Science and the Toxic Scare Machine

See also Science's Big Problem - editor

United States Federal Agency-sponsored research in public health toxicology is as irresponsible and misleading as the IPCC misconduct. Can't imagine anything as bad as the IPCC? How about thirty-plus years of panic-mongering about how the environment is a killer and (from the movie Aliens) "we're gonna die, man, we're all gonna die"?

Well of course we're gonna die, eventually. This scientific misconduct suggesting that we are going to die from the environment is intended to scare the most anxious and comfortable society in history. The research is the result of agency money spent to make the public more anxious and push the idea that government is a savior; regulations and programs must be instituted now to rescue us from Armageddon. More news at seven -- or in tomorrow's paper. 

Adult professionals should be committed to good science and intellectual effort. In medicine, law, and all intellectual inquiry, we search for the best evidence. In public health research, unfortunately, the basic rules have been discarded in a shocking and disappointing way because the public health research community is poisoned by politics and funding influence. So the inconvenient scientific rules are ignored. 

Epidemiologists study population effects, and toxicologists study negative effects. Sir Austin Bradford Hill, British icon of public health research, originated in the early 1950s nine criteria for proving toxicity. His first and most important criterion was evidence of a measurable and significant toxic effect. Other criteria include that the toxic effect proposed has to be plausible, has to make exposure sense, and should be evaluated to make sure some other thing is not in play. All the toxicology criteria are derivative of the effect. The rest of the criteria are sensible rules any momma could come up with. Read them here.

Public health bench studies on toxins expose rats or mice to extreme (just less than killer) levels of toxins. After the rodents are exposed, they are studied for effects or sacrificed and examined. When the researchers tally a death or find on autopsy a disease or a tumor, they assert they have found a toxin, and the public must be protected and warned. Any exposure to the toxin is dangerous. Agency regulators must step in and protect the society. 

Population studies in public health look for effects from exposures, and the researchers work and grind small effects that don't prove anything but provide an opportunity to raise a question of toxicity. Even small effects that fail to prove toxicity then become important. The small effect is projected to the society as a big effect, and the researchers and agency pound the table and show projections that the small effect can produce thousands of sick or dead people. 

The Federal Judicial Center is the educational institution for federal judges. Judges are designated the gatekeepers for evidence in all judicial affairs, and they make admissibility rulings all the time. The Judicial Center commissioned scientists and lawyers of high reputation to write the Reference Manual on Scientific Evidence 2nd Ed. 2000. The Chapter on Epidemiology was written by Leon Gordis, M.D.; Dr. P.H., former chair of epidemiology at Johns Hopkins; Michal Friedman, J.D., Ph.D., MPH of the National Cancer Institute; and Michael Green, J.D. of Wake Forest U. Law School. (See study here.)

At page 375, the authors favorably reference the Bradford Hill Toxicity criteria.

At page 384, they discuss the magnitude of toxic effect required in observational studies that are used in public health toxicology research:

The threshold for concluding that an agent was more likely than not the cause of an individual's disease is a relative risk greater than 2.0. Recall that a relative risk of 1.0 means that the agent has no effect on the incidence of disease.

When the relative risk reaches 2.0, the agent is responsible for an equal number of cases of disease as all other background causes. Thus, a relative risk of 2.0   (with certain qualifications noted below) implies a 50% likelihood that an exposed individual's disease was caused by the agent. A relative risk greater than 2.0 would permit an inference that an individual plaintiff's disease was more likely than not caused by the implicated agent.

As an example of EPA misconduct and bad science, none of the important studies on air pollution can claim to comply with the rule on size of effect. That's true of so many other toxicology claims from population studies used by the EPA and other government agencies. Most public health journals are full of studies that break this rule. 

Why scare the public with bad studies and exaggerated warnings? That's  easy -- follow the money, the power, and the noise. The agencies are the source of funding, and the scientists must find something an agency can work with, or they won't have any funding or job.

If the journals don't let the authors bend the rules, then the authors don't get published, and their status as experts is compromised -- but the journals won't have much to publish, so it will compromise the survival of the journals that are part of the academic infrastructure.   

Would climate scientists have work tomorrow if today the U.N. said the global warming panic was revealed as a hoax? Same for public health panics and toxicity scares: The academic researchers, agency apparatchiks, and research programs would shrivel if tomorrow the EPA said, "Sorry...we were exaggerating. The planet is actually pretty safe, and only a few things are really toxic. We're shuttin' down the panic division -- get on with your lives."

An overlooked effect of the aggressive agency policymaking based on weak or inadequate science is misdirection of resources. Environmental regulations and compliance requirements can cause economic disruptions, unemployment, and economic hardship. Negative economic developments affect human welfare and are proven by the public health research to cause premature death.   

Government agency funding, research, and policymaking should be comprehensively evaluated and tested for validity, but also for risks and benefits.  

John Dale Dunn, M.D., J.D. is an emergency physician, inactive attorney, and policy advisEr to the Heartland Institute of Chicago and the American Council on Science and Health of New York City.