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Point of View : Sep 1, 2009 ( )
Activism, Mendacity, and Pathological Science
Distortion of Science Has Given Rise to Flawed Policies and Regulations
Consumers are increasingly being exposed to what chemistry Nobel laureate Irving Langmuir dubbed “pathological science,” the “science of things that aren’t so.” It is the specialty of self-styled public interest groups, whose agenda too often is not protection of public health or the environment, but intractable opposition to whatever research, product, or technology they happen to dislike. This is not a harmless diversion: When their machinations give rise to overregulation—or even bans—of safe and useful products or processes, all of society is the poorer for it.
Activists who disapprove of certain kinds of R&D or marketed products often try to stigmatize them via guilt by association with corporate interests. For several reasons, however, including the importance of corporate branding, avoidance of liability, and a desire to succeed in the marketplace, industrial research most often adheres to high professional and legal standards, including peer review. When it doesn’t, the scientific method, market forces, and regulatory oversight collaborate to ensure that, ultimately, dishonesty is exposed, condemned, and punished.
By contrast, activist-funded research is commonly held to a lower standard, or none at all. Activists’ claims are typically promoted by alarmist press releases and reported by the media (their dual mottos: “If it bleeds, it leads,” and “Never let facts get in the way of a good story”), but seldom are they independently peer-reviewed and published in scientific journals. Sadly, after its claims are repeated again and again, policy-makers, the media, and the public come to accept this pathological science as credible—or even proven.
Misinformation thrives in part because of the “information cascade” phenomenon, the way in which ideas gain acceptance by being parroted until eventually we assume they must be true even in the absence of persuasive evidence.
Examples have become more frequent as special interests promote health scares as a way to raise funds or to support litigation. The distortion of science has given rise to flawed policies and regulations, interference with research that offers potential benefits to society, unwarranted scares, frivolous lawsuits, and actual threats to public health. Examples include:
Pathological science may confuse not only the public, but also policy-makers. Donald Kennedy, president emeritus of Stanford University and former FDA commissioner, chides bureaucrats: “Frequently decision makers give up the difficult task of finding out where the weight of scientific opinion lies, and instead attach equal value to each side in an effort to approximate fairness. In this way extraordinary opinions...are promoted to a form of respectability that approaches equal status.”
This kind of undeserved moral equivalence frequently compromises governmental decision making and has given rise to unscientific and inconsistent regulation of many other products and technologies as well, including pesticides and other chemicals, biotechnology applied to agriculture, herbal dietary supplements, and silicone breast implants.
No one should mistake activists’ misdemeanors and mischief for naïve exuberance or excessive zeal in a good cause. In case after case, their motives are self-serving and their tactics callous—an ongoing example of the sentiments expressed by Linus Van Pelt in the Peanuts comic strip, “I love humanity; it’s people I can’t stand.”
Henry I. Miller, M.D. (firstname.lastname@example.org), a physician and molecular biologist, is a fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. He was at the FDA from 1979 to 1994.
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