Diane Cooner wrote regarding the PBS /Frontline/ episode on Tuesday,
> my bet is that PBS pulls the show before June 2 due to chem
> industry pressure. Any takers?
Here's my two rupees. In my old paranoid/conspiratorial days at the
Annenberg School, I'd'a agreed with you, Diane. These days, I'd like
to, because I can enjoy a good conspiracy as much as anybody.
Particularly one involving the mass media. It's just that I've lost
my faith in humans' ability to successfully engineer anything as
complex as an intentional conspiracy. We seem to excel at much
simpler devastation, like building nuclear weapons, which are so
simple that even American physicists in the 1940s could develop them
(and after all, how many of those guys knew how to change a
Let's take the worst scenario (from a sustag viewpoint) first.
If industry pressure *did* succeed in suppressing a PBS documentary
exploring this issue, people in sustainable ag, consumer and safe
food activism, patient activism, environmental activism, First
Amendment activism, etc., could (and should be prepared to) put up a
squawk. That could cost those companies hugely from a strategic PR
perspective. "If you really care about the truth, rather than your
corporate profits, why do you prevent alternative and emerging
scientific viewpoints from being explored?"
[Reflect on this: from an action standpoint, the National Organic
Program's staff created a mechanism (a public comment Web site) to
document the opinions people hold around one related issue--organic
food. That's a mechanism that could easily be re-created and used
for citizen action and response for a non-governmental issue as well.
Like this one.]
Of course some corporations are poor strategic planners. Some of
them even go out of business as a result. So trying to suppress this
program might indeed be part of their response. We'll see.
/Frontline/ has long been courageous in highlighting emerging
topics, laying out viewpoints, and stepping back to let viewers draw
their own conclusions. I don't know how fiercely the program's
producers would fight to air a program...but if they're laying it
out in the usual /Frontline/ manner (issue, viewpoints, possible
conclusions) chemical industry folks wouldn't be doing themselves a
favor to try to suppress that overtly.
Here's my guess as to "the chem industry" response:
There will be (ongoing) efforts by industry-funded scientists to
discredit Colburn's and others' research and thinking. As well as
honest ongoing disagreement with it (which is after all part of
building sound science) by them and others. And big big media and PR
campaigns in service of that.
I'd predict that the primary mechanism of discrediting Colburn's work
would be around how to assess the risk and measure the effects of
chemicals on biological systems.
I'd suggest that we in sustainable ag need to prepare ourselves to
understand and tell about this bigger picture, so the discussion is
not limited to a mythic/reactionary one (Beleaguered But Visionary
Little David Us-In-Sustag versus Big Bad Honkin' Godzilla/Goliath
Them-In-"The Industry"). I'd suggest we need to prepare ourselves to
tell the much more complex story of how "science" "knows" or
"proves" anything...and how we all are at a crossroads where
integrated, systems thinking and inquiry are emerging. And certain
things, including the post ante assessment of particular
technologies, are likely to be rethought, based on new information.
This will take a bit of space to lay out, so please bear with me. I'm
going to offer two examples of things that have appeared here on
SANET recently around this topic.
Example 1. You'll note in that press release of toxicologist Stephen
> Not all scientists agree that humans are in danger. Toxicologist
> Stephen Safe has dubbed the endocrine disruption hypothesis
> "paparazzi science" in the prestigious New England Journal of
> Medicine and wrote an editorial for the Wall Street Journal
> entitled "Another Enviro-Scare Debunked."
I'm not sure what "paparazzi science" means--science with
flashbulbs?--but the term is clearly dismissive, especially coupled
with the word "debunked." But what the heck. "Not all scientists"
agree on much. If they did, we might assume that Truth were acclaimed
and verified and we could all go home and figure out how to spend all
that money on the humanities. (I'd like to develop a 26-string Celtic
harp that's small and sturdy enough to travel on a motorcycle...a
MotoBardHarp...but I digress.)
A toxicologist like Stephen Safe is going to see things differently
than Colburn and similarly oriented scientists do, because of how
his field measures effects and assesses risks. He may choose to sound
cranky and superior and dismissive of other ways of thinking, but
that generally comes out of people's thinking *their* way of thinking
is the *only* way of thinking, and obviously superior, for, after
all, *they* think that way, right? :^D
But let's step back from the name-calling and polarized debate a
moment. In general, toxicology is not a field with a whole-systems
view. It looks at the effects of chronic rather than pulse doses of
a chemical. The routes of exposure studied typically do not include
respiratory and cutaneous (absorbed thru the skin) routes. Chemicals
are generally studied by themselves, not in mixtures. Toxicology
studies do not generally assess environmental or other stressors
that can moderate an organism's reaction to a chemical. And, the
"safety" of many chemicals is based on the LD50 test (the dosage of
a chemical that is lethal to 50% of the tested sample)--if a given
exposure/dosage lies way outside the probability of being lethal,
it's considered safe.
So, given their particular approaches to measurement and assessment,
and the models they think with, toxicologists are likely to react
with skepticism to hypothesized Phenomena-to-Be-Tested that lie
outside of What-They-Know-How-To-Test. While people with a
whole-systems view are going to develop a very different type of
science to look at issues like the effects of chemicals on health.
This is something many of us (including CIAS) grapple with in
sustainable ag--how to build integrated systems research and
thinking. There are reasons people do component research, and one of
the many is that it's pretty clear and clean to slice things that way
epistemologically. And practically.
Example 2. Dan Worley wrote on SANET recently about "allergies" to
certain chemicals. That word has often been used casually to describe
physical reactions to chemical exposure.
There indeed have been an increasing number of allergists who are
concerned about chemical effects on human health. There are blood
proteins activated in "true" allergic reactions (IgG and IgE I
believe--if someone can correct me here, please do) that, however,
don't always get activated in people who are having physical
reactions to chemical exposures. So one can have reactions without
their being allergies, and thus the reactions can fall outside of an
allergist's venue to treat them.
The upshot of these two examples for some people is, they're having
physical reactions, they're pretty sure some particular or
unidentified chemical exposure accounts for it, but toxicologists
and allergists can say, with complete honesty and accuracy, within
their frameworks of thinking, that there's no likely "proof" of
cause. It can't be proven thru the presence of immunoglobulins and
doesn't fit with the LD50-based safe exposure limits or other parts
of the toxicological model.
That isn't to say that these physical reactions must be bogus. And
this isn't to say that toxicologists or allergists are being evil.
They're thinking and interpreting from within their thought-systems.
There are researchers currently working to develop systems-based
scientific approaches to this issue. For example, there are efforts
to develop assay techniques to demonstrate changes in animal
endocrine, immune, and central nervous systems as a result of very
low doses, and doses in combination, of pesticides and other
industrial chemicals. That's where Colburn's and others' work fits
Here at UW-Madison/CALS, CIAS is providing bridge funding for
research in this area, regarding pesticide exposure. When I return
from San Francisco at solstice (6/21) I'll report to you on this in
more detail. For some months we've been sitting on sharing
information about this, as we've awaited confirmation that a key
peer-reviewed article, authored by a researcher we're supporting, has
been accepted for publication (as I write this, the article has been
accepted, except for a few remaining revisions, and hopefully that
final confirmation will arrive as I'm on vacation). That article
summarizes existing and emerging scientific evidence on the
endocrine, immune, and neurological effects of pesticides and
pesticide mixtures, including at concentrations currently in
Back to the /Frontline/ and PR thing.
I wonder sometimes what "the chem industry" is *really* "thinking"
(that is, apart from their PR or corporate communications campaigns)
as the momentum toward organics and sustainable ag and other
"enviro" issues builds among the public, and these new hypotheses
Lately I keep pondering Monsanto. As an organization, I respect it
highly--a corporate entity whose leaders have exquisite strategic
and tactical genius. Excellent forecasters. You will note that
Monsanto's thrust is no longer chemicals...but biotechnology and life
sciences. It still holds some of the agro-chemical companies acquired
over the years...but that last time I read Monsanto's annual report,
it sounded to me like they are quietly spinning off these
subsidiaries. When an organization of that scale and power makes that
kind of strategic choice, I assume there is forecasting behind it.
Perhaps there is more money to be made in intellectual property than
chemicals. Perhaps someone is starting to add up the potential,
emerging costs of the latter. Who knows.
So those are my really quick thoughts on the /Frontline/ episode. I
am hoping to figure out how to program my VCR between now and
Tuesday so I can tape the episode. :^) Thanks, Diane, for your
question and the chance to reflect on these things. I've dashed this
off between six other things...and any oversights, goofy thinking, or
out and out incorrect facts are mine and mine alone.
Michele Gale-Sinex, communications manager
Center for Integrated Ag Systems
UW-Madison College of Ag and Life Sciences
Voice: (608) 262-8018 FAX: (608) 265-3020
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