Multinational Monitor

APR 2001
VOL 22 No. 4


NAFTA's Investor Rights: A Corporate Dream, A Citizen Nightmare
by Mary Bottari

The Chapter 11 Dossier: Corporations Exercise Their Investor "Rights"
by Michelle Swenarchuk

Serving Up the Commons: A Guest Essay
by Tony Clarke

NAFTA for the Americas: Q&A on the FTAA (Free Trade Agreement of the Americas)
by Monitor Staff


Chile's Democratic Challenge
an interview with
Sara Larrain


Behind the Lines

Fast Track to Hell

The Front
Unilever's Dumping Fever - The Torture Trade

The Lawrence Summers Memorial Award

Book Review
Trust Us, We're Experts!

Names In the News


Book Review: Exposing the PR Experts

Trust Us, We're Experts! How Industry Manipulates
Science and Gambles With Your Future

By John Stauber and Sheldon Rampton
New York: Tarcher/Putnam, 2001
360 pages; $24.95

Reviewed by Charlie Cray

The failure of the United States to budge on global warming dates back long before President Bush came to office and reversed his campaign promise to lower carbon dioxide emission standards.

The coal, car and oil industries have stalled action for over a decade by creating the illusion that global warming is a hotly disputed theory (some corporate proxies have even argued that greenhouse gas emissions are a good thing rather than a problem, because trees grow from increased C02 in the atmosphere). Where global warming is accepted as real, the skeptics have argued that there is nothing anyone can do about it anyway, and that if the government tries, it might tank the economy.

They maintained this two-pronged strategy despite the 1995 declaration by 2,500 leading scientists from the United Nation's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that "widespread economic, social and environmental dislocation over the next century" is likely if action is not taken soon to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

The industry strategy began to form by 1989, a year after the scorching summer of 1988 and congressional testimony by NASA's James Hansen that human activities were measurably impacting upon the earth's climate.

Public relations (PR) firm Burson-Marsteller quickly formed the Global Climate Coalition (GCC) to lobby at international negotiating meetings and counteract the emerging scientific consensus that global warming is real.

Creating expert-led petitions was just one of many ways the industry planted the seeds of scientific doubt. The web site of climate skeptic Fred Singer's Science and Environmental Policy Project lists four such petitions, including the "Oregon Petition."

The "Oregon Petition" was first circulated in a bulk mailing to tens of thousands of U.S. scientists in April 1998. The mailing included what appeared to be a reprint of a scientific paper in the exact same typeface and format as the official proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS). Ex-NAS president Frederick Seitz provided a cover note giving the appearance that the paper, which claimed to show that pumping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere is actually a good thing, was an official NAS publication.

In fact, the paper had never been peer-reviewed or accepted for publication anywhere. Its author was widely discredited for having declared in 1994 that ozone depletion was a hoax, and the NAS ended up issuing a blunt statement distancing itself from the petition, which nonetheless received 15,000 signatures within a month. (To show how lax the management of the petition had been, environmental activists added fictional characters such as "B.J. Honeycutt" of the TV series M*A*S*H and Geraldine Halliwell, also known as Ginger Spice of the Spice Girls, whose field of scientific specialization was listed as "biology.")

Nevertheless, in a game where perception is more important than actual facts, the petition went on to be used in mainstream opinion pieces on global warming, and politicians such as Nebraska Senator Chuck Hagel cited it as a basis for opposing the Kyoto global warming treaty.

Thus Bush's decision is merely the capstone of a decade-long successful public relations campaign by corporations whose goal was simply to stop people from mobilizing to do anything about global warming.

This is just one example of how science is manipulated and manufactured to influence public opinion on behalf of multinational corporate interests. There are dozens of such cases in Trust Us, We're Experts! - a new investigative exposé by John Stauber and Sheldon Rampton, the editors of the newsletter PR Watch and authors of a previous bestseller about the public relations industry, Toxic Sludge is Good for You.

In Trust Us, We're Experts!, Stauber and Rampton delve deeper into how scientific and other authorities are used as part of crisis management strategies and tactics employed by the PR industry on behalf of a variety of besieged client companies which burn fossil fuels, produce things like chemicals, cigarettes, breast implants and automobiles, issue an excess of credit cards, face antitrust regulations, or do whatever else that eventually gets them into trouble with regulators, trial lawyers, public interest activists and the broader public.

Key to the craft of PR is building credibility (i.e. public acceptance) through the "third party strategy." This involves establishing the authority of experts who appear to be independent and credible and thereby are able to carry the corporate agenda forward by asserting "facts" that resonate with the public, even if they're not true. The resulting "Potemkin punditry" offers camouflage to the corporation and a veneer of scientific legitimacy.

The accelerated introduction of new products and technologies has created a cottage industry of corporate front groups and industry apologists, some of whom first cut their teeth battling on behalf of the tobacco industry. While many of the groups involved are fly-by-night operations set up to handle a specific issue, others are well-funded operations that span a variety of issues - such as the Washington Legal Foundation, the Heartland Institute and the Advancement of Sound Science Coalition. The shenanigans of the most notorious purveyors of "cigarette science" like Steve Milloy of - a leading defender of many notorious products - receive well-deserved scrutiny here. Others, like John Stossel of ABC News, could have received more.

Stauber and Rampton are best when they track the PR industry's methods back in history. For instance, they trace the call for "sound science" back to its origins in the 1980s, when attorney Peter Huber (in a campaign supported by the Manhattan Institute for Public Policy Research) argued that money-grubbing lawyers were using spurious science to collect huge, undeserved injury settlements from innocent companies. By the 1990s, the tobacco industry was using the term "junk science" to assail critics. The chemical industry was not far behind, using the term to attack environmentalists for "inciting paranoia" over the use of Alar on apples. The Alar case is a good example of where the facts (the pesticide has been since deemed a carcinogen by both the U.S. Public Health Service and the World Health Organization) were not allowed to get in the way of industry's ability to almost permanently transform the story into one of journalistic irresponsibility and activist malpractice.

While they quietly fund many studies that later get pointed to as objective evidence of a product's safety, chemical manufacturers and other industries now commonly cite the need for "sound science" which, without any objective criteria, can be defined as science that sounds good to them.

These PR campaigns are most successful when the experts don the mantle of prestigious university positions or are published in respected peer-reviewed journals.

Lobbyists for changes in federal bankruptcy law, for example, used one such study for years. In 1997, Georgetown University's Credit Research Center issued a report which concluded that many debtors were using bankruptcy to wriggle out of their obligations to creditors. Former U.S. Treasury Secretary Lloyd Bentsen cited the study in lobbying for changes in the law, without mentioning that the study was produced with a $100,000 grant from Visa USA and MasterCard International.

There are an alarming number of similar examples in the book, which makes a good case for complete disclosure of financial conflicts of interest and the corporate influence on university research.

Perhaps more than anything else, the overwhelming evidence provided in Trust Us, We're Experts! of the far-reaching role of public relations in regulatory policy decisions reveals the deeply cynical view that corporations have of modern democracy. If they believe in anything, the "men behind the curtain" at public relations firms such as Burson-Marsteller believe that public perception needs to be manipulated for the public's own good. This faith relies upon the assumption that the public's own perception of things such as technological risks (e.g. of the safety of genetically engineered foods) is primarily based upon emotional and not rational factors. Thus the public is incapable of responsibly deciding for itself and needs corporate hand-picked experts to make decisions for them.

Anyone who has ever participated in a grassroots struggle against dubious corporate schemes such as a landfill, cell tower or incinerator understands how regularly "expert opinion" is used to overcome "public acceptance barriers" to what are packaged by the experts as "acceptable risks." This kind of language is often deployed by consultants and other "experts" to soften up the opposition and obscure the corporate interests at stake. As one citizen activist commented in a public hearing on a proposed hazardous waste incinerator years ago, the difference between a risk assessment expert and a prostitute is that the prostitute sells his or her own body, the risk assessor sells yours.

Thanks in part to Stauber and Rampton, activists and even occasionally the media are beginning to pay attention to the men and women behind the curtain - the public opinion manipulators who prop up the hired experts who speak publicly on behalf of their clients. The book's final chapter gives good suggestions on how to recognize propaganda, follow the money behind scientific research and demand full disclosure. Although not an organizing handbook, this book is an essential tool in the struggle to democratize crucial decision-making processes. Read it if you are having trouble believing what the experts say.

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