Risk: Reason and Reality
by David Ropeik
For years, the tobacco industry knew that their products were harmful to health. To protect their profits, they covered up what they knew, paid scientists to cast doubt on that evidence, and right through their CEOs’ public testimony in Congress, just plain lied. As a result of these deceits, tens of thousands of people died.
Ultimately this selfish dishonesty came to light, and the industry was held legally liable in a massive settlement with 46 states that cost them $206 billion, to pay for the harm they did. Now the New York attorney general is investigating Exxon Mobil along basically similar lines, as evidence makes clear that the company knew about the potential harm of climate change, and either hid that knowledge or tried to sow public doubt and forestall government action against fossil fuels, the company’s lifeblood.
Some, including some members of Congress, are also calling on the U.S. attorney general to investigate Exxon Mobil for possible criminal violations of the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO) as well as consumer protection, truth in advertising, public health, shareholder protection, or other securities laws.
Such Merchants of Doubt behavior by corporations is unquestionably selfish, immoral, and infuriating. But as much as this despicable and harmful dishonesty cries out for punishment, just how should it be sanctioned? Do we really want it to be illegal? That’s not as simple as it seems.
Is Exxon Mobil’s behavior any different than that of the organics industry, which continues to fund research and advocacy to cast doubt on the overwhelming scientific consensus that genetic modification of food causes no harm to human health? Is that not Merchants of Doubt behavior by a business interest to protect its profits? I recently posed that question to Naomi Oreskes, co-author of the book Merchants of Doubt. She acknowledged, hesitantly, that it might be.
What about the researchers and academics who publish papers, invoking the credibility of their expertise and the “peer-reviewed academic literature,” that dishonestly cherry pick and twist the evidence, and flat out lie, specifically to cast doubt on the consensus about the human safety of GMOs. Isn’t that precisely what they rightly accuse the tobacco and fossil fuel and chemical companies of doing? They may not be acting for profit, but these academics and scientists are unquestionably contorting the evidence to spread doubt. Here’s one recent example, by the widely (and rightly) respected Dr. Sheldon Krimsky;
Global Climate Change