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.