us, we're experts!
[Hazards 75, pages 4-5, July - September 2001]
RSIs aren't real and
other tales of voodoo science
who makes up those "asbestos isn't dangerous" and "RSI's
are in your mind" stories? Vernon Mogensen looks at
the dangerous business of corporate spin and "voodoo science",
and unearths science fiction masquerading as science fact.
A 9 June 2001
feature in the National Post of Toronto, Canada, claims repetitive
stress injuries (RSIs) aren't real, they are just the latest fad
main source was not an expert in RSIs, it was Edward Shorter, of
the History of Medicine Department at the University of Toronto.
He said: "The fact is that most of these people didn't have
carpal tunnel syndrome. They had hysteria."1
does not disclose that Shorter also holds a position in the school's
Psychiatry Department, which may account for his view that it's
all in the worker's mind. The story is replete with erroneous assumptions
and anecdotes that are typical of the corporate blame-the-victim
spin. Science fiction masquerades as science fact.
line that RSIs are all in the worker's mind has a long and decidedly
unscientific history. During the intense US Congressional battles
over legislation to protect workers from computer-related safety
and health problems in the 1980s - which finally resulted in a new
ergo standard this year, only for it to be immediately rescinded
as a first act of the Bush administration2
- corporate interests trotted out similar, pseudo-scientific
canards to persuade legislators that workers' concerns had no basis
in scientific fact.
and Business Equipment Manufacturers' Association (CBEMA) president,
Vico E. Henriques, told a House Subcommittee in 1984: "Today
we have fear, and it is fear that comes from a rapid change in the
way of conducting our work and our lives. It also comes from some
zealous and self-interested parties who create fear for their own
While some corporate opponents of ergonomics use the trappings of
scientific expertise to mislead us into believing that RSIs don't
exist, others, like the Burlington Northern/Santa Fe Railway Company,
use scientific methods in a far-fetched attempt to "prove"
a genetic predisposition to carpal tunnel syndrome in order to deny
the compensation claims of its disabled employees (Hazards
contradictory and highly politicised uses of medical science share
is the common desire by employers to minimise the costs of doing
business by passing them on to labour. Economists and management
gurus call these costs "externalities," because they shouldn't
be counted as part of the "normal" costs of doing business.
corporate interests and their advocates seek to use science to lend
legitimacy to their specious claims that the cause of RSIs is beyond
the employer's control.
the appearance of independence, corporate interests rely on think
tanks and advocates to give their positions on science issues the
imprimatur of objectivity.
Council on Science and Health (ACSH) was founded in 1978 by the
corporate community with help from sympathetic scientists, who objected
to the second opinion on science questions that was being provided
to the public and government officials by newly formed public interest
groups, including the Center for Science in the Public Interest
(CSPI), an independent group monitoring the corporate bias in science.
that "many of the existing 'consumer advocate' groups weren't
giving either policy makers or consumers the balanced, accurate,
scientific information they needed." It has issued industry-friendly
output on issues as diverse as cancer risks from drycleaning chemicals
(page x) to compensation to dying smokers (www.acsh.org). It has
the resources to get its message heard.
So, while this
year the National Post calls RSIs the result of worker "hysteria,"
it praises ACSH's President, Elizabeth Whelan, as "a leading
U.S. critic of junk science."4
close ties to industry, Dr. Samuel S. Epstein, the author of The
Politics of Cancer, called Whelan a practitioner of "voodoo
Whelan is critical
of CSPI for setting up a website where anyone can check if scientists
or organisations like hers have undisclosed industry ties. For example,
the ACSH has received support from corporate giants such as American
Cyanamid Company, Anheuser-Busch, General Electric, Kraft, Inc.,
and Monsanto. This contributors list dates from a decade ago because
the ACSH no longer publicly discloses its corporate donors.6
launched its 1984 public relations campaign to stave off a serious
push by organised labour for a visual display terminal (VDT) safety
law, CBEMA's Henriques asked ACSH "to work with us on the campaign."
Henriques told Congress that the ACSH was an "independent scientific
organisation." With the ACSH's imprimatur, CBEMA's position
on the VDT safety and health issue was given the stamp of scientific
legitimacy.7 But ACSH in not independent
- it receives 70 per cent of its funding from the corporate community.
think tank is the Cato Institute, based in Washington, DC. One of
its key targets has been the Occupational Safety and Health Administration
(OSHA), the US HSE, and its proposed ergonomics regulation in particular.
In a CATO policy
commentary last year, Eugene Scalia - now President Bush's nominee
for the powerful post of top Labor Department solicitor - criticised
ergonomics as "junk science."
"OSHA wants to entrench the questionable science of ergonomics
in a permanent rule. But no agency should be permitted to impose
on the entire American economy a costly rule premised on a 'science'
so mysterious that the agency itself cannot fathom it."8
ignores, but should be well aware, that Congressional Republicans
twice ordered the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) to evaluate
whether or not OSHA's ergonomics regulation was based on sound science.
NAS twice confounded the Republicans by saying "yes",
the standard rested on a solid foundation of over 2,000 soundly
conducted scientific studies of workplace conditions (Hazards
It is not hard
to see why Scalia's science is so one-sided. As a partner at the
Washington law firm of Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, Scalia lobbied
to defeat the OSHA ergonomics rule for his clients, including the
United Parcel Service, Anheuser-Busch, and the National Coalition
on Ergonomics - an umbrella group representing over 300 businesses.
Vernon Mogensen is Assistant Professor of Political Science, Kingsborough
Community College, The City University of New York, Brooklyn, NY,
He is the author of "Office Politics: Computers, Labor,
and the Fight for Safety and Health" (Rutgers University
1. Brad Evenson,
"Repetitive stress pain was just 'hysteria,'" The National
Post, 9 June, 2001.
Occupational Safety and Health Administration, Proposed ergonomics
Standard, 2000. OSHAs informative ergonomics website was dismantled
by the Bush Administration. www.osha-slc.gov/ergonomics-standard/index.html
U.S. Congress, House of Representatives, Committee on Education
and Labor, OSHA Oversight - Video Display Terminals in the Workplace.
Hearings, before the Subcommittee on Health and Safety, 98th Cong.,
2nd sess., 1984, 299.
Terence Corcoran., "Junk science: Junk Media and Corporations,"
The National Post, 14 June, 2001.
Samuel Epstein, "Losing the War Against Cancer," The Ecologist,
Corcoran, "Junk Science;" Center for Science in the Public
Interest, Integrity in Science, Database: Scientists' and Nonprofits'
Ties to Industry. www.cspinet.org/integrity/database.html
Committee on Education and Labor, OSHA Oversight- Video Display
Terminals in the Workplace, 301.
Eugene Scalia, "OSHA's Ergonomics Litigation Record: Three
Strikes and It's Out," Cato Institute Commentary, June 7, 2000,
National Academy of Sciences, National Research Council, Steering
Committee for the Workshop on Work-Related Musculoskeletal Injuries:
Work-Related Musculoskeletal Disorders: A Review of the Evidence
(Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press, 1998); and Work-Related
Musculoskeletal Disorders: Report, Workshop Summary, and Workshop
Papers (Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press, 1999).
doesn't hurt you
has limitless creativity when it comes to shirking responsibility
for its dangerous business.
new investigative book, Trust us, we're experts!, sub-titled
"How industry manipulates science and gambles with
your future", cites David Ozonoff, describing the defences
used by the asbestos industry:
doesn't hurt your health. OK, it does hurt your health but
it doesn't cause cancer. OK, asbestos can cause cancer,
but not the kind this person got. OK, our kind of asbestos
can cause cancer, but not the kind this person got. OK,
our kind of asbestos can cause cancer, but not at the doses
to which this person was exposed. OK, asbestos does cause
cancer, and at this dosage, but this person got his disease
from something else, like smoking. OK, he was exposed to
our asbestos and it did cause his cancer, but we did not
know about the danger when we exposed him, but the statute
of limitations has run out. OK, the statute of limitations
hasn't run out, but if we're found guilty we'll go out of
business and everyone will be worse off. OK, we'll agree
to go out of business, but only if you let us keep part
of our company intact, and only if you limit our liability
for the harms we have caused."
is still happening. Defending Canadian government attempts
to persuade Chile not to introduce an asbestos ban, a feature
headed "Why ban asbestos" in the Globe and Mail
on 31 July 2001 said: "Asbestos as it is currently
employed by Canadian manufacturers poses no risk to human
on 9 July 2001, the New York Times revealed that a product
marketed for 30 years by the multinational WR Grace &
Company as "completely asbestos-free" contained
up to 1 per cent asbestos. On 30 January 2001, the Wall
Street Journal reported WR Grace "is considering seeking
bankruptcy protection to gain control over escalating asbestos
us, we're experts. Sheldon Rampton and John Stauber.