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Confronting Pseudoscience and Threats from a Corporate Front Group: The American Council on Science and Health. Martin Donohoe. Disclosure. Previous regular column for Medscape Small payment per article

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Confronting Pseudoscience and Threats from a Corporate Front Group:The American Council on Science and Health

Martin Donohoe


Previous regular column for Medscape

Small payment per article

While much of Medscape’s content is supported by the pharmaceutical industry, my columns have been free of industry support

No other funding sources or conflicts of interest


Background: Global Warming

Definition of Corporate Front Group

American Council on Science and Health (ACSH) – history, staff, and funding

ACSH – Pseudoscience and Misinformation


ACSH – Attacks on Scientists and the Scientific Enterprise

Implications for Science and Public Health

Other examples of obfuscation of science by corporate interests


  • Corporate Front Groups
  • American Council on Science and Health
  • Corporate PR Tactics
  • Conclusions
corporate front groups
Corporate Front Groups

Promote corporate agendas

Strong financial and advisory links with corporations

Disseminate misinformation/lies under guise of “science”

Non-peer reviewed, cherry-picked/out of context

Promote pro-business, conservative ideology


Essay describing health and environmental consequences of global warming for Medscape

Described ACSH as a corporate front group and criticized its selection of author Michael Crichton as recipient of its 2005 Sound Science Medal

Crichton’s State of Fear questions existence of human-caused global warming

Crichton also received the American Association of Petroleum Geologists’ journalism award

acsh and global warming
ACSH and Global Warming

Leader referred to “belief” that burning fossil fuels has caused global warming as pseudoscience

Criticized environmental scientists as “doomsayers” and “fearmongers”

acsh response
ACSH Response

Threatened litigation against Medscape

Article pulled, then republished with additional material

?Loss of potential readership?

acsh dr elizabeth whelan director
ACSH:Dr Elizabeth Whelan - Director

Founded in 1978 by Drs. Elizabeth Whelan and Frederick Stare

Whelan’s early writing career included:

Freelance writing assignment for Pfizer criticizing the FDA

“Consumer magazine” pieces for Harper’s Bazaar and Glamour (fashion magazines)

Books: Panic in the Pantry and Toxic Terror

Whelan’s 2003 salary = $326,612

acsh dr gilbert ross medical executive director
ACSH:Dr Gilbert Ross - Medical /Executive Director

In charge of all scientific projects, publications, and personnel issues involving scientific staff at ACHS

Spent 1996 in federal prison after being sentenced to 46 months for

Medicaid fraud


Obstruction of justice

Not mentioned on his bio on ACSH website

Barred by the DHHS for 10 years from participating in either Medicare or Medicaid

acsh dr gilbert ross career
ACSH:Dr Gilbert Ross’ Career

Defended Wood Preservative Science Council against health claims regarding arsenic in pressure-treated wood

Wrote on behalf of the farmed salmon industry that PCBs in fish do not cause any health problems


ACSH Board of Directors includes anti-regulatory Individuals

Prominent figures on board of advisors

George Lundberg (Editor, Medscape), William Foege (former head of CDC), Patricia Buffler (former dean of UC Berkeley School of Public Health), others

  • Annual turnover of under $2 million
  • Initial funding from right wing foundations, corporations
    • E.g., Sarah Scaife Foundation, Dow, Monsanto, American Cyanamid, Mobil Foundation, Chevron, Bethlehem Steel, etc.
  • Accepted money to write and disseminate pro-industry “studies”
  • Finances had been secret since early 1990s until internal documents obtained by Mother Jones for second half of 2012 show
    • 58% of donations from corporations and large private foundations
  • Funders have included Bayer CropScience, Syngenta, Procter and Gamble, National Petrochemical and Refiners Assn, McDonalds, Altria, Coca-Cola, Dr. Pepper/Snapple, General Mills, Nestle USA, National Soft Drink Association, others
acsh sound science
ACSHSound Science
  • Has spoken out re dangers of tobacco smoking
  • Supported IOM recommendation re coverage of contraception as a preventive health service
  • Criticized Oprah for pseudoscientific claims (“The Secret,” anti-vaccination promulgations, nutritional supplement promotions, etc.)
acsh pseudoscience and misinformation
ACSH:Pseudoscience and Misinformation

Attacked the precautionary principle

“anti-science and anti-technology phobia”

“fundamentally reactionary and elitist”

“more on the order of theology [than science]”

acsh pseudoscience and misinformation1
ACSH:Pseudoscience and Misinformation
  • Minimized the effects of environmental tobacco smoke (ETS) on human health
    • 40,000 deaths/yr in U.S.
  • Opposed FDA regulation of e-cigarettes
acsh pseudoscience and misinformation2
ACSH:Pseudoscience and Misinformation
  • Promoted smokeless tobacco, snus, and e-cigarettes as smoking cessation aids
  • Opposed graphic tobacco package warnings
acsh pseudoscience and misinformation3
ACSH:Pseudoscience and Misinformation

Denied many of the adverse neurological effects of lead exposure

Denied endocrine-disrupting effects of PCBs

Claimed court ordered-cleanup of Hudson River by GE based on false claims of PCBs causing cancer

acsh pseudoscience and misinformation4
ACSH:Pseudoscience and Misinformation
  • Minimized health concerns of 9-11 responders
  • Opposed EPA attempts to strengthen clean air standards
  • Opposed TSCA reforms
  • Denied health risks of certain cosmetics
    • See Environmental Working Group’s “Skin Deep” list of safe cosmetics
acsh pseudoscience and misinformation5
ACSH:Pseudoscience and Misinformation

Claimed uncertainty regarding effects of agricultural antibiotics

Denied health and environmental risks of GM crops

Called warnings regarding tuna consumption by pregnant women “unfounded health scare”

Turned Alar concerns into manufactured “cautionary tale” of overzealous regulators run amok

acsh pseudoscience and misinformation6
ACSH:Pseudoscience and Misinformation

Critiqued health concerns re trans fatty acids

“There is no such thing as junk food”

“There is insufficient evidence of a relationship between diet and any disease.”

Rejected AAP recommendation for fast food television advertising ban

Opposed ban on sales of energy drinks to minors

acsh pseudoscience and misinformation7
ACSH:Pseudoscience and Misinformation
  • Claimed “irradiated food is safe, wholesome and nutritious” and “no radioactive isotopes are involved”
  • Promotes fracking
    • Whelan: Fracking “doesn’t pollute air or water”
    • 1992 memo by Whelan: ACSH is “the great defender of petrochemical companies”
  • Promoted nuclear power and benefits of low dose radiation hormesis
acsh pseudoscience and misinformation8
ACSH:Pseudoscience and Misinformation
  • Denied link between dioxins and pesticides and adverse health effects
    • “Pesticides are not toxic to humans of any age”
  • Supported use of human volunteers in pesticide toxicity studies
  • Denied health consequences of PBDEs (fire retardents) and PFOA (Teflon)

EPA: U.S. farm workers suffer up to 300,000 pesticide-related acute illnesses and injuries per year

NAS: Pesticides in food could cause up to 1 million cancers in the current generation of Americans

WHO: 1,000,000 people killed by pesticides over the last 6 years

phony health scares
“Phony Health Scares”

Mercury in tuna and other fish

“Enjoy it without worry”

Flame retardant traces found in blood and breast milk

PCBs in the Hudson River

Diesel exhaust fumes from school busses

Arsenic in drinking water

Phthalates in medical devices and children’s toys

acsh attacks on scientists and the scientific enterprise
ACSH: Attacks on Scientists and the Scientific Enterprise

ad hominem attacks

environmentalists = “toxic terrorists”

Whelan criticized Dr. Barry Levy and citizen-activist Erin Brockovich as “individuals who…pursued self-serving financial opportunities through litigation”

Called HSPH a “hotbed of pseudoscience and political agitation”

acsh attacks on scientists and the scientific enterprise1
ACSH: Attacks on Scientists and the Scientific Enterprise

Threat of litigation against Medscape antithetical to the rules of science

require the free exchange of information and opinion in pursuit of the truth

barry levy
Barry Levy

Expert in asbestos-related litigation

Past president of APHA and winner of Sedgwick Medal

Career has included work with CDC and USAID and the presidency of International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War

erin brokovich
Erin Brokovich

Received Harvard School of Public Health’s highest honor, the Julius Richmond Award

Exposed Pacific Gas and Electric’s (PG and E’s) pollution of California groundwater with chromium-6 (linked to stomach cancer)

acsh attacks on scientists and the scientific enterprise2
ACSH: Attacks on Scientists and the Scientific Enterprise

Charles Duhigg - NY Times writer

Winner of 2010 NY branch of the Society for Professional Journalists Daniel Pearl Award for series, “Toxic Waters”

Accused of “echo[ing] the campaign of radical environmental groups seeking to scare people about the safe use of pesticides” and of “allow[ing] himself to be used as a pawn in a campaign against…atrazine”

implications of attacks on science and scientists
Implications of Attacks on Science and Scientists

ACSH has broad media presence

Web site attracts large numbers of individuals

100,000 hits per month for 2005

Dr. Whelan has been featured on NBC’s Today Show, CNN Live, BBC, and CNBC’s Business Insiders

Editorials by Whelan and Ross have appeared in the NY Times, Wall Street Journal, LA Times, USA Today, NY Post, Forbes, National Review, Washington Times, Weekly Standard, Medscape, and other publications

implications of attacks on science and scientists1
Implications of Attacks on Science and Scientists

Mislead public / may cause alterations in lifestyle and/or purchasing habits

adverse consequences to health

Threats of litigation and SLAPP suits distract, intimidate, and deplete the scientific, legal, and financial resources of individuals and groups committed to public health

implications of attacks on science and scientists2
Implications of Attacks on Science and Scientists

Faulty pronouncements influence elected officials

Threats of litigation divert the valuable time of health care providers, editors, and legal departments away from their more productive missions of research, teaching, writing, and patient care

implications of attacks on science and scientists3
Implications of Attacks on Science and Scientists

Scientists and health care advocates may decide it is wiser to avoid conflict than publish content to which ACSH and other such groups might object

educational deficits impede public s understanding of science
Educational Deficits Impede Public’s Understanding of Science

25% of Americans functionally illiterate

Inadequate funding of science and health education means individuals may lack background necessary to recognize sound science vs. ideological bunk

Corporate-sponsored “educational materials” replacing scientific syllabi

would you sign a petition to ban dihydrogen monoxide
Would You Sign a Petition to Ban Dihydrogen Monoxide?

1. It can cause excessive sweating and vomiting2. It is a major component in acid rain3. It can cause severe burns in its gaseous state4. It can kill you if accidentally inhaled5. It contributes to erosion6. It decreases effectiveness of automobile brakes7. It has been found in tumors of terminal cancer patients

geographic ignorance
Geographic Ignorance

Percent of US teens unable to locate the following on a map:

United States – 11%

Pacific Ocean – 29%

Japan – 58%

United Kingdom – 68%

pseudoscientific beliefs
Pseudoscientific Beliefs

Percentage of Americans who believe “at least to some degree” in these “phenomena”

1976 1997

Astrology 17% 37%

UFOs 24% 30%

Reincarnation 9% 25%

Fortune-Telling 4% 14%

ignorance pseudoscientific beliefs
Ignorance/Pseudoscientific Beliefs

Half of US citizens do not believe in evolution and do believe that humans and dinosaurs coexisted (2007)

40% think scientists still generally disagree about evolution

20% of high school biology teachers are creationists

pseudoscientific beliefs1
Pseudoscientific Beliefs

37% believe places can be haunted (2007)

25% believe in UFOs (2007)

24% believe in astrology (2009)

16% believe that people with the “evil eye” can cast curses or harmful spells

14% have consulted a psychic or fortune teller (2009)

ignorance pseudoscientific beliefs1
Ignorance/Pseudoscientific Beliefs

22% of Americans don’t know whether an atomic bomb has ever been dropped (2000)

25% of Americans don’t know the earth revolves around the sun (2014)

18% believe in Bigfoot and the Loch Ness Monster (2007)

8% of men / 18% of women believe in astrology and fortune tellers (2007)

corporate pr tactics
Corporate PR Tactics

Greenwash: Public relations/ad campaigns

Chevron’s “People Do” Campaign, butterflies/refinery

British Petroleum (BP) invests $100 million annually in clean energy = amt. it spends annually to market its new name and environmentally-friendly image of moving “Beyond Petroleum”

corporate pr tactics1
Corporate PR Tactics

Astroturf: artificially-created grassroots coalitions

Other corporate front groups

The Alliance for Responsible CFC Policy

National Wilderness Institute

The Foundation for Clean Air Progress

corporate pr tactics2
Corporate PR Tactics

Invoke poor people as beneficiaries

Characterize opposition as “technophobic,” anti-science,” “anti-business,” and “against progress”

Portray their products as environmentally beneficial in the absence of (or despite the) evidence

sponsored environmental educational materials
Sponsored Environmental Educational Materials

Corporate-sponsored and supported by a loose coalition of antiregulatory zealots, corporate polluters, lapdog scientists and misguided parents

sponsored environmental educational materials examples
Sponsored Environmental Educational Materials - Examples

Exxon’s “Energy Cube”

-“Gasoline is simply solar power hidden in decayed matter”

-“Offshore drilling creates reefs for fish”

Pacific Lumber Company

-“The Great American Forest is. . . renewable forever”

sponsored environmental educational materials examples1
Sponsored Environmental Educational Materials - Examples

American Nuclear Society’s “Activities with the Atoms Family”

Dow’s “Chemipalooza”

environment of anti science pseudoscience
Environment of Anti-Science/Pseudoscience

Erosion of science under the Bush administration:

Appointments to key scientific bodies based on corporate connections and political or religious ideology, rather than scientific expertise

Excessive corporate influence over legislation

The rewriting and even suppression of scientific policy statements

A little improvement under Obama


Professional and lay publications should expose the workings of groups like ACSH

Scientists should fight back against harassment

Improve quality of public education; get corporations out of the classroom

contact info
Contact Info

Martin T Donohoehttp://www.publichealthandsocialjustice.org