site logo

Business-Managed Democracy

“Business-managed democracies are those in which the political and cultural arrangements are managed in the interests of business”

Sharon Beder

Business-Managed Environment

Junk Science

Book Cover

Excerpt from Sheldon Rampton and John Stauber, Trust Us We're Experts! How Industry Manipulates Science and Gambles with Your Future, Tarcher/Putnam, 2001, chapter 9.

The concept of "junk science" is a particular term coined by corporate attorneys, lobbyists, PR firms and industry-funded think tanks. It has very little to do with the quality of the research in question. In the hotly-contested terrain over regulatory and liability law, "junk science" is the term that corporate defenders apply to any research, no matter how rigorous, that justifies regulations to protect the environment and public health. The opposing term, "sound science," is used in reference to any research, no matter how flawed, that can be used to challenge, defeat or reverse environmental and public health protections.

The term "junk science" first emerged in the courtroom as a disparaging term for the paid expert witnesses that attorneys hire to testify on behalf of their clients. In many cases, of course, an expert witness is unnecessary. If one person shoots another in front of witnesses, you don't need a rocket scientist to know who is responsible for the resulting injuries. During the twentieth century, however, courts expanded the system of tort law under which personal-injury lawsuits are filed in order to cover cases in which proof of causation is somewhat more complicated. Many of these cases require a scientist's testimony, particularly when the injury in question comes from environmental or toxic causes-for example, cancer in army veterans subjected to radiation from atomic bomb tests; asbestos-related mesothelioma; Reyes syndrome caused by taking aspirin; or the link between swine flu vaccinations and Guillain-Barre Syndrome. By expanding the system of tort law, courts made it possible for people injured through these sorts of causes to collect damages from the companies responsible for causing the problem. The fact that these cases could have their day in court did not mean that the plaintiffs were guaranteed victory. In one of the "toxic tort" cases that has been frequently cited as an example of junk science in action, Merrell Dow pharmaceuticals successfully defended itself in court against 1,200 plaintiffs who charged that its morning-sickness drug, Bendectin, caused birth defects.


The concept of "junk science" broadened to arenas outside the courtroom in 1989 when pro-industry groups used the term to attack what has come to be known as "the great Alar scare." Alar was a chemical, first marketed in 1968, that apple growers sprayed on trees to make their apples ripen longer before falling off. In use, however, Alar breaks down to a byproduct called "unsymmetrical dimethyl hydrazine" or UDMH...

Since it is ideology, not science, that unites industry's self-proclaimed debunkers of junk science, it is not surprising that many of industry's "experts" on scientific matters are themselves non-scientists. In July 1997, the Clearinghouse on Environmental Advocacy and Research (CLEAR) issued an analysis of the "sound science" movement titled "Show Me the Science! Corporate Polluters and the 'Junk Science' Strategy." After examining the credentials of many leading "science experts" in the anti-environmental lobby, CLEAR concluded that "their claims to the science high ground are flimsy at best." Many of the leading experts in the sound science movement are listed in the Directory of Environmental Scientists and Economists, published in 1996 by the conservative National Center for Public Policy Research (NCPPR). Ostensibly, the directory purported to identify experts in 27 policy fields, ranging alphabetically from agriculture to wildlife. "The environment is too important to leave in the hands of political activists," it stated in the introduction. "Yet, this is precisely where the United States has left most environmental decision making in recent years. Political activists-not authentic environmental scholars, scientists and economists-have come to dominate both the headlines and Washington's legislative agenda."

Upon scrutinizing the directory, however, CLEAR found that fewer than half of the experts listed in NCPPR's directory were actual scientists, and in fact only 51 of the 141 individuals listed had a Ph.D. in any field whatsoever. "The majority of the 'experts' listed in the directory appear in more than one field of expertise. ... For example, the Competitive Enterprise Institute's Ike Sugg, Wildlife and Land Use Policy Fellow, is listed as an expert in 5 different fields including animal rights, endangered species, innovative environmental solutions, land issues, and wilderness issues. ... Of particular note are several public policy fields in which science plays an especially important role, but for which the anti-environmental lobby, as represented in the directory, appears to be able to call upon very few scientists with appropriate credentials. Half of the anti-environmental experts listed for Energy Policy are 'public policy experts,' not 'scientists' or 'economists.' More than half of the Waste experts listed are not 'scientists' or 'economists.' More than 60 percent of the anti-environmental Forest Issues authorities are 'public policy experts.' Over 80 percent of their experts on Land Issues are 'public policy experts.' None of the anti-environmental advocates counted as experts on Endangered Species are 'scientists.'"

Industry's campaign to stigmatize environmental and consumer health advocates has left its mark and continues to influence public and media attitudes. In 1999, University of Pennsylvania professor Edward S. Herman surveyed 258 articles in mainstream newspapers that used the term "junk science" during the years 1996 through 1998. Only 8 percent of the articles used the term in reference to corporate-manipulated science. By contrast, 62 percent used the term "junk science" in reference to scientific arguments used by environmentalists, other corporate critics, or personal-injury lawyers engaged in suing corporations.

back to top