Knowledge never progresses unencumbered by ordinary human politics. Clubbiness, careerism, prejudice, personality clashes, bigotry, corruption, charm, and other human factors affect the advancement and dissemination of all knowledge, even in the hallowed academies of the West. While the scientific disciplines may have the best inbuilt methodologies for self-correction, still their practice isn’t immune to these impairments of judgment and objectivity.
In his recent Guardian article, The Sugar Conspiracy, Ian Leslie reminds us of how important individual personalities or even the fashionability of ideas can dominate, pervert, or slow the progress of entire fields of science. He writes,
In a 2015 paper titled Does Science Advance One Funeral at a Time?, a team of scholars at the National Bureau of Economic Research sought an empirical basis for a remark made by the physicist Max Planck: “A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.”
The researchers identified more than 12,000 “elite” scientists from different fields. The criteria for elite status included funding, number of publications, and whether they were members of the National Academies of Science or the Institute of Medicine. Searching obituaries, the team found 452 who had died before retirement. They then looked to see what happened to the fields from which these celebrated scientists had unexpectedly departed, by analysing publishing patterns.
What they found confirmed the truth of Planck’s maxim. Junior researchers who had worked closely with the elite scientists, authoring papers with them, published less. At the same time, there was a marked increase in papers by newcomers to the field, who were less likely to cite the work of the deceased eminence. The articles by these newcomers were substantive and influential, attracting a high number of citations. They moved the whole field along.
In this context, Leslie goes on to narrate the story of how, for decades, American nutritional science chased doggedly down a rabbit hole of false conclusions about the probable causes of heart disease, under the influence of decidedly non-scientific factors. A prevailing theory became fashionable, and contradictory data was shouted down; those presenting it were professionally attacked. The shaming and silencing alternative lines of questioning surely contributed to the ongoing public health crisis we now face, in which at least two generations of people are suffering epidemic frequencies of obesity and diabetes. Leslie lays it out,
In 1980, after long consultation with some of America’s most senior nutrition scientists, the US government issued its first Dietary Guidelines. The guidelines shaped the diets of hundreds of millions of people. Doctors base their advice on them, food companies develop products to comply with them. Their influence extends beyond the US. In 1983, the UK government issued advice that closely followed the American example.
The most prominent recommendation of both governments was to cut back on saturated fats and cholesterol (this was the first time that the public had been advised to eat less of something, rather than enough of everything). Consumers dutifully obeyed. We replaced steak and sausages with pasta and rice, butter with margarine and vegetable oils, eggs with muesli, and milk with low-fat milk or orange juice. But instead of becoming healthier, we grew fatter and sicker….
When, in 1957, John Yudkin first floated his hypothesis that sugar was a hazard to public health, it was taken seriously, as was its proponent. By the time Yudkin retired, 14 years later, both theory and author had been marginalised and derided. Only now is Yudkin’s work being returned, posthumously, to the scientific mainstream….
Today, as nutritionists struggle to comprehend a health disaster they did not predict and may have precipitated, the field is undergoing a painful period of re-evaluation. It is edging away from prohibitions on cholesterol and fat, and hardening its warnings on sugar, without going so far as to perform a reverse turn. But its senior members still retain a collective instinct to malign those who challenge its tattered conventional wisdom too loudly, as Teicholz is now discovering.
The full article is long and every bit worth reading in its entirety, as it carefully describes the data that was available and how it was so roundly and irresponsibly ignored or denied. And how the tide of scientific opinion was finally turned.
Part of what makes Leslie's story interesting is that there are no villains in this “conspiracy;” the scientists involved are all presented as basically sincere, intending to do their best science and to do good with it. The problem was that they did not see their own biases and blind spots; they probably did not believe their own egos could get in the way of their scientific conclusions. And yet their egos did get in the way, to tragic effect.
And then there's the sad story of lead. This is yet another cautionary tale about the manipulation of scientific research and the spin of scientific recommendations to the public, but one in which it might be said that villains were created. As with the nutrition scientists, these scientists were probably also speaking with sincere conviction. But when a massive profit motive arose, their judgment became increasingly distorted by avarice. And, it appears, the more deeply they became complicit in what was proving to be a disastrously misguided enterprise—the more their judgment was questioned by scientists who opposed them—the more deluded they became, until their evasions of fact became hardboiled lies and irresponsibility turned into coverups.
I’m speaking here of the people who encouraged the lead poisoning of our environment for almost eight decades, through the use of tetra-ethyl-lead [TEL] as an additive in car fuels. Scientists and engineers on the payroll of the car, fuel, and mining industries have said whatever was required to prevent the banning of lead additives from car fuel. But the devastating toxicity of lead has been well known and documented for literally thousands of years, since humans first began to work with it.Even the scientists who first came up with the idea in the early 1920s knew that lead is an element too dangerous to seriously consider dumping into the atmosphere; the chief scientist, himself, suffered some effects of lead poisoning while researching TEL.
Lest there still be doubts, in Looney Gas and Lead Poisoning: A Short, Sad History, Debra Blum relates that soon after the factory production of TEL began,
…. Men working at the plant quickly gave it the “loony gas” tag because anyone who spent much time handling the additive showed stunning signs of mental deterioration, from memory loss to a stumbling loss of coordination to sudden twitchy bursts of rage. And then in October of 1924, workers in the TEL building began collapsing, going into convulsions, babbling deliriously. By the end of September, 32 of the 49 TEL workers were in the hospital; five of them were dead…. It took Gettler three obsessively focused weeks to figure out how much tetraethyl lead the Standard Oil workers had absorbed before they became ill, went crazy, or died…. Working with the first four bodies, then checking his results against the body of the last worker killed, who had died screaming in a straitjacket, Gettler discovered that TEL and its lead byproducts formed a recognizable distribution, concentrated in the lungs, the brain, and the bones. The highest levels were in the lungs suggesting that most of the poison had been inhaled….
Other doctors and scientists, who were not on the payrolls of those industries profiting from the sale of this chemical, were alarmed. They repeatedly voiced their concerns about the plan to spew lead from automobile tailpipes, realizing that as the numbers of cars on the roads increased, the accumulating lead in the environment could precipitate a serious public health disaster. There were calls at least for caution, for studies to first be conducted before proceeding with this plan. But the chief researchers involved in pushing TEL simply gave their assurances that everything would be fine. Blum tells us,
As Charles Norris, chief medical examiner for New York City pointed out, the compound had been banned in Europe for years due to its toxic nature. But while U.S. corporations hurried TEL into production in the 1920s, they did not hurry to understand its medical or environmental effects.
In 1922, the U.S. Public Health Service had asked Thomas Midgley, Jr. – the developer of the leaded gasoline process – for copies of all his research into the health consequences of tetraethyl lead (TEL).
Midgley, a scientist at General Motors, replied that no such research existed. And two years later, even with bodies starting to pile up, he had still not looked into the question….
In response to the worker health crisis at the Bayway plant, Standard Oil suggested that the problem might simply be overwork.
Government agencies, who were tasked with protecting the public and environment, did make some motions toward setting up committees to research the potential dangers of TEL, but those committees were staffed by scientists who were on the payrolls of the car, fuel, and mining industries.
In May 1925, the U.S. Surgeon General called a national tetraethyl lead conference, to be followed by the formation of an investigative task force to study the problem. That same year, Midgley published his first health analysis of TEL, which acknowledged a minor health risk at most, insisting that the use of lead compounds, “compared with other chemical industries it is neither grave nor inescapable.”… It was obvious in advance that he’d basically written the conclusion of the federal task force. That panel only included selected industry scientists like Midgely.
The idea that there might be a conflict of interest doesn’t seem to have entered anyone’s mind; instead, the scientists in the government agencies happily accepted the half-baked but well meaning assurances of their buddies in the researcher-boys’ club and went home.
The full story of it is detailed in an award-winning piece of long-form journalism, The Secret History of Lead, by Jamie Lincoln Kitman, which takes us through the very human tale of how ordinary engineers and scientists, many of whom surely intended nothing but good (two of the principle players, GM’s Alfred Sloan and Charles Kettering, would later even go on to establish the renowned Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center; Kettering was also known to be a conservationist), would increasingly slide from initial caution through denial and self-delusion to outright deceit, manipulation, and corporate tyranny, pushed by ego and avarice and assisted by the power of their corporate positions.
Corporate researchers helped to spin the disasters at their TEL manufacturing plants so as to distract attention from the larger question of whether burning TEL fumes into the environment would be safe. They would eventually discourage and systematically try to destroy the careers of scientists who tried to study environmental lead contamination (Cosmos dedicates its wonderful episode, The Clean Room, to a most salient part of this story). Indeed, in their growing attitude of defensiveness against any criticism, they ultimately took the stance that preventing the manufacture and sale of TEL as an automobile fuel additive was morally wrong. And for several decades, theirs became the prevailing wisdom, not just for the United States, but, with their evangelism of TEL, soon for the entire world. Even after leaded fuel was finally banned in the USA in 1986, corporations continued to sell it elsewhere in the world, continuing to insist its fumes were harmless for as long as possible. The last country to ban it was Algeria, in 2015 (Wikipedia).
What have been the global environmental consequences of this derailment of more free and objective scientific inquiry? I don’t think anybody knows. But in the USA, retrospective studies have been done on the effects of lead during the years before it was banned. Blum tells us,
By that time, according to some estimates, so much lead had been deposited into soils, streets, building surfaces, that an estimated 68 million children would register toxic levels of lead absorption and some 5,000 American adults would die annually of lead-induced heart disease. As lead affects cognitive function, some neuroscientists also suggested that chronic lead exposure resulted in a measurable drop in IQ scores during the leaded gas era. And more recently, of course, researchers had suggested that TEL exposure and resulting nervous system damage may have contributed to violent crime rates in the 20th century.
Corruption, ego, bias, clubbiness and other factors have stifled or derailed scientific inquiry in more instances than these two high profile and catastrophically damaging cases, including (most famously) tobacco and (still little realized) Teflon. And surely it continues to do so in fields where controversy rages even today; for instance, consider the hormone rGBH used on dairy cows, which remains controversial while some journalists have claimed that studies about it harms are being suppressed by the dairy industry (see the documentary The Corporation); meanwhile, the food flavoring MSG is only now beginning to recover from undue slander almost certainly attributable to racist bias.
What we might learn from these alarming stories is that we should be alerted to the possibility that bias or corruption has overtaken scientific consensus whenever scientists who oppose a prevailing view are attacked as cranks, rather than being answered only by solid countervailing data, or when the terms of the scientific debate become generalized and moralistic, rather than data-centered. This degeneration of scientific debate should at least make us ask whether something is going awry in open and objective scientific discovery. We must never stop inviting critical investigation of what becomes the latest conventional wisdom, and we should be seriously concerned when the strongest claims of public good come primarily from within the industries who stand to profit from their conclusions.