Philanthropy and Science in an “Alternative Truths” World

2013-10-28-16-07-04-michael-green_asa-mathat-photographerGuest blog by Michael Green, CEO of Center for Environmental Health, www.ceh.org, and  former Putnam Consulting Client.

For more than two decades, our organization, the Center for Environmental Health, has worked to protect children and families from harmful chemicals in consumer products and in our air, water and food. Among our many efforts has been work on national campaigns to address the threats that genetically engineered or GMO crops pose to health, the environment and sustainable farming. In talking to philanthropists about this work, we have often been faced with long discussions to dispel the myths they have learned about GMOs from the mainstream media.

For years, the companies that make GMOs have flooded the media with unverified claims, promising that their crops would reduce pesticide use, create higher yielding crop varieties, and promote sustainable agricultural systems. Few if any media reports questioned why leading GMO companies like Monsanto, DuPont and Dow — companies that are also the world’s leading pesticide makers — would want to reduce the use (and sales) of their products. Even fewer reports cited independent data on pesticide reductions, yields, or sustainable farming gains from GMOs.

So it was not surprising that philanthropists had misperceptions about GMOs. Indeed, it was only last year that the New York Times finally reported on the independent science showing that GMO crops do not reduce pesticide use nor increase yields. The report also noted that scientists have shown the failure of GMOs for sustainable agriculture.

In today’s “alternative truth” media environment, it is more crucial than ever for funders to take a critical view of media reports on scientific matters. Philanthropists would do well to learn the tell-tale signs of the manipulation of science by corporations who are more interested in profits than in unbiased scientific assessments of their products.

Identifying industry Front-groups

One common tactic industries use is the creation of phony front groups to disseminate their dubious science. Understanding that journalists will question their motives, industries create front groups with trustworthy sounding names to make their case for them. The numerous climate change denial front groups funded by fossil fuel companies have been widely documented. Another especially egregious example: Citizens for Fire Safety (CFS), a group that was created by companies that make flame retardant chemicals. Despite the independent science showing that these toxic chemicals do not promote fire safety in furniture and other products, CFS peddled phony reports stating the opposite, and even enlisted a prominent burn doctor to help them mislead legislators at public hearings.

Industry funded studies

Industries also fund studies intended to reach preconceived conclusions that bolster their products’ reputations. For example, in nutrition, Dr. Marion Nestle of New York University has been keeping a running tab of industry-funded studies, finding 75 of 81 such studies came out with conclusions supporting health benefits of the sponsor’s products. As Dr. Nestle told the CEH podcast, “Food companies are constantly sponsoring research to give them the answer that they want, and it turns out it’s really easy to design studies to give you the answer you want.”

Influencing government regulations

Food companies are hardly the only corporations who manipulate science for their own ends. For decades the chemical industry has twisted the science that underpins U.S. regulations of toxic chemicals. A 2015 investigation of thirty years of the chemical industry’s influence on government regulations demonstrated how the industry has controlled and manipulated the field of toxicology to undermine health and environmental protections, putting millions of American children and families at risk from disease-causing chemicals.

For example, a series of studies used industry-friendly assumptions to assess the chemical bisphenol A (BPA), which outside of the U.S. is tightly regulated as an endocrine disrupting chemical. Unsurprisingly, the studies found BPA is essentially harmless. But independent laboratory studies on how BPA actually affects living beings have contradicted all of the assumptions made by the industry studies. The lab studies show that BPA is a powerful endocrine disruptor that affects multiple hormonal systems, with potentially serious health effects.

Resources against “alternative truths”

Like all media consumers today, funders need to be on the watch for “fake news.” But even more, philanthropists need to take care when evaluating their giving to insure that they are relying on independent science, and not industry-created fictions. Luckily, there are resources funders can use to uncover industry shenanigans, including:

  • The Center for Media and Democracy has great background and information on the corporate use of public relations to manipulate public opinion. Co-founders John Stauber and Sheldon Rampton’s books, Toxic Sludge is Good for You and Trust Us We’re Experts are classics in the field. Also, Sourcewatch is their wikipedia-style encyclopedia monitoring corporate behavior and industry-funded front-groups.
  • The Union of Concerned Scientists’ program on scientific integrity monitors and exposes political interference in scientific policy debates.
  • The Center for Responsive Politics tracks political contributions and the influence of money in policy debates. Similarly, MapLight produces reports on the influence of money in political debates.
  • Merchants of Doubt, a book and documentary film, outline how major industries such as tobacco, sugar, lead paint, asbestos and others twist science and influence regulations in pursuit of profits over public health.

While it may sometimes feel that we’re living in a post-truth world, funders should know that with a little critical attention, they can discern when the truth is out there.

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