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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 Previous regular column for Medscape –Small payment per article –While much of Medscape’s 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 Definition of Corporate Front Group American Council on Science and Health (ACSH) – history, staff, and funding 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 Outline Corporate Front Groups American Council on Science and Health Corporate PR Tactics Conclusions

6 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

7 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 –Crichton’s State of Fear questions existence of human-caused global warming –Crichton also received the American Association of Petroleum Geologists’ journalism award

8 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”

9 ACSH Response Threatened litigation against Medscape Article pulled, then republished with additional material ?Loss of potential readership?

10 ACSH: Dr Elizabeth Whelan - Director Founded in 1978 by Drs. Elizabeth Whelan and Frederick Stare Whelan’s early writing career included: –Freelance writing assignment for Pfizer criticizing the FDA –“Consumer magazine” pieces for Harper’s Bazaar and Glamour (fashion magazines) –Books: Panic in the Pantry and Toxic Terror Whelan’s 2003 salary = $326,612

11 ACSH: Dr Gilbert Ross - Medical /Executive Director In charge of all scientific projects, publications, and personnel issues involving scientific staff at ACHS 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

12 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

13 ACSH ACSH Board of Directors includes anti- regulatory Individuals Prominent figures on board of advisors –George Lundberg (Editor, Medscape), William Foege (former head of CDC), Patricia Buffler (former dean of UC Berkeley School of Public Health), others

14 ACSH Annual turnover of under $2 million Initial funding from right wing foundations, corporations –E.g., Sarah Scaife Foundation, Dow, Monsanto, American Cyanamid, Mobil Foundation, Chevron, Bethlehem Steel, etc. Accepted money to write and disseminate pro-industry “studies”

15 ACSH Finances had been secret since early 1990s until internal documents obtained by Mother Jones for second half of 2012 show –58% of donations from corporations and large private foundations

16 ACSH Funders have included Bayer CropScience, Syngenta, Procter and Gamble, National Petrochemical and Refiners Assn, McDonalds, Altria, Coca- Cola, Dr. Pepper/Snapple, General Mills, Nestle USA, National Soft Drink Association, others

17 ACSH Sound Science Has spoken out re dangers of tobacco smoking Supported IOM recommendation re coverage of contraception as a preventive health service Criticized Oprah for pseudoscientific claims (“The Secret,” anti-vaccination promulgations, nutritional supplement promotions, etc.)

18 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]”

19 ACSH: Pseudoscience and Misinformation Minimized the effects of environmental tobacco smoke (ETS) on human health –40,000 deaths/yr in U.S. Opposed FDA regulation of e- cigarettes

20 ACSH: Pseudoscience and Misinformation Promoted smokeless tobacco, snus, and e-cigarettes as smoking cessation aids Opposed graphic tobacco package warnings

21 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

22 ACSH: Pseudoscience and Misinformation Minimized health concerns of 9-11 responders Opposed EPA attempts to strengthen clean air standards Opposed TSCA reforms Denied health risks of certain cosmetics –See Environmental Working Group’s “Skin Deep” list of safe cosmetics

23 ACSH: Pseudoscience and Misinformation Claimed uncertainty regarding effects of agricultural antibiotics Denied health and environmental risks of GM crops Called warnings regarding tuna consumption by pregnant women “unfounded health scare” Turned Alar concerns into manufactured “cautionary tale” of overzealous regulators run amok

24 ACSH: Pseudoscience and Misinformation 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.” Rejected AAP recommendation for fast food television advertising ban Opposed ban on sales of energy drinks to minors

25 ACSH: Pseudoscience and Misinformation Claimed “irradiated food is safe, wholesome and nutritious” and “no radioactive isotopes are involved” Promotes fracking –Whelan: Fracking “doesn’t pollute air or water” –1992 memo by Whelan: ACSH is “the great defender of petrochemical companies” Promoted nuclear power and benefits of low dose radiation hormesis

26 ACSH: Pseudoscience and Misinformation Denied link between dioxins and pesticides and adverse health effects –“Pesticides are not toxic to humans of any age” Supported use of human volunteers in pesticide toxicity studies Denied health consequences of PBDEs (fire retardents) and PFOA (Teflon)

27 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

28 “Phony Health Scares” Mercury in tuna and other fish –“Enjoy it without worry” 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 children’s toys

29 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” –Called HSPH a “hotbed of pseudoscience and political agitation”

30 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

31 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

32 Erin Brokovich Received Harvard School of Public Health’s highest honor, the Julius Richmond Award Exposed Pacific Gas and Electric’s (PG and E’s) pollution of California groundwater with chromium-6 (linked to stomach cancer)

33 ACSH: Attacks on Scientists and the Scientific Enterprise Charles Duhigg - NY Times writer Winner of 2010 NY branch of the Society for Professional Journalists Daniel Pearl Award for series, “Toxic Waters” Accused of “echo[ing] the campaign of radical environmental groups seeking to scare people about the safe use of pesticides” and of “allow[ing] himself to be used as a pawn in a campaign against…atrazine”

34 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 NBC’s Today Show, CNN Live, BBC, and CNBC’s Business Insiders Editorials by Whelan and Ross have appeared in the NY Times, Wall Street Journal, LA Times, USA Today, NY Post, Forbes, National Review, Washington Times, Weekly Standard, Medscape, and other publications

35 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

36 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

37 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

38 Educational Deficits Impede Public’s Understanding of Science 25% of Americans functionally illiterate 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

39 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

40 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%

41 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%

42 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 –20% of high school biology teachers are creationists

43 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 14% have consulted a psychic or fortune teller (2009)

44 Ignorance/Pseudoscientific Beliefs 22% of Americans don’t know whether an atomic bomb has ever been dropped (2000) 25% of Americans don’t know the earth revolves around the sun (2014) 18% believe in Bigfoot and the Loch Ness Monster (2007) 8% of men / 18% of women believe in astrology and fortune tellers (2007)


46 Corporate PR Tactics Greenwash: Public relations/ad campaigns –Chevron’s “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”

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

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

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

50 Sponsored Environmental Educational Materials - Examples Exxon’s “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”

51 Sponsored Environmental Educational Materials - Examples American Nuclear Society’s “Activities with the Atoms Family” Dow’s “Chemipalooza”

52 Environment of Anti- Science/Pseudoscience Erosion of science under the Bush 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 A little improvement under Obama

53 Recommendations 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

54 Contact Info Martin T Donohoe

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