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

October 28, 2013 | 2:33 pm
Gretchen Goldman
Former Contributor

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.