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 Salon.com 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?

Toxic?

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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7 Comments:

Blogger lucy said...

great post! A statistician working in medical research. Cool. I'm currently majoring in a Medical Clinical Science program. Yet, loved statistics. We'll see...

bisophenol A. has captured all the buzz. In general, I've tried to switch over things as much as possible. As a student, i'm still waiting to buy the water filter I want, and convert all the pans. It's really a process.

I'm not really a fan of organizations interested in keeping the status quo with arguments that wil invariably lead to going around in a big circle.

Yet, I feel the same EXACT way with avid vegetarians.

11:58 PM, June 07, 2008  
Blogger Nick Barrowman said...

Hi Lucy,

I'd certainly recommend statistics, but follow your heart!

I'm not really a fan of organizations interested in keeping the status quo with arguments that wil invariably lead to going around in a big circle.

I agree. Defenders of the status quo will say "It hasn't been proven harmful", but one can always respond "It hasn't been proven safe!"

The title of a recent book says it well: Doubt is Their Product: How Industry's Assault on Science Threatens Your Health.

7:51 PM, June 08, 2008  
Blogger lucy said...

So, true Nick! Statistics at least gives a game both sides can use!! Outmatching wits with skewed logic!!

I so look forward to your future posts.

10:44 PM, June 08, 2008  
Blogger Raywat Deonandan said...

Nicely done, N.B. Planning a new career as investigative journalist? :-)

3:20 AM, June 09, 2008  
Blogger Nick Barrowman said...

To be honest, I don't think anything I've done really counts as investigative journalism. Others have already done the digging.

What I wanted to comment on is how easy it is to be fooled by an "expert" from a non-profit "non-partisan" organization.

1:08 PM, June 09, 2008  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

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.

10:59 PM, June 12, 2008  
Blogger Nick Barrowman said...

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. And yet, as Cyndi Lauper put it, "Money changes everything!"

9:09 AM, June 13, 2008  

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