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Confronting Pseudoscience and Threats from a Corporate Front Group: The American Council on Science and Health Martin Donohoe.

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Presentation on theme: "Confronting Pseudoscience and Threats from a Corporate Front Group: The American Council on Science and Health Martin Donohoe."— Presentation transcript:

1 Confronting Pseudoscience and Threats from a Corporate Front Group: The American Council on Science and Health Martin Donohoe

2 Disclosure Regular column for Medscape –Small payment per article –While much of Medscapes content is supported by the pharmaceutical industry, my columns have been free of industry support No other funding sources or conflicts of interest

3 Outline Background: Global Warming American Council on Science and Health (ACSH) – history, staff, and funding Corporate Front Groups ACSH – Pseudoscience and Misinformation

4 Outline ACSH – Attacks on Scientists and the Scientific Enterprise Implications for Science and Public Health Other examples of obfuscation of science by corporate interests Conclusions

5 Background Essay describing health and environmental consequences of global warming for Medscape Described ACSH as a corporate front group and criticized its selection of author Michael Crichton as recipient of its 2005 Sound Science Medal –Crichtons State of Fear questions existence of human-caused global warming –Crichton also received the American Association of Petroleum Geologists journalism award

6 ACSH and Global Warming Leader referred to belief that burning fossil fuels has caused global warming as pseudoscience Criticized environmental scientists as doomsayers and fearmongers

7 ACSH Response Threatens litigation against Medscape Medscape briefly pulls article, then publishes with comments removed, then republishes with additional material ?Loss of potential readership?

8 ACSH: Dr Elizabeth Whelan Founded in 1978 by Drs. Elizabeth Whelan and Frederick Stare Whelans early writing career included: –Freelance writing assignment for Pfizer criticizing the FDA –Consumer magazine pieces for Harpers Bazaar and Glamour (fashion magazines) –Books include Panic in the Pantry and Toxic Terror Whelans 2003 salary = $326,612

9 ACSH: Dr Gilbert Ross Joined ACSH as staff assistant in 1997 Became Coordinator of Medical Projects in 1998 Appointed Medical Director, then Executive Director in 1999

10 ACSH: Dr Gilbert Ross Spent 1996 in federal prison after being sentenced to 46 months for –Medicaid fraud –Perjury –Obstruction of justice –Not mentioned on his bio on ACSH website Barred by the DHHS for 10 years from participating in either Medicare or Medicaid

11 ACSH: Dr Gilbert Ross Career Defended Wood Preservative Science Council against health claims regarding arsenic in pressure-treated wood Wrote on behalf of the farmed salmon industry that PCBs in fish do not cause any health problems Now in charge of all scientific projects, publications, and personnel issues involving scientific staff at ACHS

12 ACSH ACHS Board of Directors includes anti- regulatory Individuals (2001 Survey) George Lundberg, former editor of JAMA, current editor of Medscape, on board of advisors Funding from right wing foundations, corporations Accepted money to write and disseminate pro- industry studies

13 Corporate Front Groups Promote corporate agendas Strong financial and advisory links with corporations Disseminate misinformation/lies under guise of science –Non-peer reviewed, cherry-picked/out of context Promote pro-business, conservative ideology

14 ACSH: Pseudoscience and Misinformation Attacked the precautionary principle –anti-science and anti-technology phobia –fundamentally reactionary and elitist –more on the order of theology [than science] Minimized the effects of environmental tobacco smoke (ETS) on human health –38,000 deaths/yr in U.S.

15 ACSH: Pseudoscience and Misinformation Denied many of the adverse neurological effects of lead exposure Denied endocrine-disrupting effects of PCBs Claimed court ordered-cleanup of Hudson River by GE based on false claims of PCBs causing cancer Claimed uncertainty regarding effects of agricultural antibiotics

16 ACSH: Pseudoscience and Misinformation Called warnings regarding tuna consumption by pregnant women unfounded health scare Critiqued health concerns re trans fatty acids –There is no such thing as junk food –There is insufficient evidence of a relationship between diet and any disease.

17 ACSH: Pseudoscience and Misinformation Claimed irradiated food is safe, wholesome and nutritious and no radioactive isotopes are involved Denied link between dioxins and pesticides and adverse health effects Supported use of human volunteers in pesticide toxicity studies

18 Pesticides EPA: U.S. farm workers suffer up to 300,000 pesticide-related acute illnesses and injuries per year NAS: Pesticides in food could cause up to 1 million cancers in the current generation of Americans WHO: 1,000,000 people killed by pesticides over the last 6 years

19 Phony Health Scares Mercury in tuna and other fish Flame retardant traces found in blood and breast milk PCBs in the Hudson River Diesel exhaust fumes from school busses Arsenic in drinking water Phthalates in medical devices and childrens toys

20 ACSH: Attacks on Scientists and the Scientific Enterprise Threat of litigation against Medscape antithetical to the rules of science –require the free exchange of information and opinion in pursuit of the truth

21 ACSH: Attacks on Scientists and the Scientific Enterprise ad hominem attacks –environmentalists = toxic terrorists –Whelan criticized Dr. Barry Levy and citizen-activist Erin Brockovich as individuals who…pursued self- serving financial opportunities through litigation

22 Barry Levy Expert in asbestos-related litigation Past president of APHA and winner of Sedgwick Medal Career has included work with CDC and USAID and the presidency of International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War

23 Erin Brokovich Received Harvard School of Public Healths highest honor, the Julius Richmond Award Exposed Pacific Gas and Electrics (PG and Es) pollution of California groundwater with chromium-6 (linked to stomach cancer)

24 Implications of Attacks on Science and Scientists ACSH has broad media presence Web site attracts large numbers of individuals –100,000 hits per month for 2005 Dr. Whelan has been featured on NBCs Today Show, CNN Live, and CNBCs Business Insiders Editorials by Whelan and Ross have appeared in the New York Times and Wall Street Journal

25 Implications of Attacks on Science and Scientists Mislead public / may cause alterations in lifestyle and/or purchasing habits –adverse consequences to health Threats of litigation and SLAPP suits distract, intimidate, and deplete the scientific, legal, and financial resources of individuals and groups committed to public health

26 Implications of Attacks on Science and Scientists Faulty pronouncements influence elected officials Threats of litigation divert the valuable time of health care providers, editors, and legal departments away from their more productive missions of research, teaching, writing, and patient care

27 Implications of Attacks on Science and Scientists Scientists and health care advocates may decide it is wiser to avoid conflict than publish content to which ACSH and other such groups might object

28 Educational Deficits Impede Publics Understanding of Science Inadequate funding of science and health education means individuals may lack background necessary to recognize sound science vs. ideological bunk Corporate-sponsored educational materials replacing scientific syllabi

29 Would You Sign a Petition to Ban Dihydrogen Monoxide? 1. It can cause excessive sweating and vomiting 2. It is a major component in acid rain 3. It can cause severe burns in its gaseous state 4. It can kill you if accidentally inhaled 5. It contributes to erosion 6. It decreases effectiveness of automobile brakes 7. It has been found in tumors of terminal cancer patients

30 Geographic Ignorance Percent of US teens unable to locate the following on a map: –United States – 11% –Pacific Ocean – 29% –Japan – 58% –United Kingdom – 68%

31 Pseudoscientific Beliefs Percentage of Americans who believe at least to some degree in these phenomena 19761997 Astrology17% 37% UFOs24% 30% Reincarnation 9% 25% Fortune-Telling 4%14%

32 Ignorance/Pseudoscientific Beliefs Half of US citizens do not believe in evolution and do believe that humans and dinosaurs coexisted (2007) –40% think scientists still generally disagree about evolution

33 Pseudoscientific Beliefs 37% believe places can be haunted (2007) 25% believe in UFOs (2007) 24% believe in astrology (2009) 16% believe that people with the evil eye can cast curses or harmful spells

34 Ignorance/Pseudoscientific Beliefs 22% of Americans dont know whether an atomic bomb has ever been dropped (2000) 20% of Americans dont know the earth revolves around the sun (1999) 18% believe in Bigfoot and the Loch Ness Monster (2007) 8% of men / 18% of women believe in astrology and fortune tellers (2007)


36 Corporate Influence Greenwash: Public relations/ad campaigns –Chevrons People Do Campaign, butterflies/refinery –British Petroleum (BP) invests $100 million annually in clean energy = amt. it spends annually to market its new name and environmentally-friendly image of moving Beyond Petroleum

37 Corporate Influence Astroturf: artificially-created grassroots coalitions Other corporate front groups –The Alliance for Responsible CFC Policy –National Wilderness Institute –The Foundation for Clean Air Progress

38 Corporate PR tactics Invoke poor people as beneficiaries Characterize opposition as technophobic, anti-science, and against progress Portray their products as environmentally beneficial in the absence of (or despite the) evidence

39 Sponsored Environmental Educational Materials Corporate-sponsored and supported by a loose coalition of antiregulatory zealots, corporate polluters, lapdog scientists and misguided parents

40 Sponsored Environmental Educational Materials - Examples Exxons Energy Cube -Gasoline is simply solar power hidden in decayed matter -Offshore drilling creates reefs for fish Pacific Lumber Company -The Great American Forest is... renewable forever

41 Sponsored Environmental Educational Materials - Examples American Nuclear Societys Activities with the Atoms Family Dows Chemipalooza

42 Environment of Anti- Science/Pseudoscience Erosion of science under the current administration: –Appointments to key scientific bodies based on corporate connections and political or religious ideology, rather than scientific expertise –Excessive corporate influence over legislation –The rewriting and even suppression of scientific policy statements

43 Conclusions Professional and lay publications should expose the workings of groups like ACSH Scientists should fight back against harassment Improve quality of public education; get corporations out of the classroom

44 Papers/References Donohoe MT. Corporate front groups and the abuse of science: the saga of the American Council on Science and Health. Z Magazine 2007 (October):42-6. Available at Referenced version available at content/uploads/2007/11/corporate-front-groups-abuse-of-science- with-background-and-refs.doc content/uploads/2007/11/corporate-front-groups-abuse-of-science- with-background-and-refs.doc Donohoe MT. Global warming: a public health crisis demanding immediate action. World Affairs Journal 2007;11(2):44-58 (adapted from Global warming: a public health crisis demanding immediate action (Part I). Medscape Public Health and Prevention (1/12/07). Available at and Global warming: a public health crisis demanding immediate action (Part II). Medscape Public Health and Prevention (1/16/07). Available at

45 Contact Info Martin T Donohoe

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