Invasion of the Fearmongers
December 1 2000 by Ronald Bailey
Couple a scientifically illiterate public with activist groups well versed in scare tactics and what do you get? High school student Nathan Zohner’s class project paints a pretty good picture. Zohner asked 50 random people if they would favor a ban on dihydrogen monoxide. After he explained that the substance can cause excessive sweating and vomiting, is part of acid rain, can cause severe burns in its gaseous form, has been found in tumors in terminal cancer patients, and that its accidental inhalation can kill you, 43 out of 50 respondents favored a ban. What is dihydrogen monoxide? Water, of course. Zohner dubbed his science project “How Gullible Are We?” The answer is “very.”
The unfortunate truth is that most Americans are scientifically clueless-and, therefore, all too vulnerable to the wiles of “agenda science,” or the misuse of existing science or crafting of pseudo-science to achieve a political or social agenda by attacking a product or policy.
Just how scientifically illiterate even educated Americans are was famously demonstrated in a documentary in which Harvard students and faculty were asked, “Why are summers hot?” Of 25 polled, 22 answered that it was because the Earth was nearer to the sun, not that the Earth’s tilt causes more sunlight to fall on the northern hemisphere. Other studies are equally discouraging.
A survey conducted by the National Science Foundation (NSF) found that less than 50 percent of Americans knew that the earliest humans did not live at the same time as dinosaurs; that it takes one year for the Earth to orbit the sun; that antibiotics don’t kill viruses; and that lasers don’t work by focusing sound waves. The NSF also found that 87 percent of Americans couldn’t define a molecule, 71 percent couldn’t define DNA, and 84 percent couldn’t define the Internet.
Such figures are particularly disturbing, as “science literacy is part and parcel of citizenship, and good governance, and self governance in modern society,” asserts David Murray, director of the Statistical Assessment Service (STATS), a scientific watchdog group based in Washington, D.C. As Matt Skok of ExxonMobil Research and Engineering recently told an assembly of teachers, “Important decisions are being made today which are complex and require careful evaluation and balance between competing priorities. We will need scientifically literate adults, and therefore, quantitatively literate adults to meet these challenges because they will be asked to weigh in on key issues, either by direct vote or by whom they choose to represent them in public office; their decisions will determine if businesses will prosper, struggle, or fail.”
An unsuspecting public can easily fall prey to bogus scientific studies seeking to discredit a company or ban a product from store shelves. Companies in the plastics, biotech crop, nuclear power, and paper businesses have all been in the crosshairs of groups gunning for Corporate America. Activists, policymakers, and journalists treat science as a rhetorical tactic in the war against their chosen opposition, whether it be corporations, the patriarchy, racism, or whatever. They simply gin up “scientific reports” complete with charts and graphs in support of a given political position. These groups use agenda science because it’s effective Americans respect science, even if they don’t always understand it.
“If an activist stands up in the marketplace and says babies are being harmed, mothers aren’t going to read scientific papers to check the claim,” points out Bill Patient, former CEO of Ohio-based Geon, a $1.5 billion plastics manufacturer, and longtime fighter against agenda science. “In a world that is science driven and where science is poorly understood, these kinds of arguments get traction.”
“CEOs need to understand that [this] can have as big an impact on their bottom line as anything that they do,” adds Ron Yocum, former CEO of Millennium Petrochemicals and president and CEO of the American Plastics Council (APC), who says CEOs don’t spend enough time “defending their products against activist attacks based on agenda science.”
Anatomy of An Attack
How do activists choose their business targets? Nick Nichols, CEO of the Washington, D.C.-based crisis management firm Nichols-Dezenhall, identifies four criteria:
1.The product is used by vulnerable segments of the population, i.e., children, pregnant women.
2.The product offers few perceived significant consumer benefits.
3.Activists can conjure up alleged alternatives.
4.The manufacturer has a history of caving in to activist pressure.
Recent events at Novartis AG, the European chemical, pharmaceutical, and food giant that produces genetically engineered corn resistant to pests and soybeans resistant to herbicides, offer a near perfect example of how this works. In the lexicon of activists, these biotech crops are genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Greenpeace, the global environmentalist organization, has orchestrated a global campaign claiming biotech crops are not safe and could harm the natural environment. Yet, virtually every scientific body and regulatory agency that has analyzed biotech crops concluded that they are safe. In fact, a recent consensus report from seven national scientific academies, including the U.S. National Academy of Sciences and the Royal Society of London, found them as safe, if not safer, than conventional crops. Nevertheless, Greenpeace has been very successful in frightening consumers, especially in Europe, about the safety of biotech crops.
Faced with the prospect of a full-frontal assault, Novartis chose to capitulate, reporting that it had eliminated genetically engineered ingredients from all of its food products, including Gerber baby food. This case nicely fits Nichols’ four criteria:
Vulnerable population: The products of Novartis’ Gerber baby food subsidiary are meant for consumption by infants.
No perceived significant consumer benefits: The chief benefits of biotech corn and soy accrue to farmers who lower their weed and pest control costs. Since consumers can’t tell the difference between biotech and conventional crops, they don’t see a personal benefit.
Alternatives: Activists promote organic crops, but conventional ones are also alternatives to biotech crops.
Cave-in factor: Gerber is a perennial target. In the mid-1990s, the Environmental Working Group claimed that Gerber’s baby food was laced with pesticides. In fact, Gerber met or exceeded FDA safety standards, but pledged to work harder to keep pesticides out of their food. And now Novartis has announced that it won’t buy crops produced using the very seeds it is selling to farmers.
“Gerber baby food had to be GMOfree. It’s a product that sells essentially on trust,” Novartis USA CEO Terry Barnett explained. “Mothers depend on us not to introduce anything new or fancy into their babies’ food. So in the case of Gerber, we applied a principle of maximum precaution even though the science indicated no risk whatsoever.”
Yet, in the long run, capitulating can be seen as a betrayal of both Novartis’ industry and its consumers. “In the short term it takes the pressure off of them,” says Patient. “But in the long term it creates an awful problem.”
“Making a pact with Greenpeace is wrong because they don’t represent what the environment really needs,” adds Yocum. “Their tactics are no better than [those of] the thugs in the 1930s who used to shake down businesses and stores for protection money.”
As in the 1930s, many businesses opt to cooperate. “It’s pathetic to see how CEOs react to these attacks,” says John Adams, CEO of Washington, D.C.-based John Adams Associates. “CEOs don’t like confrontation, they hate controversy. Controversy is not good for business.”
“Companies start out at a disadvantage,” shrugs Patient. “They are run by rational people.”
A CEO’s natural instinct is to think that “if I make peace with these people, they will just go away, but they will not go away,” says Yocum. “The more a CEO gives in, the braver the activists get and the more they demand.” Yocum also recognizes that it’s tough for a CEO to stand alone against an activist attack. “The last thing I need is a bunch of people dressed in skeleton costumes picketing my store during the Christmas shopping season,” he acknowledges.
And the media only compounds the problem. Perpetually seeking fodder, newspaper, television, and magazine reporters are all too eager to embrace each new batch of headline-making pseudoscientific findings (see “Is it Science” sidebar, page 55). As a result, all too often, journalists become the tools of media-savvy activist groups, says Adams. “What we’re seeing is blackmail on an enormous scale, they know how to get a company and its products pilloried in the media.”
What motivates unfounded attacks on business and modern industrial products? Most of the foot soldier members of activist groups actually believe they are fighting real evils. But their leaders often have an additional motive that is rarely probed by journalists – money.
“The political agenda of many of these groups is self-survival,” says Nichols. “Greenpeace is, precisely speaking, a marketing organization. They’ve even franchised the name so that local organizations have to pay a franchise fee to its headquarters.”
“Greenpeace and other activists are in business the same way we are in business,” agrees Novartis’ Barnett. “They depend on a flow of revenues just as we do. Their anti-biotechnology campaign has been a big money raiser for them.”
Science in the Courtroom
Plaintiffs’ attorneys are another set of big time players in the agenda science game. In the early 1990s, for example, a group of attorneys persuaded juries that their clients had suffered from all manner of diseases as a result of their silicone breast implants. The women were, in fact, suffering from terrible diseases, but there was no evidence that the implants had caused them. In a precautionary misstep, then-FDA Commissioner David Kessler placed a moratorium on the use of silicone breast implants, releasing a torrent of lawsuits that eventually bankrupted Dow-Corning, the leading manufacturer of the implants and other silicone-based medical devices. Yet, as Marcia Angell, the executive editor of the New England Journal of Medicine, later pointed out, no credible scientific studies have ever found that the implants cause the diseases alleged by the trial attorneys and their experts-for-hire.
As all too many CEOs have discovered, agenda science is pervasive in courtrooms because trial lawyers regularly parade charlatans in front of juries as “experts.” Juries typically can’t effectively evaluate the credibility of the so-called experts. But once a verdict, however invalid scientifically, is in against a product, activists use it to justify further attacks, boycotts, and calls for regulatory action, such as the current effort to adopt the “precautionary principle,” a regulatory proposal best summed up as “regulate first, ask questions later”.
Launching a Counterattack
Firms can effectively protect themselves and their products from such attacks through strong industry associations, advises Yocum, who points to a recent preemptive strike that the American Plastics Council led. The APC foresaw an upcoming attack by the National Environmental Trust (NET), claiming that bisphenol-A, a plastic used in baby bottles, disrupts infants’ hormonal systems. To counter the coming assault, the APC mobilized allied trade associations and prepared company executives by marshaling toxicology reports, feeding studies results, safety studies data comparing glass vs. plastic bottles, and consumer opinion research, and establishing a Web site for consumer information. Armed with all this information, executives were able to blunt the attack NET launched in early 1999.
Conversely, when a company like Novartis gives in, it weakens an industry’s defenses and emboldens attackers. “You cannot allow yourselves to be divided and conquered,” says David Murray of STATS. “You have to be able to resist the short-term advantage that a competitive business gets over its immediate rivals when one of these races to the bottom sets in. The usual industry response to being attacked is to start cutting deals. You’ve got to draw a line in the sand, have a unified industry front, that says ‘what we do is good stuff and we stand together.’”
In countering a negative charge, firms must also present their side of a controversy in an equally emotional context. “CEOs often believe that the truth will win the day. That doesn’t work,” says Nichols. “Attackers are trying to create a climate of fear around a product. Simply bringing science to the table will not stop attacks based on emotions.”
The APC’s effort is a good example. “A CEO has to remind consumers and the press of the science, and also that plastic bottles are safer, don’t break, are germ-free, and so forth,” Nichols says.
CEOs must also respond quickly. If the public keeps hearing the activist charges without any countering information, the scare charges really stick. “When under attack by activists, companies need to respond rapidly to bogus information and bad science,” Nichols asserts. “All too often what industry has done is take its time, talk with lawyers and PR firms. Unfortunately, activists have credibility to begin with, so if you don’t respond rapidly, the media will accept what the activists say as true. The public will wonder why the company is saying ‘no comment.’ Do they have something to hide?
“CEOs seem culturally incapable of responding without hours and hours of meetings,” he notes. “They have to respond rapidly, within the daily news cycle. They have to be willing to engage in conflict. If what the activists are saying is a lie, the CEO has to say that it’s a lie.”
While responding accurately and immediately is essential in the short term, CEOs should also develop ongoing medium- and long-term programs. Yocum recommends appointing a senior staff member to godfather agenda science issues and making room for it on the agenda at least once a month.
“I don’t know how you set a strategy today unless you take agenda science and activism into account,” says Yocum. Business should also work with their industry associations and broader business associations like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce so individual companies don’t have to face activist assaults on their own. In the long term, American business should support science education efforts in primary and secondary schools and back programs like the AAAS’ Project 2061, to develop a citizenry that can cope with a society and an economy increasingly grounded on scientific discovery.
Finally, business leaders must insist that sound science remain the basis of product regulation and absolutely oppose the adoption of any form of the precautionary principle by either U.S. or international regulators.
“You cannot give up the struggle if you’re a leader,” says Bill Patient. “If you don’t believe that everyday you’re producing products that create social good and do no harm and if you don’t defend your company, you shouldn’t be in a leadership position. You’re cheating the people who depend on you, your shareholders, your employees, your customers, and your community.”
The Precautionary Principle: The Next Big Battle Brewing
Its proponents tout it as a necessary safeguard. Critics say it will stifle research, obstruct progress, and impede economic growth. Even as debate rages about the controversial precautionary principle, many business leaders who may be most affected by its passage have never heard of it.
“The precautionary principle, as espoused by activist groups in the U.S. and Europe, poses a serious threat to sound science, global commerce, consumer choice, and technological progress,” says Nick Nichols of Nichols-Dezenhall. “The precautionary principle is huge and most CEOs don’t know a thing about it.”
The canonical version of the precautionary principle was devised by a self-selected group of activist leaders who met two years ago at the Wingspread Conference Center in Wisconsin. Participants included Green peace, the Toxics Use Reduction Institute, the Center for Health, Environment and Justice, the Science and Environmental Health Network, Physicians for Social Responsibility, the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition, the Environmental Health Coalition, and others. Their version of the principle reads: “When an activity raises threats of harm to human health or environment, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause-and-effect relationships are not fully established scientifically.”
Many find this definition alarmingly vague. “The precautionary principle is probably the worst thing that could ever happen to this country,” says Ron Yocum, former CEO of Millennium Petrochemicals. “You wouldn’t be able to work on new drugs, new airplanes, any new technologies. You can’t prove that anything is 100 percent safe.”
Proponents of the principle want to regulate that all new technologies and practices be shown to do no harm before being allowed into the marketplace. Essentially, all products would undergo pre-market reviews similar to the FDA approval process for pharmaceuticals. Beyond traditional regulatory principles like ensuring quality, safety and efficacy, regulators would also require “proponents (of a new product or technology) to demonstrate through an open process that a technology is safe or necessary and that no better alternatives were available.” Already some European activists and regulators are saying that any new product that threatens jobs in conventional manufacturing or farming can be ruled out as “unnecessary.”
Critics draw historic parallels. Should candlemakers have been able to squelch electric lighting because it might put them out of work? Wouldn’t public transit be a “better alternative” to private automobiles?
Yet the precautionary principle is already making inroads in the federal government. “We need a system that lets us check things beforehand, that shifts the burden of proof onto those that would introduce them,” William Brown, science advisor to the U.S. Secretary of the Department of the Interior recently told The New York Times.
In February, the precautionary principle was explicitly incorporated in the Biosafety Protocol that will regulate international trade in biotech products. The European Commission used it to ban importation of U.S. biotech crops. And a global campaign to get it incorporated as a bedrock principle of international law was unveiled by Steven Rockefeller, who heads the Earth Charter initiative, at the State of the World Forum during the U.N.’s Millennium Summit in August.
“You have to take the precautionary principle seriously, if you’re serious about environmental protection and controlling biotechnology,” said Rockefeller. “When there are high risks and limited knowledge, then don’t do it,” is Rockefeller’s interpretation of the principle. Of course, that raises the all-important questions: What risks are too high and how much knowledge is enough?
The Earth Charter gives would-be regulators a standard: “Place the burden of proof on those who argue that a proposed activity will not cause significant harm.” In other words, all new activities and technologies are guilty until proven innocent. Boston University law professor George Annas acknowledges, “The truth of the matter is that whoever has the burden of proof loses.” That way lies cultural, economic, and even ecological stagnation.
The precautionary principle throws science out the window. Activists using agenda science will always be able to “raise a threat of harm” to any new activity. “The mere hint, the mere suggestion, the mere imagination of adverse outcomes is sufficient to trigger a forestalling of development,” says David Murray of STATS. “In the precautionary principle you have a device that can immobilize the entire social order.”
Is it Science, or Just plain silly?
No problem, no news,” runs an old journalism adage. Yet the media’s natural bias toward focusing on problems-real or alleged-leads to very some misleading public perceptions. While people are actually satisfied with 99.99 percent of the billions of transactions engaged in everyday, news stories about the relatively rare frauds leave the impression that corporations constantly rip off their customers.
Similarly, stories about technological accidents mislead the public. Houses don’t commonly burn down when electric lights are switched on; planes don’t usually fall from the sky; and food-borne illnesses are much rarer than they once were. Modern America is safer and cleaner than ever, and we are all living longer, healthier lives as a consequence. But stories about those successes won’t get a reporter on the front page.
Newspapers, magazines, and television should be helping the public understand scientific and technological issues, but are not. “The fact that the media today are borderline incompetent in dealing with science is something that attack groups can and do exploit,” explains Nick Nichols, chief executive of the Washington, DC-based crisis management firm Nichols-Dezenhall.
The media’s scientific illiteracy is made clear by veteran science journalist, Jon Franklin, who cites the results of a poll of students at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. “Fifty-seven percent believed in ESP, 57 percent believed in dousing, 47 percent in aura reading, and 25 percent in the lost continent of Atlantis,” according to Franklin, who says another poll “showed that two-thirds of newspaper managing editors thought humans and dinosaurs lived at the same time, and that there was a “dark” side of the moon, upon which light never fell.”
A scientifically gullible media eager to embrace inflammatory news plays neatly into the hands of activists. “The media are the naÃ¯ve handmaidens of the scaremongers and they need to wake up to the fact they are causing an awful lot of harm,” says John Adams, CEO of Washington, D.C.-based John Adams Associates. “Of course, the activists come up with such good stories that it’s hard to resist, but all they are is stories.”
Media scientific illiteracy is disastrous enough, but far more dangerous to the long-term intellectual and social health of our society and to business is the rise of a postmodern anti-science ideology within American universities. Physicist Alan Sokal hoaxed the cutting edge journal of postmodern thought, Social Text by submitting a parody paper entitled “Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity,” which argued that physical reality is merely a social construct. Sokal’s paper made liberal use of fawning references to postmodern authors, made-up scientific “facts,” and even “syntactically correct sentences that have no meaning whatsoever.” Social Text published Sokal’s paper as serious scholarship and the hoots of derision have still not died away.
Inspired by his hoax, Sokal and co-author Jean Bricmont took a deeper look into anti-science academia in their book, Fashionable Nonsense: Postmodern Intellectuals’ Abuse of Science. They parse the claims of leading social critics like Luce Irigaray, Jacques Lacan, and Paul Feyerabend. Philosopher Jacques Lacan, for example, once declared that the “erectile organ…is equivalent to the (square root of negative one) of the signification produced above, of the jouissance that it restores by the coefficient of its statement to the function of a lack of a signifier (-1).” Sokal and Bricmont comment simply, “It is, we confess, distressing to see our erectile organ equated to the (square root of negative one).”
“[T]his stuff is a fake,” writes noted biologist Richard Dawkins in Nature. “Perhaps [Lacan] is genuine when he speaks of non-scientific subjects? But a philosopher who is caught equating the erectile organ to the square root of minus one has, for my money, blown his credentials when it comes to things that I don’t know anything about.”
Yet, tenured postmodernist social critics continue to teach the nation’s youth at America’s best universities.