It is so refreshing to read David Michaels’ The Triumph of Doubt. He has the facts researched, vetted and thoroughly cited, and is not afraid to lay blame, call people liars and companies frauds. He is clear-thinking, organized and direct. At one point he recites a long list of claims by Big Sugar as to how truly benign their product is, and the last line is “None of this is true.” He calls climate skeptics climate terrorists because they are doing severe damage and causing vast numbers of deaths with their lies. He says what they all have in common is manufacturing uncertainty to keep the market confused.
The book uses Big Tobacco’s decades-long battle to put off the inevitable (while continuing to rake in billions) as the blueprint that everyone is copying in their similar quests. They all want to keep killing their customers as well as innocent bystanders while profiting exorbitantly from dangerous products and practices. The playbook was actually created in the early fifties by Big Sugar, which already saw the writing on the wall at that time. Its campaign chief moved over to the tobacco version when Hill & Knowlton created it at the end of 1953. That’s how long ago Big Tobacco knew the end was in sight. The tactics were to deny and deflect, to produce bogus studies refuting real studies, to create and finance fake grassroots support groups and industry support groups, and to place endless articles in both scientific journals and mass media by financing their authors.
The (desired) result is always confusion in the marketplace, as talk shows and magazine articles fall for the industry-approved stories and promote their diversions. We’ve all heard or seen them: It doesn’t matter how much sugar you consume as long as you exercise, that athletes are immune to concussions because they brace for it, and that opioids are not addictive for people who are not already addicted. How does anyone know what is real with all the contradictory stories? How did we get to this state of affairs?
Michaels explains it all matter-of-factly, because this is a well-worn playbook by now. For example, he says: “The tobacco strategists also realized that they couldn’t mount their own studies, which would take years and millions of dollars, so they figured they could get the raw data from the incriminating studies, change some of the basic assumptions, change the parameters, tinker with this and that, and make the results go away. Tobacco’s approach is now commonplace; ‘re-analysis’ is its own cottage industry within product defense.“ It kept lawmakers at bay for an additional 50 years.
He deeply probes the new industry of professional deniers that has grown out of Big Tobacco’s need for distraction. For decades, the same names and the same firms show up at congressional hearings and in court, publish refutable studies and challenge all the true studies, which they simply attack as faulty and inadequate. The same individuals are instantly experts in every field. They love to say “more study is needed” and “the causal connection has not been proven” to send everyone back to square one. In the US system, they’re allowed to. Michaels names them all — something to watch for in future controversies. Known liars and frauds should be outed, and at very least, their claims ignored.
They have convinced Congress to enact laws that for example, require federal agencies to use only studies provided to them by the industry they are overseeing. This was after getting those agencies to have to hand over all their own raw data so the industry could twist and refute it. With these advantages, industry could and does challenge every line in every report, forcing the agency to go back and create a thorough rebuttal to the criticism. This can add years to any process. Whatever industry has to pay for it, it’s worth it. In the interim, customers die.
Michaels has had a front row seat to all this. For seven years in the Obama administration he headed OSHA, which regulates safety in workplaces. He has written widely and deeply on the topic of doubt, and has been called to testify under oath numerous times. His credibility is unassailable, though the industry flacks keep trying. His whole life has been epidemiology, how disease spreads, so he holds his own in these proceedings with total confidence. He says he has no worries about any of the claims he makes in the book. Bring it on. This combative book is a rarity, particularly as protective agencies are being hobbled.
Horrifyingly, Michaels shows the same playbook in numerous other such (what should be) criminal cases, including opioids, Teflon, alcohol, sugary drinks, Volkswagen’s diesel fraud and even concussions in American football. So everything in the book is current and familiar. He sees his job as stopping industry from killing everyone in the quest for vast profit, and theirs is to stop him at all costs, or at least put it off until they can retire wealthy.
One of Michaels’ greatest achievements was nailing down regulations for silica (from sand), a battle that went on for two decades. The delaying tactics included a memorable incident when an industry lawyer challenged a government witness to prove that silica actually caused silicosis, claiming no such connection was ever demonstrated. As Michaels calmly points out, the very definition of silicosis is lung disease caused by silica, hence the name. This is the kind of thing industry routinely resorts to as it flails in any and all directions. In the meantime, miners, construction workers and neighbors are sentenced to death.
He calls for more respect for government agencies, which are packed with dedicated scientists who gave up lucrative careers to research and promote truth, safety, and security for everyone. He says they should be allowed to ban not just individual chemical compounds, but the whole range. He says industry, banned from using one specific chemical compound, simplify reformulates it with the same active ingredient, and the whole dance starts over while innocents die. Science itself is totally disrespected as can be seen daily in the current administration, and one of the political parties actively pursues that line of prejudice. The result is ineffective government, which the administration uses to show regulation is bad.
So is it true that exercise counts more than the sugar you drink? Or that alcohol in moderation is actually good for you? Or that nine out of 10 smokers don’t develop cancer from tobacco (as VP Mike Pence declares), so people should have the freedom to smoke around others? Should you really distrust all the scientists who have concluded that climate change is real and instead believe the senators and governors of backward states? Or the corporate lobbyists over the career government researchers who claim that CO2 is not a pollutant? If you are confused because a flurry of studies pops up in the news saying something is actually beneficial and that all the other studies are wrong, this is the book for you. Because not knowing can be fatal.
Author, The Straight Dope or What I learned from my first thousand nonfiction reviews.
(The Triumph of Doubt, David Michaels, February 2020)