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The art of scientific deception: How corporations use "mercenary science" to evade regulation

David Michaels, former Assistant Secretary of Labor, explains how corporations whitewash harmful products and drugs


Keith A. Spencer
February 2, 2020 1:00PM (UTC)

One curious difference between humans and corporations is our capacity to harm others and emerge unscathed. If you or I were to poison someone on camera in broad daylight, we would be given a trial and sent to prison in a hurry. But if you or I were a corporation, we could hire consulting firms to produce research papers that claim that the poisoning didn't happen, and/or question the existence of the poison, or claim that said concoction actually does good rather than harm. If that failed, we could then gum up the legal and political system with lobbyists and lawyers for decades.

In public discourse about our supposed post-truth society, most op-eds fixate on the way that social media can create separate reality bubbles. Few focus on what David Michaels, Obama's Assistant Secretary of Labor for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), calls "mercenary science" — science-for-hire, contracted out by chemical and pharmaceutical companies to prove that their harmful products aren't harmful by giving them the quantitative imprimatur of STEM knowledge. The idea that science and truth could diverge is profoundly troubling for our entire civilization.

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While the vast majority of scientists, both employed publicly and privately, are honest and do their work as part of a larger quest for truth, there are a few notable exceptions. Specifically, a few mercenary science consulting firms have been very effective at helping corporations continue selling harmful chemicals and drugs long after they should have stopped.

Michaels, who has a new book on the topic titled "The Triumph of Doubt: Dark Money and the Science of Deception," has been studying this problem for years, in part by virtue of his 8-year tenure at OSHA.  Now a public health professor at George Washington University, Michaels' book pulls back the curtain on the way that dark money and for-profit science is quite literally killing Americans.

I spoke with Michaels over the phone about the problem of corporate science and his insider's view; as usual, this interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

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Salon: To start, what is "mercenary science"? How do you define this?

David Michaels: Mercenary science means [when scientists] produce studies that aren't designed to better understand the world, or they help make the world a better place — which is why most scientists are in the business of science – but to defend products and to defend corporations. And often to influence regulation or to slow the compensation of victims.

This is the Enron-ization of science. It's created a fiction in order to promote an actual game, fiction around science. And it is quite mercenary. In fact, this phrase is not one that I invented, but actually is used by these consulting companies whose business model is to provide some using reports and testimonies to corporations, so they can continue to market dangerous products or activities without being hindered by regulation or by compensating the people they've hurt.

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What would you say is the most shocking, real-life example of something like this — of mercenary science becoming embedded in mainstream discourse?

I think the most famous [example] is in the tobacco industry… who didn't invent it, but who certainly gained the most from it — and in climate change. There's actually some overlap between some of the same mercenary scientists in both examples.

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But as I write [in my book], this is now become standard operating procedure for virtually every industry, and in many cases, it's the same so-called scientists who are involved in doing it.  Nowadays, the instinct of corporate leaders — CEOs and executives —when there's an allegation that their product could be causing harm is to say, "How can we show that it isn't causing harm?" Not, "how can we determine whether or not we cause harm," and then figure out what to do about it.

Other examples [include] opioids, and essentially how a few pharmaceutical companies misrepresented the studies to make it look like these opioids were not addictive. We have a death toll of tens of thousands a year as a result of that.

So do you think the people who are actually doing this kind of mercenary science, do they —

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How they sleep at night?

Yes — and, how do they find these people? My parents were scientists and I hung out around a lot of scientists, and in my experience pretty much all of them were driven by the quest for truth, not money.

I mean, go look back at the 1994 tobacco hearings with Henry Waxman. You had well-educated corporate executives put their right hands in the air, swear that they did not believe that nicotine was addictive. I opened [my book] with a quote from Upton Sinclair, "It's difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon him not understanding it."

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It's very clear that your financial relationship with products, with corporations influences how you think about them. The example I like to give, and this is Vioxx. You may remember Vioxx — it was a pain killer, a prescription drug invented by scientists at Merck to be used for arthritis and other sorts of pain, especially for people who couldn't take aspirin. They, to test effectiveness they did a randomized clinical trial comparing it to Naprosyn, also known as Aleve. And they found it was effective, it was approved by the FDA, it went on the market, immediately became a very widely used, and successful and profitable drug.

Shortly after it came out, scientists independent of Merck looked at the results and found that the patients who were given Vioxx had more than twice the cardiovascular incident rate — including heart attacks  —  of the people who took comparable drugs like Naproxen (Aleve).

 Instead of saying, "well, this is a significant problem," scientists who were associated with Merck — and these were academic scientists at major academic medical centers — looked at these data, and they said, "No, Vioxx doesn't increase risk of heart attack and stroke. It prevents it."

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And it's true, you could look at it that way, but we don't have a drug that prevents 60% percent of heart attacks — if we did, we'd put it in the water supply. We quickly learned the truth though, because at the same time, Merck started a randomized clinical trial to see if Vioxx prevented colon polyps, and we have no prevention for colon polyps — so [they did] a randomized, double-blind placebo trial, and that trial had to be stopped early because Vioxx was killing people. It more than doubled the risk of cardiovascular events.

In the few short years since Vioxx was on the market, FDA scientists estimated it cost somewhere between 88,000 and 120,000 heart attacks.

Here were very well-known cardiologists who were blinded for the truth by their financial relationship with Merck. And they were scientists who were not even in the business of product defense. So I think what happens is if your business model, if your financial relationships can influence how you look at science, it does.

What that tells me is we desperately need good science, and we desperately need accurate interpretation of scientific results, but they have to be done independently of the corporations that make these products or we won't have honest results.

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That leads to my next question for you. Are there good policy solutions for ending this type of situation?

Well, first of all, I think it's worth saying [that] President Trump has done us a favor by his conscious destruction of our system of public health protection. We will have to rebuild it when the next administration comes, and given that, I think we can look at some of the problems that are justified — which all predate President Trump — and think about how we can do a better job.

So one example is the first thing clearly is we need a new head of science, and we need to have [rules] that the research on, say, opioids can't be done by opioid manufacturers. E-cigarettes too — Juul, which is one-third owned by Altria, shouldn't be overseeing the research on the health effects of e-cigarettes.

Still, we need to know what are the long-term health effects of essentially volatilizing nicotine and a number of different flavors — and perhaps some metal — and putting it deep into your lungs, and then exhaling it. Juul and the other e-cigarette companies should be paying for that research, but it has to be independent of them.

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And so, the first thing is we need independent science paid for by the producers.

The other thing, though, is we have to change the presumption of regulation. Right now, for toxic chemicals, our regulatory system is based on the idea that we have to show harm before we protect people.

So what you have to do is you've got to regulate on the best available evidence, but not wait until you definitively know that the product is harmful.  

There's a lot of discussion now about what are called sometimes "forever" chemicals. The chemicals that are used  — the chlorinate chemicals that are used in Teflon, and of lining of fast-food containers [PFAs]. There are 4500 of chemicals in this class so far, I'm sure more will be invented. We have reasonably good human data on the health effects. We have reasonably good data on the health effects amongst in humans for two of those chemicals, and they are very powerful chemicals in terms of causing damage to people's health.

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Now, the Trump administration is moving very slowly, if at all, to regulate those two chemicals, but the way we ought to be addressing it is to regulate the class of chemicals in all 4500 of them, because until we know that any of them are safe, we should presume that they're dangerous. And this relates to what we call the way that industry has successfully framed the debate around chemicals, and given them the presumption of innocence that we give human beings in the criminal justice system. We presume people are innocent until proven guilty, but chemicals harm people and they don't deserve that presumption of innocence. If there's reasonable evidence that they could be dangerous, until we show that they're safe, we should treat them as dangerous. Chemicals are not worth more than people are.

How do other countries regulate these chemicals? I assume in the EU they have better regulation, right?

Well, Europe actually through it's the REACH Program, [which stands for] Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemicals. It is not perfect, but the basic principle there is [that] producers of these chemicals are required to provide information to the European regulator sbefore they're allowed to sell these chemicals.

Europe also takes [the] studies on pesticides much more seriously, and they don't allow a lot of pesticides that we use here to be sold [. . . . ] Certainly some of the chemicals that are banned in Europe, they're very toxic to humans. We should just ban them here, there's no reason to be using [these.

Regarding the mercenary scientists, as you call them, I'm curious if it's possible to quantify exactly how many scientists are in this class. Is it possible to do so, or is there any data about how many scientists have been, I suppose, influenced or become mercenary in this way? Is this a large portion or a tiny portion of scientists?

You know, it's a relatively small number. There are a few consulting firms that do this, and they obviously are very lucrative operations. When big chemical companies need to defend their products, they usually don't go to their own scientists who are — in general —I find to be very good, honest scientists with real integrity. But they want someone to write a report that will say exactly what they want, and they want someone to go on to defend them. So they use one of these product defense consultants.

And there are a few dozen of them at these companies or …. maybe perhaps a few hundred. It's a tiny portion of scientists. But it's a very lucrative operation.

One thing though, I found very interesting though, is when I went onto Glassdoor — which is the website that collects information about salaries and working conditions for employers — I looked up the comments by the staff who work at some of these product defense firms, and their descriptions of their employer were very telling.

Really?

For example, one employee of a firm called, Cardno ChemRisk, wrote in his comments about working there: "This is a law consulting company, not a science consultant company. Don't expect to be a quote-unquote, scientist.

Wow.

Or Gradient, which is another one of these big consulting firms, "Some of the principle scientists have questionable ethics (and have been called out for it). Or Exponent, which is probably the biggest of the firms: "Sometimes you will be working for evildoers and trying to make it seem like they did nothing wrong." These are from the scientists who work at these companies.

As a journalist with a hard science background, often I struggle to communicate past this fairly conspiratorial narrative that I would say a fair number of Americans believe in. Specifically, it's the idea that it's almost impossible to trust anything that either the government or a corporation tells you about the safety of something. I see this a lot with discussion of cell phone radiation, and also with vaccines.

I wanted to ask you about this because it's sort of there's this issue in that, I guess, it's real hard to explain to a layperson the differences between, say, a mercenary scientist hired by, say, Merck, and then explain the efficacy of vaccines, which are also made by Merck.

I have a friend who grew up with me, someone I know from childhood, and this is his perspective – he's an anti-vaccination type, and he always says, "When has the FDA ever been on my side?" Essentially he believes that so many government agencies have been captured by the corporations they're supposed to regulate.

It's hard to argue with that point, because there is some truth to that. It just doesn't apply in the case of vaccines – even though it is applicable with chemicals like PFOAs, and drugs like Vioxx. I'm curious to hear your perspective here. 

I wish I more advice on that. The fact [is] that the [regulatory] agencies really have been pushed around, and they haven't stepped up to the plate [to] provide reasonable protections. 

One way you see this right now is with baby powder and other cosmetics that have talc. In fact, talc is often contaminated with asbestos-like stuff, fibers and the like. And at various points in time, government agencies have looked at this issue and considered requiring warnings, and each case they pushed around and manipulated by the industry.  

So now, again, the issue has come up — and there's a government panel which has said essentially, "We have to start treating these fibers that are in talc as asbestos," because that's really what they are. But they could've done this 30 or 40 years ago, and they could've been upfront, saying, "Here's a risk, this is the way you have to address this." To come back and do this after the fact, after there's already been a great deal of controversy, leads to cynicism about the government.

And I think by not having stepped up to the plate earlier on many of these issues, people wonder, "well, is the government in the pocket of industry?" And I wouldn't say the agencies are always in the pocket of industry, but unfortunately they're often so bullied and manipulated, and outgunned by industry, that they end up not doing things that are protective, and then that leads to cynicism. I mean, even the biggest of our government agencies doesn't have anywhere near the legal firepower of a large chemical company.

That's astonishing.

At OSHA, we often knew we had to settle cases without going to court because we didn't have the resources to fight the cases against these corporations, even if we thought we felt we were right.

That is shocking. Has OSHA become more neutered under Trump's administration, in terms of funding and regulatory capability?

Well, OSHA isn't in the crosshairs [of Trump] like the State Department is. The Trump administration has simply neglected OSHA. It's really malignant neglect — more than half of the senior positions are empty. I haven't been replaced.

For a number of years, there was an acting assistant secretary, but because they didn't actually fill it with a permanent confirmed assistant secretary in that position. There can't even be an acting assistant secretary anymore because of various laws. The Trump administration has tried to cut the budget several times, but Congress always continued the budget [and] even gave OSHA a small increase.  But so many people have left the agency, and it's become less powerful — but it certainly hasn't been decimated the same way the EPA has.

So many good people have left and not been replaced. But OSHA is still filled with very dedicated career staff who are doing their best in a difficult situation to make sure American workers are protected.

David Michael's new book, "The Triumph of Doubt: Dark Money and the Science of Deception," is out from Oxford University Press on February 3, 2020.  


Keith A. Spencer

Keith A. Spencer is a senior editor for Salon. He manages Salon's science, tech, economy and health coverage. His book, "A People's History of Silicon Valley: How the Tech Industry Exploits Workers, Erodes Privacy and Undermines Democracy," was released in 2018. Follow him on Twitter at @keithspencer, or on Facebook here.

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