The Populist Attack on Scientific Free Speech

Siddhartha Mukherjee’s opinion piece in Sunday’s New York Times illustrates the populist efforts to muzzle and minimize industry’s efforts to communicate about scientific issues that affect public policy.  Mukherjee, “Opinion:  Patrolling Cancer’s Borderlands,” New York Times, Sunday Review, p. 8 (July 17, 2011).

Mukherjee, an an assistant professor of medicine at Columbia University, is the author of The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer, and a frequent commentator on public health issues.  In his recent article, Mukherjee notes how difficult it is identify a carcinogen with reasonable certainty.  Tobacco as a cause of lung cancer was easy, relatively, to identify because of the very strong associations shown by observational studies.  Scientists are dealing with smaller candidate risks now, and with cancers that are less common and therefore with more expected variability in population samples.  Mukerhjee seems to acknowledge these considerations, but he appears much less concerned with scientific accuracy than with what he perceives as industrial lobbying against the labeling of certain chemicals as carcinogens.

There is much that is objectionable in this populist attack on scientific speech and the right to petition the government.  Putting aside scientific inaccuracies such as referring to epidemiologic studies as “trials,” let me focus on what emerges as the dominant theme of the opinion article.  Three times in his short editorial, Mukherjee uses the term “lobbying” to describe scientific speech and analyses submitted by industrial representatives:

“Second: in mid-June, the National Toxicology Program, countering years of lobbying by certain industries, finally classified formaldehyde (used in plywood manufacturing and embalming) as a carcinogen.”

* * *

“The second challenge facing cancer control agencies is political. The formaldehyde case illustrates this. Unlike phone radiation, formaldehyde has a well-established mechanism to cause cancer: it is a strikingly reactive chemical that can directly attack DNA. Experiments performed in the 1970s demonstrated that the chemical causes cancer in mice and rats. Following this data, sophisticated trials [sic] showed that men and women exposed to formaldehyde — morticians, for instance — had higher rates of leukemia than unexposed people.

But some of these studies were performed three decades ago. Why have 30 years elapsed between them and the National Toxicology Program announcement? In part, because of active lobbying by various industries, in particular, plywood manufacturers, who have tried to thwart this classification.”

* * *

“Identifying a carcinogen, in short, isn’t sufficient. Beyond the science — which, as the cellphone example shows, can be hard enough — cancer-control agencies need to bolster political support, and neutralize lobbying interests, before a culprit carcinogen can be revealed to the public.”

Mukherjee, supra. Now, the references to lobbying over scientific interests suggest an image of industrial gladhanders plying agency scientists and bureaucrats with expensive gifts, meals, and travel.  If that were so, then the decried “lobbying” might well be offensive, but what Mukherjee is talking about is nothing more or less than scientific free speech.  Industrial concerns and associations submit discussions that call attention to inadequacies in the data and evidence that regulators seek to rely upon in their zealous attempts to protect the public health.  The issue, of course, is a scientific one of the accuracy of the regulators’ interpretation of the data.  By using the term “lobbying,” with its pejorative connotations, Mukherjee is playing to the Zeitgeist’s impatience with the facts, when they embarrass regulatory or tort law attempts to condemn aspects of our industrialized society.  The exhibited hostility to scientific speech is at odds with our core political, constitutional values of both free speech and the right to petition the government.  The dismissive attitude is also contrary to a good deal of scientific evidence.  See, e.g., C. Bosetti, J. McLaughlin, et al., “Formaldehyde and cancer risk: a quantitative review of cohort studies through 2006,” 19 Ann. Oncol. 29 (2008). The Times and Mukherjee know that most readers will not familiar with the factual dispute underlying the classification of formaldehyde, and this editorial is nothing less than a cynical attempt to mold public opinion by the use of ad hominem attacks on industry.

Note that Citizens for Science in the Public Interest, the Center for Regulatory Reform, SKAPP, and dozens of other organizations, submit their views on issues of carcinogenicity, or other other health concerns, but they are not labeled as “lobbyists.”  Note also that Mukherjee urges cancer-control agencies “to bolster political support,” as well as “neutralize lobbying interests.”  The identification of carcinogens is a scientific issue, not a political one.  Society can certainly decide to err on the side of precaution, but agencies such as the National Toxicology Program, or the International Agency for Research on Cancer, hold themselves out to be scientific agencies, not political organizations.  These agencies should act scientifically, and they should be amenable to scientific evidence and evaluation, marshaled by any stakeholder in the discussion over putative carcinogens.  Mukherjee’s rhetoric and propaganda should be rejected in a free society.

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