When Fake Science Causes Real Harm
How many PR teams does it take to change a lightbulb?
Unfortunately it’s too early to comment on it. Rest assured that the lightbulb in question is being addressed and will be up and running soon. Your patience is appreciated.
Ever heard something like that before? Get tossed a few crumbs to shut you up? It’s infuriating, but what can you do?
If you feel like this kind of stuff happens all the time, it’s not you — it’s PR praxis. No question is too specific for a vague answer, making life hell for all of us who seek even a modicum of accountability from those responsible.
But the old ways are changing. Widespread access to the internet has made life a little harder for corporations, as truth spreads just as fast as a cover-up. Recently, an Exxon executive pulled back the curtain on the company’s PR strategy to an undercover reporter. That interview (which we’ll talk about more later) was broadcast to the entire world. Spoiler alert though: it’s bad.
It’s What They Think You Know
PR is the art of redirecting public attention, truth be damned. It doesn’t matter where the attention goes so long as it’s not pointed at you. Worst case scenario, you have to make another move in a few days. But best case scenario? People move along. They forget about it.
The best PR teams charge huge sums each month in retainer fees alone. Throw in an hourly rate and you’re looking at a substantial figure, but for companies like ExxonMobil, it’s worth it. Were they to admit wrongdoing, they’d have to undergo costly, time-intensive structural changes. For most shareholders, that’s a dealbreaker.
Remember when Amazon got called out over their employees skipping bathroom breaks to pee in bottles? Look how they handled it.
Outright denial. They put the onus on their accusers to prove the obvious. Somehow, it's the whistleblowers who end up backpedaling rather than Amazon.
Remember when a guy found shrimp tails in his Cinnamon Toast Crunch? Or when a kid found a dead mouse in a can of Mountain Dew? Or when residents of Bluemont, VA where Teflon was made showed widespread signs of cancer? Or when doctors asked if OxyContin was super addictive? Or when scientists found a link between professional football and brain injuries?
Same response every time. It didn’t happen, you’re crazy, now shut up and let the experts handle the matter which, again, never happened.
But there’s one pesky nuisance that stands in the way of PR: science.
PR Gets a College Degree
People aren’t stupid (as much as we might like to think so.) Outright lies can only withstand so much scrutiny before being abandoned. With OxyContin for example, independent researchers found that Purdue Pharma knowingly lied about the addictive nature of its flagship drug. Eventually, that led to billions of dollars in settlements.
Even the most convincing lies succumb to the truth. It’s the one thing you can’t change. Or can you?
What if you could redefine truth to blame victims instead of corporations? What if you could tackle science head-on? As it turns out, fighting fire with fire is effective.
Science Is Expensive
One PR tactic focuses on funding science. It’s great for optics, and all costs are written off when tax time rolls around. But you can't just fund any science; it has to be the right science.
If a study finds your product to be harmful, fund a different study with a new sample set for a better result. If a reputable journal won’t publish your study, pay a journal that will. Hell, start your own!
With all the money corporations have at their disposal, the sky's the limit. And to scientists with families to feed and mortgages to pay, that makes a strong case for looking the other way. Proper lab equipment costs millions of dollars and scientists aren’t flush with cash, so when a company offers to cut a check and fund your studies, you could end up enlisting in battles you never wanted to fight.
Case in Point: Syngenta
In 1958, a weed killer was invented that would become one of the most popular herbicides in the world. Atrazine, as it was called, was a hit, so when it was up for EPA reapproval in 2002, patent owner Syngenta hired an endocrinologist named Dr. Tyrone Hayes to do the testing.
Since Syngenta found nothing in previous tests for toxins or carcinogens, Dr. Hayes didn’t expect to make any groundbreaking discoveries. But what wasn’t toxic or carcinogenic was plenty able to seriously harm to the endocrine system.
Dr. Hayes found that frogs exposed to even insignificant levels of atrazine would develop ambiguous genitalia — genetically male but physically female. They couldn’t reproduce, which answered a mystery of why amphibians seemed to be dying off faster and faster. Extinction loomed on the horizon.
6 of One, Half a Dozen of the Other
Like any good scientist, Dr. Hayes alerted Syngenta to take appropriate safety measures moving forward. Atrazine must be recalled to prevent further harm.
But Syngenta didn’t agree. They weren’t exactly thrilled to hear that their flagship herbicide wasn't being approved, and they terminated their relationship with Dr. Hayes. He returned to UC Berkeley to study the matter more extensively.
That was when the fake science started.
Syngenta waged a full-scale campaign to combat the idea that atrazine feminized frogs. They funded alternative research under slightly different conditions with frogs that don't respond to hormones, and the studies are convincing. With all the hallmarks of proper scientific procedure, Syngenta’s website is full of evidence claiming atrazine is totally safe.
They didn’t just argue Dr. Hayes’ findings — they denied them outright. For years, Syngenta’s corporate science kept the EPA from taking protective measures, but they couldn't fool the world. Atrazine was eventually banned in the European Union, as well as many other areas where the pesticide was found to be as dangerous as Dr. Hayes claimed.
This Shit Happens All the Time
Atrazine and glyphosate are the two most common pesticides in the world. Both are linked to major health risks, and both of their parent companies work hard to bury that information. Like Syngenta, Monsanto — RoundUp’s parent company — funded their own research that glyphosate is not the cancer-causing boogeyman researchers make it out to be.
They’re not the first to do this. Fake science protected the reputation of asbestos for decades. GMO seed companies gatekeep researchers (by law) from publishing unfavorable research about the safety and performance of their products. Exxon spent millions over decades to spread disinformation about the dangers of global warming. The list goes on and on.
There’s a noticeable pattern in their campaigns. In “The Disinformation Playbook”, The Union of Concerned Scientists lays out five ways to deal with science when it doesn't go your way.
- Fake: Conduct counterfeit science and try to pass it off as legitimate research
- Blitz: Harass scientists who speak out with results or views inconvenient for industry
- Diversion: Manufacture uncertainty about science where little or none exists
- Screen: Buy credibility through alliances with academia or professional societies
- Fix: Manipulate government officials or processes to inappropriately influence policy
Using branded science and relentless communications, these strategies work wonders for redirecting public attention.
Exxon Admits It
In June 2020, a senior director at ExxonMobil’s government affairs team was caught on tape revealing how he and his team aggressively fight science itself in order to, “[look] out for [their] shareholders.”
Through a blitz of PR, lobbying campaigns, and fake science, ExxonMobil continues to pollute the absolute shit out of the environment without facing any major consequences for the havoc they wreak, all while raking in unimaginable sums of money. With net assets greater than some countries, fines and penalties are an acceptable cost of doing business.
Each year, the PR industry gets more and more lucrative. Valued at nearly $64 billion in 2018, it is projected to peak over $93 billion by 2022, and it’s easy to see why. A lot of planning and effort goes into changing as little as possible.
But shills are easy to come by. Just look at this hit piece from 2019 on whether or not global warming is real. It’s full of lies and misinformation, but that's the issue: truth isn’t the point. So long as the rest of us keep squabbling about what’s true, these companies can keep polluting the planet. They know which questions are hardest to answer, and their legal teams adroitly pin critics to the wall over the smallest oversights.
So what do we do? Demand specific answers. If they say, “the matter will be handled,” ask “by whom?” If they say they’re looking into it, set a deadline. Tweet at these companies relentlessly. Force their hand.
Make them change the goddamn lightbulb.