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Apr 15, 2005 (Vol. 25, No. 8)

Some Activist Groups Exibit a

Pursued Agenda Is Often Not the Protection of Human Health or the Environment

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    Chemistry Nobel Laureate Irving Langmuir related in a landmark 1953 speech his visit to the laboratory of J.B. Rhine at Duke University where Rhine was claiming results of ESP experiments that could not be predicted by chance, and which he ascribed to psychic phenomena.

    Langmuir discovered that Rhine was only selectively counting the data in his experiments, omitting the scores of those he believed were guessing in order to humiliate him. The evidence? Rhine felt that some of scores were too low to have occurred by chance, and that it would, therefore, actually be misleading to include them.

    Langmuir dubbed this deviation from the principles of the scientific method pathological science, the science of things that arent so.

    This sort of chicanery is increasingly common among certain self-styled public interest groups, who are, however, less devoted to fudging data to get the right answer than to grossly misrepresenting the results in order to achieve some hidden agenda.

    Most often, that agenda is not the protection of public health or the environment, but intractable opposition to, and obstruction of, whatever research, product, or technology the activists happen to dislike. Often, it turns out, the activists targets are socially beneficial and highly cost-effective products or processes.

    Activists often try to stigmatize whatever they dislike via guilt by association with greedy or irresponsible corporate interests. But for several reasons, including the importance of corporate branding, avoidance of liability, and a desire to succeed in the marketplace, industrial research most often adheres to high professional and legal standards, including peer-review.

    When it doesnt, the scientific method and market forces collaborate to ensure that, ultimately, dishonesty is exposed and punished.

    By contrast, activist-funded research is commonly held to a far lower standard. Their claims are invariably promoted by alarmist press releases and reported by the media, but seldom are they independently peer-reviewed or published in scientific journals. Sadly, policy makers, the media, and the public have come to accept this pathological science as credible, especially after it is repeated again and again.

    Examples have become more frequent as special interests promote health scares as a way to support litigation. The distortion of science has given rise to flawed policies and regulations, interference with research that offers potential benefits to society, increased public health risks, unwarranted scares, frivolous lawsuits, and higher costs of R&D.

  • MMR and Autism

    In 1998, British researchers published a study that suggested an association, but not causation, between the administration of MMR (measles-mumps-rubella) vaccine and an increased risk of autism. In spite of the fact that that initial study was based on only 12 children, its results were widely publicized, causing some parents and hospitals to stop or delay vaccinations for newborns and children.

    Subsequent studies of much larger groups of children have not confirmed such an association, however, and the overwhelming consensus among scientists and physicians is that no such link exists. Nevertheless, this incident inflicted incalculable damage on the publics confidence in vaccination, and on individual children deprived of protection from life-threatening diseases.

  • Video Display Terminals

    In 1980, a Canadian newspaper reported that four women in the classified ad department of another newspaper had given birth to children with birth defects, including a cleft palate, underdeveloped eye, club foot, and heart defects.

    The fact that all the women had worked with video display terminals during the early stages of their pregnancies gave rise to speculation that radiation from such terminals, most of which are based on common television technology, was responsible.

    Other such clusters of birth defects came to light, leading to aggressive anti-VDT activism that in both North America and Europe caused management to be pitted against workers. In Canada and Sweden, merely the belief that harm could be caused by VDTs was considered to be grounds for refusal to use them.

    Over the next two decades, several large studies and repeated analyses concluded that the use of VDTs is not associated with birth defects or spontaneous abortions. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention concluded that the clusters were random occurrences that is, the function of probability.

    (If you flip a coin a million times, youll likely come close to half a million heads and half a million tails, but along the way, there will be occasional long runs, or clusters, of heads or tails.)

  • Electromagnetic Radiation

    Supposed hazards of electromagnetic radiation, which is emitted from a variety of sources including overhead power lines, electric blankets, computer terminals, and electric razors, has excited the imagination of many.

    For example, after a Florida woman developed a brain tumor behind her right ear, where she usually placed her cell phone, her husband blamed her illness (and subsequent death) on radiation from the cell phone and filed suit against the phones manufacturer. After his 1993 appearance on CNNs Larry King show, other, similar lawsuits followed. None were successful and within several months the scare was forgotten.

    This kind of health scare is an example of the post hoc, ergo propter hoc fallacy (believing that because two events are temporally related, they must be causally related). Fallacy it might be, but it lends itself well to the way that Americans these days often learn about safety and risk: Could your cell phone give you cancer? Details at 11!

    In fact, at the current rate of occurrence of brain cancers, about 3,600 cases would be expected to occur among 60 million owners of cell phones whether or not they use them.

  • Environmental Working Group

    In 2003, a nebulous entity called the Environmental Working Group (EWG) claimed to have evidence that the farm-raised salmon eaten regularly by millions of Americans contains high levels of PCBs. PCBs were identified in the press coverage as a toxin, probable human carcinogen, or a cause of cancer and nervous system damage.

    These reports were grossly misleading. At levels of environmental exposure, PCBs have not been shown to cause cancer or any other disease in humans. The study, which was based on a sample of only ten fish, was condemned by genuine experts at a variety of institutions, including the Harvard School of Public Health, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, and the highly respected American Council on Science and Health.

    Unfortunately, the criticisms came only after EWGs report had generated national media coverage, and received little attention from the media.

    On its website, the EWG makes no pretense about its possessing scientific credentials or expertise, and its president once admitted to a journalist that there was not a single physician or scientist on its staff.

  • Genetic Modification

    Environmental activists lately have taken to claiming that conventional crops have been contaminated by the finding of minuscule amounts of DNA from genetically modifiedby which they mean gene-splicedvarieties. Their methodology is flawed, but even if the claims were accurate, they should elicit from the public nothing more than a collective yawn.

    Genetic modification is not new. Virtually all of the 200 major crops in Canada and the United States have been genetically improved, or modified, in some way. Plant breeders, not nature, gave us seedless grapes and watermelons, the tangelo (a tangerine-grapefruit hybrid), the canola variety of rapeseed, and fungus-resistant strawberries.

    In North American and European diets, only fish and wild game, berries, and mushrooms may be said not to have been genetically engineered in some fashion.

    North Americans have consumed more than a trillion servings of foods that contain gene-spliced ingredients, with not a single untoward reaction. In fact, when conventional and gene-spliced seed materials are mixed, arguably the former should be thought of as contaminating the latter.

    What makes false alarms hard to expose is the virtual impossibility of demonstrating the absolute safety of any activity or product: There is always the possibility that we havent yet gotten to the nth hypothetical risk or to the nth dose or the nth year of exposure, when the risk will finally be demonstrated. It is logically impossible to prove a negative, and all activities pose some nonzero risk of adverse effects.

  • Moral Equivalence

    Pathological science may confuse not only the public but also policy makers, who may themselves be scientifically challenged. Donald Kennedy, the editor of Science, president emeritus of Stanford University, and former FDA commissioner, chides bureaucrats: Frequently decision-makers give up the difficult task of finding out where the weight of scientific opinion lies, and instead attach equal value to each side in an effort to approximate fairness. In this way extraordinary opinions are promoted to a form of respectability that approaches equal status.

    This kind of undeserved moral equivalence frequently compromises governmental decision-making and has given rise to unscientific and inconsistent regulation of pesticides, biotechnology applied to agriculture, silicone breast implants, herbal dietary supplements, and innumerable other products and technologies.

    No one should mistake activists misdemeanors for naive exuberance or excessive zeal in a good cause. Their motives are self-serving and their tactics callous, an ongoing example of the sentiments expressed by a character in the Peanuts comic strip, I love humanity; its people I cant stand.

    People who understand these issues need to do a better job of educating the large segment of the public that is uninformed, not only about the science, but also about the sophistry of those who would abuse it.



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