Corporations lie. So what?
Guest column by Peter Shive
University of Wyoming professor emeritus
— April 22, 2014
We all know that corporations sometimes lie, or obstruct the search for the truth. The best example from our time is the tireless campaign waged by the tobacco industry, with “cigarette-company-research” support, to convince the public that smoking was safe. Some corporations even admit it. Late last year Nike actually sued in the California courts to be granted the legal right to lie.
Nike’s argument is that, since free speech considerations guarantee individuals the right to lie (absent libel and hate speech), why shouldn’t corporations have the same rights? The argument has theoretical merit; my concern is practical. Consider the differences in the magnitude of the consequences, both positive and negative. If individuals lie on their Match.com profiles, the upside is that they’d have more dates, and the downside is that a higher percentage of those dates would be disappointed in them. If tobacco companies lie about cigarette safety, the upsides are the viability of the companies, the preservation of jobs in many sectors related to tobacco, and the increased profits for happy stockholders. The downsides are the crushing financial burden on our health programs and the deaths of millions of people.
Whether the positives outweigh the negatives, or even whether Nike eventually wins its suit or not, corporate lying is not going to go away. The important thing is that our culture recognizes its presence and has evolved some safeguards. When we say “Let the buyer beware,” we are ruefully acknowledging that the expression “truth in advertising” may be an oxymoron, and so we beware. Some of us blame victims, arguing that, if they were stupid enough to believe the lies, they deserve the consequences. We have consumer protection groups, and websites that evaluate products and services, which are helpful to whatever extent we can differentiate the legitimate groups and sites from the bogus.
And then, at the pinnacle of credibility, we have institutions that carry out scientific (and other) studies designed to investigate the cutting edge of truth. Some of these institutions are called “universities,” and the studies they carry out can often be used to evaluate corporate claims. These studies are our ultimate protection, and it is vital that they never be compromised.
Now consider the University of Wyoming, where much has occurred of late. Powerful external and internal voices argue that the University has failed to adequately serve the needs of the state, and that we must never offend the energy industries. Because of the importance of energy resources to Wyoming’s economy, we are encouraged to enter into “partnerships with energy.” Our newest college, the School of Energy Resources, is designed to foster such partnerships.
I have no problem with healthy energy partnerships. As a professor in the Department of Geology and Geophysics (1969 until the early 1990’s) I entered into many such partnerships. They were invaluable in helping me develop useful courses, to support students and to carry out research projects I could not otherwise have afforded. I saw the benefits of similar partnerships to my department colleagues, and in fact the new Geology building was built using excess funds from the Abandoned Mine Lands program, which would not have existed without Wyoming coal. These partnerships worked, and the key reason they worked was that there were no strings attached.
It is different now, because the strings (cables, actually) have been added. When legislators say, “Don’t bite the hand that feeds you,” or threaten to reduce or remove university funding, and even suggest reprisals to individuals for offending an energy corporation, the message is that we must not carry out certain kinds of research projects or reach conclusions that an energy corporation might not like.
This kind of coercion is fatal. In certain areas of interest to the energy corporations, it will eventually drive away the legitimate researchers and replace them with the sort of scientists who used to work for the cigarette companies. And when that replacement process is complete, the legislators, and trustees and university administrators will be able to cry, “Hurrah! The University of Wyoming is finally serving the needs of the state.” And if the needs of the energy industry and the needs of the state are one and the same, then we would all have to agree.
However, if energy corporations need to not be offended, then their needs are not the same as the needs of the state. Why not? Because corporations sometimes lie or obstruct the search for the truth, because one of the duties of a university is to reveal the truth, and because one of the rights of its citizens should be to have access to the truth. Wyoming is not well served if it requires its own university to lie to its own citizens.
— Peter Shive is University of Wyoming professor emeritus.
Read past contributions from Peter Shive:
Let’s talk about the direction of the University of Wyoming, March 20, 2014
The Sternbergian Coronation of UW President McGinity; A Quiz, February 13, 2014
Why am I still here?, November 9, 2013
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