Seth Shulman is a senior staff writer at the Union of Concerned Scientists, a veteran science journalist and author of six books. This article will appear in Shulman's column 'Got Science?'. Shulman contributed this article to LiveScience's Expert Voices: Op-Ed & Insights.
Planted scientific articles. Attacks on individual scientists. Recent revelations in two separate court cases spotlight an often hidden form of fraud: corporations deliberately trying to manipulate scientific findings about the safety of their products. People involved in the cases allege that some corporations have been pulling off dirty tricks that are beneath contempt ― a kind of "counterfeit science" that not only undermines the credibility of the entire scientific enterprise, but can pose a serious threat to people's health.
For an egregious example, look no further than the recently revealed scheme of Georgia-Pacific, a subsidiary of Koch Industries. This June, a New York Appeals Court ruled unanimously that Georgia Pacific must hand over all internal documents pertaining to its alleged efforts to tamper with the scientific understanding about the health effects of asbestos.
Here's what the case has revealed so far: The company allegedly had a hand in "ghostwriting" some 11 articles published in reputable scientific journals such as Inhalation Toxicology, The Journal of Occupational & Environmental Hygiene, Annals of Occupational Hygiene and Risk Analysis.
Why get worked up about a bunch of technical articles in arcane science journals? Because, as the court noted, there's every indication that those studies were misinformation deliberately planted to cast doubt on the carcinogenic nature of chrysotile asbestos, a component in Georgia Pacific's widely used joint compound for construction projects.
Ghostwritten articles, compromised science
In the Georgia Pacific asbestos case, the court documents suggest that the company hired experts ― who had conflicts of interest ― specifically to write articles downplaying the cancer risk posed by asbestos, and yet those conflicts of interest were not disclosed by the authors when they submitted the studies for publication. Rather, the articles in question were presented as independent, genuine research. Equally alarming, court documents indicate that Georgia Pacific's lawyers were heavily involved in the article-publication process.
The extent of Georgia Pacific's actions remain to be revealed in this case. But Justice Richard Andrias put his finger on the overriding public interest at stake when he wrote the court ruling demanding Georgia Pacific's internal documents in order to shed light on the extent of wrongdoing. As Andrias put it, the company "should not be allowed to use its experts' conclusions as a sword by seeding the scientific literature with (Georgia Pacific)-funded studies, while at the same time using the privilege as a shield ... ."
In this case, it's no exaggeration to say that the counterfeit science in question poses a potentially life-threatening hazard to people exposed to asbestos and who depend upon the scientific literature to understand the health risks involved.
Over the line
There's no doubt that a good deal of scientific research, especially in today's tight economy, is underwritten by corporate funding. That alone is not the problem. At issue here is that bona fide scientific research demands a high degree of scientific integrity. People with serious conflicts of interest who have a financial stake or receive direct payments from a company have no business publishing in scientific journals without clear and full disclosure of the conflict, especially when the results pertain directly to an assessment of the safety of one of the company's products. At worst, it smacks of nothing less than criminal fraud and should be treated as such.
There's more to corporate counterfeit science than ghostwritten articles, however. Consider the eye-opening case of the agribusiness firm Syngenta and its product atrazine, a widely used agricultural pesticide on corn, sorghum and sugar cane crops. Details of Syngenta's brand of counterfeit science were brought to light in a blockbuster report by the group 100Reporters whose Freedom of Information Act request resulted in a trove of recently unsealed court documents that included thousands of Syngenta emails, internal memos and notes from the company's meetings.
Syngenta's disinformation campaign
The documents indicate that Syngenta waged a multimillion-dollar campaign to mislead the public about scientific research on the hazards of atrazine. The company funneled money through front groups and planted third-party articles and op-eds, 100Reporters says. They even hired a detective agency to investigate scientists on a federal advisory panel to try to stave off potential EPA regulation.
The documents also show that Syngenta targeted at least one scientist directly. Tyrone Hayes, a biologist at the University of California, Berkeley demonstrated a decade ago that atrazine could turn male frogs female, publishing his results in prestigious journals such as Nature (opens in new tab) and the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Hayes has remained a prominent, vocal critic of atrazine ever since.
In an effort to try to undermine Hayes' research, the group writes, Syngenta hired an investigator to dig up dirt on both Hayes and his wife, commissioned a psychological profile of him and even planted trained critics in the audience at his speaking events.
We've seen this movie before — most recently in disinformation campaigns by oil and gas companies like ExxonMobil that try to undermine climate science and, before that, by Big Tobacco to disseminate disinformation about the health effects of smoking. Syngenta's disinformation campaign about the safety of atrazine didn't just draw directly from the playbook used by Big Carbon and Big Tobacco, however. They even used some of the same personnel.
For instance, the documents show that Syngenta hired Steven J. Milloy, a Fox News columnist and blogger, to spout misinformation about atrazine. In the past, Milloy has made similar arrangements with oil and gas companies to misinform about climate science; he previously worked for Phillip Morris, distorting the scientific evidence about the hazards of cigarettes and second-hand smoke.
Time for action
The Georgia Pacific and Syngenta cases are likely part of a long line of corporate counterfeit science, much of which succeeds by going undetected. While scientific and medical journals periodically wring their hands about the problem and the U.S. Senate has even investigated the issue, the response to date has clearly failed the public and the scientific enterprise. Perhaps these latest revelations will build enough momentum to revisit this pernicious scourge and prosecute deliberate counterfeit science as fraud. Andrew Rosenberg, director of the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists, is helping to put the issue of counterfeit science on the map. The Center for Science and Democracy is actively working to strengthen safeguards to ensure that solid, independent evidence informs our policymaking.
As Rosenberg rightly put it, "Actions like those revealed in the Georgia Pacific and Syngenta cases go against all my teaching and experience as a scientist. They not only undermine the scientific enterprise, they pose an enormous potential threat to the public . That's why we need all parties involved to develop and enforce safeguards to prevent counterfeit science."
The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the publisher. This article was originally published on LiveScience.com .