By Genna Reed, Union of Concerned Scientists
I have always had a healthy dose of curiosity and skepticism and a desire to hold people accountable for their statements built into my DNA. Usually, these were borne out in letter-writing campaigns. As a child, I sent a series of letters to the Daily News because I believed its campaign of “No More Schmutz!” was falling short after rifling through the pages and still having gray smudges on my fingers. Inky fingers is a far cry from misinformation about the dangers of fossil fuel pollution, but overall, my general pursuit for the truth hasn’t changed.
My newest project at the Center for Science and Democracy released today is a website that exposes the ways in which companies seek to hide the truth about the impacts of their products or actions on health and the environment. By calling out the plays in the “Disinformation Playbook,” we hope to ensure that powerful companies and institutions are not engaging in behavior that would obstruct the government’s ability to keep us safe, and at the very least aren’t doing us any harm. Unfortunately, as our case studies show, there are far too many examples in which companies and trade organizations have made intentional decisions to delay or obstruct science-based safeguards, putting our lives at risk.
In the Disinformation Playbook, we reveal the five tactics that some companies use to manipulate, attack, or create doubt about science and the scientists conducting important research that appears unfavorable to a company’s products or actions. We also feature twenty case studies that show how companies in a range of different industries have used these tactics in an effort to sideline science.
While not all companies engage in this irresponsible behavior, the companies and trade associations we highlight in the playbook have acted in legally questionable and ethically unsound ways. Here are five of the most egregious examples from the Playbook:
In an attempt to reduce litigation costs, Georgia-Pacific secretly ran a research program intended to raise doubts about the dangers of asbestos and stave off regulatory efforts to ban the chemical. The company used knowingly flawed methodologies in its science as well as publishing its research in scientific journals without adequately disclosing the authors’ conflicts of interest. By seeding the literature with counterfeit science, Georgia-Pacific created a life-threatening hazard by deceiving those who rely on science to understand the health risks of asbestos exposure. While asbestos use has been phased out in the US, it is not banned, and mesothelioma still claims the lives of thousands of people very year.
Rather than honestly dealing with its burgeoning concussion problem, the National Football League (NFL) went after the reputation of the first doctor to link the sport to the degenerative brain disease he named Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy. What Omalu found in Mike Webster’s brain—chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a progressive degenerative disease mainly associated with “punch drunk” boxers and victims of brain trauma—broke the NFL’s burgeoning concussion problem wide open. But instead of working with scientists and doctors to better understand the damaging effect of repeated concussions and how the league could improve the game to reduce head injuries, the NFL went after the reputation of Omalu and the other scientists who subsequently worked on CTE. Just this year, Boston University scientists released a study of 111 deceased former NFL players’ brains, revealing that all but one had signs of CTE.
The top lobbyist for the fossil fuel industry in the western United States secretly ran more than a dozen front groups in an attempt to undermine forward-looking policy on climate change and clean technologies. As a leaked 2014 presentation by Western States Petroleum Association (WSPA) President Catherine Reheis-Boyd revealed, WSPA’s strategy was to use these fabricated organizations to falsely represent grassroots opposition to forward-looking policy on climate change and clean technologies. WSPA and its member companies oppose science-based climate policies that are critically needed to mitigate the damaging impacts of global warming.
Coca-Cola quietly funded a research institute out of the University of Colorado designed to persuade people to focus on exercise, not calorie intake, for weight loss. Emails between the company and the institute’s president suggested Coca-Cola helped pick the group’s leaders, create its mission statement, and design its website. A growing body of scientific evidence links sugar to a variety of negative health outcomes, including diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and high cholesterol. Coca-Cola’s actions overrode sensible transparency safeguards meant to ensure the independence of research—and allow consumers to understand the risks of sugar consumption for themselves.
After meeting with and listening to talking points from chlorpyrifos producer Dow Chemical Company, the EPA announced it would be reversing its decision to ban the chemical that is linked to neurological development issues in children. In 2016, the EPA concluded that chlorpyrifos can have harmful effects on child brain development. The regulation of chlorpyrifos is additionally an environmental justice issue. Latino children in California are 91 percent more likely than white children to attend schools near areas of heavy pesticide use.
The secret to a good defense is a good offense
By arming ourselves with independent science, we can fight back against these familiar tactics. Granted, it’s not an easy task, especially in the face of a government run by an administration that doesn’t appear to value evidence, believing asbestos is 100% safe and claiming that climate change is a hoax. I hear powerful stories every day of communities working together to crush corporate disinformation campaigns with the hard truth.
Just a couple of weeks ago, community members from Hoosick Falls, New York attended the hearing for “toxicologist-for-hire,” Dr. Michael Dourson, the nominee to head up the EPA’s Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention. Senator Kristen Gillibrand paid homage to their bravery, “The water that they drink, the water they give their children, the water they cook in, the water they bathe in, is contaminated by PFOA. These families are so frightened.” These individuals had a powerful story to tell about the way in which DuPont downplayed the dangers of the chemical byproduct of Teflon, C8 or PFOA, and Dourson’s consulting firm, hired by DuPont, recommended a far lower standard for the chemical than most scientists believe would have protected exposed residents from harm.
We hope that reading through the playbook will encourage you to stand up for science and join us as we continue to challenge companies that attempt to sideline science, seeking business as usual at our expense. Become a science champion today and take a stand against corporate disinformation by asking your members of congress not to do automakers’ bidding by rolling back valuable progress on vehicle efficiency standards.
Stay curious, stay skeptical, and together we can work toward making corporate culture more honest and transparent by raising the political cost of using the disinformation playbook.