Science Policy For All

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Manufacturing Doubt to Shape Policy

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By ardelfin via

By Brenda Kostelecky

The terms “junk science” and “sound science” are commonly employed while discussing scientific studies with public policy implications. Despite their frequent use, few people realize that these two phrases were designed to influence policy decisions. The court-ordered release of tobacco industry documents has provided a glimpse into how tobacco companies promoted adoption of the term “junk science” to discredit studies demonstrating increased lung cancer risk caused by environmental tobacco smoke (ETS; also known as second-hand smoke) (1). In 1993 Philip Morris launched a coalition in the United States, which labeled studies contrary to their interests “junk science”. To mask the tobacco industry’s involvement, Philip Morris enlisted the participation of several other groups vulnerable to scientific evidence-based regulation in areas such as asbestos and household hazardous waste (2). The coalition exploited the fact that no reasonable policymaker or scientist would dare oppose the use of “sound science” to guide policy. The “sound science” coalition then set forth incredibly stringent criteria for sound scientific evidence, setting standards that were nearly impossible for individual studies to satisfy. By insisting that scientific studies meet these high benchmarks before instigating policy changes, stakeholders could argue indefinitely against regulation (3).

The tobacco industry employed a number of additional supporting tactics to discredit tobacco-harm research. Tobacco companies sponsored research designed to cast doubt on published evidence and organized letter-writing campaigns to scientific journals that published tobacco-harm evidence. They convened expert panels and scientific meetings to highlight uncertainties in published reports and discredited standard research methods such as epidemiology and meta-analysis (1). The comprehensive campaign to manufacture doubt was also conducted across the Atlantic. In Europe, tobacco companies promoted “Good Epidemiology Practices” (GEP). Although GEP ostensibly provided a framework for high-quality epidemiology standards, GEP adoption was intended to avoid smoking bans by challenging an International Agency for Research on Cancer epidemiological study of ETS (3).

Although both the US and Europe recently implemented more stringent smoking restrictions, the tobacco industry tactics continue to be used to influence the policymaking process. The “junk science” label is now used to discredit a new range of policy-relevant research from global climate change to pesticide use. In their publication entitled “Turning science into junk: the tobacco industry and passive smoking”, Jonathan Samet and Thomas Burke suggest a number of ways policymakers and scientists can mitigate the effects of campaigns designed to cast doubt on the veracity of scientific evidence (1). First, scientists must be aware of how stakeholder interests may conflict with their results so they can address anticipated critiques. Second, superficial criticism can be deflected by clear quality assurance guidelines and more thorough peer-review of pivotal publications. Finally, complete funding source transparency for all scientific research, meetings and coalitions would help scientists and policymakers identify potential conflicts of interest. Although these steps are not a silver bullet against highly coordinated and well-funded misinformation campaigns, they can provide a platform from which to counter “junk science” claims and thereby allow a fair hearing for scientific studies with important policy implications.

(1) Samet JM, Burke TA, Am J Public Health. 2001 November; 91(11): 1742-1744.
(2) The Advancement of Sound Science Coalition Member Survey. 1993. Document no. 2024233662/3663.
(3) Ong EK, Glantz SA. Am J Public Health. 2001; 91:1749-1757.


Written by sciencepolicyforall

July 15, 2011 at 3:43 pm

One Response

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  1. Thanks for this insightful article!

    I like the suggestions (by Jonathan Samet and Thomas Burke) that you have outlined here. I am just rephrasing here: 1. being aware of situations where the data conflicts with stakeholder interests so you are prepared to stand up to attacks that may be motivated by these conflicts. 2. initiating thorough peer-review of potentially high impact publications (the type that get a lot of media hype.) 3. complete funding source transparency

    I think the first one is very hard to do (at least I don’t know how to go about it), but the other two suggestions are easily managed.


    October 29, 2011 at 3:19 pm

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