States of Denial: Anti-Science Policy in Canada and the US

Part One: Canada

“There is only one problem — confidence and how to establish it; public assurance and how to create it.” Hill and Knowlton

Sage advice to the Tobacco Industry Research Committee (TIRC) in 1950s when the industry faced scientific research showing that substances in their products caused fatal cancers in lab mice.

If you haven’t already, you should read the Waxman majority staff report “The Hill and Knowlton Documents: How the Tobacco Industry Launched Its Disinformation Campaign” –– the Committee on Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Health and the Environment, May 26, 1994. You should also read the related documents for a model of how the current denialist industry operates with respect to the issue of global warming.

A Brief History of Denial a la Big Tobacco

A December 1953 report by Dr. Earnest Wynder et al at Sloan-Kettering Institute in NYC on the carcinogenic nature of cigarette tar when painted on the skin of lab mice garnered widespread media coverage.  In response, the CEOs of tobacco giants got together on December 15, 1953 in an attempt to stave off what they knew would be fear and loathing on the part of the public and government regulators. The purpose of TIRC was to “sponsor a public reations campaign which is…entirely ‘pro-cigarettes’.”

According to the staff report, the goal was “reassurance of the public through communications of … the existence of weighty scientific views which hold there is no proof that cigarette smoking is a cause of lung cancer.” (2)  The industry hired Hill and Knowlton to undertake the PR campaign in 1954, including hiring 35 of H&K staff, to influence public opinion.  The report outlines TIRC plans for a 17-step PR campaign to respond to one unfavorable report, influence medical opinion by sending out copies of booklets to all physicians in the US, promote obscure research favorable to the tobacco industry, contacted media leaders and pushed on them the notion of editorial responsibility to avoid rousing ‘unwarranted fears’ and ultimatley, influenced the content of magazine, news articles and television shows.

In January 1954, the industry released “A Frank Statement to Cigarette Smokers” announcing the formation of the TIRC to “provide aid and assistance to the research efforts into all phases of tobacco use and health.” (5)

“We accept an interest in people’s health as a basic responsibility, paramount to every other consideration in our business…We always have and always will cooperate closely with those whose task it is to safeguard the public health.” (5)

Years later, in an infamous hearing on Capitol Hill, the CEOs of 7 big tobacco companies stood in front of the Committee and denied that nicotine was addictive, despite evidence from science to the contrary. Admitting that nicotine was an addictive substance could make the tobacco corps liable for the damage cigarettes did to smokers. Until then, the industry had always claimed that smoking was a choice and thus the corporation bore no legal liability for any damage done to the smoker’s health. If they admitted that nicotine was addictive, this position would no longer be tenable.

Hw does this relate to climate change denial on the part of the Canadian government?

Tobacco’s strategy to delay legislative action on cigarettes, using PR campaigns and questioning the soundness of science was replicated by big oil in its fight to protect its vested interests in the continued unregulated release of greenhouse gasses from the burning of fossil fuels.  This led to not only the adoption of the tactics of big tobacco, but also using the same scientists and PR people to lead the battle.  In fact, we see many of the same players who were active in big tobacco’s attempts to stop legislative action involved in the climate wars, both in industry and government.

In Canada, this is illustrated by the hiring of Hill and Knowlton for a tidy sum of $50,000 to craft a media campaign to unveil the Natural Resources Canada Report of December 2007 titled “From Impact to Adaptation: Canada in Changing Climate”.

The report’s release was delayed, some claim in order to avoid embarrasment of the Canadian government at the Bali Conference that was taking place when the report was finished.

H&K created the media campaign, outlining interested media and coached the report’s authors on how to speak to different audiences.  However, the CBC leaked the document prior to the campaign and so the department released it on the website without any fanfare and with little media coverage.

Here’s and excerpt from the CBC coverage:

The report, the first of its kind done for the federal government in 10 years, says Canada can expect more ice storms, torrential downpours, floods, droughts and landslides, as well more days of extreme heat and smog.

The report says the increase of extreme weather has already begun, and will only get worse.

“The models predict as we go into the future that those events will be more frequent than they have been in the recent past,” Gordon McBean, a geography professor at the University of Western Ontario in London, said Thursday.

McBean was one of the scientists involved in the report.

He said the extreme weather will mean more insurance claims from damaged homes and property, while the country’s roads and bridges will take a beating. Coastlines in some communities will erode more rapidly than usual.

Here’s a National Post article “The Other Side of Global Warming” by Colby Cosh, which as usual for the NP, includes a small bit of denial:

We have become accustomed to living with cognitive dissonance when it comes to global warming. Let’s say for the sake of argument that the degree of “consensus” on a warming Earth is not overstated (which it is), and that the basic science is not still subject to major revisions (even though the models still can’t handle cloud cover, and there may be dangerous oversimplifications in the underlying math). Most of us do accept as an operational premise that the mean temperature of the planet is increasing.

It is natural that we should be most concerned with the grave challenges that this presents us with, in every field from national defence to drinking water. At the same time, we all often think, in a common-sense way, how incredibly advantageous it would be for Canada to be a little warmer. As a public pronouncement on climate, From Impacts to Adaptation is rare in confronting the challenges without pretending that the advantages don’t exist — and it is, thus, unusually convincing.

All of this history is covered in an excellent article titled “Troubling Evidence: The Harper Government’s Approach to Climate Science Research in Canada” which documents the muzzling of science that took place in Environment Canada under the new minority Conservative Government of Stephen Harper.

The article covers a number of actions taken by the Harper government that have undermined Canadian climate science and scientists at Environment Canada.

One of the most disturbing was the transfer of the office of the National Science Advisor (NSA) to Industry Canada instead of the Prime Minister’s Office, which was its original home when created by then-Prime Minister Paul Martin in 2004.  The mandate of the NSA was to provide “sound, unbiased, and non-partisan advice on science and technology.” The first appointee was Arthur Carty, a chemist, former president of the National Research Council and dean of research at the University of Waterloo.  After the election of Harper’s Conservative government in January 2006, the office of the NSA was moved to Industry Canada and the NSA, instead of reporting directly to the PM, now reported to the Minister of Industry.

Canadian governance has often been problematic.  In the past, programs responsible for monitoring health and the environment fell under the purview of ministries that were responsible for promoting Canadian industry.  This conflict of interest — between promoting consumer safety and health vs. promoting the interests of industry — is a dangerous one and has been responsible in part for a variety of bad policy actions and decisions. The transfer of the NSA to Industry Canada does not speak well for the notion of ‘sound, unbiased and non-partisan’ advice on science and technology or the importance given the role to the new Prime Minister.

Soon after the transfer of the NSA to Industry Canada, the Harper government cancelled the NSA, repacing it with a “Science, Technology and Innovation Council” (STIC) in Industry Canada to “provide the government with independent advice on science and technology.   The STIC’s mandate was to provide “evidence-based science and technology advice on issues, referred to it by government, which are critical to Canada’s economic development and social well-being” (19).  The Council had a chair and 17 members appointed by Industry Canada’s Minister Jim Prentice.  The Council had only 4 full-time scientists engaged in scientific research. More members had industry or business backgrounds than in science.

In response to this, 85 academic scientists sent an open letter to the Prime Minister on the cancellation of the National Science Advisor position.  In February 2008, Nature posted an editorial “Science in Retreat” criticising the cancellation of the NSA.

Here’s an excerpt:

After winning power from the Liberals, the Conservatives moved Carty’s office away from the prime minister’s offices to Industry Canada. In 2007, the government formed the 18-member Science, Technology and Innovation Council (STIC). Told that the government would no longer need a science adviser, Carty offered his resignation. From March, the STIC will provide policy advice and report on Canada’s science and technology performance. It can be expected to be markedly less independent: although it is stocked with first-class scientists and entrepreneurs, several government administrators also hold seats.

Concerns can only be enhanced by the government’s manifest disregard for science. Since prime minister Stephen Harper came to power, his government has been sceptical of the science on climate change and has backed away from Canada’s Kyoto commitment. In January, it muzzled Environment Canada’s scientists, ordering them to route all media enquires through Ottawa to control the agency’s media message. Last week, the prime minister and members of the cabinet failed to attend a ceremony to honour the Canadian scientists who contributed to the international climate-change report that won a share of the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize.

Harper sees himself as the leader of a ‘global energy powerhouse’ and is committing Canada to a fossil-fuel economy. More than 40 companies have a stake in mining and upgrading the bitumen from the oil sands in Alberta and churning out 1.2 million barrels a day. This activity generates three times as much greenhouse gas as conventional oil drilling. Emissions from Canada’s oil and gas industry have risen by 42% since 1990.

Not long after this, Environment Canada revealed its new Media Relations Policy (MRP) which required scientists or subject matter experts to refer all media requests to the Media Relations Headquarters.  The media relations officers would work with EC staff to decide how best to handle the media call.  Experts might be required to provide “approved lines” to the media relations officer who would respond on behalf of the department.

Environment Canada’s Director of Communications Charles Slowey indicated that the new policy objective was to ensure media requests were responded to “quickly, accurately, and in a consistent way across Canada.” (23) EC claimed it was bringing its policy in line with that of other departments in the government, in private industry and the non-profit sector. The net result was that the overall contact with EC declined.

According to the report, an anonymous source in EC claimed that the new policy resulted in a decline in media coverage of EC scientists by more than 75% after the new policy was implemented. Before the new policy, there were 85 media inquiries between November 2005 – November 2007. After the policy was put in place, there were only 30 in 2007/08 and a paltry 8 in 2008/09.

The new policy did not ensure quick and accurate response to media inquiries, although it may have ensured that the department’s message was consistent.

From the report:

“In a democratic society, there can be no justification for limiting the ability of experts employed by the government to speak freely to the media in their area of expertise in the absence of any compelling grounds for confidentiality.”(25)

In another example, the report outlines how Environment Canada cancelled Canada’s representative at the WMO World Climate Conference in December 2008 at the last minute — as Dan McIver, the chair of the organizing committee for the conference, was on his way to the airport.  Environment Minister Jim Prentice claimed it was due to budget reasons. However, the WMO had already agreed to cover the cost of MacIver’s travel to Poland. MacIver resigned his position as chair, stating that the World Climate Conference needed a different chair who could offer “critical leadership” (27).

The report also documents how the Harper government appointed three skeptics to two important science and technology granting boards, including the prestigeoous National Science and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) and the Canadian Foundation for Innovation.

  • Christopher Essex, Professor and Assistant Chair of the department of Applied Math from the University of Western Ontario who co-wrote “Taken By Storm” with Ross McKitrick, was appointed to the NSERC board.
  • Mark Mullins, PhD in Economics and Director of the Fraser Institute — a free market think tank that opposes government legislation on climate change – from 2005-2009, was appointed to NSERC.
  • John Weissenberger, a PhD Geologist who worked for Husky Energy in Alberta for 20 years and is a personal friend of Harper, was appointed to the CFI.

The report makes a number of recommendations, including establishment of a permanent commission of independent experts with a mandate to periodically review and publish a report on the science, impacts and economics of climate change, set out in legislation so that it is a long term committment.

It also calls for the reversal of the EC media relations policy to allow the media greater access to EC scientists and that a public appointments commission be set up to create merit-based requirements for appointments to these committees and commissions.

What is most disturbing about these developments under the Harper Conservative government is the clear retreat from a concern with unbiased science advice directly to the PMO to one in which the focus in towards the concerns with industry. In locating the new science and technology committee in Industry Canada instead of the PMO, the concerns of industry with respect to science and technology issues, will be the focus. Science and technology are critical issues that rise above those of industry.  their implications go beyond the economy to issues of the environment and health, culture and welfare in general. That Harper located the committee in Industry Canada speaks volumes.

For more on this, go to De Smog Blog’s post “The Stephen Harper War on Climate Science“:

An excerpt:

Mullins (trained as an economist) makes no bones about his understanding of climate science: “the climate-change issue is somewhat sensational and definitely exaggerated.” You can listen to his entire wacky podcast here.

Besides his complete lack of scientific expertise, his obvious political bias and of course potential conflict with his current employer, Mullins does have one significant qualification important to the Harper government: his was a former policy advisor for Harper’s former party, the Canadian Alliance.

The other jaw-dropping intervention in the Canadian scientific community was the appointment of Harper’s “best friend” and climate denier John Weissenberger to the board of Canada Foundation for Innovation, which funds large research projects.

In Part Two, I’ll look at how Big Oil — and the US government under Bush II, adopted these denialist tactics and used the same players to delay action on global warming. In particular, the attempts to muzzle government scientists and prevent them from speaking freely about their research to media. It appears that Harper took lessons from the Bush admin in their attempts to deny the science of global warming and prevent scientists working for government from speaking directly with media and the public.

About Policy Lass

Exploring skeptic tales.

10 Responses to “States of Denial: Anti-Science Policy in Canada and the US”

  1. Wow, SheWonk. Excellent job! I thought I was in the loop, but some of the material above was news to me. And the reis a a CA link, via Essex. So McKitrick et al. very likely have the ear of Essex.

    I look forward to part II.

    Wonder if the opposition is going to run with this. They would be insane not to!


  2. Thank you for this enlightening article. Keep up the good work!

  3. Wow, just Policy Lass! That’s a great summary and timeline!

    May I link this to my own blog as an article?

  4. Hmm, where is the proof that nicotine is addictive? Rather than simply pleasurable.

    I’ve done quite a bit of research and all I find is that thousands of animals have been tortured in the effort to prove it, to no avail.

    You might keep in mind, that to some of us with Native American blood, tobacco is even considered sacred.

  5. Hmm, where is the proof that nicotine is addictive? Rather than simply pleasurable.
    I’ve done quite a bit of research and all I find is that thousands of animals have been tortured in the effort to prove it, to no avail.
    You might keep in mind, that to some of us with Native American blood, tobacco is even considered sacred.

    I’m not going to bother trying to engage you about the addictive nature of nicotine. The fact you even question it speaks volumes.

    I don’t let religion get in the way of reason and logic in my view on issues. I have too much respect for human intelligence.

  6. Shewonk: I think Kendra is the poster child of the effectiveness of creating doubt. In the case of nicotine addiction (or drug addiction in general) it is rather easy to point to the non-physiological aspects of addiction (habit), and ‘thus’ cast doubt on nicotine as addictive. It is also easy to select groups that are not very prone to addiction (plenty such people exist), and ‘thus’ cast doubt on nicotine as addictive. A very effective strategy. We’re likely to get the link between smoking and lung cancer to be ‘debated’ again, as there is strong evidence of a genetic component in the development of lung cancer amongst smokers. ‘Thus’, it’s not the smoking that causes lung cancer…(that’s what the manufacturers of doubt will try to get people to believe).

  7. Kendra :
    Hmm, where is the proof that nicotine is addictive? Rather than simply pleasurable.

    Withdrawal symptoms, alleviated by nicotine replacement, all of which is well documented from clinical trials. No different to crack, heroin, booze. Or, in the war on science, are you going to tell us crack, heroin and alcohol cannot be addictive, either? Maybe crack’s a sacred substance for someone in the world, too?


    This chapter shows how tobacco manufacturers began programmes for manipulation of nicotine more than fifty years ago and refined these efforts over decades, altering product characteristics in order to sustain addictive levels of nicotine delivery ….


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