New Lows in the War on Science - But This Time Science Wins One

Imagine you’re sick and you go to the hospital seeking diagnosis and treatment from a doctor.  After taking your history, giving you a thorough examination and doing a huge number of expensive tests, your doctor determines that you are being sickened by pollution from an industrial complex, A**e Industries, located near to your home.  But then, just as she is coming to tell you her results, your doctor is arrested, charged with attempting to report her diagnosis to you before she provides it, along with all her notes and test results, to A**e Industries.  A**e Industries also threatens to sue the hospital if they allow your doctor to reveal her results to you.  Sound outrageous or farfetched?  Then wait till you hear this…..


Earlier this year, lawyers representing the Mining Awareness Resource Group, which works on behalf of the mining industry, sent letters to a number of scientific journals, including Occupational and Environmental Medicine and The Annals of Occupational Hygiene, suggesting they "reconsider" publication of articles submitted by the National Cancer Institute or the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health on the Diesel Exhaust in Miners Study in light of a court order issued by a U.S. federal district court.  This legal threat directed at peer-reviewed scientific journals, an unprecedented new low in the war on science, was just the most recent effort by the mining industry to derail and delay this $11.5 million publicly-funded study of the relationship between exposure to high levels of diesel exhaust that occur in and around mines and lung cancer.  It began in mid-1990s, when the mining industry sued the Department of Health and Human Services, demanding industry representatives be included on scientific oversight committees for the study.  Congress got into the act in 1999, demanding to “review and approve” study results prior to publication, an overreach that a federal judge rejected, instead allowing the industry and the Congressional committee a 90-day pre-publication review.  Legal and procedural skirmishes still continue over the committee’s and the mining industry’s demands for ever more documents.  For a more complete description of this disturbing story, see these articles hereherehere and here.   


The diesel study, launched 20 years ago, builds on numerous other studies that have suggested a link between diesel exhaust (which contains sooty particulate matter as well as hundreds of toxic chemicals) and lung cancer, including research that led California to list diesel exhaust as a known carcinogen more than a decade ago and this one on railroad workers published in 2004.  The diesel study was also expected to provide valuable new information to the International Agency for Research on Cancer, and arm of the World Health Organization, when it officially reassesses the science linking diesel exhaust to cancer this coming June.  According to Dr. Kyle Steenland, professor at Emory University’s School of Public Health, the Diesel Exhaust in Miners Study is a “state of the art evaluation of diesel” that should provide “very important … information about whether diesel is a lung carcinogen.”  Dr. Steenland expressed the frustration of many scientists and public health officials when he said “It's high time that the public and the scientific community get to see the results of this study.”


Last month, when I began researching and writing this post, that was where this story of science interference and suppression ended.  But last Friday the good news came: results of the study had been published by the Journal of the National Cancer Institute.  The journal article and accompanying editorial are publicly available online.  Bottom line: the Diesel Exhaust in Miners Study showed that regular exposure to high concentrations of diesel exhaust significantly increases the likelihood of dying of lung cancer, with cancer rates as much as three- to sevenfold higher for the most heavily exposed miners compared to miners exposed to lower levels.  My colleague, Diane Bailey, provides a more complete description of the study’s results in her latest blog


This case of stalling and suppressing scientific results is not an isolated incident—books have been written about this kind of stuff and the news is full of similar stories.[1]  But many of us think that it’s getting worse and that it represents a growing threat to our health, our democracy and our planet.  Last month, Dr. Nina Federoff, outgoing president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science expressed her profound concern that the anti-science movement was spreading and that we were “sliding back into a dark era.”  What makes the diesel study story such a compelling and illuminating example of the war on science isn’t just that the assailants are so clearly identified (the mining industry) and their objective is so cynical and self-serving (preventing disclosure of facts about the effects of working conditions on the health of their own employees).  It is that it has escalated the war on science from distortion and denial to the use of legal threats to prevent publication of peer reviewed scientific results (which, in this case, the industry almost certainly already knew) and manipulation of Congress to support this kind of interference.   


Science, like a medical diagnosis, is the use of observation, measurement and experimentation to answer questions and establish objective facts.  By design and application, it is transparent, characterized by the free flow and exchange of ideas, information and, because we scientists can’t help ourselves, more questions.  Neither scientists nor doctors always agree with each other—but it is the open and creative yet informed discussion that makes science such a powerful tool for learning, problem-solving and progress.  So the next time you hear a story like this, evaluate the background, evidence and the players.  And then ask yourself whether it makes sense to attack science—the messenger and the message—rather than the problem that science seeks to understand.  


[1] To cite just two recently published examples, read Merchants of Doubt, by Naomi Oreskes and Eric Conway, or Fool Me Twice: Fighting the Assault on Science in America, by Shawn Lawrence Otto, for an excellent analysis and description of this problem.