Jon Wiener: The Chemical Industry Attack on 2 Historians

Roundup: Talking About History

Jon Wiener, in the Nation (2-7-05) (subscribers only):

Twenty of the biggest chemical companies in the United States have launched a campaign to discredit two historians who have studied the industry's efforts to conceal links between their products and cancer. In an unprecedented move, attorneys for Dow, Monsanto, Goodrich, Goodyear, Union Carbide and others have subpoenaed and deposed five academics who recommended that the University of California Press publish the book Deceit and Denial: The Deadly Politics of Industrial Pollution, by Gerald Markowitz and David Rosner. The companies have also recruited their own historian to argue that Markowitz and Rosner have engaged in unethical conduct. Markowitz is a professor of history at the CUNY Grad Center; Rosner is a professor of history and public health at Columbia University and director of the Center for the History and Ethics of Public Health at Columbia's School of Public Health.

The reasons for the companies' actions are not hard to find: They face potentially massive liability claims on the order of the tobacco litigation if cancer is linked to vinyl chloride-based consumer products such as hairspray. The stakes are high also for publishers of controversial books, and for historians who write them, because when authors are charged with ethical violations and manuscript readers are subpoenaed, that has a chilling effect. The stakes are highest for the public, because this dispute centers on access to information about cancer-causing chemicals in consumer products.

For Rosner and Markowitz the story began in 1993, when they traveled to Lake Charles, Louisiana, to look at what they were told was"a warehouse of material" about vinyl chloride and cancer. The address they were given turned out to be a"decrepit hovel in the desolate center of town," as Markowitz describes it. They found it"full of chemical industry documents, lining every wall and filling every corner." The material, Rosner told me, was"incredible. Not just company documents but records of meetings of the trade association for the chemical companies. No one had ever seen anything like it."

The material had been obtained through the discovery process by a local attorney, Billy Baggett Jr., who was working alone with a single client: A woman whose husband, a former worker in a chemical plant, had died of a rare cancer, angiosarcoma of the liver, caused by exposure to vinyl chloride monomer. ...

At issue now in US district court in Jackson, Mississippi, is the claim by another former chemical worker that Airco and other companies are liable for his liver cancer because he was exposed to vinyl chloride monomer on the job. Markowitz is a key expert witness for the plaintiffs, because of the research he and Rosner published in Deceit and Denial. But the judge is being told that Rosner and Markowitz's research is"not valid," that the publisher's review process was"subverted" and that Rosner and Markowitz have"frequently and flagrantly violated" the American Historical Association's code of ethics.

Those charges come from another historian enlisted by the chemical companies: Philip Scranton of Rutgers University, who wrote a forty-one-page critique of Deceit and Denial and of the ethics of the historians who wrote it. Scranton teaches business history at Rutgers-Camden, where he is University Board of Governors Professor of the History of Industry and Technology. He also works at the Hagley Museum, a museum of early-American business history at the"ancestral home" of the Du Pont family, as it's described on the official website. Scranton directs the museum's research arm, the Center for the History of Business, Technology and Society. He also testified recently for the asbestos companies in their liability litigation.

Although Scranton is serving in this case as an expert witness for the chemical companies, he's not an expert on cancer-causing chemicals; he's best known for his prizewinning book on the textile industry in Philadelphia. In this case, he doesn't claim to be an expert on the postwar chemical industry; instead, he offers himself as an expert on Markowitz's ethics. Markowitz, in contrast, is a genuine expert on the central issue in the case: the question of what the chemical companies knew, and when they knew it.

Scranton in his forty-one-page statement for the chemical companies charges that Markowitz violated"basic principles of academic integrity, historical accuracy, and professional responsibility" and engaged in"sustained and repeated violations" of the official"Standards" of the American Historical Association. Scranton's argument: Markowitz knew the names of the people reviewing his manuscript for the publisher and had suggested names of possible manuscript reviewers to the publisher."Such practices," Scranton writes,"subverted confidential, objective refereeing of scholarly manuscripts."

But it's a common practice of university presses to ask authors to suggest reviewers, often because authors know better than editors who the most knowledgeable experts are, especially on an obscure topic like vinyl chloride. There's nothing unethical about this practice and nothing in the AHA standards about it. It is true, as Scranton suggests, that university presses typically offer manuscript reviewers the option of keeping their report confidential from the authors, and that in this case the publisher revealed the identities of the reviewers to the authors. But that was part of a review process that was much more demanding than the typical case. Instead of the usual two or three manuscript reviewers, Rosner and Markowitz's manuscript had eight outside reviewers, including the former head of the National Cancer Institute and the former chair of the Centers for Disease Control's Lead Advisory Panel. And instead of simply forwarding the written evaluations to the authors, as is the usual practice, Milbank Memorial Fund, the public health nonprofit that co-published the book with the University of California Press, sponsored a two-day conference that brought together the reviewers, the authors and their editors to go over the manuscript chapter by chapter. To describe this rigorous scholarly process as"unethical" because it revealed the identities of the reviewers to the authors is absurd. ...

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