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Under The Microscope

OUTRAGEOUS MISCONDUCT, by Paul Brodeur; Pantheon 1985; $39.95

Conspiracy theories of history are a staple of paranoia and this relentless report is enough to make anyone feel a little nervous.

In a brilliantly organised and compellingly written display, Brodeur shows that the "insane" level of damages awarded by US juries are not some barmy aberration. Rather, they are the just deserts of an asbestos industry that has lied, cheated, covered up, destroyed evidence, intimidated the sick, perverted legislation, bought judges and doctors in the course of trying to hide their culpability.

But it was not an organised conspiracy. From the 1920s on, a succession of managers and owners hid or disguised the evidence of the asbestosis epidemic without any thought to the long-term consequences. They merely sought to avoid any immediate damages claims.

The early owners succeeded in this. They made their money and are long dead. The dangers of the "miracle fibre" became public only in 1967, and it was not until 1979 that the extent of the cover-up was revealed. The current owners have pursued every cheating trick their lawyers can dream up to deny either compensation or even acknowledgment for the millions of lives they have blighted.

The tale serves as an object lesson in the human limitations of science. The scientific community knew what asbestos could do but was being funded by the producer companies. They didn't publish and kept their jobs. It warns us to be cautious in accepting anyone's claims in the on-going debates involving technology.

This book is about the horrors that flow from the "they don't know what they're talking about" brigade. It's easy to read, sombre and somewhat frightening, but leaves one thoughtful and feeling perhaps a little virtuous.

Paul King