At a time when public mistrust of science runs high, and non-experts are hard-pressed to separate fact from industry-sponsored spin, Sense About Science, a charity based in London with an affiliate in New York, presents itself as a trustworthy arbiter. The organization purports to help the misinformed public sift through alarmist claims about public health and the environment by directing journalists, policymakers, and others to vetted sources who can explain the evidence behind debates about controversial products like e-cigarettes and flame retardants.
One reason the public is so confused, suggested Tracey Brown, the group’s director, in a recent Guardian op-ed, is that the media feeds alarmism by focusing on who sponsors scientific studies, rather than asking more important questions about whether the research is sound. Even when there is no evidence of bias, Brown contended, journalists attack industry-funded research, running exposés on subjects such as fracking, genetically modified plants, and sugar. Brown lamented that what she called “the ‘who funded it?’ question” is too often asked by “people with axes to grind.”
Brown’s downplaying of concerns about such research invites skepticism. Since the mid-1990s, numerous studies have shown that industry-funded research tends to favor its sponsors’ products. This effect has been documented in research financed by chemical, pharmaceutical, surgical, food, tobacco, and, we have learned most recently, sugar companies. In the 1960s, the sugar industry secretly paid scientists to minimize the role sugar plays in causing heart disease and blame saturated fat instead, according to a study published in the September issue of JAMA Internal Medicine. For decades, industry-funded research helped tobacco companies block regulations by undermining evidence that cigarettes kill. Precisely because of the very real risk of bias, prestigious scientific journals have long required researchers to disclose their sources of support. Journalists in pursuit of transparency have good reason to ask, “Who funded it?”
Sense About Science claims to champion transparency. The organization has campaigned to see the evidence behind policy decisions and asked for pharmaceutical companies to release all the results of clinical trials, not just the positive ones. Nearly 700 organizations have signed on to the clinical trials initiative since it began last year. These are salutary efforts, and Brown points out that with the exception of one program funded by publishers, none of the group’s projects are underwritten by companies. But this sidesteps a larger issue.
Sense About Science does not always disclose when its sources on controversial matters are scientists with ties to the industries under examination. And the group is known to take positions that buck scientific consensus or dismiss emerging evidence of harm. When journalists rightly ask who sponsors research into the risks of, say, asbestos, or synthetic chemicals, they’d be well advised to question the evidence Sense About Science presents in these debates as well.
In 2002, Dick Taverne, an English politician and business consultant, founded Sense About Science “to expose bogus science,” he explains in his memoir, “Against the Tide.” Through his consulting work, Taverne had cultivated relationships with energy, communications, food, and pharmaceutical companies. Sense About Science’s early sponsors included some of Taverne’s former clients and companies in which he owned stock.
Taverne must have known the power of media narratives about science firsthand, because he had experience with the tobacco industry, which labored mightily to change the conversation about its product in the face of evidence that cigarettes were lethal. According to internal documents released in litigation by cigarette manufacturers, Taverne’s consulting company, PRIMA Europe, helped British American Tobacco improve relations with its investors and beat European regulations on cigarettes in the 1990s. Taverne himself worked on the investors project: In an undated memo, PRIMA assured the tobacco company that “the work would be done personally by Dick Taverne,” because he was well placed to interview industry opinion leaders and “would seek to ensure that industry’s needs are foremost in people’s minds.” During the same decade, Taverne sat on the board of the British branch of the powerhouse public relations firm Burson-Marsteller, which claimed Philip Morris as a client. The idea for a “sound science” group, made up of a network of scientists who would speak out against regulations that industrial spokespeople lacked the credibility to challenge, was a pitch Burson-Marsteller made to Philip Morris in a 1994 memorandum.
It’s not hard to identify traces of this approach in Taverne’s later work. Writing in his 2005 book, “The March of Unreason,” Taverne complained that “eco-fundamentalists” and fearmongers had fomented a backlash against science and technology, which had in turn produced a “multiplication of health and safety regulations.” That year British Petroleum donated 15,000 pounds to Sense About Science, and Taverne argued in the House of Lords that as much as 80 percent of global warming might be attributable to solar activity, even though that theory had been discredited two years earlier. Taverne, who stepped down as chairman of Sense About Science in 2012, did not respond to The Intercept’s requests for comment.
Sense About Science established an American affiliate in 2014, under the direction of a Brooklyn-based journalist named Trevor Butterworth. In financial documents, Sense About Science claims Sense About Science USA as a sister organization “with close ties and similar aims.” High-profile scientific publishers, as well as such reputable institutions as the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy and the Columbia Journalism Review, have promoted Butterworth’s services to scientists and journalists.
From 2003 to 2014, Butterworth contributed to the website of an organization called STATS, a nonprofit that promoted statistical literacy. STATS had its own connections to the tobacco industry, in this case through founder Robert Lichter, a conservative political scientist and now a communications professor at George Mason University. Lichter also co-founded and continues to run the Center for Media and Public Affairs, which Philip Morris hired in 1994 to survey news reports about tobacco as part of its strategy, outlined in a memo from March of that year, to counter “personal and public bias” in stories about cigarettes’ health risks.
Before STATS was dissolved in 2014, and its web site adopted by Sense About Science USA, it received regular grants from free-market sources. Between 1998 and 2014, STATS received $4.5 million, 81 percent of its donations, from the Searle Freedom Trust, the Sarah Scaife Foundation, the John M. Olin Foundation, Donors Trust (a fund largely sustained by Charles Koch), and other right-wing foundations. Searle, which describes its mission as promoting “economic liberties,” gave STATS $959,000 between 2010 and 2014. Anti-regulatory foundations, including these, spent over half a billion dollars between 2003 and 2010 to “manipulate and mislead the public over the nature of climate science and the threat posed by climate change,” according to a 2013 study by Drexel University sociologist Robert Brulle.
With these roots, Sense About Science should not surprise anyone when it promotes anti-regulatory voices on issues like asbestos. In a 2006 brochure called “Science for Celebrities” and purporting to correct misperceptions about synthetic chemicals, Sense About Science offers John Hoskins, a toxicologist formerly of the Medical Research Council Toxicology Unit at the University of Leicester. Under the rubric “Toxic effects depend on dose,” Hoskins reassures us: “Away from the high doses of occupational exposure a whole host of unwanted chemicals finds their way into our bodies. Most leave quickly but some stay: asbestos and silica in our lungs, dioxins in our blood. Do they matter? No!”
More than two decades ago, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the International Agency for Research on Cancer declared asbestos a proven human carcinogen. Since then, as countries continue to mine asbestos, industry groups have argued that certain varieties, including chrysotile and crocidolite, are not so toxic. In response, several groups, including the Collegium Ramazzini, an international body of occupational and environmental health experts, have issued consensus statements warning that no form of asbestos is safe at any dose. In calling for a universal ban on all forms of asbestos in 2010, the Collegium Ramazzini observed that the asbestos industry’s attacks on evidence that “irrefutably” links its product to cancer “closely resemble those used by the tobacco industry.”
Brown maintains that Sense About Science has not disagreed with the scientific consensus on asbestos, and she notes that dose and type of exposure are the issue. But when I asked Hoskins why his position differed from the scientific consensus, he shrugged over email, “Once upon a time the consensus was that the earth is flat.” Hoskins further replied, “Unfortunately, to say that within a population low-level exposure of many chemicals must be dangerous is not borne out by reality, much to the chagrin of those who live in the fantasy world of ‘chemical-free.’ ”
Hoskins’s résumé states that he has represented the Chrysotile Institute in “discussion with the governments of several countries.” But he did not disclose this relationship to the Epidemiology, Biostatistics and Public Health journal when he co-authored two scientific papers disputing claims that chrysotile or crocidolite caused a rare cancer in exposed populations. When his industry ties came to light, the journal issued errata for both papers to disclose this competing interest. (Hoskins denies any conflict of interest, insisting that his role in authoring the papers was confined to providing information the other authors requested. Yet all but one of the other authors had also failed to disclose their asbestos interests, which now appear in the errata.)
Soon after the first paper appeared, eight public health researchers wrote a letter to the editors of Epidemiology, Biostatistics and Public Health expressing outrage that the journal would publish a paper with “gross mistakes” and “no scientific content.” A group that included many of the letter’s signatories asked the journal to consider retracting the second paper, citing “seriously misleading information.” But the journal’s editors declined to retract the papers, which remain in the technical literature, casting doubt on the scientific consensus that all forms of asbestos are hazardous to human health.
It’s hard to make a case for the safety of a substance like asbestos, which most people know causes cancer. Other commercial products are easier to defend, not because they are less hazardous, but because consumers are not as familiar with the evidence questioning their safety and utility. Scientists have known since 1997 that flame retardants, for example, can cause cancer. These brominated and chlorinated chemicals are used in a wide range of consumer products, including nursing pads and car seats. For more than three decades, studies in animals and humans have linked them to cancer, developmental delays, and other serious health problems. By 2010, the evidence was so persuasive that nearly 150 scientists from 22 countries signed a statement warning that flame retardants “are a concern for persistence, bioaccumulation, long-range transport, and toxicity.” Flame retardants’ fire safety benefit not only remains unproven, the scientists asserted, but the chemicals form highly toxic byproducts when burned.
Sense About Science has long relied on dubious numbers to insist on the efficacy of these chemicals. In 2006 it published a pamphlet on “misconceptions about chemicals” in which it claimed that British laws requiring flame retardants in furniture had reduced fire deaths by 20 percent, citing a 2000 European Commission report called “Flame Retardants.” A European Commission press officer told me she knows of no such report. “The reference to the 20 percent reduction in fire deaths is repeatedly quoted in papers and publications from flame retardant industries and associations, and they always refer to ‘Flame Retardants, DG Environment Video 2000,’ which we cannot find.” On the contrary, she told me, it is simply “not possible to correlate fire deaths to non-flammability requirements.”
Who did make the claim? Flame retardant industry trade groups, including the European Flame Retardant Association and the Bromine Science and Environmental Forum, run by Philip Morris’s longtime PR firm Burson-Marsteller. The U.S.-based Citizens for Fire Safety also repeated the claim until it disbanded, following revelations in 2012 that leading flame retardant producers ran the organization, not the grassroots group of “staff and volunteers committed to national fire safety” its literature asserted.
The same year, Sense About Science again called on John Hoskins, identified as an independent toxicologist, this time to fact-check a study that found potentially carcinogenic flame retardants in sofas. In his response, Hoskins wrote: “The bottom line is that danger of fire is many, many times greater than any imagined danger from chemicals used to prevent it.”
“Everything I wrote about flame retardants was taken from published works,” Hoskins told me. “Reviewers at the time found nothing to criticize and I have had no comment from the thousands of people who must have read the pieces.”
Sense About Science reprinted its guide on chemicals in 2014. “The trade-off between fire risk and toxicology is changing, and we represented that newer precautionary thinking in our most recent publications,” Brown, the group’s director, told The Intercept in an email. The new guide acknowledged “allegations of side effects” from flame retardants, including persistence in the environment and toxicity to humans and animals. But it also retained the unsupported claim that regulations requiring the chemicals saved lives. The guide even retained the text that countered concerns about traces of flame retardants found in children’s bodies by asserting that because the chemicals protected children from death or injury from fire, “To fail to expose them to such chemicals could be regarded as negligent.”
Scientists who reviewed human studies had come to a different conclusion the year before. They warned that although such links were impossible to prove conclusively, the evidence suggested that children’s exposure to flame retardants could have serious health consequences, including neurobehavioral and developmental problems. The scientists called for regulatory oversight.
Of all the controversial chemicals in the public eye, the one Trevor Butterworth, Sense About Science USA’s director, has most fervently defended is bisphenol A, a compound used to make plastics. BPA is found in hard plastics, the lining of canned drinks and foods, thermal receipts, and other consumer and industrial products, including cigarette filters. Manufacturers produce billions of pounds of BPA each year. Its market value is projected to reach $20 billion by 2020. And numerous studies and scientific consensus statements have linked BPA, which can interfere with hormone signaling, to developmental and reproductive disorders.
Leading reproductive biologists released a consensus statement in 2007 warning that “the wide range of adverse effects of low doses of BPA in laboratory animals exposed both during development and in adulthood is a great cause for concern with regard to the potential for similar adverse effects in humans.”
Two years later, while working for STATS, Butterworth published a 27,000-word investigation sharply questioning the validity of the scientific studies and news reports about BPA’s health effects. Butterworth’s central claim was that a handful of scientists, journalists, and environmental activist groups had ignored good science in a crusade to paint BPA as “the biological equivalent of global warming.” He singled out a widely acclaimed special report by Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel reporters Susanne Rust and Meg Kissinger called “Chemical Fallout.” These reporters, he claimed, relied on flawed studies by independent researchers and unfairly dismissed the industry-funded studies that found no harm. But the independent studies were not, in fact, flawed. Regulators just didn’t consider them useful, because, like many such academic studies, they didn’t measure toxicity but tested hypotheses about how BPA could alter living systems.
BPA trade groups have long insisted that the substance is metabolized too quickly to cause harm. Butterworth cites a 2009 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study that measured BPA concentrations in newborns to make the same case. The study, he argues, “provides important evidence that infants — even those born prematurely — are able to detoxify BPA in the same way as adults.”
The CDC study he cited was designed to gauge exposure, not metabolism. BPA has been detected in the urine of nearly every American tested. Premature babies’ fragile systems make them particularly vulnerable to environmental contaminants. The researchers suspected that the use of plastic medical devices in neonatal intensive care units might expose premature infants to higher than average levels of BPA. And that’s exactly what they found: Average BPA concentrations in hospitalized premature babies were about 10 times higher than those measured in adults. The authors noted that although premature babies appear to have some ability to metabolize BPA, their detoxification pathways “are not expected to be functional at adult rates until months after birth.”
Butterworth ended his critique of what he called “the BPA is dangerous thesis” by suggesting that banning the chemical could result in greater harm: “What if some parents who turned to glass bottles for fear of … ‘leaching’ BPA drop and break them, causing injury to their babies?”
Butterworth’s arguments have reverberated across an echo chamber of free-market organizations, including Philip Morris’s product defense law firm, Koch-funded think tanks, chemical and food-packaging industry trade groups in Europe and the U.S., and an ostensibly neutral environmental health research foundation run by a chemical industry PR firm.
Reached by email for comment, Butterworth did not account for his questionable characterization of the CDC study. He said that his critique relied on the work of scientists from regulatory agencies involved in risk assessment, and that these scientists had criticized smaller studies that claimed adverse effects. He maintained that studies assessing the effects of low doses of BPA are inconsistent and unlikely to capture significant results because of methodological and statistical problems.
The year after Butterworth’s 2009 investigation, the anti-regulatory Donors Trust awarded STATS $86,000 for its “research efforts,” and the Grocery Manufacturers Association, which belongs to the BPA Joint Trade Association, gave Lichter’s Center for Media and Public Affairs $10,000 for “research support.” Butterworth continued to defend BPA in news outlets and in 2013 made his case on a blog for Coca-Cola, another BPA Joint Trade Association member.
That year Coca-Cola gave more than $30,000 to Butterworth’s future partner, Sense About Science, which hosted a BPA forum the next year. (Since then, Sense About Science has not received corporate donations, which “represented less than 3 percent of our income,” Brown wrote in an email.) In the forum, a Q&A on social media, Sense About Science put forward a representative of the British Plastics Federation and a toxicologist whose longstanding ties to the chemical industry the organization did not disclose. Participants were assured that BPA posed no risk to human health. Several plastic industry trade sites praised the event. One welcomed Sense About Science’s efforts, reporting that “plastic packaging was stoutly defended.”
The tobacco industry pioneered tactics to fight regulations by manufacturing doubt about the scientific consensus that cigarettes kill. So it should be no surprise to encounter a strategy among defenders of the e-cigarette that also centers around doubt. If we don’t know for certain that a product is safe, we might urge caution. Sense About Science has argued the opposite: so long as we don’t know the product is unsafe, medical professionals have no business urging regulation.
E-cigarettes turn chemical solutions into a nicotine-filled mist, which consumers ingest without the added harm of tobacco tar. When the devices hit the American market in 2007, sales quickly took off. Tobacco companies increasingly dominate the industry, which is projected to be worth $54 billion by 2025. A recent national survey found a sharp rise in e-cigarette smoking among high school students — from 1.5 percent in 2011 to 16 percent last year.
The skyrocketing popularity of e-cigarettes among young people worries public health experts because so little is known about the devices’ safety. E-cigarettes are too new for scientists to have assessed their long-term health risks. British and American scientific bodies have reacted to this paucity of evidence with different views of the relative dangers.
Last year, Public Health England joined other British public health organizations in encouraging smokers to use e-cigarettes as an aid in quitting tobacco. The Royal College of Physicians effectively endorsed this view in April, when it argued against regulating a product that could help smokers quit.
But American public health officials worry that nicotine, which is as addictive as heroin and cocaine, will hook young smokers and cause lasting harm to their still-developing brains. Nicotine is linked to immunosuppression as well as cardiovascular, respiratory, and gastrointestinal disorders. There is evidence that it interferes with chemotherapies and may even play a role in cancer. Researchers are just beginning to study whether the more than 7,000 flavoring chemicals, which typically aren’t disclosed on e-cigarettes, are safe when inhaled.
Back in 2012, the British Medical Association called for a ban on the devices in public in order to “ensure their use does not undermine smoking prevention and cessation by reinforcing the normalcy of cigarette use.” BMA reaffirmed this judgment as recently as this past June, despite the opposing position of the Royal College of Physicians. Sense About Science reacted to BMA’s call for a ban by asking the association to produce evidence that e-cigarettes caused harm. “This move towards heavy regulation appears to be driven by the fear that e-cigs might be harmful or act as a gateway to conventional tobacco — despite little or no evidence for either claim,” the organization argued on its website in 2013, two years before Public Health England endorsed e-cigarettes as a tool to quit smoking. Such regulations, Sense About Science stated, could do more harm than good by inhibiting access to products that may help reduce harm from smoking tobacco cigarettes.
Although Sense About Science has demanded evidence that e-cigarettes cause harm, it seems poised to cast doubt on the evidence when it turns up. In August, the organization challenged the relevance of research presented that month at a cardiology conference showing that nicotine in e-cigarettes can stiffen arteries, an early indication of heart disease. Sense About Science’s expert dismissively compared the effects of nicotine documented in the research to those of “watching a thriller or a football match.”
Here in the United States, just this past May, the Food and Drug Administration moved to regulate e-cigarettes, including banning sales to those 18 and under. The CDC, too, takes the health risks of nicotine seriously. Last fall, the centers called for strategies to reduce the use of all tobacco products, including e-cigarettes. “The potential long-term benefits and risks associated with e-cigarette use are not currently known,” the CDC reported. “What is known is that nicotine exposure at a young age may cause lasting harm to brain development, promote nicotine addiction, and lead to sustained tobacco use.”
Having established itself as a credible voice in debates about science and industrial regulation in the United States and Britain, Sense About Science has set out for what may prove to be its most challenging assignment. In July, following Britain’s vote to leave the European Union, Sense About Science established an EU branch in Brussels, the headquarters of the European Commission, which has placed tighter restrictions on e-cigarettes, chemicals, and other potentially risky consumer goods than the United States has mustered. The new branch of Sense About Science plans to “monitor the use and abuse of scientific evidence in EU policy.”
Both Sense About Science and Sense About Science USA undertake some initiatives that serve the public interest. But the founder of the British organization worked with the architects of the tobacco industry’s disinformation strategy, and both groups have been known to promote science that favors private interests over public health. When an organization claims to serve as a neutral arbiter in high-stakes debates about science, it pays to do what Sense About Science does: ask for the evidence.
This article was produced in partnership with the Food & Environment Reporting Network, an independent nonprofit news organization.