Science Reporting Under a Microscope

January 01, 1999  ·  Michael Fumento  ·  The Wall Street Journal  ·  Asbestos

It seems as if almost every other day we hear about yet another carcinogenic killer brought to you — or so we are led to believe — courtesy of a giant multinational run by fat, cigar-chomping executives wearing $1,200 suits. But how much of what we hear is true?

The answer is not easy to come by, for there is a yawning divide between the realities of hard science and the scary reports from various activists and reporters. Environmental Cancer — A Political Disease? (Yale University Press, 235 pages, $35) does a tremendous service in separating fact from fiction. The authors — S. Robert Lichter and Stanley Rothman — show how out of touch the activists and "media elite" often are.

One of the many fascinating charts and tables in this book compares the views of environmental activists with those of scientific experts. Is there a cancer epidemic? Two-thirds of the activists said yes; less than a third of the experts did. Is industry causing cancer rates to increase? Sixty-four percent of the activists said yes, but less than a third of the experts. (Actually, cancer rates adjusted for age stopped rising in 1990.)

And the media? An amazing 85% of reporters surveyed believed we face "a cancer epidemic" — a much higher number than even among environmental activists. Over twice as many reporters believed cancer-causing agents to be "unsafe at any dose" compared with scientists. As for the frequency with which agents were cited in news reports as confirmed or suspected carcinogens: Man-made chemicals ranked first, outnumbering the second category, tobacco, by almost two to one.

Pesticides were mentioned more than asbestos. At first glance, this is odd. Occupational exposure to asbestos (namely, for shipbuilders during World War II) caused a horrific rate of lung cancer, while studies of workers with the highest pesticide exposures rarely show even a slight increased risk of cancer. Most pesticide stories concern barely measurable — and, despite the alarm, essentially harmless — amounts on food or in water.

But asbestos comes from the bowels of the earth and pesticides from the hand of man, and therein lies the difference. When cancer researchers state that the vast majority of carcinogen exposure is "environmental," somehow this is translated into "man-made." (This applies to other diseases, too. A recent study relying on sets of twins concluded simply that older-onset Parkinson’s disease is not genetic and hence is environmental; yet this led to a bizarre front-page Los Angeles Times headline blaring "Chemicals Called Main Cause of Parkinson’s.")

In short, environmental is understood too narrowly. As John Higginson, former director of the International Agency for Research on Cancer, explains: "Environment is what surrounds people and impinges on them. The air you breathe, the culture you live in, the agricultural habits of your community, the social cultural habits, the social pressures, the physical chemicals . . . and so on." Man-made chemicals? Sometimes, but rarely. Numerous studies suggest that man-made products cause fewer than 5% of cancers.

Scientists are none too happy about their findings being misconstrued for the public. In only three of 11 cancer-causing categories — tobacco, sunlight and radon — do at least half the scientists surveyed believe that the media’s presentation of cancer risks and causes is fair. Not surprisingly, these are all natural carcinogens.

Scientists’ doubts differ according to the news source, too. Seventy-two percent found the New England Journal of Medicine highly reliable, but less than a fourth felt that way about the New York Times. Still, the Times fared more than twice as well as the weekly news magazines. Meanwhile, TV network news came in with a mere 6% reliability rating.

Samuel Epstein

As Messrs. Lichter and Rothman demonstrate, this skewing of scientific reality is accomplished not just through a reporter’s choice of stories and the flow of his narrative but also through his selection of "experts" to quote.

Two such "experts" are Sidney Wolfe, of the Naderite group Public Citizen, and Samuel Epstein, of the University of Illinois at Chicago. They can be counted on to sound the alarm, claiming that a given man-made chemical, pollutant or device causes cancer or other health problems. That’s probably why their names pop up regularly on the news. Yet "each received a high confidence rating from fewer than one in four cancer researchers," the authors write.

The predictable result of all this is a fair amount of exaggeration and scare-mongering. True, too many false alarms have left the public somewhat skeptical, and indeed the authors present strong evidence that "environmental activists do not speak for the American public." But it would be ludicrous to think that the public — who generally don’t pick up the New England Journal of Medicine for their weekend reading — are somehow immune from this disinformation campaign.