Bent Science: Bending Science: How Special Interests Corrupt Public Health Research

Issues in Science and Technology, Spring 2009 | Go to article overview

Bent Science: Bending Science: How Special Interests Corrupt Public Health Research


by Thomas O. McGarity and Wendy E. Wagner. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2008, 400 pp.

Kenneth E. Warner

As Thomas McGarity and Wendy Wagner demonstrate quite vividly, advocates frequently distort policy-relevant health and environmental research--that is, bend science--in order to serve economic or ideological interests. This elaborate charade plays out in the halls of Congress, the regulatory arena, the courtroom, and the media. To some readers, including many scientists with no direct professional familiarity with the world of policy, the well-honed message of this book may be genuinely shocking. To scientists whose work may have intersected occasionally with the policy realm, the message will not surprise, but the pervasiveness of the phenomenon is likely to astonish, and worry.

The authors are well suited to their analysis. Professors of law at the University of Texas, both have focused much of their scholarship on environmental law and its implications for the nation's regulatory apparatus. Each has written previously about barriers to the sound use of science in policy decisionmaking. This book brings together various strands in their complementary scholarly careers, supplemented with substantial new research, in a comprehensive look at a subject of immense public importance and impact.

Early on, the authors explain the motivation of advocates who bend science. Organizations with economic or ideological interests to protect will seek means of blocking, distorting, or subverting threatening science or means of attacking the bearer of the bad tidings, the scientists themselves. Benders include some industries (think Big Tobacco, Big Pharma, etc.); their representatives and surrogates (attorneys and sympathetic experts); politicians and bureaucrats; and even everyday citizens and their representative organizations. The authors also provide a look, via one anecdote after another, at the often horrific consequences of science bending, counted sometimes in thousands and even millions of lives lost prematurely; again, think Big Tobacco.

Such bending, the authors say, is facilitated by the fact that the conventional system of scientific checks and balances does not function well in the realm of policy-relevant science, where most scientists prefer not to mix it up with nonscientist advocates, bureaucrats, lawyers, and politicians. Bent science thus often goes unpoliced by the scientific community itself. The implication that science is well policed outside of the realm of policy may strike some readers as a bit naive, but it is certainly true that the scientific process is more likely to ensure sound science when the principal rewards at stake are the advancement of knowledge and professional respect.

The substantive heart of the book focuses on the methods--what the authors correctly term "arts"--of bending science. First comes the creation of research to fit advocates' needs. Unlike the hypothesis-driven ideal of true science, this method of bending science begins with a desired outcome. Benders then develop studies intended to confirm the outcome. They may produce such research themselves or contract it out. An integral part of this strategy is the plan to publicize the anticipated results in the corridors of whatever (nonscientific) body the benders have targeted: a regulatory agency, perhaps, or a legislative body or a court. The strategy includes a "plan B" to bury the results if, for whatever reason, they are not favorable to the desired outcome. But more often than not, the findings favor the benders' interests. Even when industry funds investigator-initiated research, a clear impact on the direction of findings emerges. Multiple studies, in multiple areas of industrial endeavor, have found that industry-funded studies are far more likely to produce findings consistent with the hinders' economic interests than are studies supported by non-industry sources. …

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