By: Will Coggin
Newspaper: Battle Creek Enquirer
If you saw a billboard that said, “Learn about the link between autism and dairy products,” how would you react? Perhaps by holding off on the next glass of milk for you or your child? You wouldn’t be alone — even though the claim is thoroughly sour.
This quote, from a widely panned People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) advertisement, implies a “link” between the poorly understood developmental condition and the consumption of milk, cheese, and yogurt.
No such link exists, and numerous reputable science commentators have called out PETA for claiming that it does. The ad was condemned by Dr. Michael Wosnick, a former executive director of the National Cancer Institute of Canada, who called PETA “idiot fearmongers.”
PETA’s claim serves as a textbook example of “science abuse” — taking an unsubstantiated claim and trumpeting it since it supports a preconceived conclusion. There are enough non-reproduced, small-sample studies for any activist with an agenda to pick one to trumpet, even if it conflicts with a preponderance of better evidence.
That doesn’t stop activists from using bad science to support their claims. And while disclosure policies and innate skepticism often lead people to properly scrutinize the scientific claims of businesses and business groups, too often the claims made by ideological activist groups get away without the fine-toothed examination they deserve.
Consider the debate over trace levels of mercury in fish. The FDA recently issued advice that suggested expecting mothers and children should consume two to three weekly servings of low-mercury fish in order to promote the brain health of their children.
This rebuts scaremongering by the animal liberation group Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM), which actively tried to overblow fears about mercury.
But a major study in The Lancet found that children of mothers who consumed the least amount of fish were actually most at risk for low IQ. As the FDA’s recent decision shows, PCRM and others’ anti-seafood campaign contained a high dose of science abuse.
Science abuse isn’t a vice unique to animal rights activists. Consider the activists fighting against genetically improved foods like Greenpeace, the Sierra Club, and the Environmental Working Group (EWG).
All three groups cherry-pick scientific evidence that supports their preconceived agendas while rejecting equally strong consensuses that go against their environmentalist ideology.
All three point to a scientific consensus on climate change, while the broad acceptance of genetically improved foods (GIFs) is completely disregarded.
(Ironically, evidence suggests GIFs might reduce carbon emissions by the equivalent of 23 billion kilograms of CO2.)
There’s no denying a consensus that GIFs currently approved for commercial cultivation are as safe and beneficial as conventional crops. The American Association for the Advancement of Science, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, and the American Medical Association all affirm that GIFs are no less safe than conventional foods.
But that has not stopped science-abusing activists Greenpeace, the Sierra Club, and EWG from opposing GIF use and demanding unscientific and unnecessary labeling that are intended to raise grocery prices and frighten consumers (a label is often translated by people into a “warning”).
Activists argue that these labels aren’t a ban, and just serve a “right to know.” But that purported “right” comes with a significant cost.
One anti-GIF group, the so-called Institute for Responsible Technology, has stated that its aim is “forcing [GIFs] out of the food supply.”
That will cost consumers money, and if other countries adopt this anti-science model, it will also cost lives. GIFs like the Vitamin A-producing Golden Rice offer the promise of combating malnutrition that is lethal across the developing world.
The World Health Organization estimates that Vitamin A deficiency alone blinds up to a half-million and kills up to 250,000 children every year. The lives of those children is the potential price of activists’ science abuse.
If we want policy based on scientific evidence rather than rampant activist fearmongering, the public must hold these groups accountable.