A while ago, some self-appointed science public relations coaches took to criticizing scientists who published important science news on Fridays. Of course up to that point, for me, Fridays had been for science reading -- a little journal club and catching up on the literature. Science Friday wasn't just an NPR show. But these folks sternly instructed scientists to publish the big news at the beginning of the week, at the start of the "news cycle". They publicly scolded scientists when they didn't.
I'm still not too sure that science fits in the whole "news cycle" paradigm -- the crazy and consumptive frenzy. Can science really be skimmed, emoted, and flushed? I suppose if science is to be "news" it must adapt. Accordingly then, even though economists say "there is no Friday Effect", some science publicists dutifully publish their Big Science News at the beginning of the week.
It follows then with just as much logic, that if Monday is the big day for science news than Tuesdays must be the day for big anti-Science news. No, you say, Tuesday's a big science day too. The New York Times runs their weekly Science section on Tuesdays. True, but consider that columnists steer the opinion ship for the NYT and on Tuesday John Tierney the "science columnist" runs his distinctively un-Science section. Just yesterday he assured us in his article in "10 Things to Scratch From Your Worry List", that the Arctic ice isn't melting, cellphones don't cause cancer, hot dogs are good for you, and bisphenol-A is one of life's essential building blocks.
On one hand I understand his feelings. Every time you turn around there's another disturbing warning. Recently, radium emitting granite counter tops attracted attention of the type that manufacturers will resent, and that after warnings on cellphones, jalapeno peppers, salmonella tainted tomatoes swamped the news.
There is an economic downside to all of this. The salmonella warnings caused the price of tomatoes to fall by $3.00 per pound in my area. Of course, this was good for me. I took a small personal risk and bought some local-ish tomatoes, despite frenzied media calls to avoid them. Tierney the New York Times"science columnist" hounds others to adapt his anti-global warming, anti-recycling, anti-science positions. Unlike Tierney, who likes to turn his personal choices into the reader's public policy, I didn't march around the produce section with a megaphone hectoring other shoppers to buy tomatoes.
You'd think New York Times wouldn't choose as "science columnists" writers who tell people to ignore scientists, but I can only conclude that when your paper's profit drops 82% in a quarter, the "fit to print" standard plummets as well. (Although Tierney's been at this for a while, I argue he's reached a new low.) Here's the science behind some of Tierney's science fact denialism.
- Now that the "nitrite scare" has passed Tierney says, and grilled food is ok, rest assured that hot dogs are ok too. However doctors who read research don't agree. Doctors say nitrites are linked to stomach cancer. Who do you believe? The Mayo Clinic? Or John Tierney?
- John Tierney has long claimed that global warming is trumped up fear mongering, that the Arctic ice isn't melting and by extension there's no global warming. Last week, a huge 4 kilometer piece broke off the Arctic shelf. Derek Mueller, a polar scientist and research fellow at Trent University, in Peterborough, commented "Ice shelves don't just break up. There's no karate chop". He went on to note the shelf's "gradual weakening over time as a result of warming temperatures." Of course, John Tierney didn't say "a 4 mile block of ice didn't break of last week". He just didn't mention the fact.
Recently a panel of more than 20 scientists looked at various cell phone studies and found some alarming evidence that pointed to increased risks for brain cancer. They recommended taking 10 simple precautions while using cell phones which the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute announced last week. John Tierney skips over that information.
Instead he says that despite the fact that "prominent brain surgeons" talk publicly about cell phone dangers, his "colleague Tara Parker-Pope has noted that there is no known biological mechanism for the phones' non-ionizing radiation to cause cancer, and epidemiological studies have failed to find consistent links between cancer and cellphones." Who do you trust? Prominent brains surgeons or Tierney's parsing of his colleague's column?
Tierney skips the part of Parker-Pope's that about article 1 research showing "increases in three cancers: glioma; cancer of the parotid, a salivary gland near the ear; and acoustic neuroma, a tumor that essentially occurs where the ear meets the brain." Parker-Pope also noted that researchers are concerned about the design flaws and duration of many of the previous studies which showed no harm from cell phones.
Another recent article on cellphones makes it clear:"The scientists agree on two things: there's no formal proof of the cell phone's harmfulness, but a risk exists that it promotes the appearance of cancers in cases of long-term exposure."
- On bisphenol A, Tierney writes that he still uses his "old blue-capped Nalgene bottle, the one with [bisphenol-A] BPA that survived glaciers, jungles and deserts". He warns that "if they ever try recalling it, they'll have to pry it from my cold dead fingers". Of course this is his choice, nevertheless, scientists show in hundreds of studies that BPA is an endocrine disruptor that's unnecessary to the manufacture of baby bottles.
So in your experience -- think climate change, tobacco, asbestos, beryllium -- when science doesn't "know for sure", is that the time to pull out the stops and go all cavalier with risky behavior...? When it's so incredibly easy to reduce your family's personal risk? By publishing a jumble of half-truths and incorrect information, laced with that devil may care attitude, the New York Times erodes its credibility and does a disservice to both science and consumers.
The Campaign to Stop the Worry. Aren't They Thoughtful?
Not all Tierney's 'things you don't need to worry about' are equally risky. But his presentation, incomplete facts and distorted interpretations aim not to clarify but to muddy the waters.
Different "worries" carry different risks. It's easier to manage some risks than others. I don't know what the risk associated with his 10th point, "unmarked wormholes" is, and I personally can't ameliorate it. Scientists don't know the exact risk of cellphones, but individuals can do something about it. And that's the real worry -- for manufacturers of chemicals, plastics and cell phones.
Tierney doesn't name any scientists, instead he makes science and scientists the amorphous enemy. (I've listed the names of the doctors and scientists who served on Pitt's cellphone panel below.1). Tierney's article cheekily and disingenuously appears under "Findings", as though he's presenting some science research. And as icing on the cake, the New York Times lists as a source for more information, the ACSH, an industry funded public relations firm. ACSH does not currently make public its donors, but to get an idea, the Union of Concerned Scientist's report on industry funded non-profits informs us that Exxon-Mobil donated to ACSH for work on work on "climate change issues" (see PDF).
The most alarming point of Tierney's article to me, aside from the fact that it's supposedly "science", is the premise: that new knowledge stemming from science research somehow causes "worry...fear, guilt or angst". Is that true? Or does such knowledge help protect the public by alerting them to health hazards?
Why is there a constant drumbeat about protecting the populace from "fear"? Selective protection? There's never a worry about protecting the public from unnecessary fear when it comes to terrorism.
There has been a decades long media blitz to "stop the worry" by ACSH. Just this year ACSH put out (this 01/08 Top Ten list of 'silly scares' and this Top 5 list. Are we really afraid of their unreasonable fears?
The truth is we can control lots of BPA exposure by using readily available glass or metal containers. If hot dogs are the most tasty treat for you, than there's plenty of nitrate-free processed organic meat products. Or, you're still free to live worry free and enter hot dog eating contests around the country. Reduce your cell phone exposure by using earplugs. Stop contributing to global warming by biking. Don't bike? Walk. Carpool and meet new people. Read research! Think!
How did Tierney's ancestors confront tigers given that his brain seems forever paralyzed in attachment to plastic bottles? Of the millions of products available to us, do we really need Nalgene bottles? If so we're a pathetic species. The end result of this corporate funded campaign is that adults are encouraged to act like three year olds clinging to a special toy, standing in an ever-rising sea of toys.
Mighty Myths: Scientists are Terrorists, But Science Can Fight Terrorism
Also penning a few un-science ideas on Tuesdays is Clive Crook of the Financial Times. Crook "is the FT's science editor". He wrote in an article yesterday with Sir Richard Mottram, the former "permanent secretary for intelligence, security and resilience in the UK Cabinet Office." In their article, "Careful science can help to fight terrorism", the authors first frame a three part problem: 1) Scientists are likely terrorists 2) Science and technology increases terrorism 3) Science and technology used to prevent terrorism constrains free society. As they put it:
- "For a start, scientists, engineers and doctors have played a considerable role as terrorists since the mid-20th century." They authors don't see fit to provide evidence, rather they then assert: "something about the certainties enshrined in many scientific disciplines may also chime with the inflexible philosophy of some terrorist groups."
- Next they say, "unconstrained dissemination of scientific knowledge may enhance the terrorist threat in its most severe forms"
- And finally, "unconstrained use of scientific and technological solutions in countering terrorism - for example, exploiting developments in sensors and in biometrics, information-handling and communications - could themselves damage the free society"
As I said, they provide zero evidence for their three suppositions, although all three appeal to common perceptions in a familiar muddly way, and the third seems quite probable. The authors then go on to say that although science is bad, science can also be good:
"Science can help strengthen infrastructure and mitigate the effects of an attack, particularly if a nuclear or biological weapon were to be used. And we can expect disciplines such as psychology and the social sciences to contribute more to our understanding of what drives terrorism - and therefore how best to prevent it.
I'm not arguing with all of Crook and Mottram's points. But they strain to construct some image of science, technology, and scientists, then once they establish that, they go on to vilify that image. I guess to build reader alliance? Acronym Required has followed various crises -- hurricanes, tsunamis, AIDS, bridge failures, pandemics, healthcare, etc. In each crisis, people assert with confidence that science and technology can solve the the very same problem...sometime in the future.
However failure is often not a technology hitch but a political and/or management issue. 9/11 wasn't a technology failure. The US government failed on the ground to pay attention to intelligence indicating that such an attack was likely. FBI agencies didn't use email, moreover they didn't communicate any way. Bridges fall down because of inspectors. Hurricanes cause more damage when FEMA is a "dumping ground" for ineffectual political appointees and levees aren't built due to politics. AIDS kills more people when health ministers counsel citizens that http://acronymrequired.com/2006/09/south-africa-peddling-beetroot.html">beetroot is a cure, etc.
Scientists and their science, and the technology that interfaces with society are all very important, yes, critical to the progress of civilization. But to reiterate our belief and one of the eternal themes of this blog: science, scientists and technology won't save us from ourselves.
1 Tara Parker-Pope's lede for the cellphone story June 3, 2008 was: "What do brain surgeons know about cellphone safety that the rest of us don't?" This has a certain libertarian populace appeal of "Hey! No one tells us what to do." It may more accurately be called University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute's panel: "What do French brain surgeons know about cellphone safety that the rest of us don't?" Not only are they scientists, they're French also. Here's the list of panel members:
1. Bernard Asselain, MD, Chief of the Cancer Biostatistics Service, Curie Institute, Paris, France
2. Franco Berrino, MD. Director of the Department of Preventative and Predictive Medicine of the National Cancer Institute, Milan, Italy
3. Thierry Bouillet, MD Oncologist, Director of the Radiation Institute, Avicenne University Hospital Center, Avicenne, Bobigny, France
4. David Carpenter, MD, Director Institute of Health and the Environment, University of Albany, former Dean, School of Public Health
5. Christian Chenal, MD, Emeritus Professor of Oncology, University of Rennes I, France and former director of the National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS) team "Radiation, Environment, Adaptation"
6. Pr Jan Willem Coebergh, Oncologist, Department of Public Health, University of Rotterday, The Netherlands
7. Yvan Coscas, MD Oncologist, Chief of the Department of Radiotherapy, Hopital de Poissy St Germain, France
8. Pr Jean-Marc Cosset, Honorary Chief of Oncology/Radiotherapy of the Curie Institute, Paris, France
9. Pr Devra Lee Davis, Diretor, Center for Environmental Oncology of University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institure, USA
10. Michel Hery, MD Oncologist, Chief of the Department of Radiotherapy, Princess Grace Hospital Center, Monaco
11. Dr Ronald Herberman, Director of the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute, USA
12. Pr Lucien Israel, Emeritus Professor of Oncology, University of Paris X!!!, Member of the Institut de France
13. Jacques Marilleau, Engineer SUPELEC, former physicist at the Commissariat of Atomic Energy and at CNRS Orsay, France
14. Jean-Loup Mouyesset, MD Oncologist, Polyclinique Rambot-Provencale, Aix-en-Provence, France
15. Philippe Presles, MD, President of the Institut Moncey for the Prevention and Health, Paris, France
16. Pr Henri Pujol, PhD Oncologist, former President of the National Federation Cancer Centers, France
17. Joel de Rosnay, PhD, Former Assistant Professor of Biology, MIT, Boston, USA
18. Simone Saez, PHD, former Director of the Cancer Biology unit of the Comprehensive Cancer Center of Lyon, France
19. Annie Sasco, MD, Doctor of Public Health, Medical epidemiologist, Director of the Epidemiology Team for Cancer
Prevention -- INSERM, University Victor Segalen, Bordeau 2, France
20. David Sevan-Schreiber, MD, PhD, Doctor of Science, Clinical Professor of Psychiatry, University of Pittsburgh
21. Patrick Souvet, MD, Cardiologist, President of the Association Sante Environnement Provence Aix-en Provence, France
22. Pr. Dan WArtenberg, Chief, Division of Environmental Epidemiology, UMDNJ Robert Wood Johnson Medical School
23. Jacques Vilcoq, MD, Oncologist, Clinique Hartmann, Neuilly-sur-seine, France