The history of this practice is documented in a new book by David Michaels, the former assistant secretary of labor for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) under the Obama administration. It’s a close look at how powerful corporations fund junk science and misinformation campaigns in order to obscure evidence and undercut regulatory efforts.
Big Tobacco and the fossil fuels industry are obvious examples, but the problem goes well beyond that. From cancer-causing hair products and apparel to diabetes-linked food and sugary drinks, corporations have realized that you don’t have to convince the public or government officials of anything — all you have to do is create the illusion of doubt.
And they do that by piloting bogus studies, organizing partisan think tanks, supplying dubious congressional witnesses, and anything else they can think of to give regulators enough cover to plausibly look the other way. If you’ve ever heard a politician say “The science is still unclear” or “We need to keep researching the issue,” there’s a good chance that was made possible by industry-funded pseudo-science.
I spoke to Michaels about what this process looks like, why journalists and civic actors have been unable to stop it, and how the practice has become more pervasive in recent years. We also discussed the coronavirus pandemic and how the tactics he describes in this book helped lay the groundwork for the extreme skepticism of scientific expertise we’re seeing from conservatives.
Jesus: Hey, Dad? God: Yes, Son? Jesus: Western civilization followed me home. Can I keep it? God: Certainly not! And put it down this minute--you don't know where it's been! Tom Robbins in Another Roadside Attraction