Skip to comments.Dishonest or Stupid? Either Way, PBS' NOW is a Journalistic Disgrace
Posted on 03/31/2008 7:49:42 AM PDT by AreaMan
Dont let the facts get in the way of scaring the public in fact, lets just leave them on the cutting room floor.
I love PBS, and have always felt that its a great source for independent and in-depth reporting. That is, until I was recently interviewed for its show NOW on the subject of phthalates, a chemical substance used in plastics, and babies toys.
STATS has done a lot of work on the question of whether phthalates are safe or not, and we closely followed the research of several individual researchers as well as national and international scientific bodies whose job was to evaluate these products. We do not claim that phthalates are safe, but the evidence that they are unsafe (at normal exposure levels) is weak and inconclusive. In the interview I had with PBS, we discussed many aspects of the science behind phthalate safety research. None of these aspects were quoted or discussed in the final version that aired. As a matter of personal frustration with a topic being so poorly treated after spending so much time with the producers at NOW, I feel its worth mentioning what wasnt in PBSs show.
* The National Toxicology Program of the National Institutes of Health has convened several panels to evaluate the evidence for safety and determined that phthalates pose little risk to humans at current exposure levels. The goal in these panels is to figure out how much is too much in other words, how much exposure to phthalates will have a measurable, negative effect on humans. The conclusions are based on all the evidence coming from humans, rats, guinea pigs, and any other animal or laboratory experiments that can shed light on this question. The NIH determined current levels of human exposure to phthalates pose low risks, but are worthy of future research. These panels did take into consideration the paper published by Dr. Shanna Swan that PBS touted as showing that phthalates are dangerous. The panels ultimately determined that her evidence wasnt strong enough to be wholly convincing, especially considering other research that has been conducted. Some phthalates have been given more attention than others by these panels, but their overarching theme among these highly-correlated chemicals is that we have no evidence to suggest adverse effects from current exposure levels. I discussed the conclusions of the expert panels with PBS, but the conversation was directed toward Swans research. This brings me to the next missing item.
* Scientific conclusions are drawn from all the research, not just one or two studies. There are good reasons for this when a p-value of less than .05 make a study valid, theres as much as one in twenty possibility that a study is measuring something that just happened to be an anomaly. There has to be a mechanism, and reproducible, consistent results pointing in one direction before it is accepted as a scientific conclusion. That is exactly the point of an expert panel to weigh the evidence from many different studies, not just one. There have been hundreds of studies on phthalates, and some have come to different conclusions than Dr. Swans study. For example, while PBS pointed to possible fertility problems based on Swans study (which didnt assess fertility) and based on consistent rat research (at much higher doses), a 2004 study found that premature baby boys who were exposed to extremely high levels of phthalates due to medical tubing had no decrease in fertility at all when they hit puberty. These levels were thousands of times higher than typical exposure rates. This research, like Swans, is just one study. The evidence has to come together to make a coherent picture. In the interview I discussed the importance of looking at the evidence as a whole rather than one article on the topic (and mentioned the study on premature babies as means of illustrating the point), but instead I was only asked to express my opinion about Swans work. No other research was mentioned in the PBS show.
* Swans results are not wholly convincing. Swan correlated a total phthalate score with decreased anogenital index, (AGI) which, in rats and at much higher levels, is a precursor for reduced fertility and genital problems in offspring. However, the human analog to the rat AGI is anoscrotal index and Swan did not find a correlation there (she did check it). In addition, four of the phthalates including DEHP which is the typical culprit found in toys were not correlated with decreased AGI. Much of what Dr. Swan saw was trends rather than a slam dunk proof. In the NOW interview, I discussed the lack of finding with the anoscrotal index and the how the AGI has not been established to be biologically relevant, but the only part that aired was when I said that Swan did find something. I stand by that fact I think human studies are extremely important and her work suggests that there could be a problem with human exposure that has, until now, gone unmeasured. But there are some important questions about the validity of her work, which, in the least, suggests a modicum of caution in reporting and concluding that phthalates are unsafe.
* The European Unions ban on the use of phthalates in toys was implemented against the advice of its own scientific advisory committee. In a report by the EU's Scientific Commission, DINP and DIDP were determined not to pose any risk to humans and children under normal use. PBS neglected to tell those watching the program that the decision by the EU to ban toys was political in nature. European scientists did not come to a different conclusion than American scientists (nor were their decisions based on American research demonstrating risk, as suggested by Mark Shapiro). When I was quoted as saying we teach our children not to jump off a bridge if their friends do, it followed an un-aired disussion of how the Europen Commission found that phthalates in toys did not pose a risk. I was referring to the difference between banning these substances because the EU does, versus banning these substances because the science says its the right thing to do.
* Banning phthalates in toys will have little effect on childrens development. Most of our phthalate exposure comes from food and air phthalates are not in bottle nipples or pacifiers, which are the main plastics that babies suck on. Most of the exposure that children are getting from phthalates are from medical treatment if they need it (such as intravenous tubing), our food, and the dust we breathe. I mentioned this to the producers who said that they planned to ask Dr. Swan about this issue apparently, if she made the same point, it went un-aired.
* STATS has no funding or formal relationship with the Phthalates Esters Panel. Perhaps this was an attempt to discredit our research, but NOW mentioned that my research appears on the Phthalates Esters Panel website. Anyone at all can quote our work, or link to our work at STATS, including PEP and PBS. All research at STATS is funded by foundational money, not industry interest groups. We have no particular interest in defending the plastics industry, I was not asked to write for PEP, and my research is not posted on the PEP site; it is simply linked there from our own site, www.stats.org.
The overall feeling I got from watching PBSs NOW program is that either the PBS producers were dishonest in their intentions (and never actually wanted to hear more than one side of the science behind phthalates) or they are incapable of understanding what a scientific argument is about. To go from a discussion of the scientific nature of a controversial chemical to a one-sided presentation by a single scientist on the issue is a major misstep in the important work of providing the public with a view of whats really going on. PBS has contributed to continuing fear-mongering on this issue, without providing their viewers with even an opening to look at the issue critically.
Dr. Rebecca Goldin is Director of Research for STATS. She is Associate Professor of Mathematical Sciences at George Mason University, and a member of the Science Policy Committee of the American Mathematical Society. She holds degrees from Harvard and MIT, and last year she was the first recipient of the Ruth I Michler Memorial Prize, which honors outstanding young women in the field of mathematics. Dr. Goldin has advised numerous news organizations on statistical analysis. Her work for STATS is partially supported by the National Science Foundation Grant 0606869. (Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.)
Editors note. Mark Shapiro, whose book 'Exposed: The Toxic Chemistry of Everyday Products' formed the basis of the NOW program wrote an entry on the Huffington Post repeating many of these errors and adding some new ones. Trevor Butterworth, who also contributes to the Huffington Post, wrote a response to these errors.
I choose dishonest AND stupid, but that’s just me.
"I love PBS, and have always felt that its a great source for independent and in-depth reporting."
What ?!? Where’s Merril Streep...the noted expert on the pesticide ALAR. She should have been consulted on this program and her opinions given considerable weight /sarc.
Ms.Goldin is a lib, and a big one. Her first statement belies her statistics by far. Anyone who listens to, reads or watches those who work for PBS knows these are liberals, first, last and always. I ask myself...my money goes into it, why then don’t I have my conservative say?? Fat chance! A lot of the same reasons going into this, is like having a say when you belong to a UNION that uses political money (your dues) for liberal candidates!
I’m conservative and greatly appreciate PBS as well. When I watch shows like NOW, my BS meter is turned all the way up. And it beeps one helluva a lot. You can be sure of that.
Yet she will believe everything else she sees on the network. Years ago the advice in considering what encyclopedia to purchase (which was a major purchase back then) was to examine a subject in the work about which you know a great deal. If it is covered properly, you can probably largely trust the whole set. If it was poorly covered, you should avoid buying any of it. I think the same thing rings true for most of “public” media.
“Im conservative and greatly appreciate PBS as well.”
where you in congress the last 6 yrs of Bush’s term? seems like alot of so called “conservative PBS lovers” in congress kept the GOP from blocking federal funding of PBS(( so many ran on the promise of stopping funding for this liberal outlet) when they had control of congress and whitehouse.
The GOP did nothing much in those 6yrs but grow government and it’s debt and aided in loss of free speech and property rights.
1,6 - diethlyhexyl phthalate ester (DEPH) is a “plastisizer” chemical used to soften plastic such as in I.V. bags, tubing, bottled water, etc. Almost all plastics that are not hard have varying amounts of DEPH. Also, some studies have suggested that DEPH is connected to hepatic cancer, but they have not been generally (scientifically) confirmed.
Try reading this w/o laughing/barfing:
I choose that PBS is dishonest and arrogant.
The usual liberal character attributes.
I almost always find that whenever MSM reports on some subject of which I have personal or professional expertise, MSM get the story disastrously wrong.
What, then, should I think of MSM reporting on topics of which I don not have personal or professional expertise?
One interesting feature of NOW is the geriatric character of their concerns. These people do not (can not?) find anything to discuss or any perspective from which to discuss anything that did not come from their distant youth as idealistic journalists. If you watch the show (not recommended) you will find every topic of importance from the 1970’s revisited with no insight from the intervening years. NOW is simply a collection of old men sitting around in their club chairs. They ought to have cigars and port.
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