Wednesday, May 1, 2013

NMSU Regents: Please Look before You Leap

[the following is a letter I plan to send Thursday to the NMSU Board of Regents as feedback regarding the search for New Mexico State University's next president.]

My comments concern the possibility that you folks may name former Governor Garrey Carruthers the next NMSU President.

Nothing against Mr. Carruthers – whom I knew slightly as a reasonably affable gentleman when I was a newspaper reporter in Las Cruces during the mid-1970's, and when I worked briefly as a film-maker for U.S. Senator Pete Domenici during that same era.

But a little study suggests that Carruthers is a questionable choice who could embarrass the university in serious academic and scientific circles.

Carruthers has spent too much of his life sponsoring cynical attacks – paid for by industry solely to suit industry’s convenience – on scientific findings that could limit corporate profits in the name of safety and environmental protection.

Specifically, Carruthers spent several years during the 1990's as a paid flak for Philip Morris, arguing that “second-hand smoke” studies were “shoddy science.”

More specifically, Philip Morris founded TASSC (The Advancement of Sound Science Center) to undermine public confidence in findings that second-hand tobacco smoke could be harmful to people.  The group fought various efforts to ban smoking in public buildings, for example.  (Here's Wikipedia's take on the group.)

 Carruthers was TASSC's first chairman, and was identified as such in internal Philip Morris memos planning the group's public launch.  He was its main public face.

Philip Morris used lawyers and PR firms to mask the fact that TASSC was solely a tobacco industry creation.  It sought donations from other industries troubled by safety and environmental regulations – and attacked as “shoddy science” whatever those contributing industries pointed them toward.  The Endangered Species Act, the Clean Air Act, enhanced automobile safety, and the dangers of silicone breast implants were all targets of Carruthers's TASSC, as was climate change.  Essentially, TASSC was an corporate hit squad attacking whatever sicence might be inconvenient for an oil company, a tobacco company, or Monsanto.

The effort to fool the public about tobacco failed miserably.  Smoking in public buildings is prohibited in most cities – and, ironically, a recent Sun-News headline says NMSU may go “tobacco-free” throughout the system.  About 71% of faculty and students favor the move, and a task force is expected to recommend it . . . but that may be subject to the whim of the next NMSU President.

Just as Philip Morris dissembled about TASSC, and its mouthpieces, Carruthers may not have been entirely honest about this aspect of his career.  There’s abundant evidence in the public record; but I didn’t find it on his biography on the NMSU website, although that covered other activities from the same time-frame.  (His 12-page resume does not include TASSC among his professional positions, but vaguely lists under “Public Service”  “The Advancement of Sound Science Coalition, founded April, 1993 to 1998, National Chairman.”)

Maybe he plays it down because he’s a bit embarrassed, and regrets that he let corporations pay him to attack honest scientists.

His comments at a recent session with New Mexico students suggest he's still in the anti-science game.  On global warming, he mouthed the party line that there’s no consensus that the climate is changing and that human activity is at least partially responsible.  "It's a scientific judgment I can't make," he added.

But there is a consensus among scientists with serious credentials who aren’t in the pay of corporations with a vested interest in denial.  That is, among independent or neutral researchers, there’s no serious doubt.  Corporations manufacture an appearance of doubt by finding unqualified, greedy, or past-their-prime “scientists” to argue denial, even though they have no peer-reviewed published studies to support them.  (An NMSU professor noted this consensus, in response to Carruthers, adding that it was "pretty appalling" that the candidate for university president had no "vision for dealing with the most serious environmental crisis that humanity and the Earth have ever faced.")

What’s all this go to do with the University?  Plenty.

NMSU is known for its scientific research.

Carruthers and TASSC were part of the corporate move to pay commentators and scientists of questionable credentials to say pretty much anything Big Tobacco, Big Oil, Detroit, Monsanto, or another industry wanted said.  The point was to throw as much mud as possible at legitimate scientists, and even intimidate them, to undermine public confidence in legitimate science.

As president, would Carruthers continue that effort?  Would he bring in more industry-sponsored research, while weakening controls designed to ensure scientific objectivity?

Even if he would not do so, would reasonable observers beyond Las Cruces assume he was doing so, undermining national and international respect for NMSU?

  Put another way, should a university that prides itself on high-quality scientific work be headed by a man whom tobacco companies and others paid to attack financially inconvenient scientific research -- high-quality or otherwise -- on any grounds available?

Finally (and closest to my own heart): the fact that our climate is changing rapidly, at least in part because of our own activities, is as scientifically well-accepted but politically undecided as tobacco issues (whether cigarettes did people any harm; later, whether even second-hand smoke could harm people) were in the past.  Corporate interests will delay the effort to face the facts, as they did then; but this time the delay will be measured not in a vast but finite number of additional cases of lung cancer but in closing the last window we have to deal with a situation that will plague our children and grandchildren.  Time is passing. It's possible, even likely, that even if humanity began its best efforts tomorrow, it could at best reduce the scope of the disaster. Does NMSU wish to particpate in that effort or help put on the brakes?

         UNM has a Sustainability Plan.  Dr. Carruthers, unconvinced of climate change, may not see the need for one at NMSU.

         These are serious concerns.  Please do not ignore them by rushing to a decision on this matter.

         Depending on the nature of your own conversations with Carruthers, his reticence about TASSC might itself be worthy of further study before you decide to entrust our university to him.  (For example, was he -- as one assumes -- paid for his extensive TASSC work? If so, is listing it under "Public Service" quite accurate?)

         I understand that this information has come to light fairly recently -- after the search committee vetted the candidates, after news media had profiled the candidates, and largely after Carruthers met with students.  Particularly if the significant facts about Carruthers's involvement with TASSC have not been known to you and to the search committee members, any move to hand the NMSU presidency to Dr. Carruthers should, at best, be delayed to permit full investigation.

[Note: I only recently began looking at this issue.  My research is incomplete, but I believe the foregoing to be accurate.  Below, I've included some links to relevant articles and documents.  They are not well-ordered, partly because I'm still looking at further materials; but some of them help support the points made above.  I'll try to supplement it if I come across additional documents of potential use.]

some materials on TASSC, in addition to the Wikipedia article to which there's a link above:

A 2001 article in the American Journal of Public Health notes the tobacco industry attack on 'junk science'  and that Philip Morris "used public relations firms and lawyers to obscure the tobacco industry's role.  The European 'sound science' plans included a version of 'good epidemiogical practices' that would make it impossible to conclude that secondhand smoke -- and thus other environmental toxins -- caused diseases."

The article then warned that "Public health professionals need to be aware that the'sound science' movement is not an indigenous effort from within the profession to improve the quality of scientific discourse, but reflects sophisticated public relations campaigns controlled by indusry executives and lawyers whose aim is to manipulate the standards of scientific proof to serve the corporate interests of their clients."
This article provides the history of the Philip Morris "Sound Science" organization and its objective, flatly stated in Philip Morris documents 

An "Opinion Editorial from Garrey Carruthers, Chairman of TASSC" on TASSC letterhead, "Are We Being Exploited by Shoddy Science?":
Here he opposes the Clean Air Act as applied on Dallas-Fort Worth, not by reasoned discussion but by dredging up the Alar banning.  The Alar situation is also brought up at the start of an interview of Carruthers  by a friendly radio host at WBAP-FM in Dallas.. The transcript, available on-line.isn't too interesting because he's tossed softball-type questions by a political ally, but he states his opposition to the Clean Air Act, the Endangered Species Act, and claims that growth hormones in cattle might not be a great thing for the folks who eat them.  (The Alar situation appears in a lot of the group's materials, suggesting the dearth of additional strong examples of their criticism of public science.)

The Catalyst, a TASSC Newsletter, (Volume I (Fall 1994) No. 3) contains a poll purporting to establish
public and even scientific lack of faith in government-sponsored research, and also reports written testimony by a TASSC Scientific Advisory Board Member (Dr. Alan Hedge) to a New York City hearing on "legislation that called for unreasonable restrictions on smoking in buildings," and a "Letter from the Chairman" (Carruthers).

The "unreasonable restrictions" Carruthers's group protested are now law pretty much everywhere.  Hedge's view that smoking policies had little or no effect on indoor air quality obviously didn't convince many decision-makers, despite the best efforts of the tobacco industry.

The poll Carruthers had done, and discusses proudly, was not, of course, done by an unbiased group, but by a rightist group that works for Republican candidates and groups.

An article on the web-site of the Center for Media and Democracy's PR Watch, Inside the Tobacco Industry's Files documents that fighting the science on silicone gel breast implants was also part of Carruthers's work at TASSC. In 1995, Carruthers announced a TASSC award to a journalist for "having responsibly detailed in a series of stories how science has been distorted and manipulated to fuel litigation concerning silicone breast implants."  By 2006, the date of the article, the reporter notably did not mention TASSC or this wonderful ward in her CV.

You can also read the initial Philip Morris Plan for the Public Launching of TASSC.  It identifies Carruthers as Chairman, but doesn't say how much or by whom he's being paid.

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