Science for Sale project names the merchants of doubt

Note from the Center

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From February 12, 2016 note from Center for Public Integrity CEO Peter Bale.

Science for Sale

David Heath on the Environment team gave birth this week a story more than a year in the making and based on analysis of tens of thousands of documents. Like tobacco litigation,  his work on the health risks in chemicals and the impact on communities, workers and consumers takes time and patience. Smoking guns — as it were — aren’t easy to find. A big issue for him has been the perversion of scientific fact by well-placed doubt.

“Meet the ‘rented white coats’ who defend toxic chemicals” was the first piece in the series to show just how extraordinary the path can be between a lawyer keen to defend his chemical company clients and the readiness of a commercial scientist to find evidence to match. It would be funny if it didn’t then prejudice true science and affect important decisions on litigation and regulation. It’s a good, even amusing (in places) read.

Close to the heart of the work is an amazing database the Center for Public Integrity created in partnership with the City University of New York and Columbia University. The latest investigation adds 7,000 once-confidential documents to a database of 200,000 already in the “Chemical Archives”. Scroll down this story on cancer clusters and see how it works. It’s one way in which our investigative work lasts. The Center’s Chris Zubak-Skees developed it with others.

Vice News was our distribution partner on the story off our own network and there’s more next week.

One aspect I really liked was Environment editor Jim Morris’ explanatory commentary on why we should give a damn. I believe the Center has to push this much harder and Jim did it with a quote from Hippocrates: 

“Science is the father of knowledge but opinion breeds ignorance.”

Nearly 2 and a half millennia after the father of Western medicine offered that insight, science and opinion have become increasingly conflated, in large part because of corporate influence. Read more.

Lobbyists find fresh territory in the states

There’s a widespread sense in Washington that with a gridlocked Congress that lobbying energy and money has moved to the states. Now we have quantified it and shown it in a way that allows any state reporter or citizen to see just how true it is and who is behind that money from Big Pharma, to Uber, to trade unions.

The package on lobbying from reporters Liz Essley Whyte and Ben Wieder and our exceptional crew of data visualization journalists Yue Qiu and Chris Zubak-Skees, is another example of creating lasting value in our work. The spot story is strong on the human impact and scale of the money moving into the states but the underlying database, rendered for every state is hugely powerful and is an asset for any state reporter. It is exactly what the state project led by Kytja Weir “Who’s Calling the Shots in State Politics” is supposed to do.

Making political spending visible

Another example of the world-class data work by Chris Zuba-Skees— which gets better with every dollar and every caucus— is this ad-tracker on presidential race political advertising spending and the  the 2016 presidential contender fundraising & spending graphic. I strongly believe this is some of the best work the Center has done.

What we’re reading and thinking about

Spotlight, the movie about the Boston Globe investigation into pedophile priests, is practically a recruiting ad for investigative journalism and has been great at raising the profile of the business. CPI board co-chairman Scott Siegler and I went to a talk with Spotlight writer Josh Singer, then Boston Globe editor and now Washington Post editor Marty Baron and Columbia Journalism School dean Steve Coll in Los Angeles this week.

Josh is clearly deeply committed now to investigative reporting. If you haven’t seen the movie yet it’s perhaps the best portrays in cinema of the actual job of journalism. The Center’s own Kristen Lombardi was interviewed by the filmmakers and gets a shoutout in it for her coverage of the issue of priests in the alternative Boston Phoenix.

As always, I welcome your feedback on this note.

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