In 1897, the Indiana House of Representatives unanimously passed a measure that redefined—inaccurately—the calculation of the value of π, the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter. Little did they know that you couldn’t build a bridge or skyscraper using their value. Fortunately, the bill died in the Senate.
This historical anecdote might elicit a sardonic chuckle from scientists, but non-experts are increasingly being exposed to this kind of nonsense—what Chemistry Nobel Laureate Irving Langmuir dubbed “pathological science,” the “science of things that aren’t so.”
Pathological science is the specialty of self-styled public interest groups whose agenda too often is not protection of public health or the environment but intractable opposition to, and obstruction of, whatever research, product, or technology they happen to dislike.
Activists who disapprove of certain kinds of R&D or marketed products often try to stigmatize them via guilt by association with “corporate interests.” But for several reasons—including the importance of corporate branding, avoidance of liability, and a desire to succeed in the marketplace—industrial research most often adheres to high professional and legal standards, including peer review. When it doesn’t, the scientific method and market forces collaborate to ensure that, ultimately, chicanery and dishonesty are exposed and punished.
By contrast, activist-funded “research” is commonly held to a far lower standard. Their claims are invariably promoted by alarmist press releases and reported by the media, but seldom are they independently peer reviewed or published in scientific journals. Sadly, policy makers, the media, and the public come to accept this pathological science as credible, especially after it is repeated again and again.
Examples have become more frequent, as special interests promote health scares as a way to support litigation. The distortion of science has given rise to flawed policies and regulations, interference with research that offers potential benefits to society, increased public health risks, unwarranted scares, and frivolous lawsuits. Here are two cases in point:
• In 2003, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) claimed to have evidence that the farm-raised salmon eaten regularly by millions of Americans contains high levels of polychlorinated biphenyls. PCBs were identified in the press coverage as a “toxin,” “probable human carcinogen,” or “a cause of cancer and nervous system damage.”
These reports were grossly misleading. At levels of environmental exposure, PCBs have not been shown to cause cancer or any other disease in humans. The “study,” which was based on a sample of only ten fish, was condemned by genuine experts at a variety of institutions, including the Harvard School of Public Health, the Food and Drug Administration, and the American Council on Science and Health. Unfortunately, the criticisms came only after the EWG report had generated national media coverage, and they received little attention from the media.
On its Web site, EWG makes no pretense about its possessing scientific credentials or expertise, and its president once admitted to a journalist that there was not a single physician or scientist on its staff.
• Environmental activists lately have taken to claiming that conventional crops have been “contaminated” by the finding of minuscule amounts of DNA from “genetically modified”—by which they mean gene-spliced—varieties. Their methodology is fatally flawed, but even if the claims were accurate, they should elicit from the public nothing more than a collective yawn. Genetic modification is not new. Virtually all of the 200 major crops in the United States have been genetically improved, or modified, in some way. Plant breeders—not “Nature”—gave us seedless grapes, the tangelo (a tangerine–grapefruit hybrid), and fungus-resistant strawberries. Americans have consumed more than a trillion servings of foods that contain gene-spliced ingredients, with not a single untoward reaction.
Pathological science may confuse not only the public but also policy makers, who may themselves be scientifically challenged. Donald Kennedy, President Emeritus of Stanford University and former FDA Commissioner, chides bureaucrats: “Frequently decision-makers give up the difficult task of finding out where the weight of scientific opinion lies, and instead attach equal value to each side in an effort to approximate fairness. In this way extraordinary opinions . . . are promoted to a form of respectability that approaches equal status.”
This kind of undeserved moral equivalence frequently compromises governmental decision-making and has given rise to unscientific and inconsistent regulation of pesticides, biotechnology applied to agriculture, silicone breast implants, herbal dietary supplements, and innumerable other products and technologies.
No one should mistake activists’ misdemeanors for naive exuberance or excessive zeal in a good cause. Their motives are self-serving and their tactics callous. People who understand these issues need to do a better job of educating the large segment of the public who are uninformed—not only about the science, but also about the sophistry of those who would abuse it.
by Henry I. Miller, M.D., former FDA official and coauthor of The Frankenfood Myth: How Protest and Politics Threaten the Biotech Revolution (Praeger Publishers, 2004), is a Fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, Stanford, CA 94305-6010, [email protected].