12 days ago
by Kerry Emanuel ’73
October 10, 2012
On the morning of December 9th, 1953, the nation awoke to the New York Times headline shown here. The article went on to state that “The meeting marked one of the first occasions in which medical researchers, reporting before a professional group, have joined in insisting firmly that it is indeed smoking, and not some other environmental factor, that has caused the great increase in lung cancer among males noted in disease statistics of the last two decades.”
Six days later, on December 15th, the presidents of four of the largest tobacco companies met at the Plaza Hotel in New York. There they engaged one of the largest and most successful public relations firms, Hill and Knowlton, to plan a campaign to defend their business. They would all work together to convince the American public that there was “no sound scientific basis for the charges” leveled by the medical professionals, that the recent reports were simply “sensational accusations” made by publicity seeking scientists hoping to get more funding for their research.
Over the next 50 years, the tobacco industry, following the advice of Hill and Knowlton, established the Tobacco Industry Research Committee to challenge the mounting scientific evidence for the high risks of smoking. They funded alternative research to cast doubt on the link between smoking and cancer and conducted a vigorous public relations campaign to persuade doctors, journalists, politicians, and the general public that there was no cause for alarm. As the U.S. Department of Justice later put it, the industry had mounted an energetic propaganda campaign to “deceive the American public about the health effects of smoking”.
Thus were two scientific endeavors pitted against each other. On one side was biomedical research, much of it funded by the government, but some of it, ironically, funded by the tobacco industry itself, all of it in pursuit of the truth about smoking and cancer. On the other was the relatively new science of marketing, employing advanced techniques in psychology and receiving vastly greater funding, deployed in defense of an industry.
It was an unequal match. The campaign of disinformation waged by the tobacco industry succeeded beyond its fondest hopes. It was aided by the fact that, well, it is really difficult to give up smoking. And the industry found it surprisingly easy to persuade journalists to present a “balanced” view of the “controversy”; after all, controversy sells far more copies than consensus ever did. The industry’s success was also aided by the fact that they had so much more money.
The next graph shows a full 20 year lag between the 1953 New York Times article and the peak per capita rate of smoking. Given the additional lag between smoking and the onset of cancer, lung cancer rates did not peak until about 1990. We might conservatively estimate that smoking raises the mortality from lung cancer by about 40 cases per 100,000 people per year. Given the 20 year lag and the U.S. population of around 250,000 million during this time, the tobacco industry’s campaign probably killed about 2 million Americans.
Could scientists have saved at least some of those 2 million souls? Once they had determined that smoking posed serious risks, what did they do to inform their fellow citizens? What should they have done? These questions are all the more pressing as today history replays itself. Once again, scientists have stumbled upon a serious threat and once again industry has mounted a well funded and spectacularly successful campaign of disinformation to protect itself. But this time the stakes are much, much larger. And this time, the risks are being borne not by those who are incurring them, but by their children. You. I am here today not to amuse or entertain you, but to tell you unequivocally that you will very likely have no choice but to fight a battle that my generation has utterly failed to win, and to suggest how your Deerfield education can help you win it.
When I entered Deerfield as a freshman way back in ought ’69, I already knew I was going to be a scientist, but avoided science-oriented technical high schools because I sensed that I would emerge far too narrowly educated. Instead, I encountered that brilliant mix of faculty talents that makes Deerfield such a special place. The journey from my first chemistry course with Larry Bohrer to my last physics course with David Howell was one of sweat and tears, and most of all, joy. But Deerfield taught me to read and write…tasks many of my scientific colleagues struggle with. I only wish they had taught me how to speak! If only I had joined the debating club.
But in hindsight, Deerfield equipped me to confront the greatest dilemma of my scientific career. Give me a minute to explain.
Science is a culture unto itself. Scientific culture is not something taught in college or graduate school, but rather absorbed through daily interactions with one’s colleagues. To fans of Hollywood Sci-Fi movies, it may come as some surprise that science is an intensely social endeavor, particularly today. We spend a great deal of our time with students, at meetings with colleagues, on conference calls, you name it. A far cry from the lone mad scientist laboring away in an isolated tower high in the Alps. The culture of science emphasizes rigor, honesty, and objectivity. Bias – of any kind – is toxic to science and we constantly strive to identify and rid ourselves of it. As individuals, we seldom succeed at this, simply because we are human, but the enterprise as a whole is self-correcting. If there is bias in a research paper, for example, it will soon be discovered by other researchers. A great way to make a name for oneself in science is to overturn an important piece of the scientific canon.
But the scientific cultural striving toward objectivity constantly gets warped – mostly by less gifted scientists – into an emphasis on a mere appearance of objectivity – a kind of reverse vanity. This superficial form confuses dispassion with objectivity and revolts against any serious interaction between scientists and citizens. One can always tell who has bought into this deception; they are the ones who speak in dull monotones and who never, ever, let on what they are really thinking. Far from producing the desired objectivity, this dispassionate veneer hides one’s inevitable human biases from one’s colleagues and thus compromises the enterprise as a whole.
Yet the truly problematic aspect of scientific culture is the strongly enforced dictum that a scientist should never be an advocate. The idea here is that if a scientist tries to warn fellow citizens about the hazards of air and water pollution, or the dangers of smoking, he/she has irreversibly compromised his/her reputation for objectivity and can never really go back to being a scientist.
There is some truth to this and I, for one, have long preached against scientists being advocates. Let the advocates come to us for the facts, we say, and let them do the advocating. There are plenty of advocates, and no need for scientists to sacrifice their objectivity and their careers by getting in front of cameras, writing Op-Eds, or lecturing Congress.
Up to a point. It was almost certainly this attitude that stopped medical researchers from countering the tobacco industry’s disinformation campaign in the 1950s and 60s. That’s part of the reason why the tobacco industry found their campaign so easy to wage and why they were so successful. It does not take much money and effort to fight the facts when those whose job it is to find them have their hands tied behind their backs by their own professional culture.
A few brave souls buck this culture and stand up for the truth. One of those was Henry Kendall, Deerfield class of 1945 and winner of the 1990 Nobel Prize in Physics. He was an MIT faculty colleague of mine until his death in 1999. A gifted and accomplished physicist, he co-founded the Union of Concerned Scientists in 1969 to provide a direct conduit between scientists and citizens, undistorted by government officials or journalists. Henry spoke out against the politicization of science and was an early proponent of taking measures to reduce the risks of global warming, having advised President Clinton on the matter in 1997. Naturally, he was criticized by some of his scientific colleagues (including me!) for taking such measures, but he persevered and made a difference. He inspired me to speak out on the issue of climate change, and it is to his memory that I dedicate this talk.
The case for a serious risk posed by manmade climate change is strong and compelling. Here is a very brief synopsis, set in some historical context.
What has been the reaction to this clear if not-so-present danger? Most prominently, an energetic mobilization of the one-trillion-dollar-a-year fossil fuel industry in opposition to any efforts to migrate away from our reliance on gas, oil, and coal.
So where do we stand today? Let me close with an allegory.
Imagine that you have a three-year-old child – let’s call him Jimmy – who doesn’t seem to be doing too well. You take him to a doctor who confirms that there is something wrong and proceeds to perform a battery of tests. After studying the results for awhile, she calls you into her office and tells you and your spouse that Jimmy suffers from a rare condition about which little is known. There is an effective treatment for it, but it is expensive and somewhat painful. Without it, there’s a 20% chance Jimmy will die before he turns 18 and a 60% chance that he will live with serious problems, including physical disabilities and pain. But there is also a 20% chance that Jimmy will grow up more or less normally.
You and your spouse spend some time discussing the options; occasionally, the discussion becomes heated. Your finances are already rocky, and to pay for the treatment you would have to stretch your borrowing ability, forcing you to scale back your life style and forgo any chance of sending Jimmy to good schools (like Deerfield) or to college. Because the decision is so tough, you decide that you had better get a second medical opinion. The second opinion comes back very similar to the original opinion, but your spouse, not being satisfied, gets a third. And a fourth. In fact, your spouse ends up getting 40 doctors to weigh in. All but one say more or less the same thing, but that one exception – Dr. Smith, a reputable doctor with a great track record – thinks there is nothing to worry about and advises you to ignore the others.
What would you do?
Now let’s change the scenario just a little. Turns out that Jimmy has an older sister – call her Jane – who has just turned 17, attends an elite (and expensive) boarding school, and has her heart set on attending an ivy league college. She realizes that Jimmy’s treatment would force her to transfer to a public school and give up her ivy league dream. At first, she tries to dissuade her parents from opting to treat little Jimmy. She emphasizes the large uncertainty in the doctors’ predictions, and that by their own admission they do not know much about the disease. But she senses that her parents are leaning toward going for the treatment. So she calls up her favorite aunt, who happens to be a marketing researcher who knows a good deal about the art of persuasion. Jane tells the aunt that if she is successful in changing her parents’ mind, Jane will pay her a great deal of money once Jane becomes a successful ivy league-educated lawyer. So Aunt May gets to work. On her next family visit, Aunt May asks to have some time alone with you and your spouse. She is calm, collected, and very persuasive. She first reminds you that some of the doctors get paid to research treatments like the one proposed for Jimmy, and that if no one used those treatments their grant money would dry up. She goes on to state that plenty of other children have symptoms similar to Jimmy’s and yet do not have the rare disease the doctors claim Jimmy has. Recently, someone hacked into the computers of several of the doctors and discovered that one of them, in an email to another, openly worried that Dr. Smith might persuade you that there is nothing to worry about. Aunt May had contacted Doctor Smith and was told that the other 39 doctors were alarmists whose professional opinion about Jimmy was influenced by their personal opinion that a high price ought be attached to human life, the saving of which justifies even expensive measures. Just think, Aunt May tells you, what other great things you could do with the money you save by not doing the treatment. Not only would the expense of the treatment deprive Jane of a first-rate education, but you yourselves would have to make sacrifices. You’d no doubt have to give up your big van for a small car, sell your big mansion, and move into a smaller house. All this because of uncertain predictions by so-called professionals with suspect motives. Children are always getting sick, what’s so special about this time? If Jimmy’s condition continues to worsen, well he can adapt. The dosage of his pain medication can be increased. If his legs continue to weaken he can get crutches, or leg braces, or if need be a walker. What’s the big deal? Just focus on earning income, spend it as you always do, and be happy.
After Aunt May drives off to meet some new clients, you and your spouse get into an argument. You want to undertake at least that part of the treatment that is affordable and which will definitely reduce, but not entirely eliminate, the risk to Jimmy’s well being. But your spouse has been persuaded by Aunt May’s arguments. Children are always getting sick and after awhile they get better. The doctors are corrupt and incompetent, except for Doctor Smith. Jimmy can adapt. And even partial treatment will reduce our spending money to unacceptable levels. Jimmy’s problem, if he has one, will take years to really become serious and in the mean time we have more urgent issues, like braces for Jane’s teeth.
Over the next few days, the argument escalates and you and your spouse start shouting at each other. It gets bad enough that the big “D” word is floated (that’s divorce, not Deerfield) and you start to wonder whether you’ll be forced to choose between Jimmy and your spouse. So, without actually planning it, you and your spouse simply stop talking about Jimmy’s condition. Things settle down and although your marriage has suffered a decided blow, it’s at least still intact. Besides, Jane seems happy.
And that, my friends, is where matters stand.
You are all Jimmys. Your parents, my generation, supplied the doctors who recognized the risks to you and your children, but who admit to uncertainty about the level of risk. We also proposed various treatments for the disease. But our generation also has its Aunt Mays who have succeeded in persuading many of us, and perhaps some of you, not to worry about you or your children, to just get on with our lives. We’ve stopped talking about global warming. My generation has failed you and your forthcoming descendents. The important question is whether you will succeed where we failed. Will you put your heads in the sand as we have done, or will you insist on taking action? Will you be seduced by money and marketing or will you stand on principle? Will your efforts stop at the voting booth, or will you go further? Protests? Divestment of fossil fuel stocks? Civil disobedience? It’s up to you. A Deerfield education is giving you the tools to think this through. God bless, and may you be worthier of your heritage than my generation was of ours.