The Chemical Industry's Attack on Historians


Mr. Markowitz is University Distinguished Professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and Mr. Rosner is Professor of History and Sociomedical Sciences at Columbia University and Director of the Center for the Hisdtory & Ethics of Public Health at Columbia’s Mailman School of Public Health. Together they wrote Deceit and Denial: The Deadly Poitics of Industrial Pollution, (Berkeley: University of California Press/Milbank Fund, 2002).

“I think you all know that what happened 40 years ago is no reflection of the kind of industry that we represent today.” (2002) -- Terry Yosie, Vice-President of the American Chemistry Council [1]

When “Trade Secrets,” Bill Moyers’s award winning special on PBS (based, to a significant extent, upon documents we uncovered in our research) first aired, we took heart from the vice president of the American Chemical Council’s apology for what occurred decades ago in the chemical industry. We certainly hoped that the industry of the 1960s and 1970s was not “the kind of industry that” the American Chemical Council represents today. But we are given pause by the recent attempts by the chemical industry to shut down discussion of their past and to interfere with the peer-review process, academic freedom and open debate. As many of you know from the recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education,, industry lawyers have subpoenaed the foundation that supported research for our book, Deceit and Denial: The Deadly Politics of Industrial Pollution. The industry lawyers also subpoenaed the records of the book's co-publisher, the University of California Press, as well as five of the eight peer reviewers for the press. We have yet to hear of a similar effort by industry with regard to other academic books and we believe that while Yosie may believe that it is a very different industry than forty years ago, these unprecedented efforts to interfere with the academic review process and to harass researchers makes us wonder.

But the industry has gone even further than that: it has purchased the name and effort of Philip Scranton, a fellow historian, to savage our book in a 41 page single-spaced diversion filled with inaccuracies and distortions. He alleges that we have "violated the AHA's and NCPH's guidelines in six specific areas: I. Integrity and Accuracy; II. Misrepresentation and Omission; III. Advocacy and Oversimplification; IV. Inadequate Documentation; V Qualification and Interpretation; and VI. Professional Ethics.: (Scranton, p.3) These are noxious charges and demand our careful response. Therefore, we will soon post on the web three sets of documents for the scholarly community to evaluate: 1) his comments about our book, 2) our response, and 3) the primary documents we use as evidence (and references) in the two chapters of our book that he has attacked. This third posting will be done as soon as practically possible in order that the scholarly community can judge for itself whether we distort their content, as Scranton asserts. In the meantime, readers can consult a select grouping of these documents at the following URL: http://www.chemicalindustryarchives.org/dirtysecrets/vinyl/1.asp

We believe even this small collection will convince a reasonable reader that what we report in our book is accurate and well-documented.

We think it important to put this controversy in a broader context. During the past decade or so historians have been drawn into the courtroom as expert witnesses in cases involving workers and consumers harmed by a variety of products including tobacco, lead, asbestos, silica and most immediately plastics. This issue has become widely discussed among historians of medicine but has so far escaped attention within the broader community of historians.[2] Of most significance for the historians of medicine is that Kenneth Ludmerer, past president of the American Association for the History of Medicine, Peter English, professor of medicine and history at Duke, Robert Hudson at the University of Kansas and John Burnham at Ohio State, among others, have worked for or testified on behalf of tobacco companies, lead companies and other industries that have been the defendants in lawsuits. In addition, historians such as ourselves, Robert Proctor at Stanford and Allan Brandt at Harvard have testified or worked with workers injured or diseased by their job, children damaged from lead and individuals hurt by tobacco, as well as various cities, states, and the federal government in suits brought against tobacco, lead, silica, and now the chemical industry.

It appears that the legal strategies of the law firms defending the various industries have been more or less the same, following a common pattern and a common rationale. In what historian Robert Proctor has called agnatology, industry has created a new “science” for the creation of doubt and ignorance about its actions in the past and historians have played a significant, if duplicitous role.[3]

In brief, as Robert Proctor has stated in a number of oral presentations and editorials with regard to the tobacco industry, historical experts testifying for industries have adopted a few basic techniques to undermine the historical data indicating knowledge of danger. In general, they have argued that:

  • Whatever the evidence of knowledge within industries of the dangers of a product existed in the past, there was insufficient information available for there to be definitive proof of real danger.
  • Therefore, there was always a need for more research before doubt could be eliminated and those who questioned that a material was dangerous meant that there was a “controversy” about whether or not it was.
  • Causation is extremely difficult to prove and requires years, if not decades, of careful experimentation and observation before “controversy” about the sources of disease could cease.
  • Hence, without certainty, and in the context of any on-going controversy about the danger of a product or substance, there was little or no obligation on the part of industries to act to remove their product from the market or to lower exposures to toxic materials within the factory. [4]

Industry’s argument about our book closely parallels the structure that Proctor has outlined in relation to the tobacco cases:

  • There was always a reason to gather more and more information before telling government, workers or the public of the possibility that a substance was carcinogenic in humans at low doses.
  • Science is a slow, cumulative process that demands that information about danger not be revealed until scientific proof exists and after “controversy” over that proof is laid to rest.
  • Industry always had valid reason to doubt the accuracy of any finding of carcinogenesis.
  • History is a complex (“messy,” in Proctor’s discussion) process in which clarity is rare and confusion the norm.
  • Historians who draw conclusion that indicate industry malfeasance are sloppy, simplistic or biased.
  • “Objectivity” in historical analysis requires that equal weight of plausibility be provided to all sides in an argument and requires that no judgments should be made.
  • “Objectivity” requires that even disinformation, including all self-serving statements, be presented as legitimate.
  • Every conflicting piece of information should be reported, irrespective of its importance to the historical questions being asked.
  • Incomplete knowledge is equivalent to controversy about that knowledge.
  • One should ignore evidence of responsibility in favor of evidence of ambiguity or innocence.
  • Positive peer reviews or post-publication reviews are invalid unless the reviewers have read all the primary documents.
  • Any sign of “presentism” is bad, except when it exonerates the industry.
  • When all else fails quibble endlessly about adjectives, nouns or adverbs used to describe or summarize corporate behavior.
  • When all else fails, seek to sidetrack arguments and raise phony issue.

Industries are playing on our professional propensity to see complexity and ambiguity in human events; but here they are using our well-honed skills as historians to promote confusion in order to obscure their own culpability in legal suits.

The subpoenas issued to the press, the foundation that supported our work, and the peer reviewers of our book are of importance for raising the issue of how far the industry can go before our sense of outrage at its interference in the academy leads us to object. Should the peer review process be subject to industry-sponsored subpoenas? Should we worry about being brought in for depositions if we review a “controversial” book? Would we work on controversial subjects at all if industry lawyers are able to get at our notes, our documents and even our colleagues? Would we feel free to research these topics if we knew that industry can hire fellow historians to devote months to pick through footnotes and develop sophistic (not sophisticated) arguments meant to undermine colleagues’ professional credibility and integrity? Should we be concerned that reviewers may decide to avoid participating in the review process if they know that industry lawyers can later order them into court proceedings? These are certainly issues that should be discussed.

While the interference in our traditional peer review processes and academic freedom are important enough, the attack on Deceit and Denial should be understood as part of a larger effort by industry to undermine academics who venture into the court cases on behalf of workers or consumers seeking redress for injuries from a variety of products. In recent years, as the federal regulatory agencies such as OSHA, NIOSH and the EPA have been eviscerated, workers, consumers and entire communities have turned to the legal system as the court of last resort. We may not think that this is the best way to set social policy about industrial products, but given the current anti- regulatory environment the legal system is now one of the only avenues open for those injured on the job or at home. Because so many of the cases hinge on the old Watergate questions of what did companies know about the dangers of their product or of the toxin used in the factory and when did they know it, history and historians have become integral in industry’s attempt to defend itself and in plaintiffs’ attempt to assign responsibility for their suffering.

While this issue may be (relatively) new for historians, the scientific community has been well-aware of the ways industries interfere in the academy for a number of years, if not decades. Editorials in the leading scientific journals have bemoaned the impact of the tobacco and pharmaceutical industries in particular. But the debate is gaining even more currency as the Bush administration seeks to place industry representatives and scientists allied with industry on scientific advisory committees at the Centers for Disease Control and other federal agencies. So it is no surprise to us that the medical and scientific press has picked up our book and reviewed it widely, and positively, looking at our discussion of the chemical industry in light of their own experience.[5] A review of Deceit and Denial in the Journal of the American Medical Association outlines the stakes involved in what we believe is an attempt by industry to undermine our role in court hearings:

After reading Deceit and Denial it would be appropriate to think about the use of the US court system to protect workers and others from environmental exposures. Given the role of industry, the collusion of government officials, and the disenfranchisement of groups, it is clear why the courts have often ended up as the last battle ground to protect health. While some might think this role inappropriate, a reading of this book clarifies why this happens.[6]

We hope that this controversy will not have a chilling effect on those willing to work on behalf of communities harmed by industrial products. But, there are bigger stakes involved here. If the chemical industry has its way, and if historians choose to participate in their cynical game, this last possible source of justice will undoubtedly be shut down for those harmed by exposures to industrial toxins inside and outside the workplace.

[1] Terry Yosie in discussion with Bill Moyers following the airing of “Trade Secrets,” See last paragraphs of discussion at: http://www.pbs.org/tradesecrets/transcript.html

[2]See David Rothman,"Serving Clio and client: the historian as expert witness,” Bulletin of the History of Medicine, 77 (Spring, 2003), 25-41; Patricia Cohen, “History for Hire In Industry Lawsuits,” New York Times, June 14, 2003, B-7; Lila Guterman, Hot Type, Chronicle of Higher Education, Nov. 19, 2004, p.A-20.

[3] Robert Proctor has been engaged in the path-breaking research into historians’ role in the tobacco cases and has coined this term in oral presentations. See, Robert N. Proctor, “Should Medical Historians be Working for the Tobacco Industry?” Lancet 363 (Apr 10, 2004), 1174-5.

[4] Ironically, it is the more avant-guard post-modernist arguments of our field that are of most interest to the industries.

[5] Deceit and Denial has been reviewed in Science, The Journal of the American Medical Association, The Lancet, the New England Journal of Medicine, New Scientist, Reviews in American History, Journal of American History, American Historical Review, and many other publications.

[6] Arthur Frank, Review of “Deceit and Denial: The Deadly Politics of Industrial Pollution,” in JAMA, 289 (April 2, 2003), 1706-1707.

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