Monday, June 16, 2008

Stop worrying and learn to love the chemicals

Well Margaret Wente is at it again. In a column last week titled Yellow duckies and other killers, she claims that "Mothers across Canada have been prostrated by the plastics scare."
It's hard to be a good mother these days. Deadly perils lurk everywhere. Take that yellow bathtub ducky, contaminated with a dangerous substance known as BPA.
But why stop there? Wente proceeds to list other putative hazards: toxic mould, pesticides, perfumes, "death-rays from the sun", walking barefoot in the grass. The message is clear: stop worrying already!
We forget how negligent our own parents were. They gave us naked sunbaths and let us suck on plastic duckies and roll around on pesticide-drenched lawns. It's astonishing how ignorant they were, and how many of us managed to grow up.
Now Margaret Wente is no scientist (what was your first clue?), so she needs an outside authority:
Dr. Elizabeth Whelan is president of the American Council on Science and Health [ACSH], an independent group devoted to accuracy in health reporting. She points out that both BPA and phthalates have been studied intensively for decades. There are no studies - none - that show any link between these substances and harm to people. The basis for the claims of danger are all from studies done on rats, and they don't predict human risk.
According to Media Transparency, ACSH haven't disclosed their corporate donors since the early 1990's, but their 1991 annual report listed each of the following as contributing at least $15,000:
American Cyanamid Company * Anheuser-Busch Foundation * General Electric Foundation * Rollin M. Gerstacker Foundation * ICI Agricultural Products, Inc. * ISK Biotech Corporation * Kraft, Inc. * Monsanto Fund * The NutraSweet Company * John M. Olin Foundation, Inc. * Pfizer, Inc. * Sarah Scaife Foundation Incorporated * The Starr Foundation * Archer Daniels Midland Company * Carnation Company * Ciba-Geigy Corporation * Ethyl Corporation * Exxon Corporation * General Mills, Inc. * Heublein Inc. * Hiram Walker-Allied Vintners * Johnson & Johnson * Kellogg Company * The Esther A. and Joseph Klingenstein Fund, Inc. * Malaysian Palm Oil Promotion Council * National Starch and Chemical Foundation, Inc. * PepsiCo Foundation Inc. * Union Carbide Corporation
The under-$15,000 list continues on, listing all kinds of industrial, pharmaceutical, and food corporations.

Figures don't lie ...

In her April 19th column, Wente quoted an organizations called the Statistical Assessment Service (STATS) who similarly dismiss concerns about BPA. While they don't accept industry money, STATS is funded by a number of the same conservative organizations as ACSH. I think I see a pattern here.

But so what if these organizations get "conservative" funding? An anonymous commenter on my previous post wrote:
Why should the funding source matter? Isn't it the quality of the evidence and the arguments made? Your smear is the equivalent of an ad hominem attack.
My response:
I don't think it's ad hominem. If a medical study was funded by a pharmaceutical company, I'd like to know that. Not that it invalidates the study: as you say, the quality of the evidence and the arguments (analyses) made is centrally important.
So let's have a closer look at the quality of the evidence and arguments in one particular case.

I looked at a recent post on the STATS blog concerning formula- versus breast-feeding. While the author allows that "Yes, there is robust evidence that nursing reduces ear infections [otitis media] and diarrhea", he sets out to discredit claims of a link between formula feeding and diabetes, leukemia, and serious respiratory infections. In the latter case, he writes "The most recent research does not support the contention that formula carries a higher risk," citing a 1995 paper from the Journal of Pediatrics.

Interestingly enough, that study was supported in part by the Mead-Johnson Nutritional Group. Leaving that aside, however, here are some results from the abstract:
In the first year of life the incidence of diarrheal illness among BF [breast fed] infants was half that of FF [formula fed] infants; the percentage with any otitis media was 19% lower and with prolonged episodes (>10 days) was 80% lower in BF compared with FF infants. There were no significant differences in rates of respiratory illness; nearly all cases were mild upper respiratory infections. ... These results indicate that the reduction in morbidity associated with breast-feeding is of sufficient magnitude to be of public health significance.
Sure enough, they didn't find statistically significant differences in rates of respiratory illness. Now an important consideration in statistics is the power to detect differences, which is determined by a number of factors including sample size. So what was the sample size in this study?
... morbidity data were collected by weekly monitoring during the first 2 years of life from matched cohorts of infants who were either breast fed (N = 46) or formula fed (N = 41) until at least 12 months of age.
So there were a total of 87 infants. In their discussion, the authors write:
We did not observe any significant differences in the incidence or prevalence of respiratory illnesses between BF and FF infants. However, the vast majority of episodes were mild upper respiratory illnesses. Previous studies have indicated that the protective effect of breast-feeding is greatest for lower respiratory illnesses. The sample size in our study was not large enough to detect differences in more severe respiratory illnesses.
Blind trust?

Ultimately, we all have to rely on some surrogate measures to judge the quality and trustworthiness of the information we encounter. Our own expertise can only be so broad and we rely on others to help us interpret the world. Oldly enough the words of Ronald Reagan come to mind: "Trust, but verify."

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Monday, June 09, 2008

Great expectations

While a baby carriage makes for a good visual, it's a bit ironic. Once the baby is born there are no special parking spots, at least at the supermarket where I took this photo.
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Friday, June 06, 2008

A non-profit, non-partisan organization

In the April 19th edition of the Globe and Mail ("Canada's National Newspaper") columnist Maragaret Wente had a piece titled "The great plastics panic".

Wente reports that at an elementary school near where she lives, plastic water bottles have been "banished":
The kids know what's at stake. Plastic is death! At home, their anxious parents have stopped microwaving with plastic wrap. They've thrown out their plastic baby bottles and replaced them with ones made of glass. Leading retailers ... have banished plastic containers, baby bottles, sippy cups and pacifiers containing one offending chemical from the shelves. No wonder. A barrage of media reports have warned that the chemical in question - bisphenol A, or BPA - may be linked to breast and uterine cancer as well as lowered sperm count, early-onset puberty, obesity, hyperactivity, miscarriages, diabetes and other horrors.
"So," she asks, "how worried should you be?"
"On my list of a thousand things to worry about, BPA would rank about 892nd," says Trevor Butterworth, who's with an independent outfit called STATS (for Statistical Assessment Service). STATS is a non-profit, non-partisan U.S. group that analyzes the use and abuse of science and statistics in the media.
Although Butterworth's 892/1000 is obviously a rhetorical device, it still gets across the message there's nothing much to worry about. But there's another message: this is a quantitative guy! He works for an organization called the Statistical Assessment Service and accordingly he slings around numbers like nobody's business.

When I read this, I headed to the internet to check out this organization. Well, they have a pretty slick website. They describe themselves like this:
Since its founding in 1994, the non-profit, non-partisan Statistical Assessment Service (STATS) has become a much-valued resource on the use and abuse of science and statistics in the media. Our goals are to correct scientific misinformation in the media resulting from bad science, politics, or a simple lack of information or knowledge; and to act as a resource for journalists and policy makers on major scientific issues and controversies.

As a mark of our success, STATS' work has been featured on NBC's "Nightly News," "The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer" and ABC's "20/20" - and in print by The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, US News and World Report, New Scientist, New England Journal of Medicine, and many other publications.
Furthermore, "In 2004, we became an affiliate of George Mason University in Virginia." Pretty impressive.

But how is the organization funded?
STATS is a non-profit, nonpartisan organization that relies on philanthropic donations to support its operations. We do not take money from industry or industry-related groups.
And here, I must admit, I stopped. After all, I had read that STATS is:
  • non-profit and non-partisan
  • "independent"
  • affiliated with a public university
  • not funded by industry or industry-related groups
  • "a much-valued resource on the use and abuse of science and statistics in the media"
  • getting their work into the New England Journal of Medicine and New Scientist
I proceeded to read the rest of Margaret Wente's article. Butterworth's viewpoint was presented a number of times:
Mr. Butterworth maintains that most of the media have been reporting only one side of the story - the side that's driven by a handful of activist scientists and advocacy groups, such as Environmental Defence. Independent assessments conducted by food safety authorities in Europe and Japan, as well as various other risk assessments, have found no basis for the BPA scare. "We've had five major academic independent evaluations of the BPA risk over last two or three years, and they all keep saying the same thing," says Mr. Butterworth. "But they never get reported."
And what about the evidence from animal studies?
"The biological pathways in rats and people are different," notes Mr. Butterworth.
And the final word goes to ... Mr. Butterworth:
"Letting your child outside the door to breathe in exhaust fumes is more risky than letting them drink from plastic bottles," says Mr. Butterworth. He suggests if you're really worried about plastic, give up plastic bags. They suffocate 25 children a year.
Hmmm ... so maybe BPA is not so bad after all.

Uh, not quite ...

Just the other day I got some new insight into the Statistical Assessment Service, thanks to Wikipedia. (I wonder why I missed this the first time round.) Their entry about STATS includes a section on funding:
While the STATS website does not describe its funding sources, STATS is funded by a variety of conservative organizations, including Richard Mellon Scaife's Carthage Foundation, the Sarah Scaife Foundation, the Earhart Foundation, John M. Olin Foundation and the Castle Rock Foundation.
In the United States, funding information is available from the tax returns of 501(c)(3) nonprofit organisations. The information above was collated by Media Transparency. Another organization that looks into media manipulation is SourceWatch, who write:
STATS is a 501(c)3 non-profit organisation but its 2006 annual return to the Internal Revenue Service states that "salary costs for the organization are shared with the Center for Media and Public Affairs. CMPA ... reports the salary costs and files payroll reports under its tax identification number. DCFC is a related organization."[1] (It is not clear what "DCFC" refers to). The report also states that the relationship between STATS and CMPA is one of "common control".[2] Since STATS shares the offices (in the pricey "K Street" lobbying district of Washington) and staff of CMPA, it should be considered as a front, rather than a subsidiary or spin-off.
The Center for Media and Public Affairs is a topic in its own right (see here, here, and here). In 2001 some of the people involved in STATS and CMPA published a book called It Ain't Necessarily So. This review from concludes:
A fair review of the state of science journalism is always welcome, but this cleverly disguised example of corporate propaganda isn't it.
Up Front?

The staff list of the Statistical Assessment Service is interesting. The president is S. Robert Lichter (one of the authors of "It Ain't Necessarily So"), who has been the DeWitt Wallace Chair in Mass Communications at the American Enterprise Institute and paid consultant to Fox News. There is a PhD economist and a PhD mathematician. These presumably constitute the core of the analytical team. The executive director is an MBA. And there are two journalists, one of whom is Trevor Butterworth.

Butterworth has no scientific training to speak of (rather, his training is in philosophy and intellectual history). Yet he makes quite strong statements about BPA. Consider this paragraph from Wente's column:
Does this mean BPA is completely off the hook? No. Lots of people think it needs more study. "The possibility that human development may be altered by bisphenol A at current exposure levels cannot be dismissed," said an important U.S. toxicology report this week. Some media stories billed this statement as a five-alarm fire. But as Mr. Butterworth says: "It's a very mild caution. Essentially, it says there is possibility there may be some effects, but we need more research."
Presumably someone with scientific training came to this conclusion and Butterworth is simply repeating it. But if Butterworth is simply a talking head, why is Wente not going to the source?


I started out wondering about the toxicity of BPA, and I still am. But along the way, I bumped into a different toxin altogether. So let's see what an Angry Toxicologist has to say about this (and see Butterworth's extensive comments in response).

Update: It turns out that in 2002, the Fraser Institute (a conservative think tank based in Canada) launched CANSTATS, clearly using STATS as a model. (By the way, the Canadian government's official statistics agency, Statistics Canada, is commonly referred to as StatsCan.) It seems that CANSTATS is no longer operating, but while it did it employed some familiar tactics.

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