Our Stolen Future and The Contest for Truth
In 1996, the book Our Stolen Future, by Theo Colburn, Dianne Dumanoski, and John P. Myers (Dutton, NY, 1996), put forth the evidence that numerous chemicals used as pesticides, herbicides, and plasticisers interacted with the endocrine systems of adult and developing animals (including humans). These endocrine disruptors caused the reproductive failure of numerous animals and may be responsible for human reproductive and behavioral problems, as well. This web site is where the authors of that book provide regular updates about the science related to endocrine disruption. They also post information about ongoing policy debates, and they suggest ways to minimize risks related to hormonally-disruptive chemicals.
The authors of this site know that not everyone agrees with them:
"Anyone who has followed this issue or watched the response to the book knows that not everyone agrees with our interpretation of the science or with our recommendations. Advances in science are always surrounded by debate—and we think that's healthy. So we've included references to a range of the critics' publications and even links to their web sites. Go see for yourself."
In discussing policy issues, it is important to know who is funding the research. While it is usual to bring together the terms "Research" and "Development" into one term, "R&D", these ways of doing science are traditionally in opposition. The goal of research is publication; that is, a document made available to the public (i.e., a publication). In this model, scientific knowledge is open knowledge. The goal of development is a patent; that is, a document stating that anyone who uses this information must pay for it. In this model, scientific knowledge is proprietary, it is owned by someone, like property. In recent years, some university scientists have come to conclusions that are at odds with industry scientists over the safety of these very profitable and very widely used compounds. Does it matter? Shouldn't we judge the science, not the scientist?
It's not so easy. Robert Lee Hotz (2002) has gathered together numerous cases where profit has superceded the normative values of science:
- In the controversy over whether calcium channel blockers should be used as a treatment for high blood pressure (or whether they had dangerous side effects), University of Toronto researchers found that all the doctors who wrote in support of using the drug had received free trips, speaker's fees, or money for educational programs from the drug companies, compared to less than half of those who criticized the drugs.
- When Tufts University scientists studies who wrote for or against controversial diet drugs, they found that the researchers were far more likely to support the drug if they had a financial interest in the company.
- When the British Medical Journal published an editorial saying that a certain antidepressant drug was not addictive, the readers were not told that the authors of the editorial had been given free trips abroad courtesy of the drug's manufacturer.
- When the Annals of Internal Medicine published a paper claiming that zinc lozenges relieved the symptoms of the common cold, the stock of the company that made the lozenges rose dramatically. The chief author of that paper held stock in the company, which he sold shortly afterwards for a profit of $145,000.
- In 1999, it was disclosed that the Tobacco Institute had paid money to scientists to challenge a US government report on second-hand tobacco smoke. A memo that came to light in a recent court case listed that a letter to the journals JAMA or the Lancet was worth $5000.
- When researchers found toxic side-effects of the drugs they were testing, the drug companies have not only ignored the results but have fired or threatened to sue the scientists who found them if they published those findings.
- When scientists publish papers that link profitable compounds to dangerous health hazards, the industry has retaliated with articles claiming the opposite, and often with criticisms of the scientist's ability, motivation, or credentials. This was seen when Rachel Carson published Silent Spring and more recently, Frederick vom Saal has seen it, too. For additional information on vom Saal's work, see this video. The National Resource Defense Council is suing the manufacturer of Atrazine for illegally suppressing knowledge that it had about the herbicide's teratogenic and possibly carcinogenic effects.
A list of non-technical books about environmental health and industry can be found at http://www.toxictorts.com/reading.shtml.
With the strong links being constructed between universities and corporations, it is becoming increasingly difficult to see who has interests in these truth claims. But needless to say, it is becoming an important thing to know.
Hotz, R. L. 2002. "Falling from Grace: Science and the Pursuit of Profit," in Who Owns Life? (ed. David Magnus, Art Caplan, and Glenn McGee). Prometheus Books, Amherst, NY.