Blinded to science
The results of valid research are politicized, manipulated, misrepresented and discredited in the name of dogma
Dr. Edward Crippen still remembers where he was and what he was doing when he first heard Nevada’s governor was trying to fire him.
It was more than three decades ago, but then it was the only time in his distinguished career that Crippen was ever fired for doing exactly what he was supposed to do, so it probably stands out in his mind. He was in Elko doing health inspections.
“I went out looking at the different problems out there and also checking on the whorehouses,” he says.
Only in Nevada did the state health officer do brothel inspections.
He had recently learned of a troubling secret the city officials of Fallon had been keeping. Its water was dangerously high in arsenic. City officials knew of the problem but had kept it quiet. When a local nurse retired, she tipped off Crippen, who checked water quality tests and then sent a letter to the city advising local officials to act on getting a new water source or treating the old one. Those city officials went ballistic.
Acting Mayor Merton Domonoske said, “We’re not too concerned about the water. We realize we’ve been drinking the same water for 30 years. This isn’t something that developed overnight. … We’ve received all this adverse publicity and are badly hurt by it. We are the center for tourists, duck and deer hunters and are trying to get industry in here.”
“There’s absolutely nothing wrong with the water in this town,” bartender John Marshall said.
Crippen had encountered a similar situation once before, when he was a health care worker in Nepal. He came across a smallpox outbreak, and local officials wanted to ignore it so it would not scare off tourists.
Nevada Gov. Paul Laxalt denounced what he called Crippen’s “highly irresponsible action,” apologized to the town, and convened state health and welfare director Karl Harris and the members of the Nevada Board of Health to fire Crippen, which they did on Feb. 26, 1969. Crippen’s firing brought the publicity that town leaders had dreaded right down upon them. The firing—and Crippen’s arsenic report—was prominent news all over the nation, often adorning front pages.
After his firing, Crippen donated some books to the University of Nevada in Reno and departed the state. He told his Carson City realtor that he was not “bitter at Nevada or the people of Nevada.”
Crippen, who had previously been a health officer in Detroit and Mobile, was the second state health officer forced from office by Nevada officials in a year. He lasted just seven months in the Nevada job and was immediately snapped up by Gulf Oil.
Meanwhile, back in Fallon, the arsenic clock kept ticking.
Fourteen years earlier, it had been two Colorado scientists. On March 12, 1955, radiology expert Ray Lanier and biophysicist Theodore Puck—both of the University of Colorado—reported their findings that radioactive dust drifting east from the Nevada atomic testing ground was a public health threat to Coloradans.
Two days later Colorado Gov. Ed Johnson called a news conference to denounce the two men, calling their report a “publicity stunt,” “dangerous and inflammatory,” and “a premeditated effort to frighten the people and spread unnecessary hysteria.” He said Puck and Lanier “should be arrested” and praised the press for not reporting seriously on the Lanier/Puck findings, He asserted that the scientists’ findings were “probably” baseless.
Puck and Lanier, however, were not cowed.
“We feel strong that our belief in the principle of public discussion of the problems in our democracy does not constitute grounds for an attack on our patriotism. … Our plea is for more recognition and investigation of these hazards,” they said in a statement. News reports of their statement devoted less space to their defense than to repeating Johnson’s attack.
Hearst’s International News Service ran a red-baiting article that said, “A big Communist ‘fear’ campaign to force Washington to stop all American atomic-hydrogen bomb tests erupted this week. … The key fake claim: The dust from the tests so vital to keep America ahead of Russia in superior weapons are death carriers which right NOW threaten to destroy the country and its citizens, and should be stopped.”
Meanwhile, downwind of the Nevada test site, the fallout clock kept ticking.
Half a century later there is no question about who was right. Congress is still in a years-long effort to squirm out of paying compensation for the well-documented cancers and leukemias experienced by atomic test site downwinders. The alarming rate of leukemia in Fallon is the subject of studies by the Centers for Disease Control, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Congress, and a new generation of the town’s leaders has made commerce secondary to public health and are getting the water treated.
But there is little evidence that anything else has been learned from such experiences. Science is still something to be squeezed and trimmed, manipulated, misrepresented and dismissed. In 1977, Nevada Assemblymember Sue Wagner introduced legislation urging Congress to “study and act on the hazards posed by the use of … chlorofluorocarbon compounds in aerosol propellants.”
The measure was approved—but some legislators were still unhappy. Twenty years later, scientist Sherwood Rowland was honored by the Nevada Legislature for his work in demonstrating that chlorofluorocarbons erode the ozone layer. Speaker Joe Dini welcomed Rowland but used the occasion to tell him that his findings—for which Rowland had received the 1995 Nobel Prize for chemistry—were wrong.
Nevada’s governor, James Gibbons, grew up in atomic-age Nevada and so knows the danger of misrepresenting science. As a member of the U.S. House representing a mining district, he was involved in an effort to trivialize the dangers of toxic mercury by co-authoring an article that cherry-picked the scientific literature to misrepresent the findings of science.
The guy at the top
Today science is under attack over issues like second-hand smoke, medical marijuana, dietary and herbal supplements, creationism, stem cells and global warming. The Bush administration is a regime in which pressure is brought to bear on scientists to reach politically palatable conclusions and which puts its imprimatur on fringe scientific figures. George Bush uses the term “sound science,” suggesting that he believes there is another kind, like a “true fact.”
When NASA scientist James Hansen, a prominent climate change authority, said he had been silenced by his agency and told to submit his lectures and papers for review, U.S. House Science Committee chair Sherwood Boehlert, a Republican, demanded an explanation from the administration, but he also told Time, “I don’t for a moment think that the administration is dictating from the White House some policy directed to silence distinguished scientists like Dr. Hansen.”
In fact, no such directives are necessary. The tone is set at the top. Bush believes in theocratic governing and has demonstrated more than once his willingness to ignore science and trifle with fringe science. When he appointed Andrew von Eschenbach to head the National Cancer Institute, no one needed to tell Eschenbach to change the language on the NCI Web site from scientific skepticism toward a link between abortion and breast cancer to an inconclusive stance. He did it on his own.
Other scientists are in similar situations. Federal grants are so basic to research that it is a brave scientist who speaks out against political pressure—though 8,000 of them have managed to find their voices enough to sign a letter complaining about intrusion of politics into science under Bush.
The release two weeks ago of a massive study by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) should have settled a good deal, and among some skeptics it was influential. Conservative columnist David Brooks, long suspicious of global warming, said on ABC’s “This Week” that the science was now compelling and he could only “defer” to it. But others quickly mounted an attack on the IPCC findings.
Columnist Thomas Sowell, for instance, ran a series of columns under the umbrella title of “Global hot air” that was filled with emotionally loaded terms and ad hominem attacks ("environmental crusaders, whose whole sense of themselves as saviors of the planet is at stake, as they try to stamp out any views to the contrary") that were reminiscent of the Hearst attack on Puck and Lanier. He wrote that there was no scentific consensus behind global warming, though the IPCC was peer reviewed in more than 130 nations, and Sowell was able to name only five scientists who disagreed with its view.
The American Enterprise Institute think tank in Washington offered big cash to scholars willing to attack the IPCC study.
Orange County Register columnist Mark Steyn wrote a piece that ran under the headline “Eco-chondriacs crank up the hysteria.”
In Australia, Prime Minister John Howard attacked “knee-jerk environmental solutions that would damage the jobs of coal miners in Australia” and “responses to climate change that would put Australia at a competitive disadvantage with the rest of the world.” He said a global temperature rise of four to six degrees would merely mean “discomfort.”
George Bush, deep in denial, has not been heard from on IPCC. But the lesson is clear—when science speaks, big propaganda guns will open up on it.
And those behind the guns get a lot of help from journalism.
Some alleged “scientific” disputes are more or less invented out of whole cloth, creating controversy where, among scientists, none actually exists.
The ABC link, the hypothosis that abortion causes breast cancer, has virtually no evidence to support it. Out of the nation’s thousands of scientists, exactly one—Joel Brind, a City College of New York biochemist—supports the claim. But if a reporter tells readers how dubious the ABC link is—as Los Angeles Times reporter Scott Gold did in a story on a Texas law requiring that women be warned about breast cancer before receiving abortions—he may well be reprimanded for slanted coverage, as Gold was by his editor.
The overwhelming consensus that the ABC link is a myth is wide and deep in the scientific community, which is why news stories usually use anti-abortion activists instead of scientists in presenting one side of the “debate.” This puts the reporter in the role of serving the agenda of an interest group by manufacturing an artificial difference of opinion where none actually exists.
In disputes over science, journalism often functions to distort the debate. For one thing, as happened during McCarthyism, the conventions of “objective” journalism hold reporters captive. They must express no judgment and must give a say to both sides in a dispute, even when there is only one side to a story, akin to giving the convenience store clerk and the stick-up artist equal time on the merits of robbery.
As a result of the excesses of the McCarthy era, journalists learned to do analytical reporting, drawing in more information than just the he-said/she-said points and giving readers and viewers more information with which to reach conclusions. But that step is often—even usually—ignored, particularly in local reporting.
The reporter cranks out a report with a sound bite from each side, then leaves the reader or viewer adrift, with no guidance on who is right. “The real jerks are the ones who take a 200-scientist report that took three years to write with three rounds of reviews, give it two inches, and then go get two guys funded by Exxon, give them two inches, and say they’re equally credible,” said Stanford biologist Stephen Schneider, who has posted a discussion of “mediarology” on his Web site (http://stephenschneider.stanford.edu/).
In February 2003, when Joel Brind was the only one of more than a hundred participants in a National Cancer Institute workshop who argued that there was evidence for the ABC link, the news coverage never mentioned that Brind had undergone a religious conversion and that he had publicly stated that he would put science in the service of his religion. Science writer Chris Mooney has pointed out that Brind wrote, “With a new belief in a meaningful universe, I felt compelled to use science for its noblest, life-saving purpose.” Brind wrote this for a conservative evangelical publication. Brind is entitled to apply his religion to his science if he chooses, of course, but it’s information that readers need to know in order to fully assess Brind’s stance on the ABC link.
Sometimes news coverage is simply misleading, as when reporters portray science in competition not with science but with ideology or dogma or commerce or religion. Scientists should be allowed to compete with informed criticism of their work by informed and unconvinced competing experts. In news reports, an FDA researcher may find herself on one side of an issue and a lobbyist or politician, not another scientist, on the other. The appropriate foil for Brind is another scientist, not Ted Kennedy.
Local news coverage of thimerosal, a mercury-laced vaccine preservative linked to a sharp rise in autism among children, often pits scientists not against each other, but it pits parents against scientists—a no-win proposition for the scientists, no matter what the science. It is neither responsible nor informative for journalists to set up these unbalanced contests between informed and uninformed, emotion and intellect. Reporters, however, are usually under heavy pressure from their news management to use ratings- and circulation-inducing “real people” in stories.
It is also sometimes difficult to sort out who is credible and who is not. The Wall Street Journal once ran an essay attributed to two scholars at the Oregon Institute of Science and Medicine. It claimed that global warming is a myth. Its conclusions are nonsense—UNR environmental chemist Glenn Miller calls it “simply wrong"—and the Institute is run by a home schooling marketer who is into creationism, which the Journal did not tell readers. The Journal piece has proliferated all over the Internet.
While there is endless debate over whether journalism is liberal or conservative, that debate is beside the point. The segment of journalism that has the greatest credibility with the public—the mainstream media—is neither left nor right. It is centrist and establishment, often functioning as booster for the status quo. News coverage is often laced with subtle bits of help for the established view. During the dispute over the Lanier/Puck fallout report, a news report in the Indiana, Penn., newspaper on an Atomic Energy Commission official’s response ran under this headline: “Radioactive Fall Is Said ‘Harmless'.”
Nowhere in that news story or in the official’s comments was fallout described as harmless, even though the word appears in quotation marks in the headline. But it did serve the purpose of supporting the testing program.
Some journalists are skilled at belittling viewpoints that stray too far outside the mainstream. In the Tri-City Herald in southern Washington, the dispute over Dr. Crippen’s firing was headlined as a “tiff.” Some newspapers such as the Reno Evening Gazette did not carry the original Puck/Lanier report until Gov. Johnson attacked the two, thus treating it as a political, not a scientific, dispute and so conditioning the public’s reaction to it.
Little wonder that many scientists now regard journalism as an institutional obstacle to truth.
It is true, of course, that science has sometimes been wrong, and no reporter should overlook informed critics of the principal views of scientific issues in dispute. But the search for scientific truth must start somewhere, and that place is not a political headquarters or the chamber of commerce or a church.
What did you do in the science wars?
Lanier did not live to know that his work on atomic testing had been vindicated. He died in a Jeep accident in 1958.
Dr. Puck won the Albert Lasker Award for his research on nutrition, genetics and mutation. He came to Nevada in 1970 where he told a Las Vegas audience, “If we’re going to make an error, I want to be on the side of conservatism. In assessing the risks, you can only assess the risks you know about. We never know totality of biological cause.” He died two years ago, knowing that politicians had finally been forced to recognize the overwhelming science about fallout.
Dr. Crippen lives in retirement in Mancelona, Mich.
“They said that by calling them out I was irresponsible,” he said last week. “I said, ‘I’m responsible for public health, and if you would just let me handle this, you stay out of it.’ But they didn’t want that.”
They were forerunners of the scientists who today are fighting to have their findings on a myriad of subjects judged, not on ad hominem issues, but on the science itself.
What is at issue here is not debating points, it is health and even life. People may well have died because Laxalt and Domonoske interfered with the public health system. People did die because Lanier and Puck were not heeded.
Fifty years from now, with the planet deteriorating, someone may well be writing this article again, with a different set of players.