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The Polluters’ Three-Card Monte

This article originally appeared in the October 2015 issue of Maui Vision Magazine.

Doubt is our product, since it is the best means of competing with the ‘body of fact’ that exists in the minds of the general public. It is also the means of establishing a controversy. – Memo from cigarette company executive

Lily Tomlin had a wonderful character, Edith Ann, who was 5 years old and bratty to the max. Edith Ann blurts out in one dialogue that she knows lying is wrong, then quickly adds, “but the truth could be made up if you know how.”

I just watched a very informative movie – Merchants of Doubt – that reveals the strategies corporations have used to delay controls (and extend windfall profits) on toxic products. Sixty years ago, the lead metal industry went to Madison Avenue for help. The PR firm Hill and Knowlton gave this counsel: Don’t waste time defending the harm of your product, just keep repeating and insisting that the science is inconclusive. That was the birth of the doubt industry – an expanding scheme to challenge scientists, discredit their methods, and dispute their conclusions. Best of all, hire your own scientists. This developed into the ‘sound science/junk science’ meme used again and again by the asbestos, tobacco, oil, coal, gas and nuclear industries. Today, it’s the ‘gold standard’ of climate denial and the biotech-owned seed industry.

Fifty years ago, tobacco companies knew their addictive products caused cancer. Yet, testifying under oath in 1994, every one of ‘big six’ CEOs swore to a Senate committee that cigarettes were “not addictive.” None of them dared risk their high-paying jobs and billions in annual profits by admitting the truth. About 480,000 people died every year from smoking-related illnesses. Did that bother one of the scientists? “Well, they chose to smoke,” he replied.

I wonder if the teenagers who were the target of most tobacco ads chose to smoke, or did they want to be cool like Joe Camel or tough like the Marlboro Man?

Where in all of this was the FDA? How did they manage to avoid regulating this cancer epidemic for so long? Did industry representatives move in to the agency to write the regulations the way Monsanto does with the EPA? What Merchants of Doubt shows in great detail is how a small group of media-savvy consultants blatantly twist the news with great skill. Television networks act as shills for the doubt mongers, allocating equal time for industry apologists to challenge and contradict real scientific evidence.

The current champions of this game are the seed industry and its allies, such as the Grocery Manufacturers Association. Another is the fossil fuel gang, with ExxonMobil spending $10 million last year alone on climate denial. They have 30 front groups to justify perpetuation of their ways. The Koch brothers have another 30 ‘think tanks’ to challenge, contradict and confuse the public. What about academic credibility? No problem. Harvard professor Willie Soon was paid $1.2 million by Exxon for what he billed as ‘deliverables.’

Monsanto, with sales last year of $15.9 billion, has a game on every corner. Not only did they infiltrate our national regulatory agencies to rewrite the rules, they bought agriculture departments across the country. The New York Times had an exposé of one of the seed industry’s strident defenders who always boasted he never received any support from the industry. It turns out that University of Florida horticulture professor Kevin Folta received $25,000 in travel funds from Monsanto. That, however, is lunch money compared to the millions donated to his school by Syngenta, Monsanto, Pioneer and BASF.

Locally, the University of Hawaii College of Tropical Agriculture has obtained its fair share of support from Monsanto, which might explain why UH administrators punished Professor Venezuela for his bold defense of organics and critique of pesticides. No level of influence peddling is too low for Monsanto; they just gave $30,000 to a Hawaiian elementary school in Waialua, with bike helmets for 4th graders!

Eventually, the ‘real truth’ comes out. For now, though, corporate consultants are busy making up Edith Ann’s truths… because they know how.

Mark Sheehan is a realtor with a lifelong concern for personal and environmental health. He is a board member of Maui Tomorrow and the SHAKA Movement. He has had an organic farm in Haiku for 30 years. Contact:, 808.283.2158.

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