacturer of a new technology carries the sole burden of proving its safety. So if you wanted to introduce a genetically engineered crop into the wild, you’d first have to demonstrate, beyond any possible doubt, that it does no harm. That sounds reasonable enough. But let’s say your crop had the potential to feed thousands or millions of people? If the precautionary principle were law, someone who wanted to stop you from sowing this golden rice would only have to produce the whisper of uncertainty and the suggestion that more studies were needed.

Thus the eco-advocacy groups play Big Tobacco’s game: They call for data and rest their case. The Center for Science in the Public Interest alleges that diet sodas are a health hazard and modestly claims that “questions have been raised about the safety of aspartame.” The Center for Food Safety says of animal cloning, “[N]ot enough research has been done“; of GMOs, they “could pose serious risks“; of food irradiation, it “can do strange things” that “scientists still do not fully understand“; and so forth. These scare tactics may be venerable, but the vigor with which they’re now pursued—and the scientific language used to promote them—owes something to the success of the corporate style.

Indeed, at this point it may be entirely rational to be suspicious of mainstream science. Since 1999, Congress has served up two industry-friendly laws—the Data Access Act and the Data Quality Act—that make it easier to hamstring legitimate research. At the same time, pharmaceutical companies conduct 70 percent of all our clinical drug studies and pay half the operating budget of the Food and Drug Administration. Universities own and sell patents derived from federal grants. Science journals rarely publish negative results, but they do run pages of industry advertisements. With all this room for doubt, it’s hard to blame an outsider for throwing up his hands—just what do we know about anything?

Some of our most brilliant and persuasive science journalists have succumbed to this atmosphere of suffocating uncertainty—and written off entire fields of research. In the New York Times Magazine last September, Gary Taubes cast damnation on the whole practice of epidemiology for its confounding variables and meaningless correlations. Eight months earlier, Michael Pollan had graced the same pages with an excoriation of nutritional science and the writers, doctors, and executives who profit from its claims; he seems to want to abandon research and return to traditional knowledge.

It’s no surprise that suspicion of science has grown distended in recent years and now looks a bit like paranoia. Each new uncertainty campaign further degrades our faith in science and softens us up for the next one. The doubt-mongers tend to divide and proliferate. Skepticism breeds more skepticism.