Corporate Counterfeit Science – Both Wrong and Dangerous

, director, Center for Science & Democracy | June 11, 2013, 9:54 am EDT
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Asbestos can kill you. We’ve all been warned about the dangers of breathing it in. That is why we test buildings for it and have rules to protect construction workers from exposure to it.  But how do we know asbestos is harmful? Because scientists have done studies of the dangers it poses to our health. And I’m glad they have so we can avoid these threats.

Tampering with science behind the health effects of asbestos

For decades, however, some companies have fought efforts to regulate asbestos, even tampering with the science behind our understanding of its health effects. And, sadly, a recent court ruling indicates that the tampering may have been more widespread than anyone previously knew.

Last week, a New York Appeals Court ruled unanimously that that Georgia Pacific, a subsidiary of Koch Industries, must hand over internal documents pertaining to the publication of 11 studies published in reputable scientific journals between 2008 and 2012. At issue in the case: whether the firm can be held accountable for engaging in a “crime-fraud” by planting misinformation in these journals intending to show that the so-called chrysotile asbestos in its widely used joint compound doesn’t cause cancer.

Science falsely presented as independent research—with lawyers suggesting revisions

Here’s what we know. The articles were published in the following scientific journals: Inhalation Toxicology, The Journal of Occupational & Environmental Hygiene, Annals of Occupational Hygiene, and Risk Analysis. The studies were authored by conflicted experts who were hired by Georgia Pacific; the company’s lawyers were involved throughout the process and, even more alarming, these conflicts of interest were not disclosed in the studies. As a result, the articles in question were untruthfully presented as independent, bona fide research.

The court noted that the studies were intended to cast doubt on the capability of chrysotile asbestos to cause cancer and that the authors did not disclose that Georgia Pacific’s lawyers participated in lengthy discussions of the manuscripts and suggested revisions. As Justice Richard Andrias wrote in the court ruling demanding the internal documents that will shed light on the extent of wrongdoing, “The public has an interest in resolving disputes on the basis of accurate information.”

The difference between funding for science and paying for specific scientific conclusions

Of course, there is no surprise that companies such as Georgia Pacific have scientists working on research. Private companies are a significant funder of science, especially as public funding options for scientists have decreased. But there is a bright line between the funding of science—whatever outcome it reaches—and paying scientists to reach a specific scientific conclusion. Such efforts to manufacture false scientific evidence as part of a legal or marketing strategy are reprehensible.

The process of science has both a logic and rhythm to it, from research and analysis, to peer review, comparison and publication for consideration by other scientists.  It is about discovery, building knowledge and understanding of the natural and human world.  Many in society— and many, many companies—have benefited from this open process of science.  But everyone is threatened when companies manipulate the scientific process itself in the name of marketing and profit—and, most disturbingly, when the actions put people directly at risk as they did in this case.

Ghost-writing scientific papers undermines science and threatens public safety

Asbestos is but one case of “ghost-writing” of counterfeit science for academic publications in an effort to market or cast doubt on scientific results.  Recently, the editors of the Public Library of Science (PloS) Medicine, a respected open-access scientific journal, published a series of articles highlighting how widespread the problem has become in the pharmaceutical field and the difficulties academic journals are facing as they try to combat the problem.

Perhaps the most telling article in the series was written by a former ghost-writer who detailed her company’s role in creating scientific papers and presentations solely as a marketing tool.  According to her account, her company was unconcerned about discovery and expanding knowledge, but rather sought to push its drugs to new markets – effective or not, dangerous or not.

As a scientist, it goes against my teaching and experience to accept that ghost-writing of fraudulent scientific papers in the name of commerce should be allowed to continue unabated. Not only does it undermine the entire scientific enterprise, it poses an enormous potential threat to the public. Everyone, knowingly or not, is affected by scientific evidence about what is safe, what can help or hurt them, and how best to keep their families safe.  Everyone makes choices, and should be free to do so, based on this information.

Deliberately falsifying science isn’t just a financial matter for shareholders and company managers.  It has real impacts—potential life-and-death impacts in the case of asbestos.  Companies: by all means, market your products; tell us why you think they are good choices.  But keep your lawyers, public relations, and marketing people out of the science we depend on.  There are lives at stake.


Posted in: Science and Democracy, Scientific Integrity Tags: , , ,

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  • We see this type of “counterfeit science” applied in the nuclear industry.

    “Tornado Protection for the Spent fuel Pool,” Nov. 1968, report #APED 5696, is a report which the NRC and the nuclear industry utilizes to claim that GE Mark 1 Reactors are safe from an F5 tornado, the report makes outlandish safety claims and presents assumptions as if they are scientific fact.

    The study used a hypothetical shop vac as a demonstration tool of how a tornado works. The alleged scientists never actually applied a shop vac to any body of water but that did not stop their claims of safety.

    Claims that conclude that water drawn into a tornado would not affect the water level in a cooling pool or overhead missiles do not present problems. Of course, controls are all protected and according to the study an F5 tornado presents no hazard for the reactor’s secondary containment, incoming power, the sheet metal overhead roof nor the cooling pool. All is safe according to the report.

    Included in the report is a picture of swimming pool in Jonesboro, Arkansas being allegedly struck by a tornado with no water being displaced as a result of the tornado’s strike(figure 14, pg 29 in the report), according to the safety report. The photo also reveals that leaves are present on the trees next to the pool.

    The report is 45 years out of date, just like the dangerous GE Mark 1 reactors. The “Tornado Protection for the Spent fuel Pool” report makes several assumptions and draws conclusions as if they were proven scientific fact. Yet, this report is utilized as the industry standard for tornado safety for GE Mark 1 reactors.

    The disclaimer near the beginning of the report is revealing: “…General Electric nor the individual authors make no warranty or representations expressed or implied with respect to the accuracy, completeness or usefulness of the information contained in the report…” None the less, the NRC utilizes the report to maintain that GE Mark 1 Nuclear Reactor’s cooling pools are safe from any penetrating missiles. However, in the conclusion it does state, “…penetration is[not]possible with any reasonable missile…” What is a “reasonable missile” is up for considerable debate.

  • Charles Possett

    In 2004, suddenly drug ads started disclaimers. Our son, Chip, 15 yrs., took his life in 2003 while being medicated with Prozac and Welbuiterin. He was put on these drugs by our Pediatrician, who was taking a recommendation of a school Psychologist. At the time, these drugs were banned in Europe. I brought articles to our Dr. with my concerns. He admitted he had never prescribed them before and that is when I gave him the stories and told him what I had found out and my own discussions with adult friends who had used them, he responded by turning to my son and asked him, “Do you think you need it?”

    Then, Gov. Engler of Michigan at the midnight hour of his term, sponsored, promoted, pushed a Republican Legislature, to ban all litigation or fault of Drug Manufacturers in Mich., to be liable for harmful drugs they produced. Engler, stepped into a high paying lobbyist position as a so called, “President Representative of Drug Manufacturers”, within days. Michigan is the only state where a Drug Manufacturer, cannot be sued.

    Our son’s life insurance wouldn’t pay even though he died of exposure and afixiation, probably from an asthma attack, on account of my son, one time saying he had wanted to die to his psychologist.

    Our people are being sold harmful drugs and these drugs are deemed safe and effective by so called blind, random sampling. Trouble is, these tests are neither, they are discarded until positive results!

    • I am so sorry for your loss, and thank you for speaking out on the terrible consequences of manipulation of the science that can and should help protect our health and safety.

  • Peggy Blazewicz

    What can we do to bring this issue to light? (aside from reposting)
    The CEOs need to be held criminally accountable!

  • Well, go look up the Lamarkian theories of Soviet scientist in the Stalin period. There is a reason Nixon was able to sell surplus grain to them, without which they would have starved (and, if they bombed us, they would have). That is a case of stupidity if ever there was one.

  • mike crill

    STUDY DONE FROM 1979 TO 2002 TITLED MESO IN MONTANA COUNTED 200 MESO DEATHS OF PEOPLE WHO JUST LIVE AND BREATH NEXT TO A RAIL ROAD ROUTE OUT OF LIBBY MONTANA. WR disGrace created this Holocaust, the Railroad transported it where it is killing millions today.Please do a story on who owns and is making BILLIONS from oxygen to medical insurance for those millions they knowingly poisoned/murdered with their asbestos…from Libby Montana…….by WR DISGRACE…makein a killin off of killin us….and this deadly town of Libby continues to poison/murder all they continue to sell Libby Mt to as a safe place to live and raise a family….this Holocaust continues.

    • Thanks for your comments and examples. I think this is a really important issue and the Center for Science and Democracy at UCS will continue to push hard for corporate accountability with respect to science in our research reports and future blogs. Stay tuned and keep those examples coming!