The playbook for undermining scientific expertise was created in the 1920s. Perhaps surprisingly, its creators were scientists. Wikipedia is one battleground in the hundred years' war against scientific disinformation. The tactics of scientific disinformation that were developed then are still used today. We need to be aware of these tactics so that we can counter them; we also need more scientifically-savvy allies to help us get it right.
On December 3, 1921, Thomas Midgley Jr. and Charles Kettering, scientists at General Motors, discovered that adding tetraethyllead (TEL) to gasoline improved a car's performance. As patent holders of the new technology who held senior positions in the companies producing and marketing TEL, Kettering and Midgely had everything to gain by promoting TEL's use rather than developing other non-patentable alternatives.
TEL contains lead: an odorless, colorless, tasteless, poisonous element. Once present in a person, lead does not degrade, it accumulates. Kettering and Midgley were warned of the dangers of lead and TEL by other scientists. Erik Krause of the Institute of Technology, Potsdam, Germany had studied TEL extensively, and described it as "a creeping and malicious poison". Internal confidential reports document that the companies involved knew TEL was "extremely hazardous", while their safety precautions were "grossly inadequate".
By 1923, cases of violent madness and death were being reported among workers at TEL plants. At least 17 persons died, and hundreds more suffered neurological damage. Postmortems confirmed the cause as tetraethyllead. Coworkers referred to the fumes they breathed as "loony gas" and to a building they worked in as the "House of Butterflies", because workers had hallucinations of insects.
The newspapers, the public, and the government began to take notice. Midgley himself was treated for lead poisoning. Despite this, he protested that TEL was perfectly safe, even washing his hands in it in front of reporters on October 30, 1924, the same day the New York City Board of Health banned the sale of TEL-enhanced gasoline.
As concerns about TEL grew, Kettering took protective measures for the company, but not its workers. He hired Robert A. Kehoe, a 1920 medical school graduate, as an in-house "medical expert" whose job was to prove that leaded gasoline did not harm humans. An early study is illustrative of the methodological problems in his work. In that study he reported that workers handling TEL had levels of exposure no higher than a control group, which was composed of workers at the same plant. He suggested their levels of lead were "normal", equating normal and harmless.
Alice Hamilton was among those who criticized Kehoe's research. A pioneer in industrial toxicology and occupational health, Hamilton was America's leading authority on lead poisoning, with decades of experience in public health research and policy-making. On May 20, 1925, Hamilton and other public health advocates from Harvard, Yale and Columbia faced off against Kettering, at a conference called by the Surgeon General of the Public Health Service to consider the use of lead in gasoline. Would lead in gasoline be released into the air when the fuel was burned, putting the general public at risk? Hamilton warned that lead posed environmental as well as occupational dangers. "You may control conditions within a factory, but how are you going to control the whole country?" Kettering argued that TEL was the only way to improve gasoline, and asserted that no one had proved that leaded gasoline was harmful.
The conference ended with the formation of a committee to further investigate the possible effects of leaded gasoline. The committee could have taken responsibility for further independent research, but public health advocates lacked funding, and the government wasn't willing to provide it. In a classic case of setting the fox to watch the henhouse, the commission chose to rely on industry to monitor itself, ignoring the inherent conflict of interest. Not surprisingly, Robert Kehoe reported that the industry-funded research showed "no evidence of immediate danger to the public health."
Hamilton reportedly told Kettering to his face that he was "nothing but a murderer". Kettering formed the Kettering Foundation for public policy-related research. Kettering and Midgley developed Freon, which eventually became another environmentally disastrous product. Kehoe became the gasoline industry's chief spokesperson, largely controlling the next fifty years of scientific and public narrative around leaded gasoline.
Public health advocates and corporate representatives took different approaches to risk and responsibility in the debate over leaded gasoline. Public health followed a precautionary principle, arguing that unless scientists could demonstrate that something was safe, it should not be used. The Kehoe paradigm laid the burden of proof on the challenger. Rather than demonstrating that their product was safe, they demanded that critics prove it was harmful. But Kehoe's rule is logically flawed – absence of evidence of risk does not imply evidence of the absence of risk. Regardless, the Kehoe paradigm became extremely influential in the United States.
This not only set scientist against scientist, it made the undermining of science tactically useful. Experimental research is a method of testing ideas and assessing the likelihood that they are correct based on observable data. By its very nature, the results of a scientific study do not provide a 100% yes-or-no answer. Disinformation exploits this lack of absolute certainty by implying that uncertainty means doubt. If evidence is presented to challenge a position, it is suggested that the proof is not sufficiently compelling, that doubt still remains, that more research must be done, and that no responsibility need be taken in the meantime. By repeatedly raising the issue of doubt, companies and scientists use "cascading uncertainty" to manipulate public opinion and protect their own interests.
In the 1960s geochemist Clair Patterson developed sophisticated monitoring equipment and methods to measure the history of the earth's chemical composition. Initially uninterested in lead, his research provided compelling evidence of its extraordinary increase in the planet's recent history. Patterson broke the industry's leaded gasoline narrative. The industry spent almost 25 years trying to discredit him and his work through professional, personal, and public attacks. Nonetheless Patterson did what Kettering and Kehoe had challenged public health officials to do in 1925 – demonstrate the impact of TEL from gasoline.
By then, lead contamination from gasoline (and from paint) was found worldwide, not just in North America. The World Health Organization (WHO) considers lead to be one of the top ten chemicals posing a major public health risk, with immense personal, social and economic costs. One of the "key facts" they state is "There is no level of exposure to lead that is known to be without harmful effects."
Kettering's playbook has been replicated repeatedly. Companies and their researchers have argued that smoking, CFCs, opioids, vaping, fossil fuels and climate change (to name only a few) aren't really dangers; that concerns about public safety and environmental damage have not been sufficiently proven and so do not require action; and that raising a shadow of doubt is enough to challenge widespread scientific consensus. I strongly recommend reading Merchants of Doubt (Oreskes & Conway, 2010) and Doubt Is Their Product (2008) and The Triumph of Doubt (2020) by David Michaels.
At its most extreme, we face an attitude that assumes scientific issues are simply matters of opinion and belief, independent of underlying scientific evidence and informed consensus. The dangers of this are apparent: We are in the midst of a pandemic that some refuse to believe exists. Anti-mask and anti-vaccination propaganda are recent areas of scientific disinformation, putting us all at risk.
Companies and individuals who try to whitewash their home pages or promote pseudoscience cures are fairly obvious examples of conflict of interest and promotional editing. I suspect most Wikipedians both recognize and know how to deal with such situations. But there are patterns of disinformation, manipulation, and the undermining of science that are harder to spot and address. We need to watch for patterns of bias that go far beyond articles for a specific company or product.
Tactics in the disinformation playbook include:
Do funders and researchers have a vested interest in a particular outcome? Too often, companies are funding the research that claims their products are safe or effective. Scientific articles will generally indicate who supported the research. Check out the funders, and watch out for industry organizations, think tanks and researchers with a history of anti-regulatory bias. Look for independent evidence-based sources from credible groups like Consumer Reports.
In striving for balance, we need to recognize the importance of counter-narratives around public health. Actively look for scientific work that raises issues of public health and follows a precautionary principle. These are important concerns, and addressing these concerns is part of presenting a balanced picture. Be wary of the burden of proof. Are different expectations being applied to the research of proponents and critics of an idea? Keep in mind that industry pours huge amounts of money into its research while public health receives far less.
In a war of supposedly scientific claims and counterclaims, are proponents of a particular position using the technique of raising doubt? Is research critical of a position repeatedly minimized or dismissed on the grounds that it fails to meet some increasingly strict or absolute standard of proof? Are personal attacks and appeals to public opinion being used to displace scientific evidence? These tactics can be particularly insidious in Wikipedia articles, because we are encouraged to present all sides of an issue. As editors we need to remember that writing in a fair and balanced way doesn't mean that all ideas have to be given equal weight. Present them in proportion to their importance.
Beware of cherry picking: it is encouraged and amplified by social media, and Wikipedia articles can be particularly susceptible to the selective presentation of information. Look for the weight of scientific consensus on an issue. If the vast majority of scientists worldwide accept that climate change is real (as they do), you can be definite about it.
The tactics of disinformation complicate the difficulties of writing about science. Let's be clear – writing about science is hard! Writing about science for Wikipedia's readers – much of the world's population – is an even more challenging task. First you must wrap your own head around an area of expertise that may be highly specialized, and then you must communicate your understanding to readers who may lack a scientific background or do not share your frame of reference. As the Wikipedian-in-residence at the Science History Institute in Philadelphia for seven years, I rarely read a science-related article on Wikipedia that did not need significant improvement. Working on biographies of scientists and other pages with historical content, I asked myself "Where is the science?"
When it comes to science, Wikipedia needs all the help it can get. There are scientists who have manipulated and undermined scientific information, as I describe above, but there are many more scientists whose credentials, expertise and research are rock-solid. We need to find ways to engage with those scientists and leverage their knowledge. Doing that was the most challenging part of my job as a Wikipedian-in-residence.
We need more editors with scientific expertise. We need editors with an awareness of how scientific information can be manipulated. We need science communicators who can evaluate scientific materials and write about science in a way that is comprehensible to nonscientists. We need as many people as possible keeping a careful eye on scientific information on Wikipedia to prevent the kinds of manipulation we know occurs. I often worry that a collection of volunteer editors hasn't a hope of keeping up. We need allies.
In the ongoing war against disinformation, Wikipedia needs scientific expertise – and science needs Wikipedians to get things right.