Unpopular Science — Public Distrust of Science and Technology Can Be Deadly

January 01, 1999  ·  Michael Fumento  ·  Hudson Institute, Inc.  ·  Environment

Our society seems to be embracing superstition and the paranormal in a way it hasn’t since alleged witches were toasted by the thousands in Europe. A poll done just last year, comparing beliefs in 1976 with beliefs today, showed the surprising rise in belief in the paranormal in the U.S. (see fig. 1).

Figure 1

As the graph indicates, in 1998 45 percent of Americans believed in faith healing, up from just 10 percent two decades ago.

Belief in astrology has risen from 17 percent to 37 percent. Belief in fortune telling has almost quadrupled. Belief in spiritualism has risen even more rapidly. ("Spiritualism," by the way, has nothing to do with being spiritual but actually means talking to the dead.) For all the talk these days about "Generation X," we seem to be raising "Generation XFiles."

Biting the Hand That Feeds

Why this wholesale rejection of science when science is doing more for us than ever? A very likely cause is the small but highly organized, extremely dedicated group of people determined to convince us that the products of science—especially chemical—are our worst enemies. Also responsible are reporters who swallow these stories uncritically.

This past February, for example, two major groups released reports on the tenth anniversary of the infamous Alar scare. They said that the risks to children from pesticides are at least as great as ever. They were completely wrong, but you wouldn’t know it from the media. The Washington Post began its article on the Consumers Union report with this frightening falsehood: "The same fresh peaches, grapes and apples that supply vital nutrients for growing children are also exposing millions of Americans to unsafe levels of potentially toxic pesticide residues." Consumers Union’s Ed Groth said that the report is "not frightening. It’s empowering. It’s about giving consumers information to make choices for themselves."

No, it wasn’t; it was about fear. It was about scaring parents, as reflected in subsequent headlines in the Post and other newspapers:

  • "Fruits, Vegetables Found Overloaded with Pesticides"
  • "Study Says Pesticides in Produce Are too High for Kids"
  • "Pesticide Danger Seen in Fresh Fruits, Vegetables; Children Found Most at Risk"
  • "Some Fruits, Vegetables Endanger Kids, Study Says"
  • "Poisons in the Produce U.S. Consumer Body Finds; Some Veggies Scarily High in Pesticides"

Unfortunately, such scary headlines will undoubtedly discourage parents from feeding their children fresh produce. But we know that fresh produce protects against disease, including cancer. Therefore, it is likely that reports such as these will not prevent disease but actually cause it. This type of hysteria is just another manifestation of "chemophobia," an inordinate fear or hatred of chemicals produced by the hand of man. This phobia originated many years ago with the environmentalist attack on all man-made chemicals. But the blanket attack failed because people quickly realized that they couldn’t possibly live without all or most of the artificial chemicals we encounter in our daily lives.

Then one group, Greenpeace, schemed that rather than trying to swallow the whole pig at once, they would do so one piece at a time. They decided to single out all products containing chlorine or which used chlorine in their production. They labeled chlorine "the Devil’s chemical." In so doing they were able to say that they were "only" going after one set of man-made chemicals, well aware that chlorines affect every facet of our lives because they are used in most pesticides and pharmaceuticals, to purify our water, and in many plastics. They also knew that chlorines are a common natural chemical, showing up in harmless compounds such as sodium chloride (table salt). But Greenpeace said, to the devil with the truth.

One use of chlorines is to soften plastic, which is normally hard and brittle. Among such plastics is polyvinyl chloride, also known as PVC or, to most of us, just plain vinyl. In December 1998, Greenpeace, with the help of a segment on ABC’s 20/20, launched a remarkably successful campaign against PVC in toys and teething rings, resulting in most major toy maker and sellers yanking them from the market not because they believed that PVC posed a hazard to children but because all the bad publicity posed a hazard to their sales. After this victory, Greenpeace drummed up hysteria over PVC used in cooking utensils and in medical instruments such as blood bags and dialysis tubes. Again, their claims were utterly without scientific support, but once again they enjoyed tremendous support from the media.

How does Greenpeace get away with all this unscientific nonsense? It’s partly through appeals to emotion and partly because much of our media, including self-styled science or medical writers, are woefully ignorant of science and medicine.

Doing it for the Kids

When Ronald Reagan was president, he once said that he expected to see the following headline in the Washington Post some day: "World to End Tomorrow; Women and Children to Suffer the Most." During the Clinton years, invoking The Children to support every scheme and accomplishment, no matter how unrelated to them, has become a true art form. A few years ago, for example, the president said, on national TV, "For the first time since the dawn of the nuclear age, there are no Russian missiles pointed at America’s children."

It was truly marvelous, this newfound ability of Russian engineers to make missiles capable of wiping out whole cities that nonetheless would avoid kids. Given this smarmy mentality, it is no coincidence that Greenpeace began its anti-PVC campaign with a product—toys—used almost exclusively by children. Winning there, they knew, would push the camel’s nose under the tent, and it would be a fairly simple matter for the rest of the beast to follow.

Figure 2

Time and again, activists invoke "the children" in discussions of safety issues, almost as if the American child had become an endangered species. But nothing could be further from the truth.

Life expectancy in this country has been increasing by leaps and bounds, but little of this increase is from progress against illness associated with old age, such as heart disease and cancer. Adding a few years to the life of an elderly person barely affects the data. What is really pushing up longevity is that kids are dying at the lowest rates ever. In fact, the death rate for children in the U.S. today is less than one-third what it was just thirty years ago. Average life expectancy in the U.S. has increased by five years in just the last generation (see fig. 2), driven by the tremendous decline in childhood deaths, from more than 4,000 per 100,000 live births in 1970 to less than one-third that number today (see fig. 3).

Figure 3

I’m not a parent, though most of my friends are. For that matter, as one might guess, so were my father and mother. I know from them what it’s like to fear for the health and lives of one’s children. I know that they have those moments of anguish when every little unexplained bump or rash evokes a quick, chilling fear of cancer, when a bad cold seems a harbinger of pneumonia. Such thoughts may be irrational, but they are all part of being a parent.

As a society, however, we cannot afford to be irrational. We must recognize that children are healthier than ever and living longer than ever. We have an obligation to use our reason and ask the following question: If man-made chemicals are really turning life into a minefield of risk, why are we so much healthier than our ancestors who lived without these things? As Linda Birnbaum, a top official with the EPA, recently noted, specifically addressing chemophobia, "We need to . . . accept the fact that people are living longer and healthier than we’ve ever lived before."

And, no, this increasing longevity and good health are not sheer coincidence. They are in great part — though not entirely—the result of our increasing use of man-made chemicals.

The Bad Old Days

The American Plastics Council recently concluded a wonderful TV ad campaign which included a trip to a medieval food market. At first it all seems like a beautiful fairy tale, as we so often we romanticize the Middle Ages today. But then we see mounds of food—including meat—left out in a state in which it must certainly be putrefying. After it is bought and taken home, this food will continue to putrefy, right up until the moment of consumption.

Such food, of course, was terribly dangerous. People eating this fly-covered, maggot-infested fare dropped like flies. They died of E.coli, shigellosis, and all sorts of horrible, food-borne diseases hardly anybody today has even heard of. And when they weren’t dying, they were often vomiting or suffering horrible and sometimes deadly bouts of diarrhea. Most of these diseases concentrated their effects on children and the elderly, both of whom suffered the most and died in the greatest numbers.

If somebody takes away something that makes us healthier, we will be sicker. These are the coming wages of bad science and chemophobia. But there’s much more in the pipeline. For example, even though we are a wealthy nation, we still have limited resources, and disrespect for science limits the money we allocate to scientific research. Hence competition for research grants in the U.S. is tighter than ever. The National Science Foundation, for instance, can fund only one-third of the research proposals it receives each year.

Our nation’s decreasing regard for science also creates misallocation of another scarce resource: fear and worry. A person cannot be afraid of or worried about everything all the time, and an increase in false scares about modern technologies distracts us from real dangers. Americans are suffering from worry fatigue.

Consider just a few of the fictional dangers foisted on us in just the past few years. "Just a bite or two of an apple, peach, or pear" could "cause dizziness, nausea, and blurred vision" in a child if the fruit has been treated with a commonly used pesticide, says the Environmental Working Group. Asbestos is deadly even when tucked behind inches of dry wall, according to numerous false reports in the media. AIDS is poised to kill every last American man, woman, and child, according to congressional testimony given just a few years ago by the nation’s top health official, Donna Shalala. Sperm counts have fallen alarmingly low. Or so we are told, day after day, week after week.

Profits and Prejudice

Much of this attention arises because the press see activist groups as more credible than industry. The logic seems to be that industry just wants to make a buck and will do whatever it takes to earn the largest profit possible. "Whatever," in their minds, means polluting the environment and even killing kids.

"It would seem logical, would it not," Ted Koppel said on an ABC Nightline segment on dioxin, "that industry, which seems to have been responsible for a great deal of dioxin getting into the atmosphere and into our total environment, that they would have a vested interest in suggesting to the public at large that it ain’t all bad?" Maybe so, but Koppel simply ignored any possible motives on the other side. Are chemicals the lifeblood of a chemical company? Certainly. But just as surely, fear is the lifeblood of many advocacy groups, including virtually all the environmentalist ones.

"Environmentalists are quick to accuse their opponents in business of having vested interests," The Economist has noted, "But their own incomes, their fame, and their very existence can depend on supporting the most alarming versions of every environmental scare." It added, "Pressure groups, journalists, and fame seekers will no doubt continue to peddle ecological catastrophes at an undiminishing speed." Many environmental activists make a good deal of money from these fear campaigns, in fundraising and book sales. Of course, businesses make a lot of money, too, but they do it by selling things people want, rather than something they don’t want—fear. The press, unfortunately, usually ignores this motive behind anti-scientific scares.

Actually, industry has stronger motivations for honesty than the activists do. "Businesses today have product liability and can incur legal damages if they place a dangerous product on the market," noted Daniel Koshland Jr. when he was editor of Science magazine. "Public interest groups have no such constraints at the moment." Not at that moment and not at this moment, either. And the irrational popular distrust of science and technology continues to rise.

Subversive Mission

Sadly, most reporters continue to believe that industry is always wrong and those who oppose industry are always right. This is shown clearly in a book published this year, Environmental Cancer: A Political Disease? by S. Robert Lichter and Stanley Rothman. One of the many fascinating charts and tables in this book compares the views of environmental activists with those of scientific experts.

Asked, "Is there a cancer epidemic?" two-thirds of the activists said yes, whereas less than a third of the experts did. Asked, "Is industry causing cancer rates to increase?" 64 percent of the activists said yes, but less than a third of the experts agreed. The experts, of course, were right and the activists were wrong: according to the National Cancer Institute, U.S. cancer rates adjusted for age stopped rising in 1990.

And how did the media do? An amazing 85 percent of reporters surveyed believed that we face "a cancer epidemic"—a much higher number even than among environmental activists. Over twice as many reporters as scientists believed cancer-causing agents to be "unsafe at any dose." The book also makes clear that this bias is indeed reflected in coverage. The authors examined the frequency with which various 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.

The book also shows that reporters skew scientific reality not just through the choice of stories to cover and the flow of the story’s narrative but also through the reporter’s selection of experts to quote. This book and other research confirm that former Boston Globe environmental reporter, Dianne Dumanoski, co-author of Our Stolen Future, is hardly alone in her stated belief that "There is no such thing as objective reporting," and that she is therefore justified in becoming "even more crafty about finding the voices to say the things I think are true. That’s my subversive mission."

Clearly, when it comes to environmental, health, and risk issues, the media often see themselves as not a medium between science (and scientists) and the public but rather as a filter, a black screen, or a magnifying glass. That is why so much of their audience—the American people—is sadly misinformed and more likely to trust a fortune teller than a scientist. Of course, some people would be chemophobic regardless of how the issues were presented.

One man on the Donahue show, for example, after another guest pointed out that numerous substances found to be carcinogenic in rodent tests are present naturally in food, said, "I would rather take a chance on eating natural food, even though it has cancer in it, than you putting chemicals in my food to give me cancer." Yet this is surely a minority viewpoint. Most of the public would react more rationally if given proper information—real facts, real data, and sound science. In short, if reporters just told the truth.

In one sense, an emotional appeal about science is entirely appropriate and reasonable. Just as nobody has benefited more from the scientific progress we have enjoyed in the postwar era than children, nobody will suffer more from a slowing or stopping of that progress. We have President Clinton’s word that twenty megaton warheads will miraculously bypass our kids. But we need to remember that when activists and reporters mislead us about science, our kids are at ground zero.