Monday, June 1, 2009

"A Long Overdue Press Conference"

(Editor's Note:  don't normally do a "news" column here because it is far too much work for someone with a real job.  At least for me it is. However, for those of you who read Paradigms and Demographics and don't get my weekly newsletter, where I do the link news articles, I wanted to make sure that you didn't miss this. RK)

Are chemicals killing us?

S. Robert Lichter, Ph.D,, May 21, 2009

A groundbreaking study conducted by STATS, and The Center for Health and Risk Communication at George Mason University, shows how experts view the risks of common chemicals - and that the media are overstating risk.

Download a PDF of the full report here

If you believe what you see and hear in the media, Americans are being poisoned every day by the very chemicals we routinely use to improve our lives. Nora Ephron has told readers of the Huffington Post that she “loved” Teflon but had to throw out all her pans after hearing that the coating “probably causes cancer and birth defects.” The Environmental Working Group has repeatedly warned Americans that “millions of babies” are at risk from the chemical bisphenol A (BPA) in plastic baby bottles. Last week Chicago became the first city to ban the sale of baby bottles and sippy cups, on the grounds that BPA has been associated with everything from cancer to obesity.

Are Chemicals Killing Us?

Ronald Bailey May 21, 2009

That was the teaser question for a press conference this morning organized by the Society of Toxicology (SOT), the Center for Health and Risk Communication at George Mason University, and the Statistical Assessment Service (STATS) think tank. The groups were reporting the results of a recent Harris poll of full members of the Society of Toxicology that aimed to determine the collective judgments of toxicologists on chemical health risks. In addition, the survey asked toxicologists how well they thought environmental advocacy groups, industry, government and media do in explaining chemical risks to the public.

The online survey, done in conjunction with the leadership of the Society of Toxicology, was sent to all of its 3600 full members and got a 30 percent (937 members) response rate. Of the respondents, 37 percent worked in industry, 25 percent in academia, 15 percent were associated with government, and the remaining members were spread among non-profit organizations, consultants, and contractors. Apparently, as a proportion of the SOT's membership, academicians were over-represented and industry toxicologists were under-represented.

What do real scientists think about the dangers of common chemicals?

Most people on the rational side of the environmental field clamor for more science and less emotion to be used in setting policy. Who could argue with that?

The problem is that many of the scientists don't actually believe in science—according to the results of a recent survey. A sampling of toxicologists was asked to complete an online questionnaire, and it was clear from the responses that many of them were just as susceptible to media hype as the lay public.

A toxicologist friend of mine, who also participated in the survey, was not surprised. He noted, cynically, that the results reflect the "diversity" of the membership, and was confident that many of the respondents who bought into the popular mythology on chemicals—including the absurd use of the precautionary principle, even if tons of data is available on a chemical—were probably from academia or the EPA.

Even worse are situations whereby certain chemicals are actually being regulated down to levels LOWER than they occur in nature, because that is what the regulators' computer models calculate.

Surveying The Experts On The Dangers Of Common Chemicals: Some Surprising Findings Emerge

By Michael D. Shaw, Contributing Columnist - May 24, 2009

( - Have you ever wondered what real scientists think about the seemingly endless parade of bad news regarding chemicals in the environment? So did Dr. Robert Lichter, president of the Center for Media and Public Affairs (CMPA) at George Mason University. To get answers, CMPA teamed up with the Society of Toxicology, and presented an online questionnaire to 3,562 of its members.

While 1136 members did respond, the findings—released on May 21, 2009—were based on the responses of those 937 members who answered every question.

Lichter felt that it was important to get scientific opinion based on an expert community at large, as a counter to the opinions of the small circle of authorities often quoted in the media. Indeed, a 1997 study conducted by the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research found that media scientists portrayed so-called xenoestrogens as being a definite cause of harm to human health in 62 percent of the cases. This was vastly different, however, from the opinion of a random sample of distinguished scientists, who—again in 62 percent of the cases—characterized the threat of xenoestrogens as either "minor" or "none."

The inescapable conclusion is that the media, ever in search of bad and alarming news, tends to quote those who give them what they want, even if this is far from the expert consensus………….One can only conclude that such beliefs must be heavily influenced by the popular media…………..
The pesticides finding is strange. Other data in the study show the members almost equally divided on DDT, the historically libeled and now mostly reprieved baddie, originally maligned by Rachel Carson. Here again, exactly what sort of scientific studies can they cite to form such an opinion? They speak of balance and diversity. How would they propose to feed billions without pesticides?

The members tend to hold such environmental activist fund-raising groups as Greenpeace, PETA, the Environmental Working Group, and the National Resources Defense Council in low esteem, which prompted Linda Greer, NRDC's Director, Health and Environment Program, to react during the press conference held to announce the survey. Greer—apparently unfamiliar with survey methodology—noted that the results were not peer reviewed. If the results and methodology of a survey are to be published in a journal, then they are peer reviewed. Otherwise, a survey stands on its own, subject to the informal peer review of the media.

Lichter couldn't resist asking Greer if her organization ever releases data without peer review. She replied (as quoted by Reason magazine) "We're an advocacy group and we don't hold ourselves out as scientific researchers. We don't do peer reviewed science. Everybody knows that."

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