The Right Wing is Smearing David Michaels

By Chris Mooney | September 17, 2009 9:53 am

Just as they previously did to John Holdren, conservatives are now trying to raise doubts about another prominent scientist appointed to a top position in the Obama administration: David Michaels, nominated to head OSHA. (Read here for a Washington Times report on the attacks.)

Michaels hasn’t done anything wrong, of course; he merely holds views that scare big business, especially when it comes to the role of science in the regulatory process. Michaels is an expert on this topic (see here for my American Prospect review of his book, Doubt is Our Product), and has taken the lead when it comes to exposing the strategy of tobacco-style manufactured uncertainty, one of the leading tricks used by corporations to undermine protections for public health and the environment.

So the recourse of the right wing? Smear him. Call him a “junk scientist.” Try to derail his nomination.

Effect Measure and Media Matters have much more documentation, and refutation, of the attacks on Michaels. I will only say this: If Obama is to successfully restore science to its “rightful place” in our government, then we need people like Michaels in that government. Now is the time to stand up for him–and the values of science, reason, and evidence-based thinking that he so robustly represents.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Politics and Science

Comments (19)

  1. This might be part of the much larger and concerted effort to destroy President Obama’s administration or weaken it just as they did with Bill Clinton’s and Jimmy Carter’s before. We’ve seen it often enough over the past forty years to see a clear pattern.

    This won’t improve until the fairness doctrine, public service and other measures to force the media to inform the public are reinstated. The media is the tool of the far-right, they are the ones who do this. And there isn’t a sector of the media who does it more clearly than cable. Cable media has to be placed under the same public service and fairness requirements as broadcast because they have shown themselves able to damage democracy. That’s an over riding public interest that trumps any economic or libertarian ideology.

  2. “This might be part of the much larger and concerted effort to destroy President Obama’s administration”

    I would agree with that to a large extent in addition to the general conservative attack on science. It is just getting pathetic.

  3. Walker

    A lot of this would go away if we had UK level libel laws. I am not sure we want to go down that road, however.


    I really sucks when the wolrd is ruled by scumbrains and there’s not much we can do to change it!

  5. Gaythia

    I hope that everyone who has read this post also goes back to read your American Prospect review which is cited above. I plan to locate a copy of Michaels’ book, so I can read that as well.

    Many issues raised in your review, (and of course in your book,) deserve further public discussion.

    One set of issues revolves around science as being fundamentally characterized by uncertainty, and in turn a subject that is much broader than the topic David Michaels’ book on health. Vested interests are successfully deploying strategies which create doubt by selectively attacking individual studies while ignoring the weight of the evidence. These strategies are undermining the public perception of science. We need a public that supports and understands good science.

    Another important set of issues are centered on the need for good governance. According to your article, Michaels advocates increased access to the courts by citizens partly because of a failure of regulatory agencies. But courts are not immune to inappropriate influence. And it generally takes large amounts of money to address issues using our judicial system. We need a public that supports and understands the need for reasonable regulations and good government. And that understands that the long term payoff for good government is much greater than the upfront effort and expenses.

    You critique Michaels a bit, as Randy Olson might be expected to do, for being such a scientist. You finish with a call for American Science to awaken and decide that it isn’t going to take it anymore.

    So, since it is time for action, what are we going to do and how are we going to do it?

  6. John Gilmore

    Dear Mr. Mooney,

    I read your review of “Doubt is Our Product” with great interest, and I agree with David Michael’s analysis that the threat to science, and our health, posed by corporate manipulation of science is a huge and growing problem. What puzzles me is why you fail to see that Michael’s arguments, with which you appear to fully concur, is the exact same argument that the majority of critics of US vaccine safety policy are making.

    In your review of Michael’s book you cite a list of health threats that have been the subject of corporate misinformation campaigns, and you include mercury and Vioxx. One of the key battles waged by vaccine safety advocates has been to remove mercury from vaccines, especially those given to babies and pregnant women, a position that the Clinton adminisitration concurred with way back in 1999 when the US Public Health Service issued a recommendation that mercury be removed from vaccines as soon as possible. Efforts were made to reformulated vaccines with no mercury at the end of the Clinton years, an effort that was essentially abandoned by the Bush administration, and with the appearance of a mercury-containing H1N1 vaccine now it seems that the Obama administration has completely abandoned this policy. Mercury is highly toxic in all its forms, would you agree that is should not be in childrens vaccines when mercury-free formulations are readily available?

    You also cite the example of Vioxx. Vioxx is made by Merck who also is the leading US based manufacturing of vaccines. Is it such a reach to think theat the people who lied to us about the dangers of Vioxx maybe not be entirely forthright about the risks associated with their other products?

    You have been a leading critic of the well-documented politicization of science under the Bush adminisitration, yet the recommended vaccine schedule, which is mandatory in much of the country, was more than tripled during the Bush adminsitration. Do you think the Bush appointees in the CDC and FDA were placing the safety and health of Americans first?

    Double-blind, placebo controlled trials are rightly required of all drug trials in the US, but they are not required in vaccine safety and efficacy trials. In fact in the safety testing that lead to the adoption of Prevnar in the recommended schedule it was compared to another experimental vaccine. I don’t know about you but this hardly seems like good science to me.

    The recommended US schedule calls for the administration of multiple vaccines at the same time, as many as eleven different dosef, yet there is no requirement at all to study the safety of simultaneous injection of vaccines, nor the safety os sequential injection of multiple vaccines in a short period of time, such as 36 separate recommended doses in a child’s first 18 months. Do you think it is unreasonable or anti-science to want this type of analysis?

    Vaccine safety advocates for years have been asking for a large-scale epidemiological study comparing vaccinated to a non-vaccinate group to study overall health outcomes. Especially for the growing number of auto-immnune disorders among American children such as asthma, autism, allergies, arthritis and diabetes. Does this seem like an outrageous idea?

    You have been highly critical of Jenny McCarthy, but in the warped world of US media responsible scientists and medical experts, such as former head of the NIH Bernadine Healy, who are critical of the vaccine program don’t get on air, former bunnies do.

    Many highly profitable drugs are going off patent in the next couple of years and pharma is looking to vaccines as their next major profit center. If you read the pharmaceutical business press, vaccines are a highly profitable and one of the few rapidly growing markets for the drug companies, which is why more than a 1000 are currently under development. Vaccines have very attractive qualities from a business perspective, with novel vaccines there is the opportunity to charge very high prices such as we see with Gardasil, Prevnar and others, and once a vaccine is recommended by the federal Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices there is no liability for the manufacturer, and the police powers of the state are used to compel people to use your product.

    Vaccine safety advocates aren’t going away. If anything these concerns are rapidly growing as the number of mandatory vaccines keeps expanding. I wish you would turn your incisive eye on the many structural, ethical, economic and policy problems that are rife in the vaccine development and approval process. I think you would see that we have the exact same problems there as we do elsewhere because it is the exact same groups of players responding to the exact same incentive structure.

  7. Rather than science becoming a law-making establishment it should always take a back seat to the constitution as should any ruling body whether it be the President, Congress, autocratic government agencies, liberals, or conservatives.

    It takes science years if not decades and centuries to realize a theory and incorporate it into the mainstream. Global warming is an example. In the 70’s it was global cooling. That didn’t seem to work for conservatives and liberals couldn’t sell it to the establishment so the debate became global warming.

    It seems that although science isn’t suspect, the mistaken and sometimes willfully mis-applied application in the form of laws and mandates should be.

    Given that laws and mandates force the general populace, in the form of massive monetary redistribution, to support something that might not be in the best interest of themselves or the Republic, or the world, this leads to enormous social turmoil when any ruling political body deems science a means of social engineering.

    Science has proved its worth as a tool. Just as science is a political plowshare we should all shun anyone (no finger-pointing here) that wants to turn it into weapons.

  8. The FDA approved a thimersol-free formulation of the H1N1 vaccine, Mr. Gilmore, so your assertion regarding abandoning the Clinton-era policy is wrong.

    “As with the seasonal influenza vaccines, the 2009 H1N1 vaccines are being produced in formulations that contain thimerosal, a mercury-containing preservative, and in formulations that do not contain thimerosal.”

  9. John Gilmore

    The point is that this is a new vaccine that could have been produced as with all versions thimerosal-free and the decision was made not to do so. I don’t believe the Bush adminsitration made a similar decision.

  10. gillt

    John Gilmore said: “Double-blind, placebo controlled trials are rightly required of all drug trials in the US, but they are not required in vaccine safety and efficacy trials.”

    That statement is completely false.

    I am currently a human guinea pig in an Anthrax vaccine study, have been for the past 3 years. Controlled double-blinds are the gold standard.

  11. Reader

    The title of the book in question is, Doubt is Their Product.

  12. John Gilmore


    You are the evidence of my point. FDA regulations require double-blind, placebo controlled trials for drugs, they are almost never performed with vaccines. Vaccines are not considered ‘drugs” according to federal law and are tested according to different regulations.

    Are you in the military?


  13. Your comment was then misleading, implying that there was no mercury-free formulations.

  14. John Gilmore

    I suppose I was nor clear. We supposedly have a federal policy not to use mercury in vaccines, yet with HINI we developed a completely new vaccine with different versions of it using novel techninques like culturing the antigens on human tissue instead of chicken eggs and using adjuvants, but they decided it would be OK to use thimerosal in this new vaccine.

    The main problem being that it is probable that many pregnant women will be given the mercury containing vaccine thereby increasing their child’s exposure to mercury at the phase of life when one is most susceptible to injury. Young children no doubt will also be exposed to mercury through this vaccine. All of this additional mercury exposure is completely unnecessary if the Obama administration had decided to go mercury-free.

  15. How does where the antigen is cultured affect whether or not thimerosal is used? I’m concerned that you are conflating different arguments against the use of vaccines, and confusing the associated science.

    I would have assumed that the urgent pleas of you and others would have at least persuaded doctors to disclose whether or not thimerosol was used, or to make sure mothers and expectant mothers were aware of the hazards of mercury.

  16. John Gilmore

    The culture medium is important because flu shots have always been cultured on chicken eggs, for swine flu they switched to human tissue. The point is that significant changes were made in how the vaccine was made yet they chose not to avoid use mercury.

    Do a little research on the use of mercury in vaccines and you will find that the move was strenuously resisted by the many doctors. laws have been passed in six states (New York, California, Illinois, Washington, Missouri and Iowa) prohibiting the use of mercury in vaccines intended for small children and pregnant women. These laws were necessary in part because medical professional would not inform their patients of what was in the vaccines and the risks associated with them.

  17. gillt

    Gilmore. Perhaps I wasn’t clear. I’m involved in a double blind, placebo controlled study testing a new Anthrax VACCINE. It’s federally regulated. That’s as specific as I can get.

    So how am I an example of your point, exactly?

    No, the Military is involved in a vax trial for Malaria right now, which is also double-blind and placebo controlled.

    I think you need to check your facts.

  18. gillt

    Also Gilmore, a quick search makes it pretty clear that H1N1 is in fact being produced on chicken eggs.

    “The strains were made using traditional vaccine methods, which involve live vaccines made in chicken eggs, and a new, proprietary reverse genetics method that allows companies to make non-live vaccines, avoiding working with potentially highly infectious pandemic strains.”

    “AstraZeneca’s (AZN.L) MedImmune unit owns the reverse genetics method, which it has licensed to a number of companies approved to sell flu shots in the United States including Sanofi-Aventis SA (SASY.PA), Novartis AG (NOVN.VX) and GlaxoSmithKline Plc (GSK.L).”

    There seems to be some confusion. Where are you getting your facts?

  19. John Gilmore


    I misunderstood you. It’s a good thing that this trial you are involved in is a double-blind placebo controlled experiment, but it isn’t required by federal regulations. There are plenty of examples of vaccines that were licensed but not evaluated in a double-blind, placebo controlled test.

    And there are several H1N1 formulations, which seems to change on a weekly basis.

    The Novartis version is cultured on human tissue and contains the MF-59 adjuvant.

    And all of these are being produced in great haste without adherence to the usual safety and efficacy testing, not that those are comparable to the standards for drugs.


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About Chris Mooney

Chris is a science and political journalist and commentator and the author of three books, including the New York Times bestselling The Republican War on Science--dubbed "a landmark in contemporary political reporting" by and a "well-researched, closely argued and amply referenced indictment of the right wing's assault on science and scientists" by Scientific American--Storm World, and Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, co-authored by Sheril Kirshenbaum. They also write "The Intersection" blog together for Discover blogs.For a longer bio and contact information, see here.


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