David Michaels
William Collins
2020 | 336pp | £18.99
ISBN 9780190922665

Buy this book on Amazon.co.uk

An image showing the book cover of The triumph of doubt

In a world where people are spewing ‘alternative facts’, yelling about fake news and sharing random articles on social media, the public is left asking: What is the truth? In The Triumph of Doubt, David Michaels opens our eyes to the methods corporations employ that bend the facts of science in order to make a profit. The uncertainty fostered by hired product defense firms can muddy the water on the safety and health implications of the products corporations know will make them money, leaving the public confused or unaware.

Many people will be familiar with Michaels’ stories and evidence against the tobacco industry, but the chapters focused on alcohol, diesel emissions, opioids and sugar are sure to share some new – and scary – insights. With a resume that includes the assistant secretary for environment, safety and health under US president Bill Clinton and assistant secretary of labor for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) under president Barack Obama, Michaels has seen first hand how politicians, lobbyists and even scientists can spin scientific studies for their benefit.

A chapter entitled ‘Deadly dust’ highlights the difficulties that Michaels experienced while working at OSHA to pass additional regulations on silica exposure. I never knew the number of stalling techniques that are thrown at governmental officials trying to protect the public.

Many topics felt like they were ripped directly from current headlines as Michaels weaves policy and politics of the Trump administration into the text. For example, a chapter focusing on the health and environmental impacts of polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) such as Teflon in drinking water supplies comes just as the US Environmental Protection Agency is finalising a rule on PFAS imports. I’m sure if he had been writing this book later in 2020, there would be a chapter focused on the coronavirus and how governments have handled the current pandemic – I guess we will need to wait for his next book!

As an academic scientist who publishes and reads a lot of peer reviewed articles, I must admit that I have not paid significant attention to the funding sources and conflict of interest statements that accompany each one. However, after reading this book, I know I will scrutinise them in more detail to make sure that the authors are presenting an unbiased view of their scientific findings. An awareness of the tactics outlined by Michaels will make us all better consumers of science.

The book wasn’t a riveting page-turner, but it was chock full of good examples that were clearly researched (averaging over 30 references per chapter) and supplemented with Michaels’ personal experiences. I think any scientist who wants to bridge the realm of research, policy, politics and ethics would benefit from reading this book.