The Thing About Science Denial and Disinformation Is It Works

Companies and political operatives deploy disinformation because it's effective, hard to track, is almost never punished, and takes years to reverse.

By Paul D. Thacker

Liberate Minnesota protest. Credit: Lorie Shaull.

In the midst of a pandemic with over a quarter of a million people dead, disinformation about coronavirus testing, vaccines, and therapies is spreading faster than the virus itself. Two medical experts blame this “science gone wild” zeitgeist on America’s vicious partisanship, as well as medicine’s toxic legacy of lax regulation and poor quality research, buttressed by media hype.

History finds that humans have a poor ability to separate scientific fact from fiction, especially when companies spin narratives to confuse and appease a skeptical public. We know this only too well from the history of climate denial, and every other form of science denial, really. Once false stories have been created, they're very hard to get rid of, and the behind-the-scenes machinations that created them is seldom exposed.

I know because I've spent my career uncovering these tactics and have seen first-hand how long it takes for the truth to spread versus how quickly disinformation can take root. In 2005, for example I found that DuPont was working to cover up the harm from a dangerous chemical, but it took more than a decade for that information to spread. In another instance, I discovered that a tobacco lawyer helped do dismiss public concerns about secondhand smoke by secretly helping to publish a badly compromised study in a prestigious science journal. That study has never been retracted.

In late 2005, I learned that an investigative producer for ABC News was knocking around Washington, D.C., with a document that showed industry had created disinformation to hide the harmful effects of perfluorooctanoic acid, or PFOA. This chemical is in the perfluorocarbon family, substances known for water and stain resistance. PFOA was once a main ingredient in product coatings like Teflon, Stainmaster, and Gore-Tex.

At the time, I was going through tobacco documents to see if companies had been influencing studies published in Environmental Science & Technology (ES&T), a research journal where I was an editor for the news section. While reading these documents, I ran across industry executives discussing papers to be published in ES&T, and I learned that a guy who peer reviewed studies for the journal was sharing his research, before it was published, with lawyers working for tobacco companies. When I brought these matters up at a meeting, my concerns were not taken very seriously.

Wanting this document that ABC News had for my own story, I started tracking it down. I eventually found a lawyer named Rob Bilott in Ohio who had something to do with the mess. When we spoke, he was very cagey on the phone, confirming that the document existed, but saying that he couldn’t give it to me. I would have to ask the EPA.

I then called a source at the EPA, who told me he was afraid to give me the document, but helped me find the online EPA docket where it was stored. Opening the docket, I found myself scrolling down a list of thousands of documents.

“Couldn’t you just tell me the number for the document?” I asked. After a lot of pleading, and promises on my mother’s grave that I would never reveal his name, he told me the number. When I popped open the document, “Bingo!”

Probably only a few thousand people first read the document that I later published along with an article about the Weinberg Group, a science-for-hire consulting firm. But writing that story and making the document public set off a chain of events that reverberate even now.

As I reported back in 2006, the document Bilott placed in that EPA docket was a letter the Weinberg Group sent in 2003 to DuPont. In that letter, Weinberg proposed a strategy to deal with the growing legal and regulatory crisis over PFOA. To sell themselves to DuPont, Weinberg explained that they had helped companies manage problems, such as Agent Orange, to counteract lawsuits and regulations. The letter also stated, “The constant theme which permeates our recommendations on the issues faced by DuPont is that DUPONT MUST SHAPE THE DEBATE AT ALL LEVELS.” (emphasis in original).

“[W]e will harness, focus and involve the scientific and intellectual capital of our company with one goal in mind—creating the outcome our client desires.” Another sentence reads, “This would include facilitating the publication of papers and articles dispelling the alleged nexus between PFOA and [birth defects] as well as other claimed harm.”

I also ran a few paragraphs noting that the Weinberg Group had worked with the law firm Covington and Burling to recruit scientists as secret consultants for tobacco. On behalf of tobacco, these consultants were expected to prepare papers, take active roles in scientific conferences and societies, and provide statements or testimony to the government and the media.

But after we published the article, it sent shock waves through the American Chemical Society, the publishers of ES&T. A chemical executive tried to lower my rating in my annual performance report, and when I pitched a story about documents showing that the Bush Administration officials were trying to suppress information about the science linking climate change and more powerful hurricanes, I was told that my reporting was immature. I was also told that I had to reject an invite to appear on MSNBC to discuss disinformation in science.

I had a friend, who was high up in ACS, call me late at night and tell me that people were not happy with the story I had done about the Weinberg Group, and that industry was bringing pressure on ACS leadership. Another friend at the Washington Post told me to get out of the American Chemical Society, because it was no place for journalism. A colleague at ACS sent me a story that appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review in 1995. When a reporter at ACS began looking into problems at Ashland Oil, one of the company’s executives flew from Kentucky to DC and met with ACS officials, who then killed the story.

It was all too much, so I found a new job, and quit. I took the Bush Administration documents and wrote that story for Salon, which kicked off a congressional investigation into the White House suppression of climate science.

A couple years later in 2008, an ABC News investigative website broke the story that Congressman John Dingell was investigating the Weinberg Group because it "manufactures uncertainty" for chemical companies to halt government regulations or bans. ABC referenced the story I had written and the document I had released.

Months later, Dingell’s investigation of the Weinberg Group landed on the front page of The Washington Post. Dingell had demanded answers about the lack of regulation for a compound called bisphenol A (BPA) which had been linked to breast and prostate cancer, behavioral disorders and reproductive health problems. Experts told the Post that chemical manufacturers had used shoddy science to influence federal regulators to keep BPA on the market. Congressional investigators added that Sunoco, a BPA manufacturer (and currently one of the companies behind the controversial Mariner East pipeline project in Pennsylvania), had hired the Weinberg Group.

Eight years later, The New York Times decided that the PFOA coverup was worth a look. Their magazine did a sprawling profile of Rob Bilott pointing out that manufacturers had known for decades that PFOA was dangerous and had been covering this up.

“Good to see you in the NY Times,” I emailed Bilott. “A blast from the past!”

“Good to hear from you, Paul!” Bilott replied. “I remember your investigation well – proved very important and useful.”

That magazine article caught the attention of actor Mark Ruffalo, who portrays Bilott in the recently released film Dark Waters.

Lawyer Rob Bilott and Mark Ruffalo, the actor who plays him in Dark Waters, on PBS's Amanpour&Co

As I was writing this essay, the Environmental Protection Agency disclosed that it “has multiple criminal investigations underway” on PFOA and related chemicals. A former government attorney told Bloomberg News that the EPA is likely focused on whether manufacturers failed to disclose known risks of the chemical.

It’s a victory of sorts, but having scientific corruption end up in a movie and starting a criminal investigation is rare—even if it took 15 years to happen.

Shortly after leaving ES&T, I took a job as a Senate Investigator for Senator Charles Grassley looking into corruption in medicine, and learned that in most cases, corruption stays hidden forever. In one particular example, I discovered that a prominent DC attorney working for pharmaceutical companies had previously helped place a study in ES&T to create confusion about smoking. That study remains part of the scientific literature to this day.

After a New York Times investigation found that Merck and Schering-Plough were likely delaying the release of data that showed a drug they sold didn’t work, I sent the companies letters demanding that they turn over internal documents and respond to questions. As is typical, the companies then hired a lawyer from one of the top firms in DC to respond to our demand. That lawyer was Patrick S. Davies, with Covington and Burling.

When he came to the committee to meet with us, I explained to Davies that we were worried that his clients, Merck and Schering Plough, might be hiding information from us. During legal proceedings, companies have to turn over all documents when they are demanded. To keep their activities hidden, tobacco companies had devised a strategy: instead of the companies hiring groups or consultants to engage in shady behavior, they would have their law firms hire them instead. Because the consultants were working directly for the law firm, that activity would then be claimed “attorney client privilege” walling it off from any legal proceeding.

I explained to Davies that I had heard pharma companies might be engaging in the same activity. We wanted a letter sent to the Committee assuring us that we were getting all the information about the drug, whether that information had been gathered by the companies or by their law firms. As I was explaining this, Davies got really nervous. Too nervous.

Suspicious, I started digging into his background. Sure enough I was right to be worried. According to documents in the Tobacco Archive, Davies had run the tobacco companies “Latin Project” to prevent regulation of secondhand smoke in South America.

Davies' job involved screening candidate scientists in South America to serve as tobacco’s secret ambassadors, as well as distributing materials that argued against smoking bans from a “libertarian perspective.” One of Davies’ finds was Brazilian scientist Antonio Miguel, who sent Davies a letter in 1993 thanking him and the Covington and Burling law firm for supporting research on environmental tobacco smoke.

In 1994, the Latin Project budget proposed a $20,000 retainer for Dr. Miguel to respond to media articles about environmental tobacco smoke with letters to the editor. “To avoid his overexposure, a maximum of three letters per year would be expected,” reads the proposal.

But the discussion of a study in ES&T—the journal where I had worked—had me seeing red. In early 1994, Davies wrote a letter about a paper Dr. Miguel planned to publish:

[W]e received a very solid draft from Dr. Miguel last week, which [tobacco scientist] Chris Proctor and we reviewed and approved with only minor suggestions for revision. We expect to receive the revised draft from Dr. Miguel in double-spaced form today, which will allow us to perform a light English edit on the paper before it is submitted to Environmental Science and Technology.

Later that year, Davies alerted a tobacco scientist that the ES&T paper would soon appear and that Dr. Miguel had not been paid for all of his work on the study. Dr. Miguel followed up with an invoice for his work on letter head from CalTech where he had taken a job as a professor.

That ES&T paper is titled “Characterization of indoor air quality in the cities of Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, Brazil” and was published in February, 1995. The study acknowledges funding from tobacco, but does not explain that a tobacco lawyer had a role in reviewing, approving, and editing it.

A few weeks after our first meeting, Davies returned to the committee to discuss the documents the pharmaceutical companies were providing to us. I told him that I knew exactly what he had done for the tobacco companies and insisted that he provide the committee with a letter confirming that the pharma companies hadn’t hired lawyers to do any dirty work for them and then hide it from Congress. We got that letter a couple months later.

But the study that Davies helped publish in a science journal to downplay the dangers of secondhand smoke remains part of the academic literature. It's a testament to the power of companies in creating scientific disinformation. And getting away with it.

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