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The Science of Things

06.27.2001 | BOOKS

Trust Us, We're Experts
by Sheldon Rampton and John Stauber
Penguin Putnam, 2001

Before leaving on his mid-June trip to Europe, a continent he had already antagonized by deep-sixing the Kyoto Protocol, President George W. Bush requested a report on global warming from the National Academy of Sciences. "The president welcomes this report," spokesman Ari Fleischer told the press when it was delivered on June 7. "He believes it provides a basis of sound science on which decisions can be made. While there are still some areas of uncertainty that face policy makers, this report is a helpful post."

The June 7 press briefing was a long one, and most of what Fleischer said is easily and deservedly forgotten, but the term "sound science," demands some attention. There was nothing new in the National Academy's report: it concluded, as had countless studies before it, that the earth's climate was warming and that human-created emissions were played a significant role. It was not even original research; the Academy had simply synthesized existing studies. Yet by tagging it with the phrase "sound science," and holding it up as something altogether different, Fleischer implied that all the science preceding it had been somehow unsound. In this way, he was able to create doubt from a document that in reality reinforced a position of near-certainty. And it is this doubt that will allow the White House to do what it plans to do about global warming, which is nothing at all. Or, more accurately, to constantly express skepticism about current studies, stress the need for more research, and then call the research "action," while the prospect of real action gallops off into the twilight. Yes, yes, Mrs. Rotzenweil, we'll be happy to put out the fire ravaging your house, but let's first run one more experiment to make sure that flames are bad...

Such is the logic of "sound science", a term that Ari Fleischer did not make up, and one that I'm sure was chosen carefully during his otherwise extemporaneous remarks. "Sound science," has in fact been around for some time, and it is not science at all, but a movement created by the public relations industry to shut scientists up. Its most prominent spokesmen and pioneers--men like Steven Milloy of the Cato Institute, or Professor Gary Huber of the The Advancement of Sound Science Coalition--are heavily endowed by the industries they defend, and loathed by the environmentalists, consumer watchdogs and social activists who try to hold them accountable for what they do. The Cato Institute, for instance, is largely funded by corporations. Milloy himself, the self-styled "junkman," has a long line of ties to Big Tobacco and no scientific background beyond a master's degree in biostatistics. This doesn't stop him from ripping such prestigious journals as Nature and The Lancet as purveyors of "junk science," when they publish research that is critical of industry. As for TASSC, it was created and is run by Philip Morris, and has, unsurprisingly, argued vigorously that there is no danger in secondhand smoke.

I know all this, and you should too, because I read Trust Us, We're Experts: How Industry Manipulates Science and Gambles with Your Future, by Sheldon Rampton and John Stauber, the wonderful muckrakers who run the Center for Media and Democracy. The book exposes an entire sub-industry of the public relations world, which is the creation of experts who peddle doubt. The doubtmongers, often armed with PhDs and feeding at the trough of corporate America, specialize in blunting or discrediting public concern about the environment, health, and consumer safety.

Stauber and Rampton have long been the bane of the corporate PR world. They are the editors of PR Watch, a quarterly journal that monitors and exposes duplicitous spin campaigns, and their first book, Toxic Sludge is Good for You, was a riotous and informative exploration into the industry's structures of deceit. The two digressed somewhat in their second book project, Mad Cow USA, which engagingly told the story of new variant Creutzfeld Jakob Disease, and examined the possibilities of its occurrence in the United States. (This was not as much of a digression as one might think; the obfuscation employed by the British government during England's Mad Cow crisis, and the illusions of safety conjured by U.S. food regulators, would do any spinmeister proud).

In Trust Us, their third offering, the authors train their weapons again on the world of PR. This time, however, they examine not just PR's manipulative nature, but the cumulative effect that it has on public policy, and ideas of democratic participation. PR, the authors argue, has come to represent a worldview that is in many ways at war with the ideals on which the United States was founded.

The age of spin has cheapened the practice of democracy...the concept has lost much of its meaning. In fact, it has become boring and irrelevant in most people's lives. Our political process functions normally the way we think it should--campaigns happen, votes are cast, someone ends up taking an oath of office--but the ugly truth, as we all know, is that the campaign promises are empty rhetoric, based not on what the candidates believe but on what the expert pollsters have told them we want to hear. If you ask the managers of these ever-more expensive propaganda campaigns why they have vulgarized the democratic process, they will frequently tell you that the problem is not with them but with the voters, who are too "irrational," "ignorant," or "apathetic" to respond to any other kind of appeal.

The problem with such paternalism, of course, is that it becomes self-fulfilling. If a mother suddenly decides that her children have no interest in health, and begins feeding them nothing but Twinkies and chocolate cake, then her children will in fact become unhealthy, and validate the fallacy she created for them. It is the same with information--if you bombard the public with doubletalk and inanity, the public will, eventually, become confused, apathetic, and concerned with the inane. When this happens, the public becomes easier to discredit, in those few instances when it is actually able to mobilize. Where I live, in Massachusetts, voters last year passed a Clean Elections Law by referendum. Designed to rid the state political system of the monetary advantages it bestows on incumbents, the law sought to restore a modicum of competition to a state where sitting legislators are regularly reelected without opposition, so imposing are their campaign war chests. Shortly after the law was passed, the Speaker of the House, an autocratic Bostonian who seems to style himself an emperor, began quietly cutting it to pieces. When questioned about his actions, the speaker replied that the law had to be gutted for its own good; the voters had lacked the expertise to write it correctly, and had not understood what they were voting for. They only thought they wanted clean elections; he, as an expert, could assure them that this was not the case.

There is quote in Trust Us, We're Experts that sums this sort of logic up very well. It is from Stewart Ewen, an historian of public relations. "The pivotal moment," he says, "was when those who provided the public with its intelligence no longer believed the public had any."

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When the public discourse is dumbed-down, the status of "experts" naturally rises. This phenomenon is compounded by the extent to which we feel constantly harried and out of time, and the extent to which we compartmentalize our lives to remedy this feeling. We increasingly divest tasks to others, either because we consider others more adept, or we simply haven't the time to do them ourselves. Kids can go to daycare; the car can go to Jiffy Lube, the groceries can be chosen online and delivered later. Public policy is no different; we have, in the best marketing parlance, outsourced our need to form opinions, and an army of experts has risen up to give them to us. We see them on talk shows, read them on op-ed pages, and digest their quotes in the bodies of newspaper and magazine articles. They study what we ignore, they are cited as experts in the New York Times, and so we allow them an influence that they may not necessarily deserve.

You see where this is going; it's like peeling an onion. If the people are content to let the media think for them, who then is thinking for the media? Certainly there are real experts in the world: how does the media differentiate between them and the hired guns? The sad truth, too often, is that the media doesn't. The type of reporting practiced by Rampton and Stauber is as valuable as it is rare, an endangered species on journalism's landscape. Investigative reporting has been run out of most of the nation's newsrooms by budgetary and legal concerns; it takes time and money, and while it might earn the paper a Pulitzer it will more likely earn it a lawsuit. There are exceptions, of course--the Boston Globe's Spotlight team is often relentless in rooting out corruption--but for the most part in-depth coverage of issues has been relegated to smaller-circulation magazines like Harper's, the Atlantic, and The Nation, where the bottom line is somewhat less of a concern. (Harper's and The Nation are both non-profits, and the latter has operated in the red for its entire 100-plus years of existence). For everyone else, the era of big mergers and smaller budgets has left fewer reporters and more ground to cover. And as conglomeration eliminates many outlets, competition becomes depressed, depriving media organizations of not only the manpower and but also the competitive incentive to dig deeper into stories.

Let us be clear: many of these trends are not new. Like the golden age of almost anything, the golden age of journalism is largely nostalgic myth. The media may enjoy its image as a band of maverick intellectuals, but there has never been a time when all reporters were hard-drinking, hard-nosed, Harvard-educated and incorruptible. In the 1960s the press licked the boots of the Kennedys, and failed to disclose that JFK, the dashing paragon of vibrancy and health, actually suffered from a life-threatening disease, and had been administered Last Rites twice in the years prior to his election. Watergate, often trumpeted as the heyday of the journalist, was more realistically the story of diligent minority rescuing its lazy profession. Less than 14 reporters worked on the Watergate story, and the three who did the most work--Woodward, Bernstein, and the Times' Seymour Hersh--were not even political writers. The hundreds of members of the Washington press corps knew the story existed and were content to ignore, preferring not to shake the boat and see their sources go quiet.

The difference today is one of degree. When the Nixon White House was angry with reporters, it starved them of information. Today's reporters, whether in favor or out, get drowned in it. In the 1990s, for the first time, the number of public relations professionals in America surpassed the number of working reporters. Graduates of top journalism schools are increasingly lured into the ranks of PR, seduced by the promise of higher pay, better hours, and a corporate culture that isn't relentlessly downsizing. As a result, today's overworked reporters need not hunt for news. Often it is delivered to them, not only as press releases, but as reports issued by corporate-created think tanks, emails and letters from "grassroots" advocacy groups set up by PR firms, and interviews with university professors whose research is funded by industry. This is the culture of expertise, where information becomes a commercial product. It is packaged with care, what is important is how it looks and sounds, and how it is positioned. What the average person might consider a baldfaced lie is transformed into a sobering reconsideration of the facts, so long as Professor So-and-So looks suitably stern for the camera.

At one point in Trust Us, We're Experts a reporter asks John Scanlon, a leading public relations specialist, whether his first loyalty is to his client or to the truth. "You always try--you always serve the truth," he replies. "But again--but the truth is often, you know, it is often not necessarily a solid. It can be a liquid... What seems to be true is not necessarily the case when we look at it and dissect it and take it apart, and we turn it around and we look at it from a different perspective...Whose truth are we talking about, your truth or my truth?"

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I have seen a fair amount of criticism of Rampton and Stauber (although, I'm sure, not nearly as much as they have), and most of it labels them biased, agenda-driven, publicity seeking, or somehow anticapitalist. Most of these attacks make little sense. Calling someone in public policy agenda-driven is like accusing them of breathing; Stauber and Rampton make no secret of their agenda--to monitor and expose the PR industry--and any intelligent reader can digest their information with that frame of reference in mind. Likewise, for the PR industry's defenders to accuse anyone of gratuitous publicity seeking is Orwellian in the extreme. The only criticism I have read that I agree with, in fact, has nothing to do with their information or their intention, but with their writing style. Although the books are eminently readable, too often PR personnel are caricatured in them: they never seem to "say" anything, but inevitably "boast," "brag," or "gloat." Aside from offending any disciple of Strunk and White, this technique comes across as heavy-handed and in the end hurts the authors' credibility more than it helps them. The world has relatively few Darth Vaders, and while many of the PR executives in the books should be ashamed of what they do, portraying them all as cackling madmen makes them less believable, and runs the risk of making the book less believable as well. It is not without reason that a thousand writing teachers have gone blue in the face trying to expel every word but "said" from dialogue. If the author trusts the reader, the quotes will tell the story.

And quite a story it is. Trust Us, We're Experts covers the decades-long campaign by tobacco companies to obscure smoking's dangers, the smearing of scientists whose research discovered potential danger in genetically-engineered foods, and even the flat-out buying of upstanding non-profits like the American Heart Association. One might think, seeing the AHA's logo on the cholesterol-fighting drug Pravachol, that the Heart Association had put the drug through a battery of tests and found it up to par. In truth the AHA forked over the logo after Bristol-Myers Squibb, Pravachol's manufacturer, gave them $600,000. Likewise the imprimatur of the American Cancer Society appears on Nicoderm by virtue not of testing, but of a $1 million donation from SmithKline Beecham.

Then there are the countless think tanks, institutions, and specially funded university centers that trot out "expert" opinions. In 1997, Georgetown University's Credit Research Center published a study concluding that a growing number of debtors were using bankruptcy to elude their creditors. Lloyd Bentsen, at that point former Secretary of the Treasury, referred to the study in a Washington Times column, and called for an overhaul of the nation's personal bankruptcy laws. What Bentsen failed to reveal was that Georgetown's Research Center is funded entirely by credit card companies and banks, that the study in question had been funded by a $100,000 grant from Visa and Mastercard, and that he himself had been retained as a lobbyist by the credit industry.

Nor is deception restricted to those institutions created for corporate America's benefit. In 1997 the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine published an exceptionally harsh review of Sandra Steingraber's book Living Downstream: An Ecologist Looks at Cancer and the Environment. Steingraber had argued that environmental pollution was a significant cause of breast cancer, but the Journal's reviewer, Jerry Berke, ripped the book for "oversights and simplifications...notoriously poor scholarship" and pursuing headlines instead of accuracy. At the review's end, the normally fastidious NEJM identified Berke only as "Jerry Berke, MD, MPH," and declined to tell readers that he made his living as the chief toxicologist at W.R. Grace, Inc. Grace is the notorious Woburn, MA polluter that has paid millions of dollars in cancer-related lawsuits, been hounded by the EPA, and achieved lasting infamy in Jonathan Harr's A Civil Action. The Journal offered first lame excuses, then resentful defenses, but the fact remained that it hadn't checked its source; it had accepted Berke as an unbiased expert, and as a result handed its prestigious pulpit to a powerful corporation.

It is possible, of course, that environmental pollution does not cause breast cancer. The evidence is far from certain, and Rampton and Stauber do not seek to end the argument, nor any of the other contentious debates that they cover. What they seek instead is to resurrect the Precautionary Principle, a precept whose one modest demand is that new science be proven safe before it is introduced into the human or natural environment. Exposure to certain chemicals may not cause cancer, but until we are sure, wouldn't it be reasonable to restrict or withhold those chemicals from public use?

It seems an eminently reasonable question, and in truth it is little more than a dressed-up version of an adage many of us were raised on: better safe than sorry. But it is also an expensive proposition. In corporate boardrooms, the precautionary principle is frequently viewed as an unnecessary obstacle to profit, requiring costly tests that delay and sometimes abort the release of new products. Had it been applied honestly to tobacco, for instance, an empire of wealth would never have risen, a public health scourge would have been mitigated, and entire portions of the American South would literally look different, neither organized nor planned around the economics of cigarette agriculture. But the cigarette companies then--much like biotech and chemical companies now--when confronted with fear about their product's safety, chose to attack the fear instead of the product.

It is from this well that "sound science" sprang. Ostensibly, sound science adheres to a number of rigorous precepts, but no one can really name them, and it is defined more by its results than its methodology. Sound science seems to be any science that ascribes no blame; that finds fossil fuels innocent of global warming, secondhand smoke guiltless of cancer, endocrine-disrupting chemicals above suspicion in countless syndromes. Research that does find causes, on the other hand, is labeled "junk science," and disdained as the product of agendas and ideology, rather than disciplined inquiry.

This is precisely backwards. The inconsistency with which the label "sound science" is slapped on issues reveals that its practitioners--the Bush Administration among them--are driven by concerns healthily divorced from the pursuit of truth. The Bush Administration derides global warming as a concept rife with uncertainty. In place of action, it calls for more tests. Yet these same stalwarts of scientific discipline embrace with clerical faith a largely untested idea for space-based missile defense, and urge that it built regardless of its consequences, and indeed regardless of whether it works.

I continue to bring up global warming for a reason. If one is to read only a single chapter in Trust Us, We're Experts, it should be the chapter on warming and emissions. The last twenty years have arguably seen no greater a victory for obfuscation than the campaign mounted by the energy industry to discredit climate science. It is a classic subversion of the precautionary principle; after all, if even half of what experts fear about global warming is true, it would be wise to scale back emissions while doing more research. But that course of action would allow public interest to trump, or at least enjoy equal standing, with private enterprise. Cue the experts...

Global warming became a household term in 1989. That same year Burston-Marsteller, at the time the largest public relations firm on earth, created the Global Climate Coalition, a front group supported by oil, chemical and automotive companies and trade associations. Since 1994 the GCC has poured $63 million into a campaign whose only goal is to cat doubt on the existence of global warming. These efforts have been augmented by the individual lobbying campaigns of many of its members--the National Coal Association, for instance, spent $700,000 in 1992 and 1993, while the American Petroleum Institute shelled out $1.8 million in 1993--and they dwarf the war chests of the nonprofit groups opposing them. In 1998 the oil and gas industries spent $58 million lobbying Congress; in the same year, the nation's environmental groups spent $4.7 million lobbying on all issues, not just climate science.

What this money has purchased, aside from slick PR campaigns, glossy publications, and TV time, is experts. A man named S. Fred Singer has emerged as the leading debunker of global warming, and often testifies that it doesn't exist. He is usually identified, in papers, articles and interviews, as a professor emeritus of environmental science at the University of Virginia. He is rarely presented as a paid consultant to ARCO, Exxon, Shell, and Sun Oil, although those associations are doubtless more pertinent. The Coalition for Vehicle Choice, which styles itself as a "grassroots consumer group," blasts the Kyoto Protocol as economic suicide: the entirety of its $2.2 million budget comes from the Big Three automakers. The Information Council for the Environment (ICE) spent $500,000 denying global warming, and little money admitting that it had been set up by Edison Electric, Western Fuels, and the National Coal Association.

And this is to say nothing of the petitions. In 1992, 1,700 of the world's leading scientists, including a majority of the planet's living Nobel Laureates, signed the "World Scientists' Warning to Humanity," which outlined the dangers of environmental degradation and specifically mentioned global warming. This was followed in 1997 by the "Call to Action," wherein 110 Nobel Laureates explicitly asserted that global warming was real, and exhorted the world to act.

Singer was quick to respond. In 1997 he released the Leipzig Declaration on Global Climate Change. Rampton and Stauber note correctly that naming the declaration after Leipzig, a city in Germany, gave it "a patina of gray eminence" that it probably didn't deserve. Signed by 110 "noted scholars," the Declaration rejects the idea of global warming, and has become a de rigeur piece of anti-environmental ammunition. It has been cited in Congressional testimony, given major play by most media outlets, and in general paraded about whenever climate change is discussed, to show that considerable doubt exists as to its reality.

The seriousness with which the Declaration is considered is a credit to the spin machines that produced it, because it is in every way a fraud. No leading experts on climate change have signed it. Twenty-five of the signatories are TV weathermen, some of whom lack even a college degree. Others include a dentist, a medical researcher, and an expert on flying insects. Some could not be located at all, and some, when contacted by reporters, had never heard of the Leipzig Declaration, and were surprised to learn they had signed it.

All of this would be funny, were it not for the fact that it has worked. As Rampton and Stauber point out, the goal of this campaign has never been to reverse public opinion on global warming; public concern has been consistently too strong to make that feasible. The point, instead, has been to bypass the public, and create doubt sufficient to preclude action. Like the Speaker of the Massachusetts House, the experts reassure lawmakers about the folly of their constituents. Yes, the voters may want this, but they don't understand. We're the experts, see, and we think it might be prudent to wait...

Waiting is not prudent, and it is, at bottom, deeply antidemocratic. Sound science is informed by an idea that the public will invariably be wrong, that a minority of experts will be right, and that as such the public must be ignored for its own good. It shelves the public interest well beneath the interests of private gain, and shifts the purpose of precaution to profit rather than health. It wants us to relax and love the experts, and leave questions of public policy to those with the time and expertise to wade through the white noise and white lies.

We should not be lulled to sleep so easily. What Rampton and Stauber have given us is the beginnings of an antidote. The power of an expert is faith--the faith that others have in his or her credentials, academic trappings, or rich baritone voice. Skepticism will always be faith's remedy, and while I'll not descend into the cliché that says every American should read this book, I will say it wouldn't be a bad idea if every American adopted the adversarial attitude that led to its writing. Rampton and Stauber wage a lonely war against subterfuge, but only because we don't join them. It is time for us to stop staring at credentials, and start instead to demand facts, to stop consuming information and begin evaluating it. So yes, buy this book. But don't buy it because I told you to, and keep the receipt. Safe is still better than sorry.

About the Author
Michael Manville's writing has appeared in a number of online and print publications. He lives in Los Angeles.
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