Big Tobacco, Big Oil, and Greenpeace. All Merchants of Doubt That Harm People and the Planet.

Why are we ready to hold big corporations legally liable for lying, but not all the other advocates whose manipulation of the truth does society real harm!?

For years, the tobacco industry knew that their products were harmful to health. To protect their profits, they covered up what they knew, paid scientists to cast doubt on that evidence, and right through their CEOs' public testimony in Congress, just plain lied. As a result of these deceits, tens of thousands of people died.


Ultimately this selfish dishonesty came to light, and the industry was held legally liable in a massive settlement with 46 states that cost them $206 billion, to pay for the harm they did. Now the New York attorney general is investigating Exxon Mobil along basically similar lines, as evidence makes clear that the company knew about the potential harm of climate change, and either hid that knowledge or tried to sow public doubt and forestall government action against fossil fuels, the company's lifeblood.

Some, including some members of Congress, are also calling on the U.S. attorney general to investigate Exxon Mobil for possible criminal violations of the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO) as well as consumer protection, truth in advertising, public health, shareholder protection, or other securities laws.

Such Merchants of Doubt behavior by corporations is unquestionably selfish, immoral, and infuriating. But as much as this despicable and harmful dishonesty cries out for punishment, just how should it be sanctioned? Do we really want it to be illegal? That's not as simple as it seems.

Is Exxon Mobil's behavior any different than that of the organics industry, which continues to fund research and advocacy to cast doubt on the overwhelming scientific consensus that genetic modification of food causes no harm to human health? Is that not Merchants of Doubt behavior by a business interest to protect its profits? I recently posed that question to Naomi Oreskes, co-author of the book Merchants of Doubt. She acknowledged, hesitantly, that it might be.

What about the researchers and academics who publish papers, invoking the credibility of their expertise and the "peer-reviewed academic literature," that dishonestly cherry pick and twist the evidence, and flat out lie, specifically to cast doubt on the consensus about the human safety of GMOs. Isn't that precisely what they rightly accuse the tobacco and fossil fuel and chemical companies of doing? They may not be acting for profit, but these academics and scientists are unquestionably contorting the evidence to spread doubt. Here's one recent example, by the widely (and rightly) respected Dr. Sheldon Krimsky;

The consensus regarding human safety and agricultural biotechnology is no more illusory than is the consensus among scientists on climate change. There are skeptics and remaining questions to answer on both issues. But there is also overwhelming scientific consensus on both. And Dr. Krimsky knows it.

Or how about the overtly dishonest manipulation of the evidence about the human safety of GM foods by Greenpeace and other GM opponents, who investigations have shown are clearly and knowingly fudging the facts to advance their values-based agenda. See William Saletan's investigation of this in Slate:

Let's be clear. This advocacy does harm, real harm, far more proven tangible, harm than the evidence says GM technology itself does. Blanket opposition to agricultural biotechnology impedes adoption of many specific applications that could be dramatically improving human health and welfare — even saving lives (e.g., Golden Rice).

Advocates who knowingly distort the science and promote doubt and fear of vaccines do real harm. Advocates who deny the evidence about nuclear radiation — that it is FAR less dangerous than widely assumed (see Radiation and Fear: the Mismatch) — do real harm, impeding adoption of a carbon-free form of energy. Those who knowingly deny the evidence that nearly unchecked accessibility to guns facilitates more killing with guns... lord knows THEY do real harm.

So if we hold Exxon Mobil legally liable for such behavior, and the law is fairly applied, shouldn't anyone who deceives and casts doubt on what they know the science says be held to the same legal standard? Aren't they doing real harm with their deception, whether their motive is profit (the organics industry) or advancing a value-based agenda in a way that harms others? Tort law — liability for causing harm — doesn't care about motive. If you lie and do harm, you are liable.

You can see the slippery slope here. As much as corporate Merchants of Doubt behavior infuriates, do we want to make all such behavior illegal? Where is the line between knowingly deceptive distortion of the evidence in a way that does tangible harm, and free speech? When does “GMOs are unsafe!" or “Vaccines are dangerous!" or “Climate change isn't happening!" go from advocacy to falsely yelling, “Fire," in a theater? Has Exxon Mobil crossed that line? Greenpeace? The organics industry? How about the countless for-profit “Natural is Good" websites that peddle all kinds of snake oil products, taking money out of people's pockets by preying on fear of almost anything human-made? How about the coal industry and the Koch Brothers and conservative donors who also helped fund climate change denial/skepticism? Should Robert Kennedy Jr. or Bill Maher or Jenny McCarthy be held legally liable for doing harm with their distortions of the evidence about vaccines? How about academics and scientists who claim the mantle of expertise and objectivity while knowingly twisting the facts to serve their beliefs, across a wide range of issues?

See the danger? There is no line, just a slippery slope, with some more obviously sinister Merchants of Doubt at the top, and lots of less-than-obvious offenders doing essentially the same thing sliding down the slope all the way to the bottom. Where does advocacy turn into legally liable tort/harm? Somewhere, for sure. The answer probably revolves around how purposeful and knowing the deceit was, and how directly that deceit and contrived doubt caused real damage.

But in a society that enshrines free speech as a basic right, the answer of how and when to sanction such behavior, without going too far, is not as simple as it might first seem. Investigations into such behavior should tread carefully. And they should target anyone who engages in it, not just the big, bad companies we all love to hate.

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David Ropeik is an Instructor at Harvard, a consultant in risk perception and risk communication, author of How Risky Is it, Really? Why Our Fears Don't Always Match the Facts, and principal co-author of RISK, A Practical Guide for Deciding What's Really Safe and What's Really Dangerous in the World Around You. He runs a program called Improving Media Coverage of Risk and was the Director of Risk Communication at the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis, part of the Harvard School of Public Health, for 4 years, prior to which he was a TV reporter, specializing in environmental issues, for a local station in Boston for 22 years.

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  • Now that the issue of concentration camps in the U.S. has once again reared its head, it can be beneficial to recall the last time such camps were employed in the U.S.
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On February 19, 1942, President Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, which authorized and directed military commanders "to prescribe military areas … from which any or all persons may be excluded, and with respect to which, the right of any person to enter, remain in, or leave shall be subject to whatever restrictions the Secretary of War or the appropriate Military Commander may impose in his discretion." Under the authority of this executive order, roughly 112,000 men, women, and children of Japanese descent — nearly two-thirds of which were American citizens — were detained in concentration camps.

How did the camps get their start?

With the benefit of a nearly 80-year perspective, it's clear that the internment of Japanese Americans was racially motivated. In response to Japan's growing military power in the buildup to World War II, President Roosevelt commissioned two reports to determine whether it would be necessary to intern Japanese Americans should conflict break out between Japan and the U.S. Neither's conclusions supported the plan, with one even going so far as to "certify a remarkable, even extraordinary degree of loyalty among this generally suspect ethnic group." But of course, the Pearl Harbor attacks proved to be far more persuasive than these reports.

Pearl Harbor turned simmering resentment against the Japanese to a full boil, putting pressure on the Roosevelt administration to intern Japanese Americans. Lieutenant General John DeWitt, who would become the administrator of the internment program, testified to Congress

"I don't want any of them here. They are a dangerous element. There is no way to determine their loyalty... It makes no difference whether he is an American citizen, he is still a Japanese. American citizenship does not necessarily determine loyalty... But we must worry about the Japanese all the time until he is wiped off the map."

DeWitt's position was backed up by a number of pre-existing anti-immigrant groups based out of the West Coast, such as the Joint Immigration Committee and the Native Sons and Daughters of the Golden West. For many, the war simply served as an excuse to get rid of Japanese Americans. In an interview with the Saturday Evening Post, Austin Anson, the managing secretary of the Salinas Vegetable Grower-Shipper Administration, said:

"We're charged with wanting to get rid of the Japs for selfish reasons. We do. It's a question of whether the White man lives on the Pacific Coast or the brown men. ... If all the Japs were removed tomorrow, we'd never miss them in two weeks because the White farmers can take over and produce everything the Jap grows. And we do not want them back when the war ends, either."

Ironically for Anson, the mass deportation of Japanese Americans under Executive Order 9066 meant there was a significant shortage of agricultural labor. Many Caucasians left to fight the war, so the U.S. signed an agreement with Mexico to permit the immigration of several million Mexicans agricultural workers under the so-called bracero program.

Life in the camps

Japanese American concentration camp

Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Circa 1943: Aerial view of a Japanese American relocation center in Amache, Colorado, during World War II. Each family was provided with a space 20 by 25 ft. The barracks were set in blocks and each block was provided with a community bath house and mess hall.

For the most part, Japanese Americans remained stoic in the face of their incarceration. The phrase shikata ga nai was frequently invoked — the phrase roughly translates to "it cannot be helped," which, for many, represents the perceived attitude of the Japanese people to withstand suffering that's out of their control.

Initially, most Japanese Americans were sent to temporary assembly centers, typically located at fairgrounds or racetracks. These were hastily constructed barracks, where prisoners were often packed into tight quarters and made to use toilets that were little more than pits in the ground. From here, they were relocated to more permanent camps — replete with barbed wire and armed guards — in remote, isolated places across the seven states of California, Arizona, Colorado, Wyoming, Idaho, Utah, and Arkansas.

Many of these camps, also known as War Relocation Centers, were little better than the temporary assembly centers. One report described the buildings as "tar paper-covered barracks of simple frame construction without plumbing or cooking facilities of any kind." Again, overcrowding was common.

As a result, disease became a major concern, including dysentery, malaria, and tuberculosis. This was problematic due to the chronic shortage of medical professionals and supplies, an issue that was not helped by the War Relocation Authority's decision to cap Japanese American medical professional's pay at $20 a month (about $315 in 2019 dollars), while Caucasian workers had no such restriction. As a comparison, Caucasian nurses earned $150 ($2,361) a month in one camp.

The U.S. government also administered loyalty questionnaires to incarcerated Japanese Americans with the ultimate goal of seeing whether they could be used as soldiers and to segregate "loyal" citizens from "disloyal" ones. The questionnaires often asked whether they would be willing to join the military and if they would completely renounce their loyalty to Japan. Due to fears of being drafted, general confusion, and justified anger at the U.S. government, thousands of Japanese Americans "failed" the loyalty questionnaire and were sent to the concentration camp at Tule Lake. When Roosevelt later signed a bill that would permit Japanese Americans to renounce their citizenship, 98 percent of the 5,589 who did were located at Tule Lake. Some apologists cite this an example of genuine disloyalty towards the U.S., but this argument clearly ignores the gross violation of Japanese Americans' rights. Later, it became clear that many of these renunciations had been made under duress, and nearly all of those who had renounced their citizenship sought to gain it back.

Since many children lived in the camps, they came equipped with schools. Of course, these schools weren't ideal — student-teacher ratios reached as high as 48:1, and supplies were limited. The irony of learning about American history and ideals was not lost on the students, one of whom wrote in an essay --

"They, the first generation [of Japanese immigrants], without the least knowledge of the English language nor the new surroundings, came to this land with the American pioneering spirit of resettling. ...Though undergoing many hardships, they did reach their goal only to be resettled by the order of evacuation under the emergency for our protection and public security."

Potentially the best part of life in the camps — and the best way for determined prisoners to demonstrate their fundamental American-ness — was playing baseball. One camp even featured nearly 100 baseball teams. Former prisoner Herb Kurima recalled the importance of baseball in their lives in an interview with Christian Science Monitor. "I wanted our fathers, who worked so hard, to have a chance to see a ball game," he said. "Over half the camp used to come out to watch. It was the only enjoyment in the camps."

The aftermath

When the camps finally closed in 1945, the lives of the incarcerated Japanese Americans had been totally upended. Some were repatriated to Japan, while others settled in whichever part of the country they had been arbitrarily placed in. Those who wished to return to the West Coast were given $25 and a train ticket, but few had anything to return to. Many had sold their property to predatory buyers prior to being incarcerated, while theft had wiped out whatever else they had left behind. Many, many years later, the 1988 Civil Liberties Act mandated that each surviving victim be paid $20,000, though that seems like a small fine to pay for irrevocably changing the courses of more than 100,000 lives.