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The Banality of Evil Scientists

— February 9, 2016

Once as a law clerk I was asked by an associate in the firm I worked for to take a trip to a nearby university medical library and do a little research. Her client had jaw cancer, and she wanted to know whether benzene, an ingredient in the client’s denture cream, was a carcinogen. In her eye was a gleam of excitement. She was pursuing a scientific theory! In my time at the library, I found that indeed benzene is a carcinogen. And I learned that humans are frequently exposed to benzene from smoking tobacco. When I got back to the office, I made the lawyer happy with my news about benzene. But I couldn’t help asking whether her client smoked. “Yes,” she said. Eventually her face fell.

Lawyers are not usually scientists. But lawyers are highly motivated and can be imaginative in the search for somebody to sue. This is not news. But the Center for Public Integrity has published an excellent article by David Heath that reminds us that scientists are not always scientists either. Heath’s article takes aim at “the rented white coats,” a derisive term for scientists whose work is defending corporations that harm people. We are introduced to a few loathsome characters, and I will get to them in a moment, but at the outset of this summary of Heath’s long article I want to suggest a background thought. That is, an evil system breeds evil actors.

Where there is a strong incentive to make products with chemicals that hurt or kill people, and where there is a strong incentive to lie and cover up this harm, there will always be weak, empty human beings to crawl out of the woodwork and do the dirty work. Such people are not exotically evil. To use Hannah Arendt’s term about Adolf Eichmann, their evil is banal. The true villain of this story is the system itself. In short, the villain is the profit motive.

Heath first introduces us to attorney Evan Nelson of San Francisco. Like my old boss, Nelson had a theory. From the scientific research he had conducted on mesothelioma, the form of lung cancer caused by asbestos, Nelson had convinced himself that the disease could also be caused by tobacco. This would be fortunate for Nelson, who defended corporate clients that exposed people to asbestos.

In his excitement at expanding the horizon of human knowledge, Nelson contacted Peter Valberg, formerly a Harvard professor and now with the “environmental consulting firm” Gradient Corporation. Valberg is a scientist, one who makes his living telling juries and governmental organizations like the Environmental Protection Agency that substances like asbestos and arsenic and lead—anything used by the corporations that pay him—aren’t really all that bad for people. Nelson had a proposal for Valberg. He wanted Valberg to write scientific papers endorsing Nelson’s tobacco-causes-mesothelioma theory. Valberg found Nelson’s theory “intriguing.” He even offered Nelson a 10% discount to write the articles.

Another Gradient employee, Julie Goodman, tried to prevent the EPA from listing a chemical called n-propyl bromide as a hazardous air pollutant under the Clean Air Act. Goodman argued that a government study showing high rates of cancer in rats exposed to the chemical had “no relevance” for humans. Adam Finkel, senior fellow at the University of Pennsylvania and a former official at the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration concluded that Goodman had no evidence and was “just making stuff up.”

People like Valberg and Goodman serve the logic of a system, as does their employer Gradient. In order to earn their salaries and advance their careers, they blithely tell lies at the expense of the health and lives of others. It is difficult to fathom what goes on inside such a person. Malice seems unlikely. “Nothing” might be closer to the truth.

The same emptiness characterizes the GM executives who sacrificed over a hundred lives in order to save the corporation money, and the officials in Michigan who knew of the toxicity of Flint’s water and did nothing. Evil is almost always banal in this way. It is the banal function of a banal system in which all products, all human endeavor, is made to answer not with its usefulness to human beings but with its profitability. It is up to us to outgrow such a system.

Source:  The Center for Public Integrity.  “Meet the Rented White Coats Who Defend Toxic Chemicals”

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