Doubt Is Their Product: How Industry's Assault on Science Threatens Your Health

  • David Michaels
Oxford University Press: 2008. 384 pp. $27.95, £14.99 019530067X 9780195300673 | ISBN: 0-195-30067-X

David Michaels has written a powerful, thorough indictment of the way big business has ignored, suppressed or distorted vital scientific evidence to the detriment of the public's health. Doubt Is Their Product catalogues numerous corporate misdemeanours, especially in the United States, from the criminal neglect of the dangerous nature of asbestos and the lies told by the tobacco industry, to the suppression of adverse findings of deaths caused by the anti-inflammatory drug Vioxx and the increased risk of suicide among teenagers taking selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors for depression. The book concludes with a list of prescriptions for securing better regulation and greater protection for the public, mainly through increased public disclosure of vested interests.

The central question Michaels raises is whether our dependence on corporate funding in Western society can be reconciled with the integrity of scientific research and, if so, how. It can be argued that the importance of the motivation of a company or a scientist tends to be exaggerated. Our present system contains a strong element of self-regulation through self-interest. Companies make profits by manufacturing successful products that are useful to the public, and are damaged if their products are shown to be ineffective or harmful. They may face ruin if they cause disaster, as in the case of thalidomide. From time to time they err, but regulation keeps aberrations to a minimum. Big pharmaceutical companies, for example, have served public interest by producing a stream of drugs that has greatly improved the quality and length of our lives, as Michaels acknowledges.

Individual scientists have reason to avoid dishonesty and incentives to ensure that their research stands up to scrutiny. Their reputations — and careers — depend on doing good science and suffer if findings are discredited. Corporate research is peer reviewed and results are accepted only when shown to be reproducible. Whatever its limitations, peer review is the best guarantee we have of research quality. These incentives and safeguards apply whether scientists work for companies, universities or the government. If the science is good, it survives; if not, it does not, whatever the funding source or the scientist's personal motive.

Yet, as Michaels demonstrates, motivation cannot be ignored. Canadian scientists examined papers on the controversial question of whether calcium-channel blockers used to treat high blood pressure increased the risk of heart attack. They found that, of those who supported the use of such blockers, 96% had a financial connection with the manufacturers. This compared with 60% of those who were neutral and 37% of those who were critical. Many studies of other drugs have found similar correlations between sponsorship and conclusions.

Despite scientific evidence, environmentalists oppose transgenic crops such as modified rice. Credit: O. TORRES/AFP/GETTY IMAGES

In an ideal world, profit would not influence research. As a banner carried by an anti-globalization demonstrator at an international trade conference in Genoa proclaimed: “Capitalism should be replaced by something nicer.” However, the socialist alternative, as exemplified by the former Soviet Union, did not prove to be 'nicer'. By stifling opposition to his ideas, Stalin's director of biology, Trofim Lysenko, did not promote good science, nor did he benefit the Soviet public.

Profit-pursuing corporations are not the only sinners to disrespect the integrity of science. Polls show that whereas the public distrusts scientists funded by industry, it respects those who work for environmental non-governmental organizations such as Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth. They are assumed to be objective and public spirited. Yet those bodies also have their own agendas, namely to promote their causes by increasing membership; they know that the most effective appeal is through scare stories. They too ignore and distort evidence, but in their case there is no self-regulatory mechanism. The more sensational the scare — for example, “Frankenfoods!” — the greater the publicity.

Michaels describes how defenders of the tobacco industry exploited the uncertainties of science by promoting doubt: they demanded that tobacco should be positively proved to cause harm. Green lobbyists make the equally unjustifiable demand that genetically modified crops should be positively proved to be safe. Reports on transgenic crops by the World Health Organization, by every national academy of science and their worldwide cultivation for more than ten years provide no evidence of harm to human health. Yet environmental organizations ignore this. They constantly recycle discredited findings by Árpád Pusztai in 1999 and Irina Ermakova in 2007 that transgenic crops cause harm to rats, and continue to make long-disproved claims that transgenic maize is destroying monarch butterflies.

The motives of these green activists are ideological not financial, based on fears that science has gone too far and we must go 'back to nature', and that transgenic crops benefit only big corporations. More than ten million small-scale farmers have benefited from transgenic crops, mainly farmers of genetically modified cotton, who saw improvements in health and income from the reduced need to spray pesticides. Confident of the virtue of their cause, Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth and the Soil Association feel no need for peer-reviewed papers and show less regard for evidence than the large corporations they denounce.

Doubt Is Their Product underlines the need for independent regulation. Michaels records how George W. Bush's administration applied political pressure to undermine the independence of regulators in the United States, and demonstrates the perils of trusting corporations themselves to protect the public interest. In Europe, the threat to science comes from another quarter: the excessive influence of over-zealous green campaigners, who have virtually driven agricultural biotechnology into exile.

The moral is that we must all recognize our tendency to judge evidence with a bias towards our own interests and beliefs. This makes it especially incumbent on those with corporate connections to ensure that respect for evidence predominates in industry-financed research. Equally, those of us who care passionately about the environment must be on our guard to ensure that green causes do not ignore or distort the scientific evidence on which their success depends.