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Monday, January 09, 2006

Losing our heads over bogus claims

By Dennis Byrne

Chicago Tribune, January 9, 2006

It might make a good horror movie: global avian flu meets global warming. Sort of like King Kong meets Godzilla.

We are warned that at least one of these global catastrophes surely will get us. Likely both. On this, we have the word of the infallible: scientists, journalists and activists whose jobs are to knock ignorance and complacency out of us. The only question is which threat will get us first: a worldwide influenza pandemic spread by birds, or Earth flambe brought on by America's greedy refusal to cut greenhouse gases.

Maybe the flu and global warming alarms are warranted. But notwithstanding claims of certitude by our minders, how is a public, made skeptical by so many false warnings and promises, to know if they are right? Can we trust every warning, or promise of a cure, that's made?

Let's ask the renowned South Korean scientist Hwang Woo Suk, who created, with a hyperventilating media, a worldwide sensation by fabricating tailored embryonic stem cells that were supposed to cure, well, just about everything. Or maybe we shouldn't bother him; he's momentarily busy dodging convincing charges that his pioneering "successes" were fake.

This one is on science, because Hwang's work was "peer reviewed," giving it the scientific stamp of approval. But the media don't entirely escape blame; they went wild publishing the claims, as they have typically hyped every supposed "advance" in embryonic stem cell research. In fact, there are few of them and, worse, the media have more or less irresponsibly ignored the more tangible and substantial advances by less controversial "adult" stem cell therapy.

So whom can we trust?

Maybe this can help. It's time for 2005's "Biggest Science Reporting Flubs," awarded by the Statistical Assessment Service at George Mason University. STATS is a Washington-based think tank that tracks scientifically misleading myths and rumors and annually highlights the worst examples the media inflict on the public. They are:

1. Meth mania: The media's flipping out over "America's most dangerous drug" is challenged by research showing that methamphetamine use among high school students has declined 28 percent in the last five years, that meth users only slightly outnumber crack users and that meth addicts recover at the same rate as other drug addicts.

2. Poison popcorn: ABC's "Good Morning America" blew it with its "exclusive" investigation claiming that the Food and Drug Administration has opened a probe into the supposed cancer risks of a chemical whose presence is three times the recommended FDA levels in popcorn bags, fast-food boxes and candy wrappers. But there's no FDA investigation, the agency doesn't have recommended levels and such chemicals are not considered unsafe. Oops.

3. Gender-bending babies: USA Today reported a study that allegedly linked phthalates--a family of chemicals that make plastic flexible--to deformities in male infants. After the report panicked parents nationwide, an expert government panel was unable to validate the "findings." The media, of course, ignored the report.

4. Dazed and confused teens: A new "identity disorder" has descended on teens increasingly using drugs, booze and sex to escape reality, proclaimed The New York Times. Except that a University of Michigan long-term study found teens actually are doing less of the bad behaviors.

5. French fry fright: A California lawsuit demanding McDonald's and Frito-Lay warn consumers that their products contain acrylamide, allegedly linked to cancer and birth defects, inspired a wave of media hysteria. Which overlooked a major study that found that acrylamide might lower, not raise, cancer rates.

6. Toothpaste terror: Supermarkets began pulling toothpaste off their shelves after panicky reports that an anti-bacterial ingredient in it could lead to depression, liver problems and cancer. The American Dental Society responded that the effect occurred experimentally only when the ingredient was placed in pure form in very hot and heavily chlorinated water.

7. Media gorge on obesity. "The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a report suggesting that a little extra weight may not always be dangerous--which the media trumpeted as proof that the `food police' were dieting us to death. But some of the results were statistically insignificant, and even the CDC didn't claim they were conclusive."

It's not my contention that the number of misreported or overly hyped warnings outnumber the legitimate ones. But how many are too many?




Anonymous said...

At last I agree with Dennis Byrne on something. The media, at least the mainstream organizations that are responsible for people like Dennis Byrne, are terrible.

Active Observer said...

At least Mr. Byrne seems to often recognize there is more than one side to an issue. This should be a basic expectation for a journalist or even an op-ed writer, but it seems to be a fairly rare quality.

Yes, the mass media runs sensationalistic stories. They do this to attract readership, usually with the goal of making more money. It's worth noting that PBS and NPR, although often accused of pushing a liberal agenda, are rarely accused of sensationalism or fear mongering.

Hmmm - could the culprit here be the profit motive? Careful, this is a slippery slope...

Anonymous said...

As a scientist we were not allowed to make claims until 3 other labs had been able to reproduce the exact same results. Now the rush to publish in order to profit is the primary goal and valid scientific results do not seem to matter, just sensational headlines.

We need to wait until we get the facts before we speak out. Funny how I have lost over 100 pounds whilst living in Europe, I eat twice as much as I ever did in the US and there isn't any low fat or no fat items in my diet... a diet that would have US health gurus saying I should have gained an addtional 100 pounds.

Benjamin Franklin always stated the need for no excesses in all aspects of life, he also preaced the use of common sense. Seems as if the media needs to go back and review Mr Franklin's thoughts on good journalism.