Strategic contamination of science by industry

I found this gem in the American Journal of Public Health. If you apply a mental "find-replace" to any of many industries, this should sound familiar.  Brandt is a science historian, for any readers who might otherwise be skeptical.

Inventing Conflicts of Interest: A History of Tobacco Industry Tactics
Alan M. Brandt
ABSTRACT: Confronted by compelling peer-reviewed scientific evidence of the harms of smoking, the tobacco industry, beginning in the 1950s, used sophisticated public relations approaches to undermine and distort the emerging science. 
The industry campaign worked to create a scientific controversy through a program that depended on the creationofindustry–academic conflicts of interest. This strategy of producing scientific uncertainty undercut public health efforts and regulatory interventions designed to reduce the harms of smoking. 
A number of industries have subsequently followed this approach to disrupting normative science. Claims of scientific uncertainty and lack of proof also lead to the assertion of individual responsibility for industrially produced health risks.
Brandt writes:
By late 1953, the tobacco industry faced a crisis of cataclysmic proportions. Smoking had been categorically linked to the dramatic rise of lung cancer. Although health concerns about smoking had been raised for decades, by the early 1950s there was a powerful expansion and consolidation of scientific methods and findings that demonstrated that smoking caused lung disease as well as other serious respiratory and cardiac diseases, leading to death. These findings appeared in major, peer- reviewed medical journals as well as throughout the general media. 
As a result, the tobacco industry would launch a new strategy, largely unprecedented in the history of US industry and business: it would work to erode, confuse, and condemn the very science that now threatened to destroy its prized, highly popular, and exclu- sive product. But this would be no simple matter. After all, in the immediate postwar years–the dawn of the nuclear age–science was in high esteem. The industry could not denigrate the scientific enterprise and still maintain its public credibility, so crucial to its success… 
 What is so upsetting is the level of intentional manipulation and coordination [emphasis is mine]:
By the early 1950s, the emerging science on tobacco’s harms documented in the elite peer- reviewed literature, especially the causal linkage to lung cancer, threatened to undo more than a half century of unprecedented corporate success. With considerable anxiety and rancor within the tobacco industry, the industry’s highly competitive CEOs came together in December 1953 at the Plaza Hotel in New York City to map a strategy. They realized that the threat they now faced was unprecedented and would require new, collaborative approaches and expertise. Not surprisingly, given their history, they turned again to the field of public relations that had served them so well in the past. They called upon John W. Hill, the president of the nation’s leading public relations firm, Hill & Knowlton. 
The public confidence the industry required could not be achieved through advertising, which was self-interested by definition. It would be crucial for the industry to assert its authority over the scientific domain; science had the distinct advantage of its reputation for disinterestedness. Hill shared with his public relations predecessor Bernays a deep skepticism about the role of advertising in influencing public perceptions of tobacco. To those schooled in public relations, advertising ran the risk of exposing corporate self-interest. Good public relations relied on scrupulous behind-the-scenes management of media. As Bernays had demonstrated in the 1920s and 1930s, the best public relations work left no fingerprints. 
Hill offered the companies powerful advice and guidance as they faced their crisis. Hill understood that simply denying emerging scientific facts would be a losing game. This would not only smack of self-interest but also ally the companies with ignorance in an age of technological and scientific hegemony. So he proposed seizing and controlling science rather than avoiding it. If science posed the principal–even terminal–threat to the industry, Hill advised that the companies should now associate themselves as great supporters of science. The companies, in his view, should embrace a sophisticated scientific discourse; they should demand more science, not less. 
Of critical importance, Hill argued, they should declare the positive value of scientific skepticism of science itself. Knowledge, Hill understood, was hard won and uncertain, and there would always be skeptics. What better strategy than to identify, solicit, support, and amplify the views of skeptics of the causal relationship between smoking and disease? Moreover, the liberal disbursement of tobacco industry research funding to academic scientists could draw new skeptics into the fold. The goal, according to Hill, would be to build and broadcast a major scientific controversy. The public must get the message that the issue of the health effects of smoking remains an open question. Doubt, uncertainty, and the truism that there is more to know would become the industry’s collective new mantra…. 
The very nature of controlling and managing information in public relations stood in marked contrast to the scientific notion of unfettered new knowledge. Hill and his clients had no interest in answering a scientific question. Their goal was to maintain vigorous control over the research program, to use science in the service of public relations. Al- though the tobacco executives had proposed forming a cigarette information committee dedicated to defending smoking against the medical findings, Hill argued aggressively for adding research to the committee’s title and agenda. ‘‘It is believed,’’ he wrote, ‘‘that the word ‘Research’ is needed in the name to give weight and added credence to the Committee’s statements.’’ a Hill understood that his clients should be viewed as embracing science rather than dismissing it…. 
Hill & Knowlton had successfully produced uncertainty in the face of a powerful scientific consensus. So long as this uncertainty could be maintained, so long as the industry could claim ‘‘not proven,’’ it would be positioned to fight any attempts to assert regulatory authority over the industry. Without their claims of no proof and doubt, the companies would be highly vulnerable in 2 crucial venues: regulatory politics and litigation…. 
In their work to control the science, the companies had also found that they had secured considerable advantages in the realms of media, law, and public opinion. All of this was dependent on maintaining the notions of controversy, uncertainty, and doubt. In 1961, Hill & Knowlton celebrated its successes on behalf of its tobacco client. The total number of cigarettes sold annually had risen from 369 billion in 1954, the company’s first full year of service to the industry, to 488 billion. Per capita consumption had risen from 3344 a year in 1954 to 4025 in 1961, the highest ever. ‘‘From a business stand- point,’’ Hill & Knowlton crowed, ‘‘the tobacco industry has weath- ered this latest spate of health attacks on its products.’’ In less than a decade, the in- dustry had been stabilized and was thriving… 
And finally, why we need to devise some kind of institution to prevent this:
The story of the tobacco ‘‘controversy’’ and the industry’s deliberative attempts to disrupt science is now, fortunately, fairly well known. In large measure, this story emerged only as a result of whistle blowers and litigation that led to the revelation of millions of pages of internal tobacco documents that both laid out this strategy and documented its implementation. But what has often gone over- looked in the assessment of the tobacco episode was the highly articulated, strategic character of seizing the scientific initiative, the engineering of science. This, however, was a factor well understood by John Hill and the public relations teams that advised the companies. They carefully documented what the scientific investment would buy and how best for the companies to protect and defend that investment. 
A wide range of other industries have carefully studied the tobacco industry strategy. As a result, they have come to better understand the fundamentals of influence within the sciences and the value of uncertainty and skepticism in deflecting regulation, defending against litigation, and maintaining credibility despite the marketing of products that are known to be harmful to public health. Also, they have come to understand that the invention of scientific controversy undermines notions of the common good by emphasizing in- dividual assessment, responsibility, and judgment.
There are so many research ideas in here that I'm not even going to bother trying to list them.  But the field is wide open. I don't think I know more than one or two people who work on the political economy of science.


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