“The Most Disquieting Voices … From Perfectly Respectable Elements of Society”: Monsanto Attacks the Academy

Child Health Health Equity Health Law

A recent set of lawsuits against the Monsanto Corporation by local and state governments to get the company to clean up the mess it made of waterways and local schools with polychlorinated hydrocarbons (PCB) pollution has led to efforts by the company to silence scientists who have served as expert witnesses for plaintiffs. The company has lost hundreds of millions of dollars in six major trials concerning parents in a school district who have sued on behalf of children exposed daily to fumes from leaking ballasts and PCB-containing caulking in the walls. Recently, Oregon settled with Monsanto for $698 million in a PCB pollution suit, the largest environmental settlement in the State’s history. These losses have stunned Monsanto, which faces scores, if not hundreds, of similar suits throughout the nation.

This has led Monsanto to begin efforts to undercut the most potent witnesses who have proven capable of explaining PCB’s complex biology and toxicology to jurors who could otherwise be confused by the language of science and the epidemiology of a chlorinated hydrocarbon, whose effects are subtle but numerous and sometimes appear decades after exposures. The most recent object of Monsanto’s ire was Dr. David Carpenter, a renowned expert in the toxicology of polyvinyl chloride who has been crucial in explaining to juries the ways that PCBs become major causes of neurological damage in children. Carpenter, the founding Dean of the SUNY Albany School of Public Health, has participated in numerous cases on behalf of the State of Washington and the Mohawk Nation in upstate New York where waterways are polluted with PCBs and school districts have experienced PCB leaks from light ballasts and walls, exposing kids to what is now deemed a probable carcinogen. Monsanto lawyers accused Carpenter of misusing funds he earned testifying by directing his fees to his students to help pay their tuition and other support. The University only provides a financial stipend for one year of doctoral study with the rest deriving either from the students’ own funds or from grants available through federal agencies. Hence, students who are neither independently wealthy nor eligible for NIH support would be left out in the cold without Carpenter’s help. Somehow, it appears, this act of beneficence compromised his role as an academic researcher free of self-interest in the outcome of lawsuits. The university, apparently confused about possible violations of federal integrity standards, and worried that Monsanto lawyers were breathing down their necks, suspended this renowned 86-year-old head of one of their major research units from teaching, or even visiting his university offices, for nine months.

This attack on David Carpenter is part of a half-century plan to reassert industry dominance over the intellectual community, a plan that was first formally proposed in the early 1970s. In 1971 Lewis Powell, shortly before he became a Supreme Court Justice, wrote a “CONFIDENTIAL MEMO: ATTACK ON AMERICAN FREE ENTERPRISE SYSTEM,” that he sent to the US Chamber of Commerce. It began with the direct statement that “No thoughtful person can question that the American economic system is under broad attack.” Powell argued, “The most disquieting voices joining the chorus of criticism come from perfectly respectable elements of society: from the college campus, the pulpit, the media, the intellectual and literary journals, the arts and sciences, and from politicians….” Yale Professor Charles Reich and his popular best seller, The Greening of America, first published as an extended article in the New Yorker, was particularly alarming to Powell. The 50-page New Yorker article opened with the words: “There is a revolution under way…. [and] must be understood in light of the rise of the corporate state and the ways in which [it] exploits, and ultimately destroys both nature and man.” In the piece, published just as the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health were being organized, Reich described the environmental movement as part and parcel of the attack on an economic system that had become “deranged.” Reich argued, to Powell’s dismay, that corporate America had produced “a society that,” among other injustices, “destroys the environment and the self, and is… ‘unhealthy for children and other living things.’”

The Response of Industrial America

Powell argued that business had to mobilize against this intellectual and political assault from the academic community. But, he worried, corporate America had “not been trained or equipped to conduct guerrilla warfare with those who propagandize against the system, seeking insidiously and constantly to sabotage it.” Industry could not be intimidated and needed to use all its political and economic muscle to recapture the narrative from the anti-capitalist forces that he believed dominated the university. Among the activities business had to support was the nurturing of pro-corporate scholars and efforts to screen textbooks and university ranks for anti-corporate ideologies: “If the authors, publishers and users of textbooks know that they will be subjected — honestly, fairly and thoroughly — to review and critique by eminent scholars who believe in the American system a return to a more rational balance can be expected.” He called for the screening (perhaps banning?) of academic work and the replacement of justices on the US Supreme Court with those whose sympathies were in keeping with his.

In short order, a series of think tanks with lofty arguments about free enterprise, libertarian ideas, and vague notions of “freedom” and anti-government ideologies were established in order to nurture an intellectual elite that would counter and perhaps replace the liberals who, Powell believed, had captured intellectual thought. As Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) has explained in his extraordinary book, The Scheme: How the Right Wing Used Dark Money to Capture the Supreme Court, many of these institutes, such as the CATO Institute, the Heritage Foundation, the Hudson Institute, and the Manhattan Institute. were established in light of Powell’s “blueprint” and were, and still are, funded by industrial and right wing “dark money” donors, including the Koch Brothers.

Powell’s call to arms did not go unheeded by the business community and over the course of several decades increasingly sophisticated efforts were made to reshape American attitudes and political power. First was the election of Ronald Reagan and his replacement of activist administrators in the EPA and OSHA with others dedicated to shrinking and ultimately limiting the scope of its regulatory authority. Then, attacks on “left-wing” academics began.

Luckily, the integrity of the university and scholarship were not dramatically damaged. David Carpenter himself recently was reinstated by his university and cleared of any slur on his reputation. His students will be able to receive support from the income he earns testifying in lawsuits. But, now, as academics become potent forces in seeking to hold companies accountable for their misdeeds, we can expect a rash of even more aggressive efforts to undermine scholars like David Carpenter through attacks on their personal integrity, their research, and their willingness to come forward and use their voices in court on behalf of victims of pollution.

Disclosure: I have served as an expert witness, along with David Carpenter, on behalf of the plaintiffs in these and other cases. I personally was in a similar situation a number of years ago when the chemical industry tried to discredit me, my co-author, Gerald Markowitz, and one of our books by engaging in tactics that included not only subpoenaing our universities for our records, subpoenaing eight peer reviewers of Deceit and Denial, (the book we wrote) to come to court to talk about our knowledge of each other, and hiring another historian to write a 31-page “analysis” of our work, claiming that we had misused historical documents. Luckily for us, our colleagues, our universities, and even the popular and academic press came to our defense ,ultimately leading the chemical industry lawyers to abandon their effort. For those interested see: Jon Wiener, “Cancer, Chemicals and History,” the Nation, February 7, 2005, pp. 19-22.

Rosner D. "The Most Disquieting Voices … From Perfectly Respectable Elements of Society”: Monsanto Attacks the Academy. Milbank Quarterly Opinion. March 22, 2023.

About the Author

David Rosner is the Ronald H. Lauterstein Professor of Sociomedical Sciences and professor of history at Columbia University and codirector of the Center for the History of Public Health at Columbia’s Mailman School of Public Health. He is also an elected member of the National Academy of Medicine. In addition to numerous grants, he has been a Guggenheim Fellow, a recipient of a Robert Wood Johnson Investigator Award, a National Endowment for the Humanities Fellow, and a Josiah Macy Fellow. He and Gerald Markowitz are coauthors on ten books, including Deceit and Denial: The Deadly Politics of Industrial Pollution (University of California Press/Milbank, 2002; 2013) and Lead Wars: The Politics of Science and the Fate of America’s Children (University of California Press/Milbank, 2013). He also testifies for plaintiffs in lawsuits on industrial pollution and occupational disease.

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