Wednesday, March 09, 2005


A lot of "science" is no longer scientific. You can't trust them, sad to say. Science is now a branch of politics. You have to listen to all sides to get the full story

In the United Kingdom, most of the respected broadsheet newspapers have cut costs and increased circulation by adding a tabloid edition. Some argue that this downsizing has led to a dumbing down of the papers' content. But, in both Britain and America, it is not just the news industry that is shifting to a more sensationalistic attitude. Some scientific journals are abandoning scientific neutrality in favor of policy stances and headline-grabbing scare stories, favoring style over substance.

A prime example is the British Medical Journal (BMJ), which recently published a news story that suggested that Eli Lilly, the makers of Prozac, had failed to disclose links between the drug and violent behavior and suicide. The story alleges that certain documents detailing the alleged links—and provided to the BMJ by an anonymous source—had not been shared with the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and had gone "missing" during the trial of man charged with murder in 1994. In a strongly worded response, Lilly pointed out that the documents had been in general circulation for years. In fact, the BMJ's one example of missing scientific data had been published by Lilly in the Journal of Clinical Psychopharmacology in 1992! The BMJ refused to allow Lilly to review the documents prior to publishing the story; Lilly was only able to do so after obtaining copies from Democratic congressman Maurice Hinchey of New York, who had received copies from the BMJ. Moreover, the BMJ told Lilly that it would have an opportunity to discuss the issue further after the Christmas holidays—but then went ahead and issued its story on January 1; it also sent the documents to the FDA.

This is "gotcha" journalism at its worst. The story would not have survived a cursory glance by a newsroom editor because the authors neither gave Lilly a chance to respond in an informed fashion nor checked the relevant background to see whether the documents were credible. Yet it was published by a scientific journal supposedly bound to uphold the highest standards of accuracy.

Yet the problem goes wider than journals. Even some scientists are keen to trumpet their claims by means of sensational press releases, thus doing a disservice to sound science policy. For example, last November, a Johns Hopkins University research team found a correlation between consumption of high doses of Vitamin E and early death. They released the results to the press the same day they were published online by Annals of Internal Medicine. This resulted in a USA Today story headlined, "High Dose of Vitamin E May Increase Death Risk." The research concentrated on the elderly, especially those with heart disease, and could not be generalized to healthy people under 60—but this important fact was buried deep in the press release and was not given the emphasis it should have been by any news coverage. In addition to this significant problem, the actual difference in risk of early death—5 percent—was small enough to raise question marks among anyone familiar with epidemiological principles.

Meanwhile, Nature, Britain's premier journal of natural science, has overtly abandoned neutrality in favor of specific policy stances in certain areas, most notably global warming. For instance, in the past year it has published an editorial favoring restrictions on the aviation industry; a news article that concludes that greenhouse-gas emissions trading shows that industries must reduce emissions; an essay on Napoleon's scientist Joseph Fourier that asks whether a future Nature essayist will look back and ask why we ignored evidence that the Earth's climate can change dramatically; and a speculative study on species extinction that endorses reducing greenhouse-gas emissions.

Perhaps the most blatant example of this "tabloidization" of science is the recent change in the cover design of the prestigious British medical journal The Lancet. For years, its cover featured a simple table of contents. Now, however, it is emblazoned by one extracted quote in a style worthy of Britain's Daily Mirror. For example, its October 1, 2004, issue's cover quotation read, "The prospect that vitamin pills may not only do no good but also kill their consumers is a scary speculation given the vast quantities that are used in certain communities." Yet the journal also ran an editorial comment on the study that pointed out that the elevated risk of death originated from "one trial in an anomalous population of smokers, ex-smokers and occupationally exposed asbestos workers. The other high-quality not suggest increased mortality."

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"Is environmentalism dead? That's the startling question posed by a pair of young environmentalists, Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus, who stirred a brouhaha at a meeting of the Environmental Grantmakers Association last fall by arguing that Americans are tuning out on the environment.....

But the idea that environmentalism is an endangered species is absurd. It might not rank as high on the list of political priorities as today's environmentalists would like, but ask the average American whether he or she considers himself or herself to be an environmentalist, and the answer will be an unequivocal yes -- as poll after poll has shown. Even the dreaded Bush feels constrained to offer solutions to presumed threats like global warming despite disagreement about the causes and dangers.

No, the question is not whether environmentalism is dead. It's whether a particular brand of environmentalism -- precisely the progressive brand favored by the likes of Shellenberger and Nordhaus -- is dead. And the answer there is an equally clear yes. The Shellenberger/Nordhaus thesis assumes that there is only one possible form of environmentalism: ever-increasing government regulation; public ownership of ever-growing amounts of land; restrictions on where and how people can live; international treaties limiting carbon dioxide (and thus energy use) -- in short, a long list of command-and-control strategies predicated on the assumption that the political elites know best how to organize things in a sustainable way.

But command-and-control strategies in the environmental arena suffer from the same fatal defect as any other government-controlled enterprise: vast expense but dismal results, at least when measured by the claims made for most environmental legislation. Less than 20 creatures, for example, have been removed from the list established by the very intrusive Endangered Species Act of 1973. The air and water are cleaner, but they were growing rapidly cleaner anyway prior to formation of the EPA, according to some environmental historians.

Only by generating scare stories in the media has the environmental movement sustained itself. But now that many scare stories have been questioned, the movement is losing credibility.

Around the world, economists also are beginning to understand that the one sure marker of a clean society is a wealthy society -- because economic growth means more efficiency, less waste (pollution) and more resources to deal with remaining problems. As wealth increases, so does public desire for environmental amenities. Entrepreneurs are finding ways to capture the value of those amenities and even profit from them -- a far more sustainable approach than relying on the goodness of a government bureaucracy. Environmentalists like Shellenberger and Nordhaus keep insisting that the answer is for environmental donors to kick in ever greater gobs of money to progressive causes. But it makes you wonder if they are really interested in progressive results. And it misses the real environmental revolution taking place.

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Many people would like to be kind to others so Leftists exploit that with their nonsense about equality. Most people want a clean, green environment so Greenies exploit that by inventing all sorts of far-fetched threats to the environment. But for both, the real motive is to promote themselves as wiser and better than everyone else, truth regardless.

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