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

  • 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
  • American Council on Science and Health (ACSH) – history, staff, and funding
  • Corporate Front Groups
  • 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
  • Conclusions
  • 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
  • Threatens litigation against Medscape
  • Medscape briefly pulls article, then publishes with comments removed, then republishes with additional material
  • ?Loss of potential readership?
acsh dr elizabeth whelan
ACSH:Dr Elizabeth Whelan
  • 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 include Panic in the Pantry and Toxic Terror
  • Whelan’s 2003 salary = $326,612
acsh dr gilbert ross
ACSH:Dr Gilbert Ross
  • Joined ACSH as staff assistant in 1997
  • Became Coordinator of Medical Projects in 1998
  • Appointed Medical Director, then Executive Director in 1999
acsh dr gilbert ross10
ACSH:Dr Gilbert Ross
  • Spent 1996 in federal prison after being sentenced to 46 months for
    • Medicaid fraud
    • Perjury
    • 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
  • Now in charge of all scientific projects, publications, and personnel issues involving scientific staff at ACHS
  • ACHS Board of Directors includes anti-regulatory Individuals (2001 Survey)
  • Funding from right wing foundations, corporations
  • Accepted money to write and disseminate pro-industry “studies
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
  • Promote pro-business, conservative ideology
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]”
  • Minimized the effects of environmental tobacco smoke (ETS) on human health
    • 38,000 deaths/yr in U.S.
acsh pseudoscience and misinformation15
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
  • Claimed uncertainty regarding effects of agricultural antibiotics
acsh pseudoscience and misinformation16
ACSH:Pseudoscience and Misinformation
  • Called warning regarding tuna consumption by pregnant women “unfounded health scare”
  • 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.”
acsh pseudoscience and misinformation17
ACSH:Pseudoscience and Misinformation
  • Claimed “irradiated food is safe, wholesome and nutritious” and “no radioactive isotopes are involved”
  • Denied link between dioxins and pesticides and adverse health effects
  • Supported use of human volunteers in pesticide toxicity studies
  • 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
  • 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
  • Threat of litigation against Medscape antithetical to the rules of science
    • require the free exchange of information and opinion in pursuit of the truth
acsh attacks on scientists and the scientific enterprise21
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”
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)
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, and CNBC’s Business Insiders
  • Editorials by Whelan and Ross have appeared in the New York Times and Wall Street Journal
implications of attacks on science and scientists25
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 scientists26
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 scientists27
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
  • 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)
  • 37% believe places can be haunted (2007)
  • 25% believe in UFOs (2007)
ignorance pseudoscientific beliefs33
Ignorance / Pseudoscientific Beliefs
  • 22% of Americans don’t know whether an atomic bomb has ever been dropped (2000)
  • 20% of Americans don’t know the earth revolves around the sun (1999)
corporate influence
Corporate Influence
  • 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 influence36
Corporate Influence
  • 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 tactics
Corporate PR tactics
  • Invoke poor people as beneficiaries
  • Characterize opposition as “technophobic,” anti-science,” 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 examples40
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 current 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
  • 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
papers references
  • Donohoe MT. Corporate front groups and the abuse of science: the saga of the American Council on Science and Health. Z Magazine 2007 (October):42-6. Available at Referenced version available at
  • Donohoe MT. Global warming: a public health crisis demanding immediate action. World Affairs Journal 2007;11(2):44-58 (adapted from Global warming: a public health crisis demanding immediate action (Part I). Medscape Public Health and Prevention (1/12/07). Available at and Global warming: a public health crisis demanding immediate action (Part II). Medscape Public Health and Prevention (1/16/07). Available at
contact info
Contact Info

Martin T Donohoehttp://www.publichealthandsocialjustice.org