The scientific method is, without question, the primary means of learning new knowledge about the physical world. It is the tool we use to understand how the universe works, what it’s made of, and how we can expect it to behave. And it is the basis for every scientific and technological advancement of the past 300 years.
Put simply, the scientific method is a sort of rulebook for learning. A hypothesis is put forth to explain a given phenomenon. That hypothesis is then tested using independent data or observations. If tests reveal the hypothesis to be false, then the hypothesis is modified or discarded; if it is confirmed, then the experiments are to be replicated and confirmed before the hypothesis can be considered a “general theory.” The general theory is then put forth to explain the phenomenon in question.
This is the tried-and-true method by which researchers have come to learn of every scientific insight — from germ theory to general relativity. But none of it can work without a sense of independence; scientists cannot be influenced by anything other than their own research if they want their work to be taken seriously.
So why, then, is the Ford Motor Company funneling tens of millions of dollars into junk research and hiring scientists to conclude whatever the company tells them to conclude? What does a car company have to do with scientific research in the first place? Well, when a lawsuit comes down to whether or not a jury accepts the basic truth that asbestos exposure causes cancer, those responsible will do whatever it takes to muddle and confuse the science.
Putting the Brakes on Good Science
A recent investigation by Vice and the Center for Public Integrity revealed that, since 2001, Ford has spent close to $40 Million to discredit the dangers of asbestos. They’ve done this through biased, “for-hire” research that has no basis in accepted science. Why? To excuse the $63 Billion company from lawsuits related to asbestos exposure from automobile parts. For decades, Ford used asbestos as a main component in its brake pads and linings.
In recent years, Ford hired consultants to publish papers that conclude there is no evidence linking exposure to asbestos in brake components to mesothelioma and other asbestos-related diseases, despite decades of clear, independent scientific research suggesting the opposite. Both the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the World Health Organization (WHO) concur that there is no safe level of asbestos exposure. Furthermore, according to the Vice report, more than 100 scientists and academics from 17 countries have affirmed that asbestos in brake parts can cause mesothelioma.
What’s perhaps most alarming about this is the precedent it could set: Are we really that far from a world where corporate-sponsored science has replaced the traditional scientific method? Is it really that hard to imagine a future where universally accepted truths are challenged and replaced by an alternative, corporate-approved “reality?” Like it or not, that’s the landscape revealed by the Ford Motor Company.
Dr. Evil, PhD
It wasn’t until 2001 that Ford phased out the use of asbestos in its brake parts. But the widespread use of the naturally-occurring mineral in the preceding decades — not to mention the threat it continues to pose to mechanics and technicians — convinced Ford it needed to find a way to dodge responsibility. It was then that the company hired a toxicologist named Dennis Paustenbach.
A prolific scientific researcher who has been nicknamed Dr. Evil, Paustenbach combed through inconsistencies in data related to mesothelioma and asbestos exposure — not to disprove the mineral’s toxicity, but to merely cast doubt and confuse those among the scientific consensus. As one plaintiff’s lawyer told Vice in the report, this newfound “disagreement” has served to tip the scales for defendants (like Ford) with juries. By promoting faulty science, the underlying basis of a plaintiff’s claim—no matter how legitimate—is drawn into question.
“More frequently,” the lawyer added, “it has been used by industry lawyers to increase the costs and burdens on the courts and sick mechanics by creating a tidal wave of pre-trial litigation regarding the 'science.'"
Apart from adding confusing data to the sciences, this type of corporate-funded research has also allowed for the continued manufacture of asbestos — a practice that should have been banned outright ages ago. According to the report, Paustenbach’s “research” has helped block asbestos bans in nations like India and China, where the material is still widely used in manufacturing. In effect, that means future generations will continue to suffer at the hands of this obviously toxic mineral.
Furthermore, Ford shows no sign of changing its mind on this policy. In its 2014 annual report, the company stated the following:
"Most of the asbestos litigation we face involves individuals who claim to have worked on the brakes of our vehicles over the years. We are prepared to defend these cases, and believe that the scientific evidence confirms our long-standing position that there is no increased risk of asbestos-related disease as a result of exposure to the type of asbestos formerly used in the brakes on our vehicles.”
If that's the case, how would Ford explain the multitude of mechanics dead and dying from asbestos-triggered diseases like lung cancer and mesothelioma?
The Scientific Method™
Maybe the saddest thing about this story is that it unfolded in an environment where scientists are increasingly desperate for funding. For their research to be considered sound, scientists need to work in an impartial environment — a lab, community, or country where they are free to question or promote their various theories and hypotheses. They need to work in an environment where ideas are exchanged on the basis of merit — not financial, political, or cultural influence.
For much of the last century, the U.S. was considered a haven for scientific progress — mostly because it harbored a culture of independence. It also maintained a bountiful trove of publicly funded research that allowed scientists to toil at the forefront of pretty much any scientific field.
In recent years, however, publicly funded research has dwindled. Research and development has fallen from a peak of nearly 12 percent of the U.S. federal budget in the mid-1960s to just over 3 percent in 2016, according to the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). A recent study by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology revealed how none of the most significant scientific achievements of 2014 was heralded by an American research team.
Most alarmingly, private corporations have cropped up in the absence of public research to provide necessary funding — funding that is hardly independent or free from commercial influence. Desperately in need of a salary — let alone funding for their R&D projects — many scientists have been forced to work under the biased conditions of their corporate backers.
This is the desperate environment Ford Motor Company has taken advantage of. It is a case of intentional scientific ignorance — the kind of “see no evil, hear no evil” attitude that refuses to accept the truth if it challenges familiar political or economic conditions. Like climate skeptics who believe that a 97 percent scientific consensus is still a “debate,” Ford chooses to believe the jury is still out (no pun intended) on the lethality of asbestos. Meanwhile, the rest of the scientific community can only sit back and watch as their field is corrupted and sullied by the likes of such greedy, irresponsible people.