Convenient Science for Hire: the American Council on Science and Health Puts the Cart before the Horse

, Research Director, Center for Science and Democracy | October 28, 2013, 2:33 pm EDT
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In business and politics, it is a good thing to have science on your side. Scientific study informs and enlightens our decision making on everything from food to energy to health. But what happens when the science is inconvenient to your business model? In such a predicament, many companies will switch gears (the key to survival is adaptation, right?). But other companies instead choose to dig in their heels and search for the science they want to hear—the kind that aligns with their business interests. Luckily for them, there is a group that will do just that, according to recently leaked internal documents from the American Council on Science and Health.

The American Council on Science and Health: An unscientific model

Scientific analysis should inform our understanding of complex issues, it should not be designed or tampered with to serve a preconceived conclusion.

Scientific analysis should inform our understanding of complex issues; it should not be designed or tampered with to serve a preconceived conclusion.

The innocuously named nonprofit group, the American Council on Science and Health (ACSH), claims to produce independent scientific analysis, but documents recently leaked to Mother Jones confirm that the group’s “science” is anything but independent. The group receives, according to the documents, extensive funding from many prominent corporate actors whose business interests are closely tied to the group’s issues, which include fracking, soda taxes, and chemical safety (e.g., Bisphenol A and flame retardants).

To be clear, the organization has previously acknowledged funding from industry and that funding has come under scrutiny, but the group has claimed that their industry funding is not earmarked for specific projects. Countering this claim, the documents show not only that specific projects were financed by specific companies, but also that the group directly solicited companies for funding of their science and advocacy on specific issues.

Continued support from corporate interests

It is worth noting that this is a group that has long been in the business of misusing science. Founded in 1978, ACSH has been employing this tactic for decades across many issues. What is most concerning to me is the fact that today the group continues to receive funding from many mainstream companies, some of which purport to be supportive of science.

The list of current and prospective ACSH donors includes many familiar names, including Coca-Cola, Chevron, and Merck. And many of the donors are ones we already knew to be abusing science for their business gain: Georgia-Pacific (which was previously found guilty of suppressing asbestos science), the agribusiness firm Syngenta (which extensively interfered with the science around the pesticide atrazine), and the American Petroleum Institute (which misrepresents climate science).

How science should inform decision making

Scientists use evidence to inform their position on science policy issues. And scientists may even change their position when presented with new information. This is the mark of a scientist using objective methods. But what if a scientist didn’t have the freedom to do such a thing because funding required him or her to come to specific conclusions? Would our conflicted scientist be able to analyze objectively? This becomes a problem when we want to use science to inform our understanding of an issue. And we start to see how groups like ACSH might come to some unscientific conclusions.

The ACSH appears to be concocting science to bolster a point of view. This is the exact opposite of how science should inform decision making. Rather, science should be used to tell us what that point of view is. Decision making on science-based issues should be informed by the weight of the evidence. And one thing is for sure, we should not be digging for a sliver of science that supports our preconceived views.



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  • Kevin Fxr

    Global warming fails by it’s interpretation of heat radiators invested in the infinitesimally smaller radiator having an ability to influence temperature in the atmosphere to any significant degree, in comparison to a much larger radiator being the earth.

    They fail in recognition of increased mass, due to specific gravity vs centrifugal forces combating gravity, influencing a change in the height of the total atmosphere. In effect creating a larger space to dissipate and negate any increased heat originating in the much smaller radiator.

    Heat is energy on the move. The sun is the primary radiator, the Earth is the secondary radiator and CO like all other mass in the atmosphere, that you cant bang your head against, has a very small to a negligible effect.

  • Thanks, Richard. You raise an important point about the need for truly independent expertise. That anecdote is concerning that two experts might come to opposite conclusions, given the same research question. It seems to me we need more mechanisms in place that make expertise more independent, like the idea of the court-hired experts that you mentioned. In academia too there exists mechanisms where would-be-conflicted funding sources can be pooled and distributed by a third party to address some of these issues. I think we could use more systems like this.

  • Richard

    Having done court related work for some 20+ years before I retired I can attest to the same phenomena in that setting.

    “Experts” would be hired to provide testimony which supported one side of the case or the other. It was fascinating, as well as distressing sometimes, how two professionals could arrive at different conclusions depending on which side of a case had paid for their services. Those of us in the field use to joke about colleagues being ‘hired guns.’

    The only time this did not seem to take place was when the court itself hired the expert. Then one could feel more confident that one would get an opinion that would be informed by scientific methods of evaluation of ALL the data involved.