Junk Science: A Hazard to Your Health

June 25-28, 1998
Alden VineyardsAlexander Valley, California

Introduction

Dr. Henry I. Miller, Senior Research Fellow, Hoover Institution, Stanford University

"Instead of rejoicing over technological cornucopia, consumers have come to fear technologies," said Dr. Henry Miller in his introductory remarks at the outset of the "junk science" conference. The reason for this state of affairs, Dr. Miller said, was the prevalence of "junk science."

While based on shaky or bogus data, Miller said, junk science has come to be a favorite of the media, which jumped on such stories as the Love Canal and the Alar scare. Journalists can become instant experts on technology, he said, without mastering the difficult nuances of such subjects as the relation of pesticides to cancer. Editors, likewise, were not interested in the hard scientific data or statistics. They kept it basic, as in the formulation: If it goes up it’s physics, if it blows up it’s chemistry, if it dies it’s biology. But such simplicity has helped promote hysteria.

For example, Dr. Miller noted, a single environmental group caused the demise of Alar, a preservative developed by Uniroyal, which withdrew the product from the market even though the Environmental Protection Agency found no problem with it. In the hysteria surrounding Alar, led by Hollywood actress Meryl Streep, one woman called a poison hot-line and asked if it was safe to pour apple juice down the drain. An asbestos scare led New York City to close down all its public schools for several weeks. An anti-fertilizer, anti-pesticide ad campaign in the San Francisco area used the slogan "Have you oversprayed your garden?" All these developments have political fallout.

"Junk science leads to government agencies overregulating," Dr. Miller said. In one example, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) will regulate gene-spliced plants as pesticides, which is stricter than the regulation for other synthetic chemicals.

Dr. Miller cited a "chasm" between those conversant with the facts of science and the media opinion leaders. "The goal is to understand this gap and ameliorate it," he said.

Seminar One: The State of Global Warming

Dr. Robert Balling, Director of the Department of Geography and Climatology at Arizona State University and author of The Heated Debate

"People really have a sense that someone is predicting change in climate," Dr. Balling said, "that all mainstream scientists are saying the planet is about to warm up. They think record-breaking temperatures have been observed."

Balling noted that weather stories are a big sell with the media, adding that not everyone agrees that the weather is becoming crazier. Many reporters know there are scientists who do not agree on the subject. Balling encouraged people to log onto Yahoo on the World Wide Web, hit "global warming," and see what comes up.

Dr. Balling cited problems with both the science and the economics of global warming, noting that the AFL-CIO is not happy with the prospect of lost jobs due to cutbacks in industry based on global warming predictions.

In the debate surrounding the subject, the benchmark year of 1990 has been portrayed as "the year of the Magna Carta." Since then, said Balling, we have "flattened out on carbon dioxide emissions" and the "giant emissions" are not from the United States, but rather from Eastern Europe and Asia. Balling cited many other gasses that trap heat energy, such as methane and nitrous oxide.

The subject of global warming is not a new one, Balling noted. One hundred years ago scientists calculated what would happen if you doubled greenhouse gasses and found there would be an increase of approximately four degrees.

One thing that has changed, however, is that we are measuring warming as never before and, by recent calculations, 1997 is the warmest year on record. Central Phoenix, for example, was showing temperatures four to eight degrees higher but outside the city the trend was toward cooling. "You can change temperature by moving thermometers around," Balling said. "Are you seeing warming or an urban effect?"

Another factor concerns volcanoes. "We have become quiet volcanically," said Balling, noting that the planet cools after volcanic eruptions and warms up when the atmospheric debris from the volcano clears. Those measuring temperature, he said, should control for that, but often do not. He cited the much-mentioned El Niño effect, an enormous pool of warm water, but speculated that soon we would have La Niña, the opposite effect, and the world would cool. But the entire global warming debate, he said, may hinge on one well-known but seldom discussed factor.

Scientists at Harvard University and in Europe have noted that our sun is an irregular star with a variable output. A chart showing the variation in the sun’s output corresponds very closely to recent temperature variations.

"It may be as simple as the sun gets brighter and the world gets warmer," he said. "A lot is happening in this area." There is a "strong relation to temperature and solar output" and good scientists are contending that warming, if real, "may be entirely related to the sun." Others say 84 percent can be explained by this idea, which is something that could and should be communicated to the media and politicians, according to Balling.

A full 70 percent of warming, he added, took place before World War II, before the buildup of the greenhouse gasses. In 1932, a scientist named Kincer speculated on the possibility of climatic change. In recent times, Balling noted, global temperatures have been measured by microwave machines mounted on satellites. These satellites have seen no warming, but rather significant cooling. There has been nothing like global warming over the past decade and even a cooling after the volcanic eruption at Mt. Pinatubo in the Philippines. When the satellite record showed no temperature increase, global warming promoters conveniently failed to cite that fact. This year, however, the satellite record is showing warming, so the data will be cited. But the increase is no cause for alarm.

"It’s going to come back down, it always has. There is still no warming trend over the past two decades," Balling said, citing a lack of volcanism, El Niño and the solar output as responsible. The record of temperatures taken from balloons, he added, shows that the planet has cooled.

While some climate models show warming in the northern hemisphere, satellite models of the Arctic reveal no warming whatsoever. And the warming taking place in the tropics, Balling added, has "nothing to do with greenhouse gasses."

No one says it is staying the same everywhere. Europe and Asia are warming, but in other places the planet is cooling, with the most significant cooling occurring over Hudson Bay, the place where the climate models say the warming should be the greatest.

Hurricanes, Balling said, were supposedly enhanced by global warming, but the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) at the United Nations, in 1990, cited no evidence that storms will increase. Further, the German-based Max Plank Institute said hurricanes are less of a threat in a greenhouse world. The experts don’t know how this works, Balling notes, but they manage to make this admission in a complicated and evasive way. The 2,005 IPCC scientists, in fact, say it is not possible to say that climatic change is coming. To illustrate the scientific and journalistic confusion, Balling showed a cover of Newsweek headlined "The Hot Zone," but which, improbably enough, showed a man walking through a blizzard.

Balling said he had been interviewed for television by Peter Jennings of ABC-TV, but that "one sentence in two hours" of what he had said remained in the program. On the other hand, television gives wide coverage to the pronouncements of Al Gore, global warming’s relentless and highest-profile spokesman.

"Tell the truth, let the scientists speak, and somehow the public will get it," advises Balling, who notes that even floods are now blamed on global warming.

"We had been told to expect drought," he says. "It’s all nonsense. This is the definition of junk science."

Junk science, Balling stressed, would continue not because of any scientific revelations, but because of self-interest and bureaucratic principles.

"It is in the interest of the scientists involved to make sure the issue stays alive," he said. "The IPCC is now a significant Secretariat of the United Nations."

Another aspect of the issue escaping media coverage is the role played by sulfur, and its impact on clouds. Dust in the earth is also increasing and can act like sulfur. Ina Tegen, a climatologist at Columbia University, said that dust build-up would cool the earth but the dust story never got publicity. Neither have other significant developments.

James Hansen, director of the Goddard Institute for Space Studies, in 1988 testified to then-Senator Al Gore’s Committee on Science, Technology and Space that he was "99 percent certain" that temperatures had increased and that greenhouse gasses had something to do with it. That much-publicized testimony helped jump-start global warming as a political issue. But now, Balling notes, Mr. Hansen has "jumped off the bandwagon."

Hansen now points out that ozone — a greenhouse gas — is thinning, and reminds people that means cooling on a global scale. Coolers and warmers, Balling says, offset each other. Other "huge uncertainties" lie in the area of mineral aerosols.

"I don’t think anybody has the faintest idea what is perturbing the climate," Balling says. "The uncertainties have become much greater. It is unfair to go forward to say everything that happens is because of greenhouse gasses." The best kept secret in the issue, he says, is the IPCC’s own executive summary.

That group thought business as usual would mean a one-degree rise in temperature. But even with the Kyoto regulations in place, there is no impact on climate. This fact, Balling stresses, is widely known and not debated. The Kyoto Protocol, Balling concludes, was not about climate.

In discussion following Mr. Balling’s presentation, Drew Oliver of National Review said "the agenda is power, First-World to Third-World transfers." Balling again sees self-interest as the key.

"No scientist will ever come forward saying we don’t need to worry about the issue," he said. "It’s become an industry, a big industry."

Today, however, the economists, have the ear of politicians on the global warming debate. But, adds Balling, "never underestimate how good the scientists are on the other side."

Henry Miller added that "the coalitions on the interventionist side are very strong" and cites some "tame" corporations such as British Petroleum.

Balling adds that the United Mine Workers, obviously concerned about job losses, "want to put a face on this issue." Global cooling is more expensive. A warm winter saves us millions in fuel costs. Further, if the United States vanished from the face of the earth, there would still be a doubling of greenhouse gasses by the year 2048.

Journalists, says Balling, are "in bed with government scientists," while those like Balling himself are regarded as a "hood ornament of disinformation."

Tod Lindberg of the Washington Times asked what effect on global temperature would be brought about by a medium-sized nuclear war between India and Pakistan. Balling says it would have no effect whatsoever on climate. During the Gulf War, the global-warming advocates said that the massive oil fires in Kuwait would change climate.

"Nothing happened," Balling said.

Seminar Two: An Editorial Perspective

Tod Lindberg, Editorial Page Editor, Washington Times

Tod Lindberg, Editorial Page Editor of the Washington Times, opened his seminar with a new Washington term: "to Ginsberg," a reference to the lawyer of Monica Lewinsky who had succeeded in appearing on five Sunday talk shows in Washington. Dealing with scientific questions on the editorial pages of a newspaper, however, amounted to a trickier question.

"What we are dealing with on the op-ed page is not science," Mr. Lindberg said. "It is a kind of agenda-based science. It is people who want to use science to do things. That needs to be kept in mind. We are not Nature or New England Journal of Medicine."

Mr. Lindberg raised the issue of the "expertise transplant," citing the group Physicians for Social Responsibility. Expertise in medical matters, by implication, does not necessarily transfer to expertise in broader public policy questions.

"It is a false-flag advancement of issues," Lindberg said. "Doctors are talking, therefore, it is medical. Actually it is political and it is my job to judge false-flag operations. I don’t care how many degrees he has. It doesn’t qualify him to offer policy guidance."

Lindberg said that his first threshold was not to allow his page to become a platform for politicized science. He would not allow political arguments to be made in anything other than policy terms. And he would not allow them to be made in terms of scientific necessity.

A lower threshold, however, involved letting real scientists speak out about the abuse of science in their own field of expertise. He would encourage them to "get mad" over the bad science or the policy prescriptions advanced on the basis of bad science. For this type of piece, he said, "I am inclined to listen and provide a forum."

It is not hard, he said, to spot politics in the guise of science. Someone might warn that certain animal species are disappearing, "therefore we must" make certain policy changes.

"Do not mistake the op-ed page as a forum for truth," he said. "That is the responsibility of the learned journals. The op-ed page is a forum for combating the misuse of science." But Lindberg saw the climate for that discussion tilting in favor of scientific truth.

"Lysenko is dead and can’t be resurrected," he said. "That’s cheering news."

The ensuing discussion covered some of the political fallout from bad science.

"The Environmental Protection Agency is the worst regulatory agency in the history of the world," said Henry Miller. "It’s stupid and slothful. The system corrupts them."

Robert Balling noted that "the government is not free to say what the government has not found." In media appearances, Balling noted that government scientists read their "approved" statements, after they have been looked at by senior government officials.

Dan Peters of Procter and Gamble (P&G) cited the bias that government scientists are better, and argued that in many cases the reverse is true. The scientist working for a for-profit company has more "clarity of purpose" and more opportunity to pursue ideas wherever they might lead.

Ellis Alden argued that think tanks should strive to bring aboard bright scientific minds, and that this would help carry the day in the media.

The following speaker cited an odyssey of regulatory abuse in regard to his own company.

Seminar Three: Science, Technology, and the Conservative Movement

Andrew Oliver, Editor, National Review

"National Review does not cover a lot of science," said editor Drew Oliver. "Ten articles on science a year, out of 26 issues." Recent articles included pieces on junk science, regulation, and an article on defense issues.

"Editors don’t think about readers, but do represent them," Oliver said. National Review’s readers, he said, included traditionalists, who like the world the way it is (or was) and "won’t read technical stuff." Likewise, the readers who are moralists are concerned with moral and philosophical issues such as homosexuality and abortion. The free-market people are interested because they see possible business applications, and the libertarian readers are "interested in technology as a subject."

National Review, Oliver said, gets very few letters on technology pieces and such pieces don’t rate well in reader surveys. Editors, he noted, are of a different background than scientists. But he was open to more commissioning of pieces since the magazine had little space for over-the-transom material.

The good stories — in a journalistic sense, he said, "don’t really come from scientists," as National Review is not a place for scientific debate. In the good stories, "the science is in the background immediately." Most appropriate is material about certain activists, politicians, and lawyers who deal with such themes as breast implants and second-hand smoke.

"It’s not so much the studies as what the people are doing, their motives," said Oliver, adding that junk science itself is an interesting story.

He cited examples from Who Stole Feminism? by Christina Hoff Sommers. Hoff Sommers examined the claims advanced by Gloria Steinem that every year in America 150,000 women die of anorexia, a figure enshrined in women’s-studies textbooks. When Sommers traced the figure back, she found that it came first from Naomi Wolf, author of The Beauty Myth, who got it from Joan Brumberg of Cornell University. She, in turn, got it from an activist anorexia group. It turned out that 150,000 women suffer, not die, from anorexia, and that the actual number of deaths is only about 60 per year.

Other interesting stories, Oliver said, involved the AIDS debate, the number of actual cases, or the number of actual homosexuals. He referred to "cluster stories" — or the preponderance of certain illnesses, such as cancer, in particular places. The notion that power lines cause cancer, he said, is "hard to discredit without doing more studies." However, the "statistical debate is hard to carry out in National Review."

Oliver noted the "coincidence-causality story" involving Gulf War Syndrome. The same people pushing the story, interestingly enough, were those who were opposed to the war.

On the silicone implants’ issue: "There were no data for 30 years — then people started winning cases." Then the FDA steps in with a ban.

A premier way of foisting junk science, Oliver said, was "denial of dosage." The huge amounts of materials fed to rats have become "a joke," to the point that it was hard to run that story. "People know you don’t get cancer from a normal amount of Olestra," he said.

While readers complained that science pieces are boring and too technical, Oliver expressed interest in a story about Michael Jacobson, the anti-Olestra crusader. "He’s the villain and he’s the subject, a focus."

Oliver said he sees technical pieces on a mild increase in breast cancer from abortion. While that topic is important to National Review readers, he said, "usually that piece doesn’t run." While some of the pieces he receives are abstract and dry, Oliver noted that the strategy of junk scientists is to "personalize and sentimentalize" the story. "We need to personalize it too," he said.

He cited a story about the chlorine issue, and an air-conditioner problem in a mini-van that had involved huge costs for the owner. "The story line is important if it is to run in a mainstream publication," Oliver said. "Most pieces are responsive to liberal activists and politicians. We are trying to play catch-up ball."

On the cloning issue, Oliver was not interested in an article on how it works or whether it works — which he felt was no longer a debatable subject. Rather, what should we do about it? Should it be regulated? "That is the kind of piece most interesting to readers of mainstream publications," said Oliver.

"Focus on the good things that science does," he added. "The ‘Left’ seems to be resisting that."

Lois Gold added that the talented scientist doesn’t have the time to write that kind of piece."

Seminar Four: Technology, Competition, and the Media

Peter Brimelow, Forbes

For Peter Brimelow of Forbes, who once worked for Senator Orrin Hatch (R-UT), the issue isn’t just how the media covers questions of science and technology, but how science and technology affects the media itself.

"The media are about to go over a technological cliff," Mr. Brimelow said, because of the power of the Internet. He wondered about the future of print and network television. While the problem with the Internet was figuring out how to make people pay for it, "technology will come back and bite the media, soon."

Brimelow’s own publication, Forbes, has gone head-to-head against Fortune, Business Week, and even the Wall Street Journal.

"The competition is part of the technology area," said Brimelow, who predicted that "we will see people who write about technology going into it."

Forbes, he said, is an "idiosyncratic family operation, whereas Fortune is a corporation; this is good, because collegiality in journalism tends to suppress dissent and competitive risk-taking."

An example of competition in the scientific area involved an article by Warren Brookes denying that global warming had occurred. When Fortune declined the piece, Forbes bought it and put it on the cover.

Continuing in the contrarian mode, Brimelow wrote an article citing some benefits of smoking. It helps Alzheimer’s and improves acuity and perception, he said, noting that airline pilots are allowed to smoke. "Nicotine affects you differently depending on how you consume it," Brimelow said. "Smokers are self-medicating. Tobacco companies should defend themselves on this, but their lawyers won’t let them."

For Your Own Good: The Anti-Smoking Movement and the Tyranny of Public Health, Jacob Sullum’s book on tobacco, Brimelow said, did not mention the positive aspects of smoking. Sullum feared these comments would discredit him.

"Science reporting is not a technical issue," Brimelow added. "It is the intellectual method they bring to it. The scientific method is the artifact of Western civilization, different than religion, art, or law."

Brimelow cited a continued dominance of the "non-scientific way of thinking," but added that there are problems with science. More specifically, scientists themselves are "influenced by paradigms and emotions," but the scientific method is an ultimate discipline.

The global warming scare, he said, was exaggerated or non-existent while, "under libertarian theology, global warming can’t happen." Reason magazine denounced The Bell Curve not because of its science but because of the perception that it was against an atomistic society. He cited this as an example of the non-scientific method prevailing in journalism.

"The key issue in journalism is manipulation of stereotypes and the point of stereotypes is that they are all true," Brimelow said, recalling that the first "stereotypes" were blocks of type ready to use at any time.

For example, Brimelow said auto deaths had been falling at the time Ralph Nader began agitating for "heroic government intervention to stop market failure." Another instance is the case of Thalidomide, a drug that allegedly caused birth defects in the 1950s, but which is now being reconsidered by the FDA for use against AIDS and leprosy.

"What we need in science policy is countervailing stereotypes to hand to the troops so they know which way to fire." Said Brimelow: "The FDA is slowing arrival of new drugs on the market and people are dying. It’s a simple stereotype now being accepted, largely because of the AIDS crisis . . . The question of cost is another stereotype. You can express a stereotype in one sentence. It’s commission or omission. They are not letting the drugs through."

Besides stereotypes, Brimelow argued that it is "essential to drape everything in personalities." For example, Forbes spent time looking at Ralph Nader and where his funding comes from. They also discovered that, contrary to the perception of austerity, Mr. Nader actually lives in an expensive townhouse.

While Forbes had run stories on the Environmental Protection Agency and former EPA Administrator William Riley, the FDA’s "thoroughly obnoxious" David Kessler provided a "wonderful target." Forbes cover showed Kessler dressed as Napoleon.

"Financial and science journalism is at the high end of the market," said Brimelow. "There is a food chain factor in the way information is spread. The mass newspaper is only 100 years old." Further, "you hurt political actors with facts, lots of research, and actual reporting. Always have a personal attack. He will read the piece." Apparently Mr. Kessler did read the Forbes piece and was not amused.

In the ensuing discussion, Michael Fumento said that 60 Minutes producer Don Hewitt called him to complain about a piece he had written about Alar in Investor’s Business Daily. Mr. Fumento had pointed out in his article that Mr. Hewitt and 60 Minutes’ claims that Alar had been banned by the EPA were false, as the chemical had not been banned by the EPA at that time. Mr. Fumento said this illustrated the ignorance of the media.

"The mainstream American credo is environmentalism," said Lois Gold — "the idea that we need the EPA to protect our kids. The assumption begins in pre-school, that there are problems with technology, that we are destroying ourselves."

Henry Miller noted that the EPA experiment is 25 years old and argued that it is a failure.

Seminar Five: Cancer and Chemicals

Dr. Lois Gold, Toxicologist, University of California at Berkeley and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory

Dr. Lois Gold directs a 20-year project at the University of California at Berkeley which develops a comprehensive and easily accessible database analyzing the results of animal cancer tests. She has used the results to seek big-picture answers to such important questions as: What chemical exposures pose the highest possible cancer hazard? Gold said that there are misconceptions about cancer prevention which are based on a prevailing set of assumptions that drive regulatory policy. It‘s hard to chip away at that. Its a fabric, a quilt, and it is well-stitched. I believe our work has had an impact on the scientific community and, to some extent, on regulatory policy. The public is fearful and is looking to the FDA and EPA to protect them, but the known causes of cancer are not the tiny residues of synthetic chemicals that are the focus of regulatory policy. As for the prevailing wisdom on the subject, Dr. Gold said flatly that the science used in standard risk assessment doesn’t provide the data necessary to estimate cancer risk at the low doses that people are exposed to. Among the common misconceptions about the causes of cancer is the notion that there is an epidemic of cancer.

The trends in cancer deaths over time, however, show that the only epidemic is lung cancer due to smoking, and that has begun to decline in men due to stopping smoking. Women started smoking later and the trend is still going up due to the lag time before lung cancer develops. When lung cancer deaths are excluded, cancer mortality shows a decline of 16% since 1950. Colon cancer is going down and stomach cancer, which was the most prevalent U.S. cancer during the 1930s, has gone down dramatically, probably because of refrigeration which reduced food contamination, and greater availability of fruits and vegetables. Breast cancer death rates have begun to decline, she said. Incidence rates went up with announcements of cancer by such women as Betty Ford when women rushed to have mammograms. But, Gold stressed that the death rates didn’t go up and have now come down. On increases in incidence for some cancers, Gold cited better diagnostic procedures, more screening, early discovery, and better reporting by physicians as the primary reasons for the increases.

The main cause of cancer is smoking, responsible for 35 percent of cancer deaths and even more deaths from other diseases. Excessive alcohol intake is responsible for up to 5 percent of cancer deaths, but Gold said not to worry about a drink a day, something she said was protective against heart disease. Another major cause of cancer, she said, is chronic infection. Probably 9 percent of US cancer cases and 20 percent in the developing world can be attributed to infection. Endogenous hormones also cause cancer. Prostate cancer is a hormonal cancer and incidence rates have increased due to screening and early diagnosis. African American men have the highest prostate cancer rate in the world, which may be familial.

Breast cancer is a hormonal cancer, and known risk factors include family history of breast cancer and lifestyles that increase lifetime exposure to endogenous estrogen, such as never having children, or having them late in life, early menarche and late menopause.

Dr. Gold stressed the preventive potential of fruits and vegetables. People in the lowest quartile of fruit and vegetable intake, she noted, showed twice the cancer rate of those in the highest quartile, although the protective effects are less strong for reproductive and hormonal cancers. It is important to notice that fruits and vegetables are protective against cancer even though they have residues of synthetic pesticides. The crusade against synthetic chemicals, Gold noted, started with Rachael Carson’s attack on DDT. The amounts of residues of synthetic pesticides measured in food are tiny and are not toxicologically plausible as an important cause of cancer in the U.S. The science on this topic, she said, was very convincing. I don’t know why the more conservative press doesn’t cover that. The FDA has monitored the food supply for 25 years in a Total Diet Study, which involves sampling foods from supermarkets around the country and chemical analysis of foods to see what levels of chemicals people ingest. Measurements are done down to one part per billion. The amounts of pesticides such as Malathion when multiplied by the average intake of each food in the U.S., were always extremely low and often not detected at all. Ingestion is generally below one microgram for each detected pesticide. A microgram is a millionth of a gram. When all the pesticide residues in the FDA study are added together, the intake for a year is less than the natural chemicals in a cup of coffee that are rodent carcinogens.

What is missing, Gold said, is the issue of natural chemicals. All plants, she noted, produce chemicals to defend themselves from predators such as fungus and insects. Human intake of natural pesticides amounts to about 1.5 grams a day but we don’t know if natural pesticides are carcinogenic because they are rarely tested. Cooking food produces about 2 grams of chemicals consumed per day. This dwarfs the total of 0.09 mg of synthetic pesticide residues that FDA finds are consumed daily in the US diet. Henry Miller noted that the National Toxicology Program comes through the National Institutes of Health. They choose politically correct compounds to test instead of those we are exposed to, Miller said. Every plant food, Gold said, has plant pesticides, and it is impossible to have a diet free of natural chemicals that are rodent carcinogens. Of the plant pesticides studied, more than half turned out to be carcinogenic in animal tests. Some 1,000 chemicals that occur naturally have been identified in coffee, many produced by the roasting process. Twenty-seven of these have been tested and two-thirds are carcinogenic in rodent studies. Gold said there was no strong association between coffee drinking and human cancer. In tomatoes 365 naturally occurring chemicals have been identified, including ethyl alcohol, and 18 of 27 are rodent carcinogens.

The natural background is a necessary way to evaluate potential risk from synthetic chemicals, said Gold, who asked: How good are animal cancer tests and what do they tell us? Gold‘s database includes analyses of 1,300 chemicals. When chemicals are tested for carcinogenicity, more than half are positive. The assumption on which the testing was based in the 1970‘s, was that few chemicals would be carcinogens or mutagens (chemicals that can damage DNA). It turns out, she said, that in high dose rodent tests, a high proportion of non-mutagens are also carcinogens. There are good scientific reasons for thinking that the high dose itself in these tests, rather than the chemical itself, may increase the tumor rate. The positivity rate is similar for naturally occurring and synthetic chemicals, about half. We would expect that positivity rates would be lower among drugs since companies do not want to develop mutagens or drugs that may turn out to be carcinogens. But half the drugs tested are carcinogens in rodent studies. This is telling us that there is something wrong with these studies for predicting human cancer, she said. Another assumption involves taking data and extrapolating down to the levels of people with a straight line, but that is not the case for many chemicals. For example, increased cell division due to high doses can increase the rate of mutation and cancer. The studies are oversensitive because we give animals a nearly toxic dose. You expect to see more cancer and you see a lot. Commented Michael Fumento: We are tapping everything and calling it a carcinogen.

Gold handed out data from her studies ranking possible carcinogenic hazards, explaining that in regulatory risk assessment, risk equals potency times dose, a methodology which would give a similar ranking to the HERP (Human Exposure/Rodent Potency) table she handed out. Pesticide residues are at the bottom of the ranking of possible cancer hazards, based on the FDA Total Diet Study. But EPA risk assessments, instead of using the measured FDA data, are based on a hypothetical maximum residue and assume that is what people consume. This is not grounded in data, it is grounded in the hypothetical, and overestimates consumption by a hundred thousand fold for some chemicals. Other pesticides that EPA considers a risk of greater than one in a million for a lifetime, have never been detected by FDA in the Total Diet Study.

At the outset of the discussion, Henry Miller praised Gold‘s presentation as world-class science, adding that it showed the inherent difficulty of debunking those who misuse the data. Michael Fumento said that Lois Gold and her UC colleague Bruce Ames had influenced him and outlined how you make the science understandable for journalists, editors, and the masses. Fumento said it helps to have a sense of humor, to use interesting metaphors, and to tone down bias. You have to make people know how much this affects them, he said. The cooking of hamburger produces byproducts in rodents that have proved carcinogenic. But don’t quit eating or cooking these things. Break these things down in simple terms. How does it relate to people’s lives? If you can do that, you win converts, among journalists as well. He noted that after a speech to environmental journalists, some of them had taken him aside and privately thanked him. Ellis Alden asked Lois how she would change the new benchmark procedure that EPA has adopted and how she would regulate. For testing, I would go into detail on the biology of chemicals that rank highest in possible hazard. I wouldn’t begin by regulating what is at the bottom of a ranking. Start at the top at what looks riskiest. We need more data on mechanism of carcinogenesis for the chemicals that look to be the greatest possible hazard, to do better science than these animal cancer tests.

Seminar Six: Science, Superstition, and the Flight from Reality

Michael Fumento, author of The Myth of Heterosexual Aids, Science Under Siege and The Fat of the Land

Michael Fumento, in his remarks, explained that his position is "basically pro-intuitive but counter to what you may have heard." In other words, "everything you heard about X is wrong."

Mr. Fumento has observed that journalists and scientists were "worlds apart." For example, in one survey, 13 percent of journalists thought journalists were biased in science, whereas a full 44 percent of scientists thought that journalists were scientifically biased. But what troubled Fumento more was the "flight from science … from reality."

Computer processors may double in strength every 18 months but at the same time, "Americans cling to superstitious beliefs that do not incorporate scientific thinking and even reject it."

Modern Americans, Fumento said, laugh at the superstitions of yesterday, especially witchcraft and the persecution of witches. Yet new pseudo-scientific superstitions have taken their place and are widely accepted.

Today, he says, you can appear on national television and say that a cell phone caused your wife’s brain cancer. You can also attribute ill health to breast implants if you were healthy when they were put in.

"Today if you say your vomit glows in the dark you are invited to testify to Congress," said Fumento. "Today reporters, politicians, and activists who make unfounded allegations against power lines, pesticides etcetera are rewarded with accolades, like those who turned in witches."

Fumento cited Occam’s razor, a principle that the easiest, most logical solution is probably the proper solution. Prostate cancer is common; but Vietnam veterans often insist that Agent Orange caused their prostate cancer. A rancher discovers a dead animal, with lips, nose, and genitalia missing. The simplest explanation is that the animal died and scavengers came along and devoured its juiciest parts. But this is too simple and carries no mystery, says Fumento. So the two most popular explanations would be that the parts were removed by Satanists or by aliens aboard UFOs.

"The burden of proof is on those with the bizarre theory," Fumento said.

With the group of people who say their cancer was caused by chemicals used during the Gulf War, Agent Orange, toxic waste, or whatever, the first question should be whether there are any conditions among these people than we would ordinarily expect to find.

"Cancer happens, birth defects happen," Fumento said. You have to ask: "Is this case extraordinary?"

Fumento cited USA Today as a favorite source of scare stories. He used the example of Times Beach, Missouri, where a dioxin spill occurred, leading to evacuation. Ten years later — after three people died, one a suicide — many people thought this showed the danger of chemicals. By normal standards, however, a full 265 people should have died.

The media, Fumento said, love the post hoc ergo propter hoc (after this, therefore because of this) fallacy. He cited the cellular phone scare, in which the wireless phones were believed to cause brain tumors.

"Nobody in the media thought of the obvious," he said. "We would expect 8,000 deaths from cell phones." Further, brain tumors can’t develop in three months. Indeed, they require years to form. The man who charged that cell phones caused brain tumors found an eager listener in CNN’s Larry King, and the story immediately became national.

"The trend in the United States is in the opposite direction from Occam’s razor," said Fumento. "We are raising ‘Generation X Files’ in which paranoia and conspiracy theories regularly squeeze out common sense."

It used to be, Fumento said, that if you believed in conspiracy theories you were considered a wacko. Now, Mr. Fumento said, he finds himself accused of being an anti-conspiracy theory wacko.

"We are seeing new levels of superstition not achieved since the Middle Ages," he said. "Over half of all Americans believe in spiritualism. Forty-five percent now believe in "faith healing," up from 10 percent. One-third of Americans now believe in astrology.

Belief in fortune telling has quadrupled in the last 20 years. People who call ‘The Psychic Hotline’ never consider why they have to tell the ‘psychics’ the problems. How come they don’t already know?"

And the media, Fumento adds, is "very much the problem."

For example, Gulf War Syndrome activist Brian Martin, who claims to be a victim of the "illness," lists his occupation as "disabled" and has been widely quoted even in the New York Times.

Martin told Fumento directly that during physical training, he would vomit fluid the color of bright green Chem-lite every morning after he returned from the war. He told Congress that he had vomited this fluid from March to December 1991, and that heartless officers made him carry on in spite of it.

The case offered what Fumento calls a "red flag," but neither Congress nor the reporters saw the problem.

Fumento took the simple step of calling Martin’s doctors. He got them to admit they had never seen vomit that glowed in the dark. Why hadn’t other reporters taken this step?

Fumento called John Hanchette of Gannett News, a Pulitzer Prize winner who had written 80 stories on Gulf War Syndrome. Hanchette did not return calls and his editor said that Fumento was nitpicking, that Mr. Hanchette was a prize-winning writer, as though that answered all questions.

Reporters like this, said Mr. Fumento, are dominated by EPS — Evil Person Syndrome. Another reporter, from the Associated Press simply said that she didn’t notice the vomit story. Martin, she said, had been on talk shows, as though that confirmed everything. Mr. Fumento cited this as an example of SBS. Finally, he said, many reporters suffer from IJS — Ignorant Journalist Syndrome.

"They don’t know the truth," he says. But they are not alone.

"The public is getting dumber by the minute. Self-esteem is taught but we must be taught how to think to be logical. They need to learn the simplest solution is probably the best." The connection between an alleged cause and a disease should be plausible, Fumento says. If there are more than five or six symptoms for a disease you should be suspicious. But promoters of Gulf War Syndrome claim no fewer than 123 symptoms, including aching muscles, chest pain, fatigue, and a foot fungus that will not go away. Further, proponents of Gulf War Syndrome include wives and kids with such maladies as earaches and rashes.

"The media never tell you about these symptoms," Fumento said. "Only four or five."

It was also important, he said, to consider the background rates for all illnesses.

"Everybody dies. Society is treating death itself as pathological. Natural causes were once listed on death certificates. Now we refuse to believe in natural causes."

Further, probability does dictate an even spread of illnesses. In the law of averages, some must be above average and others below. Women living on Long Island, New York claimed there were excessive cases of breast cancer and were more than willing to believe in man-made causes. According to the demographics of a Centers for Disease Control study, this group of women had an overall rate lower than the national average. But they wanted to be below average with all cancers.

"Most cancers cannot be explained even today," Fumento said. "Being a victim of a disease does not make you an expert in how that disease was contracted."

He cited a Marin County woman who said her connective tissue disease came from breast implants. She won $7 million in a lawsuit.

A man named Nick Roberts claimed to have contracted lymphoma three weeks after a nerve-gas attack — an attack for which there is no evidence, Fumento says. The trouble is, lymphoma, on average, takes around 20 years to develop and never develops in three weeks.

"The media didn’t care," said Fumento, noting that in a unit of 33, Roberts claimed 11 had lymphoma. Actually, there were fewer than 11 cases among the 700,000 personnel involved in the Gulf War. One veteran, he notes, testified he got Lou Gehrig’s disease from nerve gas used during the Gulf War.

"Clusters usually don’t mean anything, especially when drawn by victims, journalists, or activists," said Fumento, citing one National Guard unit which, despite claims to the contrary, showed no difference from the normal amount of miscarriages one would expect.

"Outrageous symptoms indicate that the disease is mass hysteria," said Fumento, citing claims of glowing vomit, glowing feces, and semen that could purportedly strip paint off a car. None of these Gulf War claims was ever demonstrated to be true and Mr. Fumento contacted experts who assured him that there was no such thing as paint-stripping semen.

"Where there is sensationalism, look for symptoms of psychosomatic illness," said Fumento. "We have been telling Gulf War vets they should be ill, from the Gulf War. The result is we’re making many of them ill."

The anti-Olestra broadcasts of Michael Jacobson’s Center for Science in the Public Interest, Mr. Fumento argued, were a form of auto-suggestion. "The more broadcasts, the more complaints." Anti-Olestra crusader Michael Jacobson, says Fumento, won in the form of a FDA-required warning label.

"People get what the label says," said Fumento. "It’s Michael Jacobson’s revenge."

When people are unnecessarily alarmed, he said, consequences follow. Property values may drop because of a power line scare, for example. Further, "false threats squeeze out real threats," a principle demonstrated in the underplaying of the obesity epidemic.

"Children are munching themselves into the grave," said Fumento. "And yet the way we’ve dealth with obesity is to turn it into a right, covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act."

Fumento concluded by citing the warning of the late astronomer Carl Sagan: "If we back off from science and technology, we are condemning most of humanity to death." Added Fumento: "But such a retreat is under way. The torch is being passed to Generation X files."

Ellis Alden asked what we should do about this sad state of affairs.

"Teach people to think again," Fumento said. "It begins in schools. Teach logic."