Sunday, June 26, 2005

Still Manufacturing Uncertainty

David Michaels has become the nation's leading tribune warning against corporate attempts to undermine workplace, environmental and general public health protections by "manufacturing uncertainty -- promoting the belief that the science is uncertain and that regulation cannot proceed until more conclusive data are collected.

In an LA Times column, Michaels highlights the recent case of Philip Cooney, the Bush administration's chief of staff for the White House Council on Environmental Quality (and former American Petroleum Institute lobbyist), who rewrote a federal report "to magnify the level of uncertainty on climate change" before moving on to a new job at Exxon.

Michaels points out the danger of deliberately and falsely raising the level of scientific uncertainty:
By definition, uncertainties abound in our work; there's nothing to be done about that. Our public health and environmental protection programs will not be effective if absolute proof is required before we act. The best available evidence must be sufficient. Otherwise, we'll sit on our hands and do nothing.

Of course, this is often exactly what industry wants. That's why it has mastered the art of manufacturing uncertainty
, of demanding often impossible proof over common-sense precaution in the realm of public health.
The "manufacturing uncertainty" industry started with raising doubts about the science behind tobacco causing cancer. Although the tobacco industry eventually lost that war, those behind the strategy are peddling their wares defending other hazardous products.

In fact, as Michaels points out:
It is now unusual for the science behind a public health or environmental regulation not to be challenged. In recent years, corporations have mounted campaigns to question studies documenting the adverse health effects of exposure to, among others, beryllium, lead, mercury, vinyl chloride, chromium, benzene, benzidine and nickel.
Note that these are all chemicals, but the industry used the same arguments to cast doubt on the science behind ergonomics as well. No one is safe.

The scary part is how deliberate the strategy is: Among themselves, these product-defense lobbyists and their clients make no secret of what they're doing. Republican political consultant Frank Luntz wrote in a memo, later leaked to the press:
"The scientific debate remains open…. Should the public come to believe that the scientific issues are settled, their views about global warming will change accordingly."

Decades from now, this campaign to manufacture uncertainty will surely be viewed with the same dismay and outrage with which we now look back on the deceits perpetrated by the tobacco industry. But will it be too late?