The Art of 'Manufacturing Uncertainty'
By David Michaels
David Michaels, a professor at the George Washington University School
of Public Health, served as assistant secretary of Energy between 1998
June 24, 2005
To many scientists and policymakers in Washington, the revelation this
month that Philip Cooney, chief of staff for the White House Council on
Environmental Quality, had rewritten a federal report to magnify the
level of uncertainty on climate change came as no surprise. Uncertainty
is easily manipulated, and Cooney — a former lobbyist with the American
Petroleum Institute, one of the nation's leading manufacturers of
scientific uncertainty — was highly familiar with its uses.
As an epidemiologist with a special interest in occupational diseases,
I share a fundamental problem with the scientists who are studying
climate change. Our ability to conduct laboratory experiments is
limited; we can't go out and intentionally expose people to carcinogens
any more than climatologists can measure future temperatures. Instead,
we must harness "natural experiments," collecting data through
observation only. We then build models from this data, and use these
models to make causal inferences and predictions, and, where possible,
to recommend protective measures.
uncertainties abound in our work; there's nothing to be done about
that. Our public health and environmental protection programs will not
be effective if absolute proof is required before we act. The best
available evidence must be sufficient. Otherwise, we'll sit on our
hands and do nothing.
Of course, this is often exactly what
industry wants. That's why it has mastered the art of manufacturing
uncertainty, of demanding often impossible proof over common-sense
precaution in the realm of public health.
industry led the way. For 50 years, cigarette manufacturers employed a
stable of scientists willing to assert (sometimes under oath) that
there was no conclusive evidence that cigarettes cause lung cancer, or
that nicotine is addictive. An official at Brown & Williamson, a
cigarette maker now owned by R.J. Reynolds, once noted in a memo:
"Doubt is our product since it is the best means of competing with the
'body of fact' that exists in the mind of the general public."
Toward that end, the tobacco manufacturers dissected every study,
highlighted every question, magnified every flaw, cast every possible
doubt every possible time. They also conjured their own studies with
questionable data and foregone conclusions. It was all a charade, of
course, because the real science was inexorable. But the uncertainty
campaign was effective; it delayed public health protections, and
compensation for tobacco's victims, for decades.
industry, left without a stitch of credibility or public esteem, has
finally abandoned that strategy — but it led the way for others. Every
polluter and manufacturer of toxic chemicals understands that by
fostering a debate on uncertainties in the underlying science and by
harping on the need for more research — always more research — it can
avoid debating the actual policy or regulation in question.
It is now unusual for the science behind a public health or environmental regulation not
to be challenged. In recent years, corporations have mounted campaigns
to question studies documenting the adverse health effects of exposure
to, among others, beryllium, lead, mercury, vinyl chloride, chromium,
benzene, benzidine and nickel.
Manufacturing uncertainty is a
business in itself. You too can launch a pretty good campaign. All you
need is the money with which to hire one of the main players in the
"product-defense industry," many of whose stalwarts first honed their
craft defending cigarette smoke. These firms will hire the scientists,
throw the mud, crank up the fog machine.
A classic case is
beryllium, a lightweight metal useful in nuclear weapons. For many
years it has been clear that workers exposed to beryllium levels below
the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration standard can
develop chronic beryllium disease.
When OSHA tried to lower the
standard, the industry hired Exponent, a leading product-defense firm
to focus on all the things we don't understand, calling for more
research before OSHA could act. Meanwhile, workers are still exposed at
the old, unsafe level, and are still getting sick.
themselves, these product-defense lobbyists and their clients make no
secret of what they're doing. Republican political consultant Frank
Luntz wrote in a memo, later leaked to the press: "The scientific
debate remains open…. Should the public come to believe that the
scientific issues are settled, their views about global warming will
Decades from now, this campaign to
manufacture uncertainty will surely be viewed with the same dismay and
outrage with which we now look back on the deceits perpetrated by the
tobacco industry. But will it be too late?