Farm and Food File: The anti-science of ‘sound science’

Alan Guebert Farm and Food File
Farm Forum

For more than 20 years, farm and ranch groups, Congress, and Big Agbiz have used the phrase “sound science” like a sharp shovel to undermine agricultural policy they want to alter or bury.

Ask them to define “sound science,” however, and you’ll get no clear explanation. That’s because “sound science” is a political weapon, not a branch of knowledge. As such, sound science really is science that sounds good to them if it guts legislation or rules they oppose.

This savory device has an unsavory history, writes Christie Aschwanden, the lead science writer for the website FiveThirtyEight. “The phrase was adopted by the tobacco industry in the 1990s to counteract mounting evidence linking secondhand smoke to cancer,” she reports.

The strategy, Aschwanden explains in her Dec. 6 post, arose after the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) confirmed the link in a 1992 report. Phillip Morris, a big player in Big Tobacco, responded with an initiative it called “sound science,” a program meant to “discredit the EPA report,” she writes, and “proactively pass legislation to help their cause.”

The linchpin, Aschwanden continues, was that the “sound science tactic exploits a fundamental feature of the scientific process: Science does not produce absolute certainty.” In fact, it can’t because science is a “process” that “can rarely answer more than one question at a time, and each new study usually raises a bunch of new questions in the process of answering old ones.”

That basic truth of good science—that “‘every answer is provisional and subject to change in the face of new evidence,’” one scientist tells Aschwanden—became the “tobacco’s industry’s brilliant tactic… to turn this baked-in uncertainty against the scientific enterprise itself.”

Brilliant, indeed, because “While insisting that they merely wanted to ensure that public policy was based on sound science, tobacco companies defined the term in a way that ensured that no science could ever be sound enough. The only sound science was certain science, which is an impossible standard to achieve.”

Or put more succinctly, “Doubt is our product,” wrote one Big Tobacco executive way back in 1969 because doubt “is the best means of competing with the ‘body of fact’ and establishing a controversy.”

That clever move—creating doubt because the “impossible standard” of certain science is unattainable—is a political tactic that Stanford University historian Robert Proctor calls, interestingly, “agnogenesis,” reports Aschwanden, or “the intentional manufacture of ignorance… deliberately created by agents who don’t want you to know.”

The goal, as one “merchant of doubt” tells FiveThirtyEight, is elegantly cynical: “We’re the negative force. We’re just trying to stop stuff.”

That confession—“We’re just trying to stop stuff.”—reveals an even more basic truth about the public fight between “open science” and “sound science.” “These controversies are really about values, not scientific facts,” writes Aschwanden, “and acknowledging that would allow us to have more truthful and public debates.”

But don’t hold you breath for such debates anytime soon because the GOP-led Congress and the White House are busy taking sound science to never-explored heights.

For example, on March 29, 2017 the U.S. House of Representatives narrowly passed what its sponsor, Lamar Smith, a Texas Republican who chairs the Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, calls the HONEST Act.

A more honest name for it would be the Dishonest Act because it institutionalizes Big Tobacco’s ignorance-inspiring, doubt-producing sound science standard as the law the of the land. More specifically, the central part of the bill prevents EPA from developing rules, wrote Ed Yong for The Atlantic, unless all the information it used to write any rule was “publicly available online in a manner that is sufficient for independent analysis and substantial reproduction of research results.”

That’s a standard that Congress, your seed corn company, machinery company or farm group has never and will never meet. And that’s the point—EPA will therefore not be able to develop any public policy rule.

As troubling as the proposed law—currently in the hands of the Senate—is, even more troubling is that 43 of the 46 members of the House Ag Committee voted for its anti-science “sound science” ignorance.

Shame, shame.

The Farm and Food File is published weekly throughout the U.S. and Canada. Source material, past column and contact information are posted at