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On Contact: The corporatization of science

On the show, Chris Hedges discusses the corporatization and corruption of American science with the author Clifford D. Conner.

Science in the United States almost exclusively serves the interests of corporate and military power. Science historian Clifford Conner writes that the corruption of scientific endeavor exploded with the 1942-1945 Manhattan Project, the first “big science” venture, in which the government spent massively on developing the atom bomb. Science, from this point forward, became big business. Scientists are employed in “hypothesis-driven” research to promote the interests of the food industry, the tobacco industry, and the fossil fuel industry, attacking or silencing scientific studies that cast doubt on the claims of these industries. The result is a society awash in lies, many of them buttressed by bogus scientific studies carried out to reach the conclusions demanded by those who pay for the studies. This corruption is now endemic in think tanks, scientific institutes, and universities, which accept corporate money to do corporate bidding. The public is provided with industry-sponsored hype rather than truth. Objective scientific research has all but vanished. The consequences for our health and our planet are catastrophic. ExxonMobil and Koch Industries fund climate-change denial studies. Philip Morris and R.J. Reynolds produce findings minimizing the link between smoking and lung cancer. Purdue Pharma and Pfizer peddle highly addictive opioids as routine pain killers, triggering an opioid epidemic that since 1999 has seen 500,000 Americans die from an overdose involving an opioid. Coca-Cola and Kellogg hire nutrition scientists to tout the benefits of junk food. Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon, and Microsoft pump billions into creating “machine intelligence.” This artificial intelligence is designed to serve private and military interests, not those of the public. 

Clifford D. Conner is author of the new book ‘The Tragedy of American Science: From Truman to Trump’.

YouTube channel: On Contact

Follow us on Facebook: Facebook.com/OnContactRT

Podcast: https://soundcloud.com/rttv/sets/on-contact-1

CH: Welcome to On Contact.  Today, we discuss the corporatization of science with the author, Cliff Conner.

CC: What I consider to be the greatest tragedy of all and that’s what’s called the path not taken, in other words what could have been done with all those scientific resources, the immense amount of scientific talent has been wasted, essentially wasted on military R&D.  It could have been used to solve the world hunger crisis, solid world poverty, and solve the climate crisis, all of these things could be I would say fairly easily handled if those resources that we’ve wasted, the military R&D, have been put to good use.

CH: Science in the United States, almost exclusively serves the interest of corporate and military power.  Science Historian Cliff Conner writes that the corruption of science exploded with the 1942-1945 Manhattan Project, the first big science project, in which the government spent massively on developing the atomic bomb.  Science from this point forward became big business, scientists are employed, he writes, in hypothesis-driven research to promote the interests of the food industry, the tobacco industry, and the fossil fuel industry attacking or silencing scientific studies that cast doubt on the claims of these industries.  The result is a society awash in lies, many of them buttressed by bogus scientific studies carried out to reach the conclusion demanded by those who pay for the studies.  This corruption is now endemic, in think tanks, scientific institutes, and universities which accept corporate money to do corporate bidding.  The public is provided with industry sponsored hype rather than truth, objective scientific research has all but vanished.  The consequences for our health and our planet are catastrophic.  ExxonMobil and Koch Industries fund climate change denial studies, Philip Morris and RJ Reynolds produce findings minimizing the link between smoking and lung cancer.  Purdue Pharma and Pfizer peddle highly addictive opioids as routine painkillers triggering an opioid epidemic that since 1999 has seen 500,000 Americans die from an overdose involving an opioid.  Coca-Cola and Kellogg hire nutrition scientists to tout the benefits of junk food.  Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon, and Microsoft pump billions into creating machine intelligence.  This artificial intelligence is designed to serve private and military interests not those of the public.  Joining me to discuss this corruption of science is Cliff Conner, author of “The Tragedy of American Science.”  So let’s begin, as you do in the book, with the Manhattan Project as an accelerant, as essentially pushing military and corporate power deeply within a series of scientific disciplines and the consequences of that.

CC: Okay.  The Manhattan Project was obviously something that was unprecedented.  There had been some beginnings of big science in Germany, and by the way, most people--I think most Americans think that the United States was dominating science all along, it’s not true.  German science was the leading science in the world before the Manhattan Project created American big science.  And from that point on, I don’t think it was big science per se that caused the problem, I think it was the Cold War that--after--at the end of World War II, the United States policymakers decided to break their alliance with the Soviet Union and, you know, people think of the Cold War is just a straightforward conflict between the United States and Russia or the Soviet Union, but in fact Stalin didn’t want a Cold War, he didn’t want any kind of war with the United States, he wanted a permanent arrangement that would let him run the Soviet Union and the United States could run the Capitalist world.  So, I think it’s important for Americans to understand that the tragedy of American science originated with the big science of the Manhattan Project but also with the political decision to demonize the Soviet Union and the consequence of demonizing the Soviet Union, in order to do that, they had to instill fear and paranoia into the American population and that’s the beginning, that’s what justified the militarization of science to the absurd proportions that we have today.  People think of $700,000,000,000 as a, you know, a normal thing that we should expect to do and it’s just not normal at all, and it’s even understated.

CH: Well, let’s talk in specifics, but you also had the corporatization of science.  So the--as I mentioned in the introduction, the tobacco industry, the food industry, they all corrupt science.  So it’s not just a military project?

CC: Correct.  And I would say that’s the essential thing.  The problem, the tragedy of American science is that it ceases to be science when it’s privatized and that’s what the corporatization of science is, it’s the privatization of science.  Corporate funded research pretends to be a disinterested pursuit of knowledge which is what science is supposed to be but its core purpose is to support corporate agendas, and you mentioned a number of the examples that I go into great detail in in the book, the food industry, the tobacco science, the big pharma, there’s a difference though between the tobacco science and big pharma.  Big pharma actually does produce things sometimes if they can make a profit at it whereas the tobacco science was purely destructive and just served to justify the deaths of millions of people via cigarette smoking.

CH: Let’s talk about the corruption of science in some of these specific industries as you do in the book, let’s talk about tobacco, let’s talk about food. 9336429327

CC: The topic of tobacco science has become so familiar that I don’t think I can say much about it, that most informed readers don’t already know the criminality of tobacco science is well known thanks to a popular book and documentary film entitled “Merchants of Doubt” by Historians of Science, Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway, on the other hand it’s such an important and outrageous contributor to the tragedy of contemporary science that it can’t be ignored or left out of the conversation.  It’s important because since the advent of mass-produced cigarettes, lung cancer has risen from being a rare condition representing only one percent of all cancers to its present status as the number one cause of cancer deaths for both men and women in the United States.  It currently kills almost two million people a year worldwide including a hundred and forty thousand Americans, and that doesn’t include the other ways that cigarettes kill people including emphysema, asthma, bronchitis, heart disease, and many other serious health hazards.  The tobacco industry, rather than acknowledging its social responsibility, instead chose to double down by attempting to discredit the medical science that demonstrates tobacco’s culpability.

CH: Well, they also published bogus studies, you know, that menthol cigarettes were good for you, so that--and that’s what you focus on in the book.  I think the other important thing about the corruption of science by the tobacco industry is it became the model for the fossil fuel industry.

CC: Exactly.  And in many other industries as well, the fossil fuel industry at least produces something that creates energy and we know now that it’s not the way we want to go in creating energy but the tobacco industry really didn’t produce anything of any value.  Tobacco science isn’t really science at all, obviously, it’s just public relations.  Its primary strategy was to inject doubt into legitimate scientific conclusions and inject that into the national conversation, and by doing that to manufacture a public controversy that didn’t exist at all among scientists and then to demand equal time in the media for their both sides of this contrived dispute.  Unfortunately, this strategy worked all too well and it has been imitated as you said by other industries most notably the fossil fuel industries who have since manufactured a similar false debate over the reality of global warming and climate change.

CH: Let’s talk about how complicit universities and the press have become in disseminating this junk science.

CC: I have a chapter in the book on the university, university industrial complex and it’s pretty insidious, the--people look at science and they trust university science if you actually published a study and it’s said that it’s published by the Philip Morris company or something like that, or Mexico, or you know, Amazon, or whatever people would be suspicious of it, but when it comes with the imprimatur of a university or a university scientist, people tend to take it more seriously and that’s what the corporations want when they--when they fund these studies in universities.  The other reason that they can fund studies in universities has to do with a major shift in the law that happened right around 1980, around the beginning of the Reagan administration called the Bayh-Dole Act which allowed corporations to patent the fruits of the research of universities in university laboratories.  So what they do is they--the corporation will put in 15%, let’s say, of the funding for a study and maybe the NIH will put in more, the public money will come in, and the university will put in some money and the research is done and something is discovered that’s of value and the corporation gets to patent it and so that’s why I say that you can talk about university science, you can talk about federally funded science, most of which unfortunately is military but even that which isn’t, it’s all corporate science and because it’s corporate science, it’s serving private interests rather than public interests.  So the old phrase science and the public interest is no more.  We now have in the United States and basically worldwide because the United States dominates world science, you now have science in the private interest and in my view that’s an oxymoron there’s--it’s just a pure contradiction in terms.

CH: I remember when I was teaching at Princeton, I was rather stunned to discover that a huge percentage of the budget of Princeton’s Robotics Department came from the Defense Industry, in essence they were working mostly on underwater drones or underwater robots for the defense department.

CC: Well, I know you read the chapter that I wrote about DARPA and so that’s precisely right out of DARPA’s playbook and DARPA also holds these annual contests between university techies, I mean, the university department and the technical students will compete with each other on these projects involving artificial intelligence and especially robotization, and they give million dollar prizes and then after they give the million dollar prize, I’m talking about DARPA which is an agency of the Pentagon, then they fund the research that these students and their professors have begun in those areas.  So, you know, it’s amazing that people think of our high-tech today and are amazed and think it was done for us, you know, like Siri and Alexa, and, you know, you look at your photographs and it shows the facial recognition, can show your whole family and group them together, GPS when people, you know, drive around the back roads and they’re guided by the GPS and they think that was done for us, it was totally done for the military.  The GPS was done to create satellites and a whole satellite system to cover the Earth so the United States military can control whatever is going on on Earth militarily.

CH: Great.  When we come back, we’ll continue our conversation about the corporate and military corruption of American science with the author Cliff Conner.  Welcome back to On Contact.  We continue our conversation about the corporate and military corruption of science with the author, Cliff Conner.  So I want ask you, you write in the book about weaponized Keynesianism.  Explain what that is.

CC: Well, that’s an important concept.  And I think it’s the key to understanding why our society devotes such an immense proportion of our resources to weapons in war.  It doesn’t really make much sense.  I mean, they talk about national security.  But how much national security?  How much--how many weapons?  How many thermonuclear bombs and submarine carrying thermonuclear bombs do you need to confront a few thousand really poor fighters in the Middle East armed with--what do they call them?  IEDs.  The--I forget--you know, it’s just these little homemade bombs.  So obviously, we’re spending way, way, way more than anybody could sensibly understand why we do that.  And my answer is weaponized Keynesianism.  That was actually a phrase coined by a liberal democrat in Congress, Barney Frank.  And oddly enough he was responding to right-wing economists.  But despite that, hear me out, because I’ll explain what I mean.  Weaponized Keynesianism is also sometimes called military Keynesianism.  And it’s a shorthand way of explaining why the American economy is so extremely dependent on military spending.  Why the United States devotes an absurd proportion of its national wealth to weapons in war, and why the military budget keeps growing year in and year out.  Here’s what it boils down to.  Without the more than a trillion dollars a year, don’t be fooled by the $715,000,000,000 budget that budget--Biden’s proposing, they’re actually spending more than the trillion and a quarter dollars a year in military spending.  And the reason for it is that the American economy would very rapidly collapse into permanent paralysis without that.  And the United States today if the Pentagon stopped providing the gigantic artificial market for industrial production, millions of workers.  And not only workers and weapons plants would lose their livelihoods, without paychecks they wouldn’t be able to buy goods and services and the wheels of the national economy would grind to a halt.  And because of that, then the global economy would also collapse.  So what’s this got do with science?  Military research only accounts for a fraction of the trillions of dollars in war spending.  While that’s true, it’s the R&D money spent on creating high-tech weaponry that’s at the base of the whole process.  It’s the science and technology that creates the weapons that the military budget spends trillions of our tax dollars on.  That’s the short answer.  There’s more to weaponized Keynesianism than that.  But if your viewers want to pursue the issue further, I urge them to read the book.

CH: And I think it’s important as you point out that when you have the majority of your scientific community working for the fossil fuel industry, the food industry, or the military, you’ve essentially created a vacuum by which scientists are not addressing the wheel existential and health problems that face us.

CC: I could just add to what you just said that when I talk about the tragedy of American science, I start off but in the book, as you know, by talking about corporatization and militarization, and what you just said, points straight to the--what I consider to be the greatest tragedy of all, and that’s what’s called the path not taken.  In other words, what could have been done with all those scientific resources, the immense amount of scientific talent that’s been wasted, essentially wasted on military R&D.  It could’ve been used to solve the world hunger crisis, solve world poverty, solve the climate crisis, all of these things could be I would say fairly easily handled if those resources that we wasted on military R&D had been put to good use.

CH: I want to talk about how corrupting corporate money is to train science.  And they are paid to produce--as you said, they’re hypothesis-driven.  So for instance, you write of a funding a study that was funded by Hershey and Butterfingers that quote--I’m quoting from the study, “Children who eat candy tend to weigh less than those who don’t.”  And what they do is twist.  I mean, it’s quite egregious, you have the details in the book and--but let’s just take that one to show how science is really used to perpetuate a lie.

CC: Oh, yeah.  And it’s deliberate.  I mean, they--that’s the whole point, the corporations lay down the hypothesis that they want to prove.  And they’ll run--they have real scientists running real scientific studies.  You may have heard something in the book that I talk about p-hacking, which is also known as data dredging.  They’ve got infinite money, so they run a hundred studies.  And if five of those studies show what they want to show, they’ll throw away the ninety-five that don’t, and publish the five studies that show what they wanted to.  And they use the five percent level of--to determine whether it’s statistically accurate or not.  So out of a hundred, you’d expect five to show what you want to show, even if it’s not true.  And so that’s why you hear on the morning television shows, “You know, science says that,” and take the most absurd thing, “Children who eat candy weigh less.”  So…

CH: Well--and as you point out in the book, that the legitimate studies never--are never published.

CC: Exactly.

CH: They’re just mothballed because they don’t reach the conclusions that corporate donors want these scientists to reach.

CC: Yeah, this is the opposite of the scientific method.  The scientific method is supposed to be a way to investigate a question, not to start out with the answer to the question and find a way to prove it, you know?

CH: One of the things you write about in the book are orphan diseases, these are diseases which don’t make a lot of money for the for-profit healthcare industry.  Just talk about the consequent--or what they are and what happens.

CC: Yeah, the orphan diseases and the orphan therapies which are different but have a similar idea behind them, it’s an important thing.  The FDA definition of an orphan disease is a condition that affects fewer than 200,000 people in the United States.  And it includes some familiar diseases like Lou Gehrig’s disease, Tourette’s syndrome, relatively few people, relatively few, could be quite a few, relatively few people are afflicted by each one of these so-called orphan diseases.  But collectively, they affect 25 million  Americans.  And the problem is that they’re neglected by the medical science, you know, big pharma industries and insurance, and so forth because they offer limited profit opportunities.  On the other side of the same coin is the orphan therapies, which are medicines and protocols that have high therapeutic potential, but low commercial potential.  Although they may show promises treatments for diseases, big pharma doesn’t spend money researching them because they don’t offer enough profits.  They won’t pay for the expensive large-scale clinical tryout--trials that the FDA rightfully requires to demonstrate a medicine’s safety and efficacy.  So the orphan therapies remain unused and untested.

CH: One of the things you point out in the book, you write ‘Just because an emanate scientist name is listed as an author of an article, an authoritative science journal, it cannot be assumed that he or she had anything to do with actually writing or with the research, it reports ghost writing, has become a substantial problem in scientific and medical publishing, the scientists who lend their names to articles they haven’t written, often haven’t even seen the data the articles are based on.|

CC: Yeah, that should be shocking to people.  You know, when you think of a well-known figure in the--in the field puts his name on something, endorsing it, everything, that he did the search.  One--it’s kind of a side note, it’s interesting, I wrote a book earlier called “A People’s History of Science,” which talks about science in fact for hundreds and thousands of years and that’s been going on a long time, the famous Robert Boyle has discovered in recent times that basically his assistants did all the work, wrote them all up, and he took credit for it because he was a gentleman.  And so the modern counterpart of that are the high prestige scientists, the ones at the top of the scientific food chain, so to speak, will take the credit for, you know, all the research and the problem is a lot of--a lot of the times, the research is this p-hacking stuff, data dredging, you know, it’s unreliable in the first place.  But then to put a prominent name on it adds, you know, another level of deception.

CH: They’re just selling their name in essence.

CC: Well, yeah, yeah, that’s what they’re--and that’s how I presume they consider it’s their right as the leader of the laboratory, you know?  To gain the prestige from it.

CH: Great.  That was the author Cliff Conner on the corporatization and militarization of American science, which he writes about in his new book, “The Tragedy of American Science.”


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