AIHce: Doubt Is Their Product: Manufactured Uncertainty and Public Health

David Michaels, Ph.D., MPH, a front-runner in the race to head OSHA, offered the Jeffrey S. Lee Lecture on the opening day of the American Industrial Hygiene Conference and Expo in Toronto this week. According to Michaels, a strategy of “manufacturing uncertainty” successfully has been used by polluters and the manufacturers of dangerous products to oppose public health and environmental regulations.

Michaels claims that this strategy has been so successful that is now is unusual for science not to be challenged by industries facing increased regulation. In fact, he says, a cottage industry has sprung up to help create manufacturing uncertainty, with technical consulting firms advertising “product defense” or “litigation support.”

“I call this the Enronization of science,” says Michaels. “These scientists are hired to defend products in regulatory and legal arenas. Their value is their ability to influence regulation and litigation.”

These scientists, says Michaels, who is the director of the Project on Scientific Knowledge and Public Policy and a research professor and interim chairman, Department of Environmental and Occupational Health at the GeorgeWashington School of Public Health and Health Services, “produce science of questionable value.”

Citing what he calls “the funding effect,” Michaels noted, “There’s a close correlation between the results desired by a study sponsor and the results reported.”

Asking, “Can we trust the advice of conflicted scientists?” Michaels quoted Upton Sinclair: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.”

Michaels makes these suggestions for keeping research honest:

  • Require full disclosure of all health and safety data. Michaels pointed out that regulatory agencies do not require or even ask for conflicting disclosures.
  • Eliminate conflict of interest by banning employees from product defense firms from science advisory committees and by promoting institutional structures that protect research independence integrity and transparency.

And don’t think for one minute that research published in a peer reviewed journal isn’t tainted, Michaels cautioned, saying, “Peer review is not the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval.”

Maybe the names of the peers doing the reviewing should be published, he suggested, placing more pressure on them to conduct a thorough review of the science, since their names will be attached to the studies or papers they review.

For more information, he suggests visiting http://www.defendingscience.org.

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