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 the matter. Rest assured that the lightbulb in question is being addressed and will be up and running as soon as possible. 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 generic, vague answer, making life hell for all of us who seek a modicum of accountability from the people 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 spinning facts to redirect public attention. It doesn’t matter where that attention goes as long as it’s pointed away from you. Worst case scenario, you have to think up another move in a few days. But the best case scenario? People move along while you keep doing whatever got you in trouble.
The best PR teams charge thousands of dollars each month in retainer fees alone. Throw in the hourly rate and you’re looking at a substantial figure. But for companies like Exxon, it’s worth it. Were they to actually admit wrongdoing, they’d have to undergo costly, time-intensive structural changes. And for most shareholders, that’s a dealbreaker.
Remember when Amazon got called out because their employees had to pee in bottles due to a lack of work breaks? Look how they handled it.
Outright denial. By saying it never happened, the onus is on their accusers to prove the obvious. For some reason, the whistleblowers 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 quit making trouble 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 they are.) Outright lies can only take so much scrutiny before they are abandoned. With OxyContin for example, independent researchers found that Purdue Pharma knowingly lied about the addictive nature of its flagship drug. That led to billions of dollars in settlements.
Eventually, 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, you can, and you do it by fighting fire with fire.
Science Is Expensive
One PR tactic focuses on funding science. It’s great for optics, and any costs can be written off when tax time rolls around. But they don't just fund any science; they fund the right science.
If a study finds your product to be harmful, fund a different study using a new sample set for a more favorable result. If a reputable journal won’t publish your study, pay a journal that will. Hell, start your own if you have to!
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 money makes a strong case for looking the other way. Proper lab equipment costs millions of dollars if you want to conduct good, reliable experiments. As any Breaking Bad fan can tell you, scientists aren’t flush with cash.
Grants are hard to come by, 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 went on to become one of the most popular herbicides in the world. It was called atrazine, and in 2002, its owner Syngenta hired an endocrinologist to test it for EPA reapproval. That endocrinologist’s name was Dr. Tyrone Hayes.
Before you go thinking this was an act of good faith, the EPA requires that reapproval tests be funded by the company to save taxpayers from shouldering the cost.
Syngenta had already run tests for toxic, carcinogenic effects and found nothing, so Dr. Hayes didn’t expect to make any groundbreaking discoveries. But what wasn’t toxically carcinogenic was more than able to cause serious harm to the endocrine system.
Dr. Hayes found that frogs exposed to hitherto insignificant levels of atrazine developed ambiguous genitalia — male genetically but female physically. They couldn’t reproduce, answering a question 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 eagerly alerted Syngenta to take appropriate safety measures moving forward. Atrazine had to be recalled to keep more damage from being done.
But Syngenta didn’t agree. Suffice it to say they weren’t exactly thrilled about the findings, leading to a soured relationship that caused Dr. Hayes to cut ties and return to UC Berkeley for study where he worked as an assistant professor.
Here's where the fake science starts.
Syngenta began funding all kinds of research disputing the idea that atrazine feminized frogs. Checking for slightly different conditions, using frogs that don't respond to hormones, and the studies are convincing. They appear to utilize all proper procedures required for good science, and 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 any protective measures (what does the P stand for then?), but they couldn't fool the world. Atrazine was 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 have parent companies that do their darnedest to bury that information. Like Syngenta, Monsanto — RoundUp’s parent company — funded their own research that glyphosate is not the cancer-causing boogeyman its accusers 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 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.
But with all of these companies, there’s a noticeable pattern. The Union of Concerned Scientists points it out in “The Disinformation Playbook” by laying out five approaches for dealing with the bad optics of unfavorable science.
- 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 Exxon’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, Exxon 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. As these companies are worth more than some countries, fines and penalties are just the cost of doing business.
Each year, the PR industry gets more and more lucrative. Worth 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 thing: truth isn’t the point. So long as we, the people keep squabbling about what’s true, the companies funding these pawns can keep polluting the planet. They know which questions are the hardest to answer, and their legal teams 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.