In May of 2008, Newsweek Science writer and author Sharon Begley reviewed the book “Doubt Is Their Product: How Industry’s Assault on Science Threatens Your Health.”

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That science can be bought is hardly news to anyone who knows about tobacco “scientists.” But how pervasive, effective and stealthy this science-for-hire is—as masterfully documented by David Michaels of George Washington University in his new book, “Doubt Is Their Product: How Industry’s Assault on Science Threatens Your Health”—will shock anyone who still believes that “science” and “integrity” are soulmates. In studies of how toxic chemicals affect human health, Michaels told me, “It’s quite easy to take a positive result [showing harmful effects] and turn it falsely negative. This epidemiological alchemy is used widely.”

The alchemy is all in how you design your study and massage the data. Want to show that chemical x does not raise the risk of cancer? Then follow the exposed population for only a few years, since the cancers that most chemicals cause take 20 or 30 years to show up. Since workers are healthier than the general population, they start with a lower death rate; only by comparing rates of something the chemical is specifically suspected of causing—a particular lung disease, perhaps—can you detect a problem. Or, combine data on groups who got a lot of the suspect chemical, such as factory workers, with those who got little or none, perhaps their white-collar bosses. The low disease rates in the latter will dilute the high rates in the former, making it seem that x isn’t that toxic. All these ruses have been used, delaying government action on chemicals including benzene, vinyl chloride, asbestos, chromium, beryllium and a long list of others that cause cancer in humans. “Any competent epidemiologist can employ particular tricks of the trade when certain results are desired,” Michaels writes.

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This is all very big business. “Product-defense firms” have sprung up to spin the science and manufacture doubt—proudly. . . .

Make no mistake: raising doubt has run up the body count. By the early 1980s, for instance, studies had shown that children who took aspirin when they had a viral infection such as chickenpox were at greater risk of developing Reye’s syndrome, which damages the brain and liver and is fatal in about one case in three. Desperate to protect their market, aspirin makers claimed the science was flawed, called for more research (a constant refrain), and ran public-service announcements assuring parents, “We do know that no medication has been proven to cause Reye’s.” The campaign delayed by years the requirement that aspirin carry a warning label about children and Reye’s. In the interim, thousands of kids developed Reye’s. Hundreds died.

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More.

Video of David Michaels authors@Google presentation.

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