Monday, May 9, 2011

As Bias Politicizes Science, We Are the Ones Losing

Plastic is evil. Everyone knows that, right? You many have seen news about plastic lately you know it’s going to be the death of everyone, and the planet. Reality, as you might suspect, is slightly different than the news is, and that “news” has more to do with an agenda than anything to do with your health. This is a story you may not have heard about, but it’s yet another example of how the media is choosing sides in fights event this small for their own glory and to advance their agenda.

The “culprit” behind the latest hysteria surrounding plastic is an ingredient in it called Bisphenol A (BPA), which has been used in common, everyday products like baby bottles for decades. The story of BPA is just the latest battleground in the death throe of the old, unbiased media.

A couple of years ago a few, small sample studies showed a possible connection between BPA and neurological issues in rats. That was all the environmentalists and their allies in the media needed to set off the warning sirens. Some national governments around the world started banning plastic made with BPA, and some local governments in the US followed suit.

But a funny thing happened on the way to ridding the world of this crucial chemical – someone did some actual science and looked into the “proof” and came up with a contrary finding.

That someone was a group of German toxicologists, and they looked at 5000 studies, looked at the data, and discovered that it was all hype. They concluded “exposure represents no noteworthy risk to the health of the human population, including newborns and babies.”
 Finally, a serious study has achieved serious results, right? Wrong.

Enter the media.

The media has been invested in the BPA since the first rumblings started, they rarely miss the launch of a liberal cause celebre, particularly one involving the environment. So the German study has gone mostly unnoticed by the press. But one columnists for the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, a columnist names Patrick McIhheran, wrote about the study that cleared BPA. Not a problem, right? Well, not so much.

Someone named James Rowen, an environmentalist blogger, posted the story on Facebook with the snide comment “Somebody has to speak up for the plastics in the food chain. Enjoy.”
Normally this would not be a story, environmentalists attack studies that don’t jive with their world view all the time. But that wasn’t the end of it.

A man named George Stanley replied on Facebook:
“The acknowledgments section reveals that the scientists all have financial ties to the plastics industry — just as we have found over and over again, as the industry fights a propaganda war to protect its $7 billion product.”
But Stanley isn’t just a random friend, he’s the Managing Editor of the Journal-Sentinel. That’s right, the Managing Editor of the paper publicly attacked one of the paper’s own columnists. Why would he do such a thing? It turns out there’s more to it than just liberal bias, the paper itself has a vested interest in undercutting the German study. Seems the Journal-Sentinel has won several journalism awards for their coverage of the previous, smaller studies that touted alleged dangers, and no paper wants it to be known they won awards for reporting that turned out to be incorrect, even if the errors were not their fault.

The ethics of all of this remain to be seen, but Jon Entine, scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, reports:
“According to McIlheran, before Stanley posted his scold, he had raked him over the coals in numerous phone conversations for challenging the paper’s award-winning conclusion. McIlheran was stunned, he says, because he doesn’t report directly to Stanley, but to the editor of the opinion page, which is supposed to be separated from the news side by a firewall.”
The separation between news and opinion used to be sacrosanct in the newspaper business, but the wall between the two has been collapsing brick by brick for years. This is just the latest example.

The reporting of science is now so political it too can’t be trusted.

Turns out the Journal-Sentinel, to rebut the article written by their own opinion columnists, brought back one of their former reporters on the original BPA stories, a woman named Susanne Rust. They had to bring her back because she’d left the paper to join a group called California Watch, a “non-partisan” investigative journalist non-profit.

While the managing editor decried the alleged conflicts of interest of the German study, he contracted with a woman who works for a group partially funded by a foundation with huge investments in companies that either make a BPA alternative (Eastman Chemical, $2.3 million, page 114), or are heavily investing in developing one (ADM, $1.7 million, pages 118 & 129). That’s every bit, if not more, the conflict of interest the Journal-Sentinel itself claims invalidates the German study, yet the paper never notes it.

As the line between journalism and activism blurs, science, and ultimately us, suffers. We see it in the global warming debate where media outlets print agenda-driven activists while ignoring contrary facts. What, if any, are the potential hazards of BPA? The largest study done to date shows none, smaller studies show a possible small risk to rats. Does that translate to humans? We don’t know. And as the line between journalism and activism blurs further we are less likely to be able to discern the truth from what various factions in the media decide to “report” as fact.

The Journal-Sentinel’s clear abdication of credibility in the name of an agenda is but one example of how far outlets in the media are willing to go now that many of them are more interested in motivating an outcome than conveying information. But it is not the only one, nor will it be the last. The “4th Estate,” the self-appointed truth-tellers in the media, have scrapped ethics and are now taking sides. While their reader and viewership, and ultimately their bottom lines are suffering, it’s the public who are really losing.

Big Journalism