“Sound Science” is industry’s Orwellian slogan for junk science

  • Published on May 5th, 2020

Last week, we came across a call by the group Sense about Science for nominations for “someone who has promoted sound science to advance public discussions and faced hostility doing so,” for something called the John Maddox Prize for Standing up for Science.

climate change deniers tom toles

By Climate Denier Roundup

The phrase “sound science” struck us – it’s a term heavily used in tobacco industry propaganda designed to cast doubt on the science that informed regulations on its products. But with the journal Nature’s logo attached, we figured it was just a coincidence.

And indeed, reading the nomination page, it certainly looks like a legitimate £3000 prize. Per the website, the prize is for someone who is “advancing the public discussion around difficult topics despite challenges or hostility,” by “addressing misleading information,” “bringing sound evidence to bear in a public or policy debate,” or “helping people to make sense of a complex scientific issue.”

Plenty of climate scientists come to mind as potential nominees. One of the winners last year was coral reef expert Terry Hughes, whose warnings about the warming-induced bleaching of the Great Barrier Reef was met with sharp resistance by Australian conservatives and the fossil fuel industry.

What’s the deal? To put it simply, as Christie Aschwanden explained at FiveThirtyEight a few years ago, “there’s no such thing as ‘sound science.’” The term is like a restaurant bragging about serving “edible food.”

So why is what appears to be noble, scientific organization trafficking in the “sound science” rhetoric championed by tobacco and other anti-science propagandists like Steve Milloy to resist regulation?

Turns out that Liza Gross answered this question four years ago at the Intercept. Sense About Science’s founder Dick Taverne had a consulting company, PRIMA Europe, which worked for tobacco companies to fight off regulations in the 1990s. Taverne was also on the board of Burson-Marsteller when the PR giant pitched big tobacco on the idea of a “sound science” group. That group became The Advancement of Sound Science Coalition, which set up JunkScience.com and launched Steve Milloy’s career as a public anti-regulation propagandist.

And if you think maybe it’s unfair to judge a group by its founder, particularly when there’s now also a US spin-off, unfortunately Gross’s story contains substantial evidence suggesting Sense About Science isn’t just innocently using the “sound science” phrasing.

From asbestos to BPA to yes, tobacco and nicotine, it seems Sense About Science is willing to defend any industry that pays them.

That’s probably why Gross opened her investigation into the group by referencing a sample of the many, many studies debunking an op-ed by its director Tracey Brown, titled “It’s silly to assume all research funded by corporations is bent.”

Ah. Well. Sure, there may well be plenty of perfectly good science with corporate backing. But we know good and well that industry has decades of experience bending science to its will, and anyone who knows the history of “sound science” knows that it’s silly to assume those companies would keep paying millions for “science” that didn’t sound good for their profits.

(Crossposted with DailyKos. Cartoon by Tom Toles at the Washington Post; get his book on climate change co-written with Michael Mann, The Madhouse Effect.)

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