Manufacturing Consent

David Michaels along with other “political” scientists, and the lawsuit industry, have worked assiduously over the last several decades to delegitimize discussion, debate, and controversy over scientific claims.1 Their key goals have been to attempt to disqualify manufacturing industry and any scientist with the slightest manufacturing industry contact. Their attempts to disqualify other interlocutors is, however, highly asymmetrical. If those with connections to manufacturing industry criticize studies or causal conclusions, then we hear that the criticism is corrupt. If those with connections to manufacturing industry embrace studies that show favored associations, or causal conclusions, then we hear that the embrace of advocacy positions was an “admission,” reluctantly given but “forced” by overwhelming evidence. In other words, the attempts to disqualify interlocutors are made only when the speakers articulate criticism of the claims of advocacy science.

David Zaruk has argued that the techniques used to squelch criticism of advocacy science bear an uncanny resemblance to the techniques used by fascists generally. See David Zaruk, “Ten Practices Linking Environmentalism with Fascism,” Riskmonger (Dec. 2, 2017). Although Zaruk’s argument may appear hyperbolic, there is no denying that advocacy scientists (not merely in the field of environmentalism) have used the rhetorical devices that are used by intellectual bullies everywhere. In the case of advocacy scientists, one of their key maneuvers has been to privilege advocacy scientists who speak for their favored positions, for the lawsuit industry, and for self-styled public interest groups by ignoring their potential conflicts of interest, while diminishing the substantive content of all “opposition” voices by pejoratively characterizing their opponents’ motivation as “manufacturing doubt.” Of course, the deepest irony is that before there was manufacturing doubt, there was manufacturing consent.2 The unkindest thing that can, and must be said, of the current enthusiasm for attacking dissident scientists is not that the attacks are fascist, but that they are unscientific.

The likes of David Michaels have sought to manufacture consent on various health effects issues, by selectively and asymmetrically accusing scientists of conflicts of interest, or trying to pervert the course of science. These attacks on “dissidents” assume the truth of the contested causal conclusions, and then proceed to call out the dissidents for casting doubt on the “truth” in favor of falsehood. What this mobbing of dissidents ignores is the basic normative structure of science, which requires doubt.

One of the first sociologists of science, Robert Merton, described four institutional imperatives of science: universality, communitarianism, disinterestedness, and “organized skepticism.”3 Scientists are committed to methodologies and an institutional ethos that require searching scrutiny of claims to scientific knowledge. The scientific advocates who would silence criticism with accusations of “manufacturing doubt” ignore the epistemic importance of dissent and disagreement in science. The prevalent attempts to squelch dissent as “manufacturing doubt” is thus unscientific and dangerous.4

1 See, e.g., David Michaels, Doubt is Their Product: How Industry’s War on Science Threatens Your Health (2008); David Michaels, “Manufactured Uncertainty: Protecting Public Health in the Age of Contested Science and Product Defense,” 1076 Ann. N.Y. Acad. Sci. 149 (2006); David Michaels, “Mercenary Epidemiology – Data Reanalysis and Reinterpretation for Sponsors with Financial Interest in the Outcome,” 16 Ann. Epidemiol. 583 (2006); David Michaels & Celeste Monforton, “Manufacturing Uncertainty: Contested Science and the Protection of the Public’s Health and Environment,” 95 Amer. J. Public Health S39 (2005); David Michaels, “Doubt is their Product,” 292 Sci. Amer. 74 (June 2005).

2 See generally Edward S. Herman & Noam Chomsky, Manufacturing Consent (1988).

3 Robert K. Merton, “The Normative Structure of Science,” in Robert K. Merton, The Sociology of Science: Theoretical and Empirical Investigations, chap. 13, at 267, 270 (1973).

4 See Inmaculada de Melo-Mmartín and Kristen Intemann, “Who’s afraid of dissent? Addressing concerns about undermining scientific consensus in public policy developments,” 22 Persp. on Science 593 (2014).

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