"It Ain't Necessarily So" by David Murray, et al.

Three self-styled experts point out the myriad ways that the media gets science wrong.

Published July 2, 2001 6:02PM (EDT)

Journalists are the whipping boys of the information age, and lord knows they deserve it. Operating in a world far too subtle and complex to be reduced to their paltry formulas, they misinterpret statistics, misunderstand research and mishandle the truth, usually in service of their own political and social objectives. They choose topics that advance their liberal agenda and ignore any truths that defy it. They decide which angle to cover and which perspectives to suppress, who's on the side of good and who's sold their soul to the devil. You can trust them about as far as you can throw them, and given how slippery they are, that sure isn't very far.

But have no fear, for experts have arrived to set us straight, in the form of the Statistical Assessment Service -- STATS for short. As part of its noble service, STATS offers us the new book "It Ain't Necessarily So: How Media Make and Unmake the Scientific Picture of Reality" by David Murray, Joel Schwartz and S. Robert Lichter, a trio of social scientists. The book gets to the scientific heart of the journalistic matter, unraveling dozens of science stories that have appeared in print over the last 10 years to reveal "the means by which savvy news consumers can defend themselves."

For example, are trick-or-treaters being sliced to pieces by razors in apples and poisoned with tainted licorice? "Halloween candy-tampering is a myth," the authors write. Since 1958, all 76 reports of candy-tampering have been mistaken or fraudulent. The three reported deaths attributed to sabotaged Halloween treats were ultimately traced back to a lie to cover up an uncle's drug stash, an intentional poisoning of a child by his father and sensational reports of a girl's fatal seizure resulting from a congenital heart condition.

But "It Ain't Necessarily So" doesn't limit itself to disproving popular urban legends. Are you worried about species dying out as a result of global warming? Don't. Those scare stories are the doing of green scribblers who cherry-pick the scientific journals for alarming factoids and who work in cahoots with Volvo-driving scientists who skew their results in an effort to oppose progress and capitalism. Alarming increases in infectious diseases? Relax, those numbers can be written off to gays getting AIDS and the aging of the population. Magazine and newspaper articles saying anything to the contrary are just the media's way of pushing for yet more government money to be thrown after bad. Breast cancer skyrocketing, sperm counts plummeting, racial discrimination against mortgage applicants running rampant -- just watch the media spin.

The experts debunking these reports go by names designed to reassure, names like The Greening Earth Society (we're all in favor of verdancy) and The Harvard Center for Risk Analysis (Harvard, of course, knows everything). The last decade has seen the rise of many such groups, here to dice and slice the news and point out its many shortcomings. Staffed with people holding doctorates (in at least some discipline), expressing patent objectivity and publishing newsletters to promote their side of the latest stories, such groups are ever ready to take calls from journalists looking for help in understanding a scientific paper or in search of a ready quote from someone on the other side of an issue's fence.

The trouble is, many of these groups are industry fronts, pushing industry agendas. The Greening Earth Society, for example, which promotes the benefits of carbon dioxide, was created by the Western Fuels Association, according to the Integrity in Science database created by The Center for Science in the Public Interest. The Harvard Center for Risk Analysis has received funding from numerous corporate sources, including unrestricted grants from Amoco, Dow Chemical Company, General Motors, Monsanto, Procter & Gamble and many others.

The authors of "It Ain't Necessarily So" come from STATS (Murray); the Hudson Institute, a conservative think tank (Schwartz); and the Center for Media and Public Affairs, STATS's parent organization (Lichter). STATS was created four years ago, and according to investigative journalist Sheldon Rampton, coauthor of "Trust Us, We're Experts: How Industry Manipulates Science and Gambles With Your Future," the organization "derives most of its funding from conservative sources such as the John M. Olin Foundation, the Sarah Scaife Foundation and the William H. Donner Foundation." Murray, once an assistant professor of anthropology at Brandeis University, has also worked for the Heritage Foundation.

Science journalists certainly don't always get the facts right. Eighty-nine percent of scientists surveyed expressed "only some" or "hardly any" confidence in the press, according to a 1997 study by the First Amendment Center. "It Ain't Necessarily So" makes a few valid points. Too often, journalists opt for covering sensationalistic stories -- like the one about the asteroid that, at least until more complete calculations were revealed the following day, was headed straight for Earth -- instead of the really important, hard-edged ones that readers find less interesting. Every newspaper has its editorial slant, and that does indeed determine its choice of which stories to cover and which to leave behind. The authors of "It Ain't Necessarily So" take particular delight, of course, in lashing at the New York Times and the Washington Post.

But the hypocrisy of "It Ain't Necessarily So" is that it employs the very same tactics that it finds so objectionable when used by journalists and publishers. Consider their criticism of coverage of Camille Parmesan's study of the extinction rates of local populations of a western butterfly, the Edith's checkerspot, due to global warming. Parmesan's work, one of the first solid pieces of evidence of the biological effects of global warming, was published in the journal Nature in 1996.

As is the case with so many examples in this book, the authors' criticism of how journalists covered the story quickly becomes criticism of the original study itself. One of their techniques is to omit mention of any findings that do not support their agenda. Complaining that Parmesan "took it for granted that the climate had warmed in locales in which the checkerspot was now extinct," they quote a 1996 communication in the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society (BAMS) saying that the "apparent 'global warming'" in the western U.S. "is in reality urban waste heat affecting only urban areas."

But this analysis doesn't hold up under closer scrutiny. Not only is the BAMS paper that the authors of "It Ain't Necessarily So" cite a simplistic statistical view of the measurement of urban heating -- tallying county-by-county information regardless of the vagaries of individual temperature measuring stations -- but they also overlook a major BAMS paper published earlier that same year by Thomas Karl and colleagues of the National Climatic Data Center. This study found a 1 to 3 degree Celsius warming in the western United States from 1910 to 1995 -- after explicitly correcting for urban heat island effects.

Likewise the authors grouse that Parmesan did not take into consideration that the thinning of the butterflies' population may have result from the loss of their host plants due to factors such as changes in air quality or the impact of agricultural chemicals. But Parmesan, as expected, does state -- in a figure caption -- that she did not count checkerspots in sites that "were degraded by loss of usable host plants," regardless of the reasons for that loss. She also writers that she had eliminated over three-quarters of the sites potentially available to her for, in part, just such reasons of degradation.

Other criticisms in "It Ain't Necessarily So" are just wrong. The authors complain that Parmesan did not include "anything like a baseline for the number of extinctions that would be expected in the absence of any warming." But what they apparently fail to understand is that Parmesan designed her study to reveal patterns of net extinction with respect to latitude, rather than the absolute number of extinctions. It is these patterns that were the signal that population changes were due to climate change. Furthermore, the authors misread a reference to "2 degrees" as one of temperature ("Celsius"), and not of latitude -- which is just the kind of error you might expect from social scientists dissecting a study in the natural sciences.

Finally, other criticisms in "It Ain't Necessarily So" are simply petty. They denigrate Parmesan's study because it made claims about a single species of butterfly, ignoring follow-up studies by Parmesan, David R. Easterling and others, some of which found similar shifts in 57 species of butterflies in Europe. They sneer that the New York Times article on Parmesan's work was "lengthier, in fact, than [Parmesan's] study itself," as if properly explaining a piece of complex work to nonscientific readers should be more dense than the specialized language of the scientists. And they refer to Parmesan's work as "preliminary," as if Nature weren't one of the most prestigious peer-reviewed scientific journals in the world.

Such disingenuous maneuvers fill "It Ain't Necessarily So." It's clear that while the authors are good at looking up articles in Lexis-Nexis, they aren't playing straight with their readers. Even when Murray and his colleagues hit the occasional right note, it's always from the same tune. Their analyses and conclusions inevitably stack up in favor of the view that there are few environmental problems that less government spending won't fix and that social dilemmas like racial discrimination are figments of overactive imagination. A fair review of the state of science journalism is always welcome, but this cleverly disguised example of corporate propaganda isn't it.

By David Appell

David Appell is a freelance writer living in New Hampshire.

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