"Torture the data until it confesses!" It was 1955; the research for Professor X was not giving the expected results. I looked up in horror, for if my physics education had taught me anything, it was that honesty was not the "best" policy, it was the "only" policy. Thankfully, it was immediately obvious that my mentor was not at all serious!
This book is extremely disturbing to an idealist, and I confess to being one. If only ten percent of the stories related here are factual, then there are "scientists" in abundance who simply do not subscribe to normative professional ethics, and, for monetary gain, are not shy about arguing "junk science," citing only favorable evidence while ignoring the contrary, thereby risking not only their own reputations, but also that of the profession we all love. The authors cite an abundance of instances, some involving scientists of nationwide stature. Frankly, I felt sick as I read this book. It is an expose of the dishonest policies that all too often lie behind the making of "industry experts." The authors show how easy it is to buffalo the media, and by extension, the public, by pseudo-scientific claims made by "real" scientists whose intellectual heritage is that of nineteenth century snake oil salesmen.
The authors, who are associated with the non-profit Center for Media and Democracy, pull few punches, naming names, footnoting incriminating actions. Suppose you were offered $10,000 to write a short letter for the Tobacco Institute to the Journal of the American Medical Association supporting their cause. According to this book, one biostatistician did so, and the letter was published. Would you accept over $600,000 in consulting fees from a certain company and then not mention this when defending their product in Congressional hearings on that product's safety? Pages 256-257 tell this story, and the well-known scientist involved. The Nestle infant formula marketing story is told. And many others. In all of these, some scientists "sold their souls" for personal gain, disgracing themselves; disgracing their profession. The book makes a strong case for complete disclosures of corporate influences and possible financial conflicts for those who write in scientific journals and testify as "experts" in Congressional hearings.
The authors also argue long and hard for the well-known "precautionary principle," which, simply stated, disallows products and services from the marketplace until they are reasonably and rationally checked out. But today's regulatory system, they argue, allows almost anything to be released unless it is "proven unsafe," meaning measurable harm can be shown. In other words, preventative action cannot be taken until the damage has already occurred.
To conclude this review, I will illustrate its disturbing message by telling an old, stale, joke. "Why do they bury scientists twelve feet down?" "Because, deep down, they are really good people." Oops! Not funny! That should be some other profession, not "scientists!" After reading this book you will not be so sure. Other professions have, no doubt, their share of shysters. So does the scientific profession. The public just hasn't picked up on us yet.
The book is a "keeper" and is highly recommended. But it is not "happy" reading. It is clear that far too many in our profession have lost their way. Are they a small minority? I'd like to think so. Do they have a bad influence in our society? Yes. Is this a good thing? Clearly, no. Can anything be done? You'll have to answer that for yourself. Edmund Burke, once said: "Nobody makes a greater mistake than the person who does nothing because only a little can be done." At least, buy the book. And then tell people about it.
John W. Burgeson
Retired government physicist and IBM computer engineer
Stephen Minister, First Presbyterian Church, Durango, Colorado
Submitted to PERSPECTIVES,
the quarterly journal of the ASA, January 28, 2001.
Approximately 660 words.