For years, friends and colleagues have asked me: why don't scientists speak up when the media hypes the latest health scare? They ask why scientists sit mute when self-appointed environmental activists claim there is a cancer epidemic (there is not) or that "chemicals" in products ranging from lipstick to rubber duckies to plastic bottles cause cancer and reproductive abnormalities (they don't). I think I know the answer: it is simpler and safer to remain quiet and let the falsehoods prevail than it is to stand up and confront the hyperbole.
Let me give you a recent personal example.
In August, a CNN reporter named Jordana Miller contacted me to say she was working on a segment on "bio-monitoring," a trend where people are seeking to have their blood analyzed to learn if there may be "chemicals" present that would jeopardize their health. I agreed -- and was the subject of an aggressive one-hour interview on camera in my office, the footage for possible use in the upcoming CNN segment.
When the segment never appeared on CNN, we inquired as to its status and Ms. Miller told us that the program was moving ahead but that there was no room for my point of view. The planned segment was built on the premise that any detection of a "chemical" in blood was a sign of looming illness -- maybe death -- and it appears that my point of view was so at variance with that claim that it was to be omitted as not to neutralize the story.
Yesterday, however, CNN released a short video and commentary on their website. The headline of Ms. Miller's story said it all: "Tests Reveal High Chemical Levels in Kids' Bodies." The text went on to describe parents of young children who were horrified that "chemicals" were being detected in their kids' blood. And it quoted an"expert":
"We are the humans in a dangerous and unnatural experiment in the United States, and I think it's unconscionable," said Dr. Leo Trasande, assistant director of the Center for Children's Health and the Environment at the Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York City.
Trasande says that industrial toxins could be leading to more childhood disease and disorders.
"We are in an epidemic of environmentally mediated disease among American children today," he said. "Rates of asthma, childhood cancers, birth defects and developmental disorders have exponentially increased, and it can't be explained by changes in the human genome. So what has changed? All the chemicals we're being exposed to."
In a gesture toward "balance" Ms. Miller then quoted me:
Elizabeth Whelan, president of the American Council on Science and Health [ACSH], a public health advocacy group, disagrees.
"My concern about this trend about measuring chemicals in the blood is it's leading people to believe that the mere ability to detect chemicals is the same as proving a hazard, that if you have this chemical, you are at risk of a disease, and that is false," she said. Whelan contends that trace levels of industrial chemicals in our bodies do not necessarily pose health risks.
Literally within moments of the posting (it was for a good part of the morning the lead story on CNN), I began getting e-mails and phonecalls stating I should be "ashamed" of myself, asking "how you get to sleep at night," claiming that I was responsible for suffering and death among children -- frequently accompanied by the assertion that I did not represent science but was a tool for the "chemical industry." (ACSH's very modest budget is derived from a full spectrum of sources, private foundations, corporations and, most recently, from thousands of individual Americans who are sick of "junk science" dominating the media and send ACSH checks to assist us in neutralizing the "scares du jour" with a hefty helping of scientific facts.)
One correspondent included bcc'ed ire-filled e-mails to ACSH Trustees suggesting that I be fired for making such allegedly outrageous assertion. These furious CNN readers/viewers were nearly hysterical over the fact that ACSH was defined as "a public health advocacy group" -- which of course is exactly what ACSH is.
Did what I said merit such an attack on me? No, of course not. None of those admonishing me had presented any explanation as to why their scientific positions were right and mine were wrong. They simply invoked the standard ad hominem attacks on me -- their smug belief being that anyone who disagreed with them was by definition a paid liar.
The above example is just one of many I could relate which confirm that there are real disincentives for scientists to stand up and set the record straight when science is distorted (as it was on the CNN website yesterday). The film clip that CNN posted with the above-mentioned article featured CNN's Anderson Cooper having one pint of his blood drawn to test for "chemicals." The doctor drawing his blood asserted that there is an "epidemic" of childhood disease -- including cancer -- all related to "chemicals." That assertion is totally false.
The good doctor had no idea what he was talking about. But he was featured in prime time to convey his misinformation. He would probably be shocked that an analysis of human blood for chemicals of natural origin would inevitably find traces of many perfectly natural chemicals, including arsenic, hydrogen cyanide, solanine, and more. Our ability to detect traces of anything in anything has left us with more data than we know what to do with. Again, the mere fact that you can detect a chemical does not mean it poses a hazard of any type.
What scientist wants to subject him or herself to personal attack for simply stating common sense and basic scientific facts? Easier to retreat to the laboratory and classroom -- and leave center stage to the "toxic terrorists" who want us to believe there is a carcinogen on every plate, a toxin in every drop of water we drink, poison in every bit of air we breathe. The threat of personal vilification has largely silenced the scientific community -- and chilled the dialogue so that only the bad news gets coverage.