Kellyanne Conway, counselor to President Donald Trump, used the phrase "alternative facts" earlier this year during a "Meet the Press" interview, in which she defended White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer's false statement about the size of the crowd at Trump's inauguration. While the phrase is newly infamous as a result, the phenomenon that it describes has a long history in both politics and science, according to an analysis presented today at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Boston.
Public radar tends to be up for demonstrably false or implausible claims made by politicians and their spokespeople, but researchers say many people were duped in the past by alternative scientific "facts," and that the problem persists today.
"My main message is that, just as we need to be on the lookout for false or misleading information about politics and pop culture, we also need to be on the lookout for false or misleading information about science," Kevin Elliott, who conducted the analysis, told Seeker.
"Living an hour away from Flint, Mich., I'm especially cognizant of the ways that the lead industry tried to downplay the hazards of lead almost a hundred years ago in order to promote the use of lead in drinking water pipes and in gasoline," said Elliott, an associate professor at Michigan State University and the author of the book "A Tapestry of Values: An Introduction to Values in Science."
He and others contacted by Seeker focused on four general areas where alternative facts concerning scientific matters have been especially prevalent and damaging: the tobacco industry, the drug industry, the manufacturing industry and climate change.
In the 1950s American tobacco producers created the Tobacco Industry Research Committee, whose purpose was to cast doubt on independent scientific research that was increasingly showing the harms of cigarette smoking, said Erik Conway, a historian at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory who co-authored, with Harvard's Naomi Oreskes, the book "Merchants of Doubt."
"They did this by funding critiques of academic or government science," Conway said, "by funding research programs designed to blame other activities for smoking's health effects, and even by publishing their own 'scientific' journal to have an apparently independent venue to publish their misleading studies in."
"They were successful in fending off tobacco regulation this way for nearly 70 years."
Evolving public consensus beliefs concerning tobacco smoking, however, prove that "people do change their views, when they have good information, and are not confused by disinformation, and especially if they realized that the disinformation is disinformation," Oreskes told Seeker. "Once the word on smoking got out clearly, and people found out that the industry had lied to them, millions of Americans stopped smoking.
"Smoking rates now are half what they were back in the 1950s," she said. "So people can change, but we need good information. And the Merchants of Doubt make it their business to ensure that we don't."
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The effort led to what was later called "The Tobacco Strategy" by Oreskes and Conway. The strategy, she explained, involved creating uncertainty about the science behind smoking and health, stating that health claims were exaggerated, arguing that medical innovations and technology could solve any related problems, and emphasizing that there was no need for government interference.
Conway said that the tobacco industry even created "Bad Science: a Resource Book," to help other industries understand "how to play the game."
Sergio Sismondo, a professor at Queen's University who has long studied the drug industry, told Seeker that certain players within the pharmaceutical industry "have supported and promoted alternative facts to cloud issues about how effective and safe certain products are, and about the structure of the drug industry as a whole."
As examples, he mentioned a diabetes drug that was introduced in 1999, even though "internal documents already showed that the drug carried heart risks." Sismondo said that several years later, in 2007, the company making the drug "engaged in a quick campaign to cloud the issue."
More generally, he shared that every decade or so, a university's drug development center publishes a figure for the cost of developing a prescription drug. The most recent from 2014, he said, was $2.6 billion.
"The research is supported and then promoted by the drug industry, which uses figures like that to justify high prices, long patents and more, but the figure is grossly misleading, because it rolls in various costs that could be seen as marketing and other business costs," Sismondo said. He added that the figure also focuses on new molecules at the center of research efforts, when actually many companies incur "much lower costs when they repurpose molecules."
Problems related to the promotion of misleading or false claims extend to some manufacturers of other products too, Elliott said. For example, he said the known health hazards related to asbestos and vinyl chloride, in addition to lead, were withheld from the public so that the manufacturers "could promote false information about the safety of their products."
Like the tobacco industry, these companies became experts about "manufacturing doubt" over scientific evidence challenging the safety and health risks associated with their products. David Michaels, former head of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, addressed the subject in detail in his book "Doubt Is Their Product."
A recent instance involved German automaker Volkswagen, which Elliott said cheated on emissions tests by installing a device in diesel engines that could detect when a test was being administered, and could change the way the vehicle performed to improve results. The device, he explained, allowed the company to sell its cars in the U.S. while its engines emitted pollutants up to 40 times above what's accepted by the Environmental Protection Agency. The automaker last month admitted guilt and agreed to pay $4.3 billion in criminal and civil penalties, reported CBS News.
Elliott, Oreskes, Conway and many others believe that "The Tobacco Strategy" continues to be followed by big oil companies in response to science concerning climate change. Heather Douglas of the University of Waterloo prefers the expletive "bullshit" instead of "alternative facts," since the phrase popularized by Kellyanne Conway "suggests a possible equivalency between one set of facts and another, and this is just not the case," she told Seeker. "Fact-checking by the media and tracking down sources readily reveals what is reliable and what is not, and the suggested equivalence is illusory.
"There are lots of things to disagree about in the realm of climate change - what are the regional climate projections, what energy policies should we adopt to mitigate the problem, etc. - but whether humans are a substantial cause is no longer one of them."
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Polls and regulation concerning smoking of tobacco products indicate that most people now believe smoking cigarettes poses health risks. A Pew poll last year, however, found that nearly three-quarters of American polled do not trust that there is a large "scientific consensus" among climate scientists on human activities being the cause of client change. In response, Erik Conway said, "No one wants to believe that he or she, personally, is helping to destroy the world's ecosystems, and unlike smoking - a personal choice that can be reversed - no one in the industrialized world can stop emitting, because we're trapped in an infrastructure that leaves us no choice."
"So we live in denial instead," he said. "That's one reason the denialist message resonates so powerfully."
The Problem May Be Getting Worse
Although problems associated with misleading or false science are nothing new, several factors appear to be drive the current use of "alternative facts." One is the political climate, particularly in the U.S., Elliott said. "It's possible that our hyper-partisan political climate and our polarized use of social media has made us all more susceptible to accepting questionable scientific claims when they appeal to our political preferences."
Douglas agrees. She said that "the echo-chambers of social media exacerbate the problem of bullshit."
Genuine disagreement among scientists is an important, inherent part of the discipline, and is critical to the evolution of scientific knowledge. It can therefore be challenging to distinguish legitimate scientific debate from statements made by those who continue to follow "The Tobacco Strategy" or similar deceptive tactics.
"We need to look at who supports different facts," Sismondo said. "When one side of a disagreement is supported primarily by (self)-interested parties, whether directly or indirectly, that should lead us to discount that side. We can never completely discount challenges to accepted facts, but we should also recognize that sometimes the challenges are motivated by greed. These challenges can nitpick away at accepted knowledge, but often this nitpicking is scientifically frivolous."
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To avoid falling for alternative scientific "facts," Elliott and others suggest looking to reports published in peer-reviewed publications, and even then, studying multiple studies and news about them to get a sense of what the overall scientific community has to say about the particular topic. The U.S. National Academy of Sciences and the U.K.'s Royal Society were both mentioned as being largely reliable, respected scientific societies.
"The public needs to be on the lookout for deception and misleading science," Elliott said, "but the public also needs to recognize that science is a messy enterprise that often allows for a diversity of opinions. But maybe the same take-home lesson applies in both cases - don't give too much credence to the views of individual scientists; depend on reputable scientific societies and organizations."
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