People who oppose one or more areas of mainstream science have developed a wide variety of creative ways of rationalizing their rejection of scientific evidence and scientific consensus. Realizing that they cannot rebut a particular scientific idea on the basis of the evidence, some of them will instead resort to attacking the reliability of scientific knowledge more generally. A popular method of doing so is the Asbestos Gambit. The argument is that the story of asbestos implies that areas of strong scientific consensus can’t be trusted. The purpose of this article is to examine the history of asbestos use and the evolution of our knowledge of the health dangers it presents, and to explain why the Asbestos Gambit is a terrible argument on multiple levels.
Asbestos and its Hazards
Asbestos is the generic name for a set of 6 silicate mineral types which have been utilized by human cultures as far back as 5,000 years ago . These 6 types include 5 minerals in the amphibole category: actinolite, amosite (aka brown asbestos), anthophyllite, crocidolite (aka blue asbestos), and tremolite, as well as chrysotile (aka white asbestos), which falls under the serpentine category, and is the form most commonly used in walls, ceilings and floors of homes and businesses in the US .
Although some of these types are likely more hazardous than others, all 6 types are currently classified as human carcinogens by the EPA, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and the International Agency for Research on Cancer ,,,. Mesothelioma in particular is a relatively rare type of malignant pleural cancer associated almost exclusively with asbestos exposure, and asbestos has also been implicated in an increased risk of a chronic inflammatory lung disease called asbestosis .
Consequently, domestic usage of asbestos has decreased considerably in most developed countries since the early 1970s . Its use has been banned in countries such as Australia and the UK, where the asbestos-related death tolls were particularly high ,. The US has no official asbestos ban, but we do have The Clean Air Act of 1970, The TSCA of 1976, and AHERA of 1986 which, in aggregate, provide the EPA with the authority to regulate asbestos use, place restrictions on its use and disposal, and the power to establish inspection and removal standards for asbestos in schools ,,. Here is a list of countries with full asbestos bans in place .
What is the Asbestos Gambit?
Unfortunately, the story of asbestos has occasionally been co-opted by ideologues and reframed as an argument against the reliability of scientific knowledge as an excuse to reject scientific consensus whenever its implications conflict with their personal agenda. The argument is essentially that the story of asbestos implies that science is unreliable and cannot be trusted on the grounds that scientists said asbestos was safe when it actually wasn’t. This is curious because asbestos is a set of naturally occurring substances whose adverse health effects were unknown prior to the modern scientific enterprise, and were only discovered via the scientific method itself. The idea is a variant of the old “science has been wrong before, therefore we should ignore its conclusions even now” argument: a common trope utilized by promoters of pseudoscience and critics of mainstream science in general.
There are several reasons why the reasoning underlying the Asbestos Gambit argument is unsound. Even if it was the case that scientists got it wrong with asbestos, the self-correcting nature of science is among its strengths: not its weaknesses. And when scientific knowledge is wrong, the only reason we ever find out is thanks to newer science. That means that the claimant’s major premise, that “science was wrong,” takes for granted something we only know thanks to science, which, according to the claimant’s own conclusion, cannot be relied upon. The argument is practically self-refuting. In this case, however, the turn of events itself is being misrepresented. The argument implies that there was once a strong scientific consensus that asbestos was perfectly safe, and only subsequently did people realize the science had been wrong. The claimant then uses that to argue that that constitutes a good reason to reject well-supported scientific theories. Like many other examples commonly used to advance this argument, it relies on a historical revisionist narrative. The actual history of how scientific knowledge evolved with respect to mesothelioma (and the health risks of asbestos exposure more generally) is long and complicated.
How the Dangers of Asbestos were Discovered
Contrary to popular belief, there is no unambiguous support in the primary source material for the idea that people in the ancient world knew how hazardous asbestos was. It’s possible that this notion arose in hindsight after people began to realize its health effects in the 20th century, but the evidence commonly cited for it is weak and vague at best.
For instance, it is frequently claimed that the Roman naturalist, Pliny The Elder, reported adverse health effects among slaves who wove asbestos into fabrics, but the evidence for this is extremely weak and has been contested by some scholars on the grounds that the primary sources provide no support for it ,. Pliny mentions asbestos three times in his 37 volume Natural History, but none of those passages mention adverse health effects from it ,,. The line “disease of slaves” quoted on many asbestos-related websites actually comes from a passage that never even mentions asbestos .
Another often quoted passage references workers using “masks of loose bladder-skin, in order to avoid inhaling the dust, which is highly pernicious” ,. However, this section, (which he got from the works of Dioscoride), was about workers in the manufacture of minium (Lead (I, IV) Oxide aka red lead) products, and makes no mention of asbestos ,. In fact, if anything, Pliny’s account in Book 36 chapter 31 suggests that he believed asbestos to have healing properties, even going as far as to say that it “effectually counteracts all noxious spells, those wrought by magicians in particular” ,.
Similarly, many of those same internet sources repeat the idea that Strabo, the Greek geographer, reported frequent sickness among slaves working in asbestos mines. However, it is believed that the often referenced passage in Geography in which Strabo says “air in the mines is both deadly and hard to endure on account of the grievous odor of the ore, so that the workmen are doomed to a quick death” is actually in reference to arsenic mines: not asbestos . This appears to be one of those misconceptions that got repeated so many times that it became part of the folklore.
The earliest case likely to have been mesothelioma was documented back in 1767, but no strong association with asbestos was known until nearly two centuries later ,. As for asbestosis, and other lung complications, although some evidence of connections to pulmonary fibrosis were beginning to emerge in cases of asbestos mine workers as early as the turn of the 20th century, with epidemiological data correlating “dusty trades” with early mortality by 1918, many clinical diagnoses in the early 20th century were confounded by the simultaneous presence of tuberculosis, and it wasn’t until 1928 when the first non-tuberculosis case of asbestosis was unambiguously diagnosed, named, and documented ,,,.
Compelling preliminary evidence of an association between asbestosis and malignant mesothelioma didn’t emerge until the late 1940s-early 1950s, and it wasn’t until the 1960s that a strong scientific consensus started to take shape ,. A connection to lung cancer was also documented in 1955 .
Why the Asbestos Gambit Fails
The contrarians who use the story of Asbestos to discredit science they don’t like would have us believe that scientists researched carelessly and then hastily and arrogantly proclaimed a scientific consensus that asbestos was harmless, and that they were later shown to be wrong after considerable human cost had already accumulated. As you can see, that is not what happened. In the past, methods or substances whose common usage predated the scientific era were often grandfathered in, so to speak. They were presumed acceptable unless proven otherwise, particularly in the case of naturally occurring substances which had been utilized for millennia. So, the usage of asbestos was never the result of a robust scientific consensus based on the convergence of multiple lines of scientific evidence on its safety. Rather, it was the scientific enterprise itself that was responsible for people learning that it was unsafe.
This is exemplary of how opponents of various areas of science distort facts to shed doubt on the veracity of science they don’t like. They do this to introduce sophisticated doubt in the public sphere about the reliability of the scientific consensus on topics such as evolution, the safety of genetically engineered food crops, the age of the earth, the efficacy of vaccines, and the reality of anthropogenic global warming. “After all,” they argue, “look how long it took scientists to figure out the hazards of asbestos. How can we trust scientists now?” Yet, there never was anything about asbestos safety resembling the formidable body of scientific evidence on which the scientific consensus on each of those topics was built, so the Asbestos Gambit is a complete non-sequitur.
Another contention closely related to this is the idea that asbestos companies knowingly kept quiet about the dangers of asbestos, or even actively worked to sow the seeds of doubt in order to delay action and distort public perception of the strength of the science. Strong cases have been made that some asbestos companies dragged their feet while knowing more than they let on, and the argument that they actively tried to downplay the severity of the problem has been the subject of many courtroom battles. In 1989, the EPA issued a Final Ban and Phase-Out to prohibit all manufacture and importation of asbestos in the US, which was promptly overturned, thanks in no small part to a lawsuit by an asbestos industry organization: Corrosion Proof Fittings v. EPA, 947 F.2d 1201 (5th Cir. 1991) ,,.
We’ve seen this sort of behavior by companies before, such as in the case of tobacco companies delaying public acceptance of an emerging scientific consensus on the dangers of smoking, and it is certainly problematic . Any time special interest groups of any kind delay or obfuscate public understanding of scientific issues, it removes people’s ability to make sound decisions by impeding the flow of accurate information.
However, that has little to nothing to do with the state of the science itself. Ironically, this sort of behavior is precisely what the people rejecting the scientific consensus on topics like GMO food safety, vaccine efficacy, and anthropogenic global warming are doing now. Rather than going through the proper channels by publishing newer and better science to challenge the current weight of the evidence, they instead resort to political rhetoric, bad logic, bad science, and sowing public doubt on the state and/or reliability of scientific knowledge. Yet, these are likely to be the same people who will use the Asbestos Gambit and similar arguments to build a manufactroversy in order to persuade people to ignore scientific consensus.
For example, the debunked Oregon Petition Project was an attempt to obscure the weight of the scientific consensus on human-caused climate change. A document assembled by the Discovery Institute which boasted of 100+ scientists who reject the theory of evolution was humorously rebutted by the National Center for Science Education with Project Steve: a list comprised exclusively of scientists named Steve who accept evolution, which nevertheless dwarfed the Discovery Institute’s list. Similarly, anti-GMO campaigners have written things such as the I-SIS letter as an attempt to sew uncertainty and doubt on the mainstream scientific consensus position on the safety of Genetically Engineered food crops.
If anything, all of this highlights the importance of learning to tell the difference between science and the subterfuge of ideologues and special interest groups. The asbestos industry never controlled the science and were certainly never able to buy off an international scientific consensus. At worst, some of them may have succeeded in delaying policy action and public acceptance of what the scientific evidence was showing. That (again) goes to show how important it is to look at the science itself.
Far from being a justification for rejecting or ignoring well-supported scientific conclusions, the real lessons from the story of asbestos are that just because something is naturally occurring or has been used since the pre-scientific era does not preclude it from being unsafe, and above all, that it’s critical to examine the weight of scientific evidence while learning to filter out the noise of spin doctors and ideologues.
People may differ in their personal value-hierarchies, and adjudication on matters of political legislation and public policy always involves normative elements, but they nevertheless can and should at least be informed by scientific knowledge. Matters of brute fact should always be the one consistent region of common ground between groups with competing values and priorities. And insofar as generating reliable knowledge of the physical world, no system ever devised by humanity can rival the power of the scientific method.
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