Health Facts and Fears: pseudoscience from a pseudo-skeptic?

Most skeptics have no real agenda beyond truth. Sure, they’re often passionate about their doubts of UFOs, Uri Geller, Kevin Trudeau, Don Lemmon (hello Orac!), cold fusion and the like, but the bottom line is always the truth. A true skeptic won’t say “there’s no such thing as alien spacecraft” or “cold fusion is impossible.” Instead, they’ll say, “there’s no evidence that aliens are visiting,” and “cold fusion hasn’t been demonstrably feasible.”

But there is a class of skeptic, a pseudo-skeptic if you will, that crops up here and there. Bjørn Lomborg and Steven J. Milloy are two that come to mind as those that seem willing to play around with statistics until they get the effect they want. In other words, they seem to have desired results and look largely at the data that are supportive. I’ve read much of what both Lomborg and Milloy have to say in their books and agree with some things and not with other things. They raise good questions here and there, but I’m consistently left with a bad taste -a flavor of an underlying agenda that suits their politics. Are they really skeptical, or are they just wearing skeptics’ clothes to get in the door?

I have Google News set for one or two topics that are sent to me when they become news and, in my inbox tonight was a link to an article by another apparent pseudo-skeptic: Elizabeth M. Whelan, Sc.D., M.P.H., founder and president of the American Council on Science and Health (ACSH). Whelan is a contributor in the latest issue of Skeptical Inquirer and, in the article she wrote, she raised some very sensible questions regarding a couple of legitimate issues. But, again, is she donning a mask to get her foot in the skeptical door to further another agenda? She’s the apparent editor of the ACSH page titled Health Facts and Fears and the writer of an article called Environmentalists’ Quest to Ban Life-Saving Flame-Retardants.

As is typical with conservative pseudo-skeptics, she includes much gloom and doom about how the environmentalists are out to destroy us all with their tree-hugging ways. I certainly don’t agree with every environmentalist position, but in this case I think Whelan is overreaching a bit. In this article, she makes use of several logical fallacies, perhaps most chiefly the non sequitur. Whelen says:

What is now coming into clear focus is a band of anti-chemical advocates who have no concern that their agenda is contributing to the human death toll around the world.

She goes on to say:

The most obvious historical example of this life-threatening advocacy is the banning of DDT — a chemical that curtailed the spread of malaria by killing the vectors of that disease, mosquitoes.  Following the environmentalist-inspired banning of DDT in 1972, the death rate from malaria soared in countries around the world.  People died because a life-saving chemical was removed.

Except DDT isn’t banned in nations where malaria is still problematic. The Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs) gives a specific exemption for the use of DDT in public health programmes. It is, however, banned in the United States, where malaria isn’t an issue. Her argument is: because environmentalists were against DDT that they’re for malaria. It’s the same debunked argument she used in the past and is now recycling (pun intended) for a new non sequitur. The article above suggests that the same environmentalists are now responsible for the continued deaths of 4,000 Americans by fire in their homes because they seek a ban on flame-retardant chemicals:

Incredibly, as a result of pressure from environmentalists in recent years, most flame-retardant chemicals have been banned both in the United States and Europe, and those remaining are very much under assault.  Why?  Because activists — and their surrogates at the Environmental Protection Agency — argue that the chemicals can be found in blood and breast milk samples and may cause cancer in laboratory rodents.

It isn’t the activists that are saying this, it’s the U.S. government. But, more importantly, Whelen is clearly misleading her readers. Indeed, I say she is out-right lying:

As the EPA regulates against flame-retardants, Americans die and suffer.  Banning the very few flame-retardants now left on the market will have the dire consequence of increasing the risk of fire injuries and death here and around the world.

Either she is stupid or she is lying. Could someone who so proudly adorns her own name with so many obscure trailing letters of accomplishment really be stupid? Perhaps. But the fact is that there exist no bans on polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) that are affecting the safety of Americans. There are two types that have been shown to be more likely to cause health effects, which are pentaBDE and octaBDE (Zhou et al 2002). They’ve been banned in only six states and only penta- and octa-BDEs were affected. Deca-BDEs were not. And the only company that makes them has voluntarily discontinued them. According to the Great Lakes Chemical Corporation press release on 11/3/03:

…citing years of research, advances in technology and a favorable environmental assessment by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) of what the company calls the “new generation” of flame retardants, today announced that it will voluntarily cease production of two widely-used flame retardant chemicals, penta- and octa- polybrominated diphenyl ether, by the end of 2004. Great Lakes will replace Penta-PBDE with a new product called Firemaster® 550.

But that doesn’t stop Whelen from closing her pseudoscientific article with this:

Until consumers, scientists, and policy makers make a commitment to confront these activists with facts — and hold them responsible for the consequences of banning life-saving technology — pseudoscience and the precautionary principle will continue to prevail in regulatory policy, and all of us will suffer.

Should we be at all worried about PBDEs? The results aren’t conclusive, but whether you accept rat studies or not, the fact remains that PBDEs are showing up in humans. This is a synthetic organic chemical that has as yet unknown effects. Whether you subscribe to the “precautionary principle” or not, it has to give one reason to pause just knowing that it is showing up in breast milk and it is being fed to infants. Questioning the applicability of rat studies is good science; dismissing their results simply because people aren’t rats is foolish. Moreover, there is growing evidence that these PBDEs are showing up in wildlife in significant quantity.

The presence of PBBs and PBDEs in sperm whales, the high levels of particularly PBDEs in seals and dolphins, and the on-going industrial production of these compounds suggest that an environmental problem may be on its way (de Boer et al 1998)

But then, why listen to activists like th
e Netherlands Institute for Fisheries Research? More research clearly needs to be done, but the doom and gloom of pseudo-skeptics is out to prevent the critical eye from looking too close. Being environmentally friendly and exercising proactive behavior is costly in the short-run for industries like chemical manufacturers. The pseudo-skeptics tried the same tactics with chlorofluorocarbons when it was discovered what their effects were on ozone production in the stratosphere. Luckily, science won the day; restrictions were placed on chlorofluorocarbon manufacture and use; and the ozone levels over Antarctica have improved.

Maybe I’ve missed the mark with regard to Whelan (maybe with Lomborg and Milloy, too). Maybe there are legislations that planned that threaten Deca-BDEs and other flame retardants. Maybe there are EPA regulations that prevent manufacturers from using existing PBDEs that have not yet been banned. Maybe every state in the union is planning bans. But I didn’t notice any such legislations, regulations or plans in the brief literature review I did. Nor does Whelan include a single source of information that a true skeptic could follow up with.

As a skeptic, I have to question both her motives and her logic.

References

de Boer, J; Wester, P.J.; Klamer, H.J.C.; Lewis, W.; and Boon, J.P. (1998). Do flame retardants threaten ocean life? Nature 394, 28 – 29

Whelan, Elizabeth M. (2006) Public health’s credibility crisis. Skeptical Inquirer, 30(3), 14-15.

Zhou, T.; Taylor, M.M.; DeVito, M.J.; et al (2002). Developmental exposure to brominated diphenyl ethers results in thyroid hormone disruption. Toxicol Sci 66:105-116.

About Carl Feagans 313 Articles
Professional archaeologist that currently works for the United States Forest Service at the Land Between the Lakes Recreation Area in Kentucky and Tennessee. I'm also a 12-year veteran of the U.S. Army and spent another 10 years doing adventure programming with at-risk teens before earning my master's degree at the University of Texas at Arlington.

2 Comments

  1. Most public sketptics are pseudo-skeptics. They are convinced that paranormal phenomena doesn’t exist.

    You may test them by asking:

    Which are your DOUBTS about the paranormal phenomena? Their answer is a affirmative or negative judgment, not a doubt.

    For more information about pseudo-skeptics, you can read:

    1)http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pseudoskepticism

    2)http://www.geocities.com/wwu777us/Debunking_Skeptical_Arguments.htm

    3)http://www.discord.org/~lippard/stupid-skeptic-tricks.txt

    4)http://rr0.org/data/1998/Truzzi_OnSomeUnfairPracticesTowardsClaimsOfTheParanormal/index.html

    5)http://www.suppressedscience.net/skepticism.html

    Best regards

  2. Thank you,

    Those are, indeed, links to pseudoskeptical sites, particularly that “suppressed science” link.

    This site is chock full of woo-woo and kook claims pretending to be skeptical in their approach and criticism, but, ultimately, supporting pseudoscientific premises.

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