How America became obsessed with BPA
The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s “Chemical Fallout” Crusade (cont'd)
In fact, the paper went further. “Based on the weight of independent research,” wrote David Haynes on Nov 9, 2008, “the government should ban” metal containers containing infant formula, BPA in polycarbonate bottles and so on. But the phrase “the weight of independent research” is meaningless – an Alice in Wonderlandism – because the weight of evidence in science is only ever determined by scientific and statistical principles, not whether it’s industry funded or not.
Is is, perhaps, not uncoincidental that the Journal Sentinel’s independent vs industry theme is mirrored by vom Saal, who has long denounced his scientific critics as industry funded. This kind of rhetoric has a distinct appeal for journalists, who instinctively see a conflict of interest in industry-funded anything – and who become even more suspicious when an industry funded study confirms that something is safe in the face of “independent” evidence that it is risky. Thus it is easy for journalism to fall into a formulaic response to a scientific controversy: independent research good; industry-funded research bad. If the Food and Drug Administration is relying on industry-funded studies to regulate BPA and rejecting the “independent” research, the key ingredients for a scandal are in place.
This is clearly the formula the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel fell into, and the consequence is that it fed its readers, activist groups, politicians, and the wider journalistic community a diet of confirmation bias, as it seized, without any scientific criteria to separate good research from bad, on any “independent” evidence that seemed to confirm the thesis that BPA was dangerous while ignoring or criticizing information that disproved it was dangerous (this included well-conducted, robust independent studies too). Robert Chapin, a toxicologist who chaired the panel convened by the NTP’s Center for the Evaluation of Risks to Human Reproduction (CERHR) to weigh the evidence and come up with a level of scientific concern over BPA, told STATS:
“I talked with them for at least an hour, trying to make them understand the concept of ‘weight of the evidence,’ and to explain why we had more confidence in bigger and more rigorous studies, and why smaller studies gave less confidence. They seemed to understand what I was talking about. At least they did not challenge me outright. They were reasonably polite, not hostile. One of the reporters probed me for a while, trying to find out why I was getting agitated describing Fred vom Saal's highjacking of our science. So OK, I got agitated because I think Fred does (or reported) miserable studies which should not be given the weight they were receiving. Their attitude to me was reasonably polite and accepting.”
But the paper ignored everything he said, most importantly the “weight of evidence” – the scientific coherence of the full body of research on BPA. Said Chapin in an email to STATS:
“They jumped straight to the conclusion that vom Saal must be right and everything else must be wrong. There was no puzzling out how such a flagrant dichotomy could come to be, there was no exploring of our position, no digging around to try to understand what was happening. And important research WAS ignored.”
Journalism is all about choosing what to report and who to talk to, and selective sourcing can create make the innocent seem guilty and the guilty innocent. The chemical industry and the Food and Drug Administration are never going to play a societal role that the public will spontaneously applaud, but babies – well, who doesn’t want to protect babies? If reporting is to be worth anything – if it is, simply, to be ethical – journalists need to be fair.
In this respect, one doesn’t need to be a toxicologist to address in the problems raised by what the Journal Sentinel chose not to report or missed.