An aerial view of the University of Wyoming campus. (Courtesy of U. of Wyoming — click to enlarge)

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.

Peter Shive

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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6 Comments

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  1. I have taken over 42 years of Continuing Legal Education education courses, as a member of 3 bars,( licenses granted by States to practice law), this included CLE courses on ethics, and I passed the multi-state examine on ethics as part of the ALSAK Bar, before. I have been admitted as an expert witness in legal matters in federal court. This is to raise concerns on what happened in 2013, on some odd raps on the UW law School, under the guise of ethics and claims on the law school ratings, (some tops to some concerning drop assertions—alleged). But alleged in some very stealthy ways, with little transparency, the way unfolded.
    This is peculiar for a university who must want truth to be at the core of its functions, or one might hope that would be so at a LAND GRANT, university, such
    as U W, who receives so many millions in federal funds, state funds, etc.

    The big dustup in the fall of 2013 was some claim by ex UW President Sternberg, that he was told that UW law school was tops, then it dropped, in water, and some areas of resource law, and he wanted a TASK FORCE to examine. He appointed as head of the TASK FORCE, a partner of a Large Rocky Mountain Corporate Law firm, that litigates against government entities, more than any other law firm in the Rockies,(SEE LEXIS), as he sat on the Wyo Foundation Board, too. That same UW Foundation board who forked out money for Matt Mead’s trip to Dubai.
    Mr Mead’s OFFICE is not a annex of the STATE Department.
    Mr Sternberg noted he was not sure if what he was told was true. Yet, the Ex Dean of UW law resigned.(Easton, a grad of Stanford University Law School)
    This caused a flurry of harsh comments in the BLOG-LAND(SPHERE)
    Personal attacks abounded on Dr Sternberg, from the likes of the ex State
    bureaucrat in the Frudenthal Administration who runs some buzzy BLOG, and claims he is a man of God –Minister
    (some cute slicky piece on “twirking” and MILEY Cirus to jack people up into a frenzy).
    UW law is not a 4th grade class where there can be some shake downs like the core study debates.(the HILL- MEAD SHUFFLES). Was UW tops from whose perspective, before, when Ex Governor Freudenthal started getting money as a Director from ARCH COAL ? When Ex Dean Maxfield moved to Naples FL, after his Chief of Staff positions in the Freudenthal ADMIN ? But, his book royalties on taxes…? When–metrics on all of this ?
    Ironically, the new President of the Board of Directors is the chap from Buffalo, DAVID P, who ran some rap on the Law School, who it seemed to rise to the (new) PRESIDENT of the Bd of Trustees. This seemed to come out from a Open Records Act Request( reported in this WYO –so called– FILE, WWW), that he had raised the concerns with Dr Sternberg–now(2014) at Cornell University, after departing UW
    I have yet to receive a response from the UW law school on several Open Record Act requests on ABA matters. Odd, I can write Senator Grassley next, since he raised some ABA fuss prior, but, ethics was the big 2013 buzz word.
    Those issues remain, in 2014, there are not just drifting off the radar–totally.

    Yours Truly,
    Jim Hagood,
    J. D., U of WYO Law, 1970
    LL’M George Washington University Law School, 1972
    on a Water Resource Fellowship.
    Current member COLO BAR.

  2. Dr. Shive, Thank you again!
    I am sick of this country being turned into a playground for the elite energy industry/ big oil corporations by the likes of Mat “ALEC” Mead, blindly signing legislation written by “third parties”!
    This planet is going to hell in a handbasket and the industries putting our destruction into overdrive with help from our own education facilities!
    If money is all there is to these corporate shills then it is time to remove them from power and install someone who can research us out of this mess, instead of full bore, no turning back decimation of the Only home we can ever know!

  3. ” foundation for the closest approximation to the truth of our earth’s science.”

    That would make the scientific method equivalent to horseshoes or hand grenades. get credit for being close. Would be an interesting class. Hand grenades tend to be more pass/fail.

    Dr. Shive; What lies has the university told?

  4. to MLKeller:

    We need to talk. You bring up a number of points that I would like to explore in greater detail. Please contact me (petershive@gmail.com, or 307-745-4145). Thanks.

  5. Thank goodness you’re writing. In a letter on behalf of Governor Mead, Mary Kay Hill recently wrote to me “Governor Mead has expressed concern with the role that scientists play in coming to political conclusions regarding climate change.” I believe that sentence is saying the opposite to your argument: Governor Mead’s position is that independent research at institutions like UW are NOT to be our foundation for the closest approximation to the truth of our earth’s science. It goes on to say “Wyoming students must have access to valid and reliable science, be able to explore facts,and develop their own conclusions based on scientific inquiry and exploration.” If I understand the meaning of this sentence, and if he intends his logic to be consistent, we might replace the study of climate change with the study of cancer, leaving our children to develop their own conclusions based on scientific inquiry, rather than instructing them in the peer reviewed knowledge of established research institutions with super computing facilities, experts, and access to technology. Or perhaps our children are supposed to reach their own conclusions regarding cosmology, economics, psychology, geology as well. For all the moderation Governor Mead may practice in public, these “concerns” don’t belong in the 21st century. As educators, we ought to be finding the candidate who speaks truth to power in Wyoming. Governor Mead’s concerns don’t belong in a state where the weather has always been a primary factor in the survivability of any soul moving across our vastness. There is an ancient pragmatism in Wyoming that needs to look honestly at the case, and sciences at independent institutions are pursuing that goal.
    I understand from a UW Ag professor that he has been instructed not to pursue grants regarding climate change, not to refer to the phrase “climate change,” and that he and his colleagues find themselves tacitly complicit in this role rather than engaging Wyoming’s people in frank discussions about how Wyoming’s agricultural community needs to do disaster planning and adaptation according to the spectrum of models that indicate our future will have extreme volatility, the greatest threat to agriculture. Here in Park County we are having the latest planting that local growers can remember. This is consistent with climate change models and is a marker of the volatility that is the new normal. However, I hear local people quoting Fox News pundits (rather than the research in the service of truth that should be the legacy of UW agriculture programs), laughing at the “biggest hoax of our time” because they read this volatility as “cold weather” that means the climate is not getting warmer.
    Things are going to get so serious so fast in the coming 15 years. We need the truth of the scientific method (which does not hold itself as infallible but rather proceeds with verifiable thesis and peer review– counter measures to human nature’s shortcomings). From the humanities and social sciences we need to explore social dynamics and ethical implications of our new reality.
    I’m hosting a lecture up here in June 4, using the Fagerberg Lecture Hall at Northwest College in Powell to bring an ecologist, Guy McPherson to a forum with the local “Plants Need CO2” guy H. Leighton Steward (a local hero) to open this discussion. I’m wondering where UW’s leadership is. This is a time for an interdisciplinary task force at UW, driven by Haub School, creating a “circuit forum” in the spirit of the old circuit court judges that would engage in disaster preparedness and adaptation lectures. Here is Ohio’s effort: http://changingclimate.osu.edu/contact/. Partner the forums with the Extension Agents reporting on local food initiatives. Partner the forum with alternative energy at home exhibits.
    Let’s quit flying under the radar, and let’s help our governor make the transition–he’s got an easy election ahead and he should be able to find a way to lead Wyoming on the foundation of UW independent research and the science upon which his plane’s fly, his cell phones work, and his letter to me was written.