Fake Science Is a Real Danger

I once thought these scientists were being paranoid. Then I learned about the tobacco, pesticide, and climate disinformation industry targeting their research and reputations.

by | Feb 19, 2020

Michael Mann fought a smear campaign that tried to discredit his climate science.(Credit: Sydney Herdle/Michael Mann)

I once thought these scientists were being paranoid. Then I learned about the tobacco, pesticide, and climate disinformation industry targeting their research and reputations.

Back in the mid-aughts, I was an editor at Environmental Science & Technology. It’s the top peer-reviewed journal for researchers who study complex environmental problems and their impacts, including air, water, and toxic chemical pollution. I worked in the news section, making these studies understandable to average readers, as well as scientists and physicians who were unfamiliar with environmental research.

But over time, I noticed that much of the “new research” we published wasn’t terribly unique. If ES&T put out a study finding that a particular chemical seemed to be toxic to children, or The New York Times covered one of our “blockbuster” air pollution studies, I could search for 10 minutes and find multiple papers with similar findings. What was the point of spending all this time and money to study the environment and public health if nothing was being done to address the problems?

During this period, I started hearing complaints from some environmental scientists, that the industries whose products and technologies they studied were funding research to undermine findings that those products harmed public health. At first I thought this couldn’t be true. I had studied biology in college and believed that science was an objective process to reveal the world’s mysteries.

Then I met Fred Vom Saal.

Around 2004, I’d been chosen to attend an exclusive science conference on toxic chemicals, along with Vom Saal, a University of Missouri professor of reproductive biology. Vom Saal studied a chemical in plastics called bisphenol-A, or BPA. In humans and other animals BPA mimics estrogen, meaning it can disrupt our body’s hormonal system. According to Vom Saal, industry-funded scientists were attacking his research by repeating his studies, but with slight changes in the protocols so that the problems he’d discovered with BPA wouldn’t turn up. With these studies in hand, companies then claimed that Vom Saal’s research was shoddy.

I listened to Vom Saal rant for about 30 minutes one summer afternoon during a break in the conference, then exited politely. Science, like every profession, attracts its share of crazies. It was easier for me to accept that Vom Saal was a tad delusional than to believe that industry scientists manipulated research.

But then I started hearing about Tyrone Hayes, a biologist at the University of California, Berkeley. Hayes was studying atrazine, a widely-applied herbicide that controls weeds and increases crop yields in corn and sorghum. Scientists were discovering that this chemical was the most common pesticide contaminant of ground and surface waters, and finding it in some drinking water wells, too. Hayes’ research showed that atrazine interfered with testosterone, chemically castrating some animals and turning males into females.

The next question should have been: What was atrazine doing to humans?

But like Vom Saal, Hayes contended that corporate scientists were publishing studies that nearly mirrored his own, with slight changes in protocol to get results that found no problems with atrazine. According to Hayes, these studies were part of an orchestrated campaign to make him appear incompetent. But Hayes struck me as an odd fellow and a bit eccentric. As with Vom Saal, I had my doubts about him.

Then along came climate scientist Michael Mann.

In the summer of 2005, Congressman Joe Barton, R-Texas, began investigating Mann, along with several other climate scientists, for allegedly making “methodological flaws and data errors.” Barton demanded information on their financial backing from government agencies and access to their data and computer codes. He questioned their relationships to organizations studying climate change. It seemed like a juicy story that was right in line with ES&T’s science news coverage, so I contacted sources to learn more and begin writing stories.

Because ES&T didn’t cover climate change, I knew little to nothing about climate science. What I did know came from reading the mainstream news, which put across climate science as controversial, and climate researchers’ many troubling claims about global warming as overblown. But I also knew that these outlets were probably getting the story wrong, because of an interaction I’d had the year before with some fellow reporters at the annual conference of the Society of Environmental Journalists.

One day at the conference, while six or seven of us were standing in a circle during a break, the conversation shifted to climate change. Because I didn’t know much about the subject, I kept asking the others questions, trying to understand whether the research was any good. A woman who covered the environment for a newspaper out west began laughing, saying that there were about a dozen scientists who said that climate science was nonsense. She kept contact information around for all 12 of them, she told us, because her editors required her to put one of these doubters in every story to provide journalistic “balance.”

Several reporters in the circle giggled. This was my first hint that what I was reading in the media on climate science might be overemphasizing contrarian opinions. Because what everyone in that circle already knew, and I was learning, was that by 2004 thousands of climate experts around the world had published research showing global warming was real, and mostly caused by carbon dioxide pollution from burning oil, coal, and gas.

My article about Barton’s investigation of Michael Mann quoted several experts who told me the affair was a “witch hunt.” But a question kept nagging at me: Why had Barton started this investigation in the first place? It didn’t make any sense. So I began looking at the entire sequence of events that led up to it.

In his letter demanding information and records, Barton had referenced a front-page article in The Wall Street Journal that discussed research published by Stephen McIntyre, a retired mining consultant. In several of these papers, McIntyre had poked holes in Mann’s research. At this point in time, some journalists and activists were beginning to expose many of the scientists questioning climate science as industry lackeys. But McIntyre was retired, creating the appearance of independence from any extraction industry and greater credibility.

On a lark, I called up McIntyre’s former employer. Surprise! I caught him still working for industry. Then I looked into the journal Energy & Environment, where McIntyre had published some studies. It turned out to be a sad publication without any substantive peer review process, and operated by an editor without any science credentials — but who assured me that while she didn’t have any training in science, her husband had a doctorate in physics.

In short, Barton had launched an investigation based on a Wall Street Journal article with some pretty flimsy reporting. Commenting on this article, former Journal editor Frank Allen told me, “It was a strange story ’cause it had this bizarre undertone of being investigative but it didn’t investigate. And this piece — what I thought was bothersome about it — it purported to be authoritative, and it’s just full of holes.”

Fred Vom Saal, Tyrone Hayes, and Michael Mann: Three different academics, working in different fields, who didn’t know each other, but who each had a story about industry campaigns to undermine their research. Was I a magnet for paranoid fringe voices in science, or were they telling the truth?

Then I began noticing a link between climate change and smoking. Whenever a group or public expert said that climate change isn’t real, it turned out that about 10 years prior, in the mid-’90s, they were likely to have said that smoking isn’t harmful. I found this out by going through a new archive that the University of California, San Francisco had put online, called the Tobacco Archives.

Digging through these documents, I found that many prominent scientists had worked for the tobacco industry, and that cigarette companies had funded science organizations and nonprofits to cast doubt on the science that showed nicotine was addictive, and smoking a health hazard. It was all very confusing. So I began contacting other reporters and scientists, asking if they knew about this and what they thought it meant.

One winter afternoon, I got a call from a reporter named Mark Hertsgaard, asking what I knew about the links between tobacco defenders and climate denial. By this time, I had spent dozens of weekend and late night hours going through the Tobacco Archive. So I pointed him to documents showing that a scientist named Frederick Seitz had worked with R.J. Reynolds to downplay the dangers of tobacco. Seitz wasn’t some nobody: He had been president of Rockefeller University and president of the National Academies of Sciences. When Mark and I spoke, Seitz was still revered as one of the most prominent scientists in America.

Hertsgaard wrote about Seitz’s work for tobacco and other companies for a 2006 Vanity Fair cover story, confirming that some industries were corrupting the field of science.

I also began to see how corporations influenced the media. While reading the Tobacco Archive one night, I discovered that tobacco companies were paying a Fox News science columnist named Steven J. Milloy, who regularly attacked scientists and journalists reporting on chemical and tobacco harms. In my article about Milloy for The New Republic, I noted that Eamon Javers of BusinessWeek had caught Scripps Howard columnist Michael Fumento receiving about $60,000 in 1999 from Monsanto, a multi-billion-dollar player in the agricultural biotech sector that Fumento covered. The funding, which Fumento had not disclosed to Scripps Howard, had been routed through a conservative think tank called the Hudson Institute. *

The growing evidence eventually forced me to change my precious thinking that science is always an objective search for the truth. In fact, corporate money is often skewing that journey, and if we look hard enough, we can find disinformation campaigns designed to protect all sorts of harmful products.

In the years since I figured this out, the public television series Frontline has documented the disinformation operation that companies ran against Fred Vom Saal. The New Yorker magazine has profiled Tyrone Hayes and the corporate campaign to smear him. Michael Mann has detailed the fossil energy industry’s harassment of himself and other climate scientists in a best-selling book, The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars,

Industries create these campaigns because they are effective at confusing the public and the press about science, which helps to slow or stop policy changes that would require stronger anti-pollution laws, or taking products off the market. Today disinformation has become its own industry, one that distorts not only climate science, but most areas of research where studies might influence how the government regulates corporations.

* Scripps Howard later fired Fumento, who publicly denounced extreme right disinformation campaigns in 2012. He recently wrote a supportive opinion piece for Monsanto’s glyphosate pesticide. Milloy remains a mouthpiece for industry, and was a member of Donald Trump’s transition team for the Environmental Protection Agency.

Paul D. Thacker
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Paul D. Thacker, is an American journalist who specializes in science, medicine, and environmental reporting. He has written for Science, Journal of the American Medical Association, Salon.com, and The New Republic, and Environmental Science & Technology.