Contents page of Suppression Stories
Brian Martin's publications on suppression
Brian Martin's website
As a result of my paper "The scientific straightjacket," I acquired a certain reputation as a person who would take up cases of suppression. I had circulated the draft paper to many dozens of people. After the paper appeared in the Ecologist, I had 250 copies printed and sent them out to people who I thought might be interested. Also, there was quite a lot of publicity about the issue during 1980, as I'll describe in chapter 7. As the years went by, I was contacted now and then by people wanting to tell me about their own experiences. Suppression was everywhere, but it wasn't random. There were patterns, and certain patterns interested me greatly.
In 1985 I read a short item in the journal Radical Science about a researcher in India, Dhirendra Sharma, who had been penalised because of his opposition to nuclear power. Suppression of nuclear dissidents interested me because I was one of them myself. I had taken a prominent role in the campaign against uranium mining and nuclear power, for example by helping organise rallies, writing letters to the newspaper and giving talks. I had read about various scientists and engineers victimised for their opposition to nuclear power. John Gofman, one of the very early critics in the US, had his funding cut and his staff taken away. Anyway, I decided to follow up Sharma's case, especially since Radical Science asked people to help out.
In July 1985 I wrote to Sharma, enclosing copies of my articles on suppression. In reply he sent me an enthusiastic letter and a substantial amount of information about his case. The story was familiar. He worked as a science policy analyst at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi. He was a prominent critic of the Indian government's nuclear policies, both nuclear power and nuclear weapons. He wrote letters and articles, organised conferences and petitions and in 1983 published a book, India's Nuclear Estate, which exposed the role of vested interests - especially the Nehru family - in nuclear policy-making. This was at a time when there was little public criticism of or organised opposition to nuclear developments in India
Sharma had tenure and was a senior academic in the Centre for Studies of Science Policy, where he had worked since 1973. Suddenly, in December 1983, he was transferred to the School of Languages. This was convenient for those who wanted to shut him up - it prevented him from becoming head of the Centre and in formal terms limited his work on science policy. The grounds for the transfer were not just flimsy: the transfer itself was in violation of the university's own regulations. Sharma was an outstandingly productive academic, so there were no academic grounds for the transfer. The obvious conclusion was that he was being harassed because of his outspokenness on nuclear issues. His letter to me told of his latest problem. The university authorities were withholding his salary. In other words, he was not being paid.
I offered to write an article about his case, in order to publicise the injustice. After thinking it over, I decided that the best way to make the case would be to write an article that gave some detail about Sharma's case but also documented other cases of suppression of nuclear dissidents. After all, people could always dismiss a single case by assuming, rightly or wrongly, that there must be some "real" - but unsaid - reason for the transfer. By including other cases, I provided a context. If there was a pattern of attacks on nuclear dissidents, then Sharma's experiences would be easier to understand as simply one more case, rather than as an exception.
It's easy enough to talk about documenting cases of suppression, but doing it is another thing. If you go to any index, such as for titles of articles in journals, you will seldom find an entry entitled "suppression of dissent." That's partly because there is no standard terminology. The term "whistleblowing" captures some cases, but far from all. It's also because many cases are not documented. Finally, calling something suppression depends on an analysis, namely me or someone else saying it fits the category. Not everyone operates with the same framework for analysing the phenomenon.
Luckily, I had a big head start. Since about 1979, when I first began studying suppression, I had been collecting copies of any article I saw suggesting suppression. I read lots of magazines and books, and once I became sensitised to the idea of suppression, relevant items would spring out of the page to my attention. So I went through my file, picking out items about nuclear power. I also went through my many files on nuclear power. In addition, I had articles and newspaper cuttings on suppression sent to me by various people, especially copies from Clyde Manwell's vast collection. Wendy Varney, who corresponded with me about fluoridation and other issues, had sent me an article about the harassment of five different scientists and engineers working in the British nuclear industry. I also combed through issues of various journals, especially anti-nuclear magazines, but this didn't generate much additional material. After assembling this material, I had a considerable number of cases.
In December 1985 I produced a first draft of an article titled "Nuclear suppression." The draft was a useful stimulus to obtain more information. I sent it to various people. Sharma sent me corrections on the part about his own case and also information about problems faced by other anti-nuclear scientists in India. Kiiti Siratori sent me information about the harassment of Atsushi Tsuchida in Japan.
In 1980 when I visited the US, Mark Diesendorf recommended that I meet Hugh DeWitt, a physicist at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California. DeWitt was a courageous public critic of nuclear weapons testing. Recently, he had nearly lost his job after testifying for the Progressive magazine over its story on the "secret of the H-bomb." He gave me lots of information about his case.
Actually, getting information about nuclear dissent in the US was the easiest task. The system is more open and the country and nuclear industry are sufficiently large that there are plenty of cases. There is even an excellent book on nuclear dissenters by Leslie J. Freeman, called Nuclear Witnesses.
Because I had been involved in the campaign against nuclear power for many years, I had a ready-made analysis of the power structures in which suppression of nuclear dissidents takes place. In my analysis, the key driving force behind nuclear power is the state, namely governments and government bureaucracies. In most countries, nuclear power plants, enrichment plants, reprocessing plants - namely all the key elements in the nuclear fuel cycle - are owned and run by the state. Why the state? Because nuclear power requires large investments, is potentially dangerous, depends on experts and demands protection against misuse. For all these reasons, centralised control is called for. This both requires state involvement and justifies it. By contrast, measures for energy efficiency and small-scale renewable energy can readily be taken up by individuals and local communities. If households and neighbourhoods are self-reliant in their energy systems, they do not depend on the state. Back in 1952, the US Paley Commission recommended a solar-based energy strategy, but instead the US government poured money into nuclear power.
Another key link in the promotion of nuclear power is nuclear weapons. Nuclear power was an outgrowth of nuclear weapons research, and there continue to be strong links. Any government that sets up a nuclear power programme provides itself with both plutonium and nuclear experts, thus setting the stage for a nuclear weapons programme if desired.
Corporations, namely the nuclear industry, also play a role. In most countries, with the possible exception of the US, the nuclear industry is subservient to the state. When the British government privatised its electricity industry, the nuclear sector had to be kept under state control, since private enterprise wouldn't touch it without government guarantees. Indeed, government subsidies and protection - such as insurance for major nuclear accidents - have always been necessary to keep the nuclear industry going.
But how does all this relate to suppression? The connection comes via another key factor in the nuclear equation: the nuclear experts. Nuclear scientists and engineers have been key proponents of nuclear power, not surprisingly since it provides them with status and jobs. In addition, some of the early proponents had helped to build the first nuclear weapons; nuclear power seemed to be a way to use their skills for peaceful purposes. As long as the experts all supported nuclear power, it was easy for governments to push the new technology. But then in the late 1960s and 1970s, as nuclear power programmes began to expand, citizen opposition emerged around the world. Citizens could be dismissed as uninformed. They were not experts. But if even a small minority of experts openly opposed nuclear power, this changed things enormously. The situation went from expert consensus to a debate. Nuclear dissidents thus were influential far beyond their numbers. They gave enormously greater credibility to the anti-nuclear movement. In this situation, many of the dissidents came under attack. Indeed, it was more important to attack an anti-nuclear scientist than an anti-nuclear citizen activist. There were fewer anti-nuclear scientists and their role in the credibility stakes was more crucial.
This then was the framework I developed. Suppression of expert critics of nuclear power was a feature of a power struggle between the supporters of nuclear power, found largely in sectors of the state, in the nuclear industry and in the scientific community, and opponents of nuclear power, found largely in citizen movements. Dhirendra Sharma's ordeal could be understood both as part of a pattern of suppression around the world and as part of a wider struggle over nuclear technology.
I put together my article "Nuclear suppression" by first dealing with Sharma's case, then outlining my framework of analysis, and then briefly recounting cases from many countries. I sent a draft to a number of friends and colleagues and obtained useful comments. The publisher of the journal Science and Public Policy was interested in the article, but he wanted to be absolutely sure about the evidence.
So I went back and searched for even more cases. This was useful. I found more and more evidence.
Searching out cases is challenging. More frustrating is actually writing up the cases. First I have to decide what counts as a case worth mentioning. Through all my experience in studying the issue, I've come to have a good idea about this. Then, when there are a lot of cases to describe, comes a series of minor challenges: to describe each case in a sentence or a paragraph. Sometimes the description I have, from some magazine or book, is short to begin with. Then the challenge is to say basically the same thing without copying or misrepresenting the description. Sometimes I have several accounts, from different sources, of the same case. Yet other times I have source documents, such as letters of reprimand. The challenge is to condense all this material into a short, accurate and revealing summary. Brevity is vital because there are so many cases to describe. Accuracy is vital because mistakes can be used to discredit the whole argument. Finally, each summary needs to show the process of suppression. To get this right means lots of checking against source documents, and also sending out drafts and queries to many people. Naturally I sent a draft of my article to Sharma for his comments, and he was most helpful. It was impossible to check out all the other cases directly, since there were too many and in any case getting in touch with dismissed workers can be difficult. But I was able to contact a few.
I thought the final product was impressive: I was able to cite cases from ten different countries, though there were far more documented cases from the US than anywhere else. The article was published in Science and Public Policy at the end of 1986.
Science and Public Policy does not have a large circulation. But publication of my article "Nuclear suppression" was useful nonetheless as it gave my account the credibility of being in a journal. It was also accessible through libraries. Even so, the biggest impact probably came through direct circulation of copies of the article. Whenever I wrote to someone who might be interested - someone interested in nuclear issues or in suppression generally - I enclosed a copy. Sharma wrote me that an article appeared in the British newspaper the Guardian about suppression of nuclear dissidents, drawing heavily on my article. Not least, the article was read and circulated by a number of nuclear dissidents themselves, such as Sharma and Hugh DeWitt. As a result of hearing about the article, a couple of the British nuclear dissidents wrote to me.
In 1985 my precarious short-term appointments in the Mathematics Department at ANU finally came to an end. I applied for many jobs - mostly in scientific research - and was lucky to obtain one in the Department of History and Philosophy of Science at the University of Wollongong. In my new job, studying social issues such as suppression was entirely legitimate rather than something I did on the side. I decided to do a study of the fluoridation controversy.
I already knew a fair bit about fluoridation since my friend Mark Diesendorf was a leading critic of it. Fluoridation is the addition of about one part per million of the element fluoride to public water supplies in order to reduce the incidence of tooth decay in children. It was tested out in the US in the 1940s and then strongly promoted in the industrialised world since the 1950s. Fluoridation was backed by most dental authorities but from the very beginning it was opposed by citizen groups.
Fluoridation interested me mainly because the debates over it provide an insight into the links between scientific knowledge and power. Personally I have never thought it a vital issue, compared for example to nuclear power or genetic engineering, not to mention big problems like war and racism.
My study about fluoridation was not just about suppression, but covered a range of social issues. I looked up the numerous social studies of fluoridation that had already been done and interviewed key pro and antifluoridation experts in Australia. My analysis looked at a number of levels of the fluoridation debate, including the scientific arguments, the coherency of the viewpoints of the partisans, the role of the dental profession, the influence of corporate interests (such as the manufacturers of sugary foods) and the role of the social scientist (that is, me). But within this many-layered treatment of the fluoridation issue, I discussed suppression as a central issue.
In the early years after it was first proposed in 1939, the idea of adding fluoride to public water supplies was promoted by only a few enthusiasts in the United States. Most authorities were sceptical. Controlled studies comparing towns with and without added fluoride were begun in 1945. After much lobbying, the proponents won over the key body, the US Public Health Service, which endorsed fluoridation in 1950. Not long after, many other organisations endorsed fluoridation, such as the American Dental Association. Endorsements became a key method of promoting fluoridation. But many of the endorsements came from organisations that had never studied the evidence, such as the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations. The proponents had decided that fluoridation was safe and effective. Endorsements were an important means to convince others. They were a key technique used in the "struggle over credibility."
The proponents had the official backing of all crucial organisations, especially public health, dental and medical bodies. But there were still some opponents, including some dentists, doctors and scientists. The proponents sought to deny them credibility. How? They had several methods.
In the US, most decisions about fluoridation were made in cities and towns. When the issue came to be decided, whether by the local government or in a referendum, pro and antifluoridationists each tried to win over the uncommitted. In many cases, profluoridationists refused to debate with antifluoridationists. The proponents claimed that there was no scientifically credible evidence against fluoridation. Therefore there was nothing to debate. By refusing to debate, they implied that there was only one credible side. To debate would be to admit there was something worth debating. But sometimes this tactic backfired, when proponents were seen as being arrogant.
Sometimes the critics of fluoridation were entirely ignored. For example, dental researcher Philip Sutton published a book in 1959 showing flaws in the methods used in the early controlled studies of the effectiveness of fluoridation. His critique was generally ignored by profluoridationists.
Another technique was to attack the critics in general terms. For example, a book published by the World Health Organization in 1986, edited by leading fluoridation proponent J. J. Murray, mentioned "the often misguided opposition to community fluoridation programmes" but didn't cite a single source. In such cases, the critics were not given names.
Another technique was to circulate unpublished critiques. John Colquhoun, a New Zealand dental researcher who became a leading critic of fluoridation, published an article in American Laboratory in 1985. In response, a dental research officer in New Zealand, Peter Hunter, wrote a letter which alleged that Colquhoun's article contained mistakes. On the basis of Hunter's letter, the Director-General of Health sent a statement to local water supply authorities in New Zealand criticising Colquhoun's work. The Centers for Disease Control in the US incorporated Hunter's letter as part of one of its publications. Neither Hunter nor anyone else from these organisations bothered to send Colquhoun a copy of Hunter's letter. The impact of the unpublished critique was to attack the credibility of the critic of fluoridation without engaging in an open debate in professional or public venues.
Yet another technique was to attack the critics personally. The most astounding example of this was the dossier on opponents of fluoridation compiled by a group within the American Dental Association. The dossier contained derogatory comments - mostly taken from letters or newspaper articles - about a range of critics. Many of the critics, such as the Ku Klux Klan and various purveyors of nostrums, had little credibility. Others were reputable scientists. By being included in the dossiers, the implication was that they also were cranks.
The dossier had a big impact. It was published twice in the prestigious Journal of the American Dental Association. It had an especially big impact on the most authoritative critics of fluoridation. Foremost among these was Dr George Waldbott, a doctor and scientist who had a number of important discoveries to his name. Waldbott became critical of fluoridation in the mid 1950s and undertook studies, finding allergic reactions to fluoride in a number of his patients. He was the leading opponent of fluoridation in the United States until his death in 1982.
The material about Waldbott in the dossier was damaging. From his point of view, much of it was also false and unfair. As Waldbott appeared throughout the country and overseas speaking and testifying against fluoridation, the dossier followed him like a "steady companion," to use his description. He had to repeatedly reply to the allegations. The American Dental Association was effective in circulating the dossier but not equally assiduous about circulating the corrections sent to them by Waldbott.
So far, the sorts of techniques that I've described are not what I would call suppression. They are simply rather unsavoury methods for promoting a cause. They are unsavoury because they sidestep an open and honest discussion of the issues by either avoiding debate or attacking the opponent. But there are plenty of documented cases of suppression too. There are cases of dentists who were suspended from their dental societies for opposing fluoridation. There are cases of researchers who were threatened with loss of research funds if they continued to study fluoride. There are cases of university students who were fiercely attacked by senior administrators because of their studies of fluoridation. There are cases of articles critical of fluoridation that have been criticised by journal referees because they might be helpful to antifluoridation groups.
One of my favourite cases is the response of the Journal of the American Dental Association to submissions from Albert Schatz, a scientist known as co-discoverer of streptomycin - in other words, not "just a crank." Schatz's letters, sent by certified mail, were refused and returned to him unopened. Apparently the editor knew Schatz was opposed to fluoridation.
Tracking down examples of all the sorts of responses I've described, from refusal to debate to formal complaints against dentists for stands against fluoridation, took a fair bit of time. But some of the work was done before me. Several leading antifluoridation scientists had both experienced suppression repeatedly and also, because of their prominence, been informed of many other cases. Waldbott's 1965 book A Struggle with Titans documents numerous cases. Philip Sutton in a 1980 monograph lists several cases. US scientist and leading antifluoridationist John Yiamouyiannis lists many cases in his book Fluoride: The Aging Factor. Hans Moolenburgh, a Dutch doctor and campaigner against fluoridation, tells of several cases. There was plenty of evidence. I only had to select the most appropriate material to illustrate my argument, write accurate summaries and verify details.
In collecting information about the fluoridation issue, direct contact with partisans was highly valuable. I wrote to lots of people for different sorts of information. After interviewing leading Australian pro and antifluoridationists, I wrote an article and sent a draft to each one of them for comment. I wrote to dozens of governments around the world asking about the extent of fluoridation in their countries and about their policies on the issue. I also wrote to leading figures internationally, and obtained valuable responses from Albert Burgstahler in the US, Hans Moolenburgh in the Netherlands and John Colquhoun in New Zealand, among others. George Waldbott's widow Edith sent me documentation on a number of suppression cases mentioned in his books.
One of the most difficult challenges in writing about suppression of antifluoridationists is to explain why. From the point of view of some profluoridationists, there is no dilemma. They believe that fluoridation is totally safe and highly beneficial and that there is no credible evidence to the contrary. Therefore, anyone who criticises fluoridation must be irrational, confused or driven by some vested interest. That antifluoridationists have been denied funding or blocked from publishing in dental journals is nothing to worry about, because their work is no good. Dozens of social scientists had studied the issue previously and assumed that fluoridation is scientifically beyond criticism and so had not recognised that suppression could be an issue.
My assessment was different. I assumed that simply appealing to science alone was not enough to explain the domination of profluoridation views among dentists and doctors. In accordance with the precepts of the "sociology of scientific knowledge" or SSK, I looked to social factors to explain why scientific claims that fluoridating water supplies was safe and beneficial were so widely accepted. According to SSK, the social scientist - me in this case - examines the arguments on all sides without making any judgements about their validity.
But I didn't have to be an SSK adherent to make my analysis. I had read enough of the antifluoridation studies by scientists such as George Waldbott, John Colquhoun and Mark Diesendorf to know that they couldn't be dismissed so very easily. They provided or referred to studies showing that fluoride caused allergic or intolerance reactions in some people, that it was linked to skeletal fluorosis in some parts of the world and that improvements in tooth decay rates might be caused by factors other than fluoridation - among many other criticisms of the case for fluoridation.
There was also another factor. The arguments about fluoridation weren't entirely scientific. There were value judgements built into the debate at all levels. Should fluoride be added to public water supplies, thereby making it hard to avoid even for people for whom there were few or no benefits - people with no teeth, for example? There are alternative means for people to get fluoride, such as taking fluoride tablets, having fluoride treatments by dentists and buying salt with added fluoride. But if one of these alternatives was adopted, then many people could not afford or would not take the trouble to obtain fluoride. Was it a valid public health measure to add fluoride to public water supplies, or was it a violation of civil liberties to give people a compulsory but uncontrolled dose of a chemical? Furthermore, how should decisions be made about fluoridation? By governments advised by dental experts, as advocated by many profluoridationists, or by referendum as advocated by many antifluoridationists?
The issue certainly has many dimensions. It is also persistent, having been going for half a century with no sign of resolution. The two sides seem entrenched in their positions.
Back to the issue of suppression. My assessment was that there were some solid scientific criticisms of fluoridation that at least deserved to be taken seriously. Yet the more usual response was to ignore the critics or attack them. Why? Why was there such hostility to critics?
My assessment, like that of a number of others who had investigated this issue, is that the prime driving force behind fluoridation was the dental profession. A more conspiratorial view of some antifluoridationists was that corporations that produced fluoride pollution, especially the aluminium industry, were behind fluoridation. I couldn't find much evidence that industry played more than a background role in the debate. There was some funding of fluoridation campaigns by the sugary-food industry, which served to draw attention away from the acknowledged role of sugar in tooth decay. Corporate influences may have helped shape the agenda.
Some elements in the state have promoted fluoridation. The best example is the US Public Health Service. As in the case of nuclear power, the promotion of fluoridation is complex process, involving the dental profession, corporations, government bureaucracies, media and community groups, among others. But within this complexity, the main player was the dental profession.
This was certainly obvious in the suppression cases. The American Dental Association's dossier was a dramatic manifestation of dental profession hostility to criticism by fluoridation opponents. But it all seemed counter-intuitive. If fluoridation reduced tooth decay, this would reduce work for dentists. It was against their interests. Surely they wouldn't support it unless they had the interests of the public at heart.
This sounds plausible and it certainly explains the individual psychology of many dentists. But there is an analysis of professions that gives a different assessment. Professions, such as law, medicine and the ministry, are really just occupational groups like plumbers or farmers. They are different from most other occupations in that the members of professions have a considerable degree of control over their own work and as a group have some control over training and entry into the profession itself. Doctors, lawyers and dentists have long sought to restrict the number of practitioners, in order to keep salaries high.
If salaries are kept high by restricted entry, that means there is plenty of work to do. There are many more dental problems than dentists have time to treat. Reducing the amount of tooth decay means there is more time for dealing with other dental problems such as gum disease.
Fluoridation was attractive to dental researchers because it made dentistry seem more scientific. It involved epidemiological studies of tooth decay as a function of fluoride levels and biochemical studies of the mechanism by which fluoride works in the mouth against tooth decay. Some dental researchers and public health official built their careers on promoting fluoridation. They managed to persuade most dentists, who had no time to study the evidence, that fluoridation was a good thing and that the status of the profession was under attack by know-nothing antifluoridationists.
This is the argument in outline. You can see that it's not easy to explain in casual conversation. Most people believe in the virtue of professions. This contrary view is not that professions are corrupt or anything but well-meaning, but that their assessment of scientific claims and their response to challengers is shaped, in a complex way, by their collective self-interest.
On the other hand, cases of suppression are relatively simple and dramatic. Even some profluoridationists are embarrassed by the "excesses" that are committed against the critics.
My analysis was "balanced" in the sense that I critically analysed the arguments and the vested interests on each side. Because dental and medical authorities have largely supported fluoridation, my analysis thus seemed to them to be opposed to fluoridation. Therefore, it was often difficult to obtain comments from profluoridationists. On the other hand, some of the ardent antifluoridationists, such as John Yiamouyiannis, thought I had given fluoridation too much credibility.
When I came to write a book about fluoridation, I wrote to several leading pro and antifluoridationists to ask if they would comment on a draft. Three leading opponents, Albert Burgstahler, John Colquhoun and Mark Diesendorf, each readily agreed. Getting a similar number of leading proponents to comment was more difficult. I had to approach about a dozen proponents in order to find four who would comment: Brian Burt, Michael Lennon, John Small and Donald Taves. But this effort was worthwhile, because it gave me critical perspectives from both sides of the debate.
The person who gave me the most valuable comments of all was not a partisan but a social analyst like me. His name was Edward Groth III, or Ned to his friends. I had come across his name a few times in my study of fluoridation literature. He did a PhD at Stanford University. His 1973 dissertation covered two issues: air pollution in San Francisco and the fluoridation controversy. When I finally was able to contact him, he was working at the Consumers Union in New York. We struck up a vigorous correspondence. Ned sent me a copy of his dissertation and some other papers he had written. If I had known about Ned's work earlier, I might never have written my book on fluoridation, because he covered much of the same material that I did - though my treatment was more international, more up-to-date and grounded in a particular analysis of science. More importantly, his dissertation was never published, mainly because he had obtained a job at the Consumers Union where there was little pressure to publish. In any case, Ned was enthusiastic about my efforts but also a keen critic. He sent page after page of comments on my drafts.
To all those who read and commented on the draft of my book, I made an offer: they could write a commentary that would be included in the book itself. Only one person took up the offer: Ned Groth! From my point of view, this was highly appropriate, given that his work had foreshadowed mine.
Working on the fluoridation controversy was a lot of fun. It was a good conversation topic. Australia has long been highly fluoridated, so most Australians drink fluoridated water but never think about it. The claim it could be causing allergies or even cancer would be greeted with concern, disbelief or even amusement. There are still plenty of people who accept the idea, promoted by profluoridationists, that the only criticisms of fluoridation come from unscientific cranks or right-wingers who believe it is a government plot to poison the public.
My main writings about fluoridation were several articles in scholarly social science journals and a book published by a university press. Still, my analysis was found useful by some people besides academics. The most satisfying response was from a scientist who wrote, in a letter in the magazine Chemical & Engineering News, that the dynamics of the fluoridation controversy, as he experienced them, were accurately described in my book. He commented that "Every argument, every claim, every uninformed public health official, and every personality involved in the Tucson controversy was a mirror image of the stereotypes described in Martin's book."
Pesticides are chemicals designed to kill things such as insects, plants and fungi. There are special names in some cases, such as insecticides, herbicides and fungicides. The general term is pesticides. The most famous one is DDT. Among hundreds of others are dieldrin, aldrin, 2,4-D and 2,4,5-T. The last two were the main components of Agent Orange, the most well-known herbicide used by US forces to remove foliage from trees during the Vietnam war.
Pesticides can be very valuable in controlling harmful pests that would otherwise destroy crops or forests. But they also have undesirable side-effects, killing insects and animals that are not pests. They are also a potential danger to human health. The hazards of pesticides were brought to public awareness by Rachel Carson's famous book Silent Spring, published in 1962. This book was a key trigger in the rise of the modern environmental movement.
Most pesticides are produced by a small number of chemical companies. Not surprisingly, these companies are strong supporters of their products. They provide lots of money to promote pesticides, including funds for research. Many scientists, both in government and in universities, also support pesticides. Some of them receive research support from pesticide manufacturers, but some don't. Pesticide supporters all believe the benefits outweigh the risks.
Many of the most active critics of pesticides are community activists. They want pesticide use controlled and reduced and also favour development of alternative approaches to controlling pests, such as biological controls or planting certain crops next to each other.
In this situation, there are a few scientists who do research into or speak out about problems with pesticides. Because these scientists undermine the monopoly on scientific credibility otherwise held by pesticide proponents, they often come under attack. No surprise here!
I've already described the case of Clyde Manwell, the professor of zoology at the University of Adelaide who was denounced in parliament and threatened with dismissal after he and his wife Ann Baker simply wrote a letter to the newspaper. What's interesting here is that several people had criticised pesticides in letters to the Adelaide Advertiser before Manwell and Baker's letter was published. But they weren't denounced in parliament. The obvious difference is that Manwell was a professor of zoology and therefore had much more scientific credibility.
Beginning with the Manwell case, I came across many examples of attacks on scientists critical of pesticides. In 1980-1982 I was a member of a short-lived group called "Community Action on Science and Environment" or CASE. We did studies, produced leaflets and made public statements on a number of issues, such as the problems with sugar, caffeine and television. At one stage I wrote a short piece on herbicides, and included a list of some of the attacks on critics.
There are several good sources on the attacks. Frank Graham Jr.'s book Since Silent Spring, published in 1970, documents the furious denunciations and attacks on Rachel Carson and other early critics that came from the chemical industry and its allies. Even more revealing is the book The Pesticide Conspiracy by Robert van den Bosch, who worked at the University of California at Berkeley. He lists about a dozen cases of attacks on different individuals. Cutting off of research funds is a typical technique. He also tells of the personal abuse he received - being called a variety of names - from university colleagues because of his views.
I had mentioned these sources in my writings but hadn't made a special study of suppression of pesticide critics until I heard about the case of Melvin Reuber. Reuber was a highly productive scientist who worked for the Frederick Cancer Research Center, part of the National Cancer Institute in the US. Among other things, he did research on the possible cancer-causing properties of certain pesticides. In 1980, out of the blue, he received a dressing down and a written denunciation of his work from his boss, Michael G. Hanna, Jr. More seriously, the bulk of Hanna's report was soon published by a petrochemical trade newsletter, Pesticide & Toxic Chemical News. Reuber resigned under the stress but then decided to fight in the courts. The story in Pesticide & Toxic Chemical News was circulated around the world and used to discredit Reuber whenever his work was cited as part of a case against pesticides. The use of Hanna's letter reminded me of the use of the American Dental Association's dossier against George Waldbott.
I decided to write an article on suppression of pesticide critics, featuring Reuber. This was very much in the style of my paper on nuclear suppression. My approach was the same. I collected information from my files and through obvious sources, and checked out my draft with several knowledgeable people, including Reuber himself. After rejection by several journals - a process that took years - it was published by Philosophy and Social Action. But for now I'd like to turn to a different issue.
As already described, nuclear power, fluoridation, and pesticides are three fields where I've studied suppression of scientific dissent. Another field where I've observed a pattern of cases is forestry. On the other hand, some areas where you might expect to find many cases, such as automobile safety, seem to have few on record. What's the explanation?
A preliminary generalisation goes like this. For there to be a pattern of suppression in a field, there has to be a powerful set of interests involved, backing a particular stand. This sets the stage for suppression. But there is no need for suppression unless there is opposition. In each of the cases I've studied, there has been a social movement challenging vested interests: the anti-nuclear power movement, the antifluoridation movement, and the community groups opposed to pesticides and to certain forestry operations. In each of these cases, some scientists have done research or spoken out in a way that can be used by community activists. These dissident scientists give credibility to the activists, changing the situation from a monopoly of expert opinion to a debate. In this situation, attacks on the dissident scientists are likely, if they are vulnerable.
In some cases there are expert critics but no social movement. Automobile safety is one example. There are a few cases of suppression, of which the most famous is the attack on Ralph Nader, who came to his initial fame with the book Unsafe at any Speed, a critique of automobile safety. But there has been no mass movement against the car culture. Critics have no mass constituency that will take up their work and hence receive less encouragement to become open critics in the first place. In such a situation, there is still suppression but it is seldom publicised. Also, there is a lot of self-censorship.
What about the vested interests? My analysis is that the driving force behind nuclear power is the state, the driving force behind fluoridation is the dental profession, and the driving force behind pesticides is the chemical industry. These are three different types of vested interests: the state, a profession and an industry. But this difference doesn't affect the details of suppression cases as much as might be expected. Suppression isn't done directly by "the state" or by "the dental profession." It is always carried out by individuals. The ties to what I call the "driving force" can be complicated. There are links between the state, professions and corporations. Nuclear power might be promoted by state bureaucracies, but the nuclear industry and nuclear scientists and engineers are closely involved. The dental profession has ties with some industries and is both certified and regulated by the state. Professional associations and government bodies are tightly involved in promoting pesticides.
Amidst all this complexity, there are some important constants. For patterns of suppression to occur, there need to be vested interests and they need to have power that can be used against dissidents.
One area that I studied showed a revealing reversal and confirmation of this generalisation. The area is "nuclear winter," the name applied to the global climatic consequences that some scientists predict will occur after a major nuclear war. The idea is that dust and smoke from the explosions and fires will block sunlight, causing a precipitous drop in temperature that could kill much of the world's population as well as cause major environmental damage. Claims about nuclear winter were developed in the early 1980s by atmospheric and other scientists, the best known of whom was astronomer Carl Sagan. Some of the promoters of nuclear winter were vocal critics of preparations for nuclear war. They argued that because nuclear winter resulting from global nuclear war could lead to the destruction of civilisation or even human extinction, it was imperative that there be massive reductions in nuclear arsenals.
My analysis of nuclear winter was designed to show the linkage between science and politics. I argued that assumptions about politics - such as the assumed type of nuclear war - were embodied in nuclear winter models, and also that the scientific results of nuclear winter models were used for political purposes in the debate over nuclear weapons. I also argued that the same thing applied to the critics of nuclear winter models.
The supporters of nuclear winter conclusions included prominent critics of governmental policies on nuclear war. They were broadly aligned with the vigorous peace movement of the 1980s. They also had much more scientific credibility than the critics of nuclear winter, who were generally defenders of government nuclear policies. The top officials of the powerful US Department of Defense were critical of nuclear winter. However, I have not heard of any cases of suppression of nuclear winter scientists. That could be because most of the key scientists work for universities, not the military. It could also be because it would be counterproductive trying to suppress a dominant scientific view. It would be hard to discredit so many scientists.
On the other hand, there were a few expert critics of nuclear winter who, by their stand, punctured the appearance of scientific unanimity. One of them in particular, Russell Seitz, then an Associate of the Harvard University Center for International Affairs, was an influential critic because his article in the National Interest was circulated widely including being published in the Wall Street Journal. Nuclear winter scientists wrote letters to these journals that attacked Seitz on scientific grounds and also made vicious criticisms of Seitz himself, for example referring to him as "a stock investment consultant" who was "dabbling in atmospheric physics."
I would call this a personal attack but not suppression. Seitz's position, financial support or ability to publish his views did not come under threat. Nevertheless, criticisms of people's qualifications are characteristic of cases of suppression. Seitz could have been a victim of suppression if nuclear winter scientists had had power over his job or his opportunities for publication.
But they didn't. That's the important difference here. It was the Department of Defense that had enormous power but was in no position to squash a dominant scientific position. The nuclear winter scientists had the most scientific credibility but lacked the power to suppress the few technical critics who they faced.
Suppression is much more likely, then, when the side backed by power and money also has a near monopoly on scientific credibility. This was the case in the debates over nuclear power, fluoridation and pesticides, at least until the critics became more successful.
In my studies of patterns of suppression, I've concentrated on social debates where scientists have had an important role. But suppression is found in other sorts of areas. Political dissidents regularly encounter suppression. In the capitalist countries, many socialists, trade unionists and other critics of corporations have been suppressed. In socialist countries, opponents of the government are prime targets. In dictatorships of any complexion, critics of the authorities are likely to be attacked. Feminists who challenge male-dominated institutions have been attacked. And the list goes on.
There's plenty of documentation of attacks, but in most areas it's not very systematic. Suppression in science has been of special interest to me both because of my background in science and because many people think science is done by rational, objective researchers who are not influenced by social factors.
In spite of all my studies, there are still many basic questions that I can't answer. Often I'm asked, especially by journalists, "How frequent is suppression?" My answer is, "I don't really know and no one else does either. There haven't been enough studies to provide an answer. What I can say is that it's much more common than most people realise."
Another question is "Is the amount of suppression increasing?" Usually they think it is, because they've come across some recent cases. I know that there's plenty of evidence of suppression in the "old days." So my answer is "No one really knows. There haven't been enough studies to tell one way or the other."
Then there are questions like this: "Suppression seems to be more common in Australia than other countries. Do you agree?" Some think it's more common in Australia, others that it's more common in the US, or Canada, or wherever. Sometimes it's a comparison between universities in different countries, or the media, or whatever. My answer is always the same. "There isn't enough evidence to say one way or the other."
What I can say is that suppression is much more common than most of us realise. It's under our noses but we don't see it. Few people make a fuss about being suppressed and in many cases they don't even know it has happened. In my experience, if a good investigator goes into virtually any organisation - government bureaucracy, corporation, university, church, trade union, etc. - then it's possible to find many cases. But doing this is not a way to win friends in high places.
Finally there are the sceptics who ask whether suppression really makes any difference. This is easier to answer. The risk of suppression discourages most employees from speaking out about corruption involving millions or billions of dollars; a few courageous individuals have spoken out, such as A. Ernest Fitzgerald who exposed massive cost overruns in US military contracting. Engineers warned about the risks of defective O-rings in the Challenger spacecraft, but were overruled - and disaster occurred. Dissidents in many countries have been crucial to challenges to repressive governments. They are symbols of freedom and inspire others to oppose tyranny. Even when money and lives are not directly at stake, tolerance of dissent is vital to any society that calls itself free.