By Ken Root
I recently conducted a study to study studies. It is based on my biased opinion of others’ biased opinions. This study proves, to me, that my perception of their perception is accurate while disputing their assumption of facts that I perceive to be wrong. I further investigated the likelihood that studies are conducted as a means to arrive at conclusions that are in line with the views and economic goals of those conducting the studies.
The basis for this carefully constructed double talk is the number of studies that are being launched by opposite sides of the marketplace or economic and environmental viewpoints. The credibility of scientific investigations was once quite high, but when government research revealed cancer causing effects of a pesticides it led to extreme consumer reaction against food “adulteration.” Each of these studies was followed by another study that showed either the opposite effect or the ridiculousness of assumptions made in the original study.
“Spin me to the left. Spin me to the right. It’s all as clear as the middle of the night.” There has to be a country music song in there somewhere!
How did all this get started? I trace it back to the cranberry scare of 1959. There was a research study released showing that the pesticide aminotriazole, when fed to rats at a concentration of 100 parts per million, caused some of them to develop thyroid cancer. It scared consumers so much that cranberries were removed from many Thanksgiving tables that year. Although the dose was the equivalent of a human ingesting 15,000 pounds of cranberries every day for a number of years, the Food and Drug Administration restricted the use of aminotriazole. The cranberry industry was sharply impacted by the economic loss. This instance showed that a report could sway public opinion and cause government action by utilizing public relations in the name of science. The FDA fell back and defended the damage by claiming that the Delaney clause, which had been passed as an amendment to the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act in 1958, had tied the agency’s hands. It was the Delaney clause that first codified the “mouse-as-little-man” principle: the premise that any substance added to food that causes cancer in rodents at extraordinarily high doses will also cause cancer in humans at more moderate doses.
Then, in 1989, CBS News’ “60 minutes” broadcast a segment titled “Intolerable Risk: Pesticides in Our Children’s Food,” largely based on a report by the Natural Resources Defense Council. It told an audience of some 40 million that Alar, used on apples, was a dangerous carcinogen. The panic was again a nightmare for the agricultural and food industries. According to an EPA employee who was taking calls after the story was shown, a shaky-voiced woman asked if her apple juice could be poured down the drain or should it be taken to a hazardous waste dump.
I was working at American Cyanamid the year before the story broke and heard the rumblings about consumer fears of pesticides. I proposed doing a video report for top management on political views and consumer issues in California. I titled it “A crisis of confidence.” In a news-based documentary, we made stops at grocery stores, farms and the state legislature in Sacramento. The 17-minute video revealed that there was a sharp divide in political viewpoints on pesticide use with consumers distrusting the safety of commercial pesticides. We showed banners in the stores that said “No Alar on our Apples” but, when viewing the report, the pesticide industry was critical of my assessment and did not connect the dots until “60 Minutes” and the NRDC hammered them the following February. (I am always the hero of stories from more than 20 years ago.)
We are in a time when moving the needle of public opinion can only be accomplished by extreme measures. Public relations professionals, charged with the task of bolstering their clients or employers, realize that criticism often works better than advocacy. Consumer and industry organizations have developed strategies to advance their position and break down the opposing view. Contractors play into this model by providing studies and reports favorable to a specific position. I believe in the integrity of independent research, but I’ve seen evidence of researchers and institutions skewing their work toward endorsement of an industry position for the sole purpose of obtaining funding from that industry.
After working within businesses, I can say that often consultants are brought in to make legitimate observations that can’t be done inside the company. Those reports, submitted only to executives and held in confidence, show both strengths and weaknesses of a product or a process; however, only the positive side is publicized. In situations where there are dueling parties on a hot issue, reports are commissioned that may initially be balanced in their findings, but the organization only chooses to release information critical of their competitor. We are currently seeing this played out in the war between biofuels and the oil industry.
I am personally tired of getting public relations documents disguised as scientific reports that devote the bulk of their words toward criticizing another industry or point of view. It shows me that credibility with the public has been lost and that negative publicity is the only avenue to gain their objective.
This concludes my study of these studies and I submit the executive summary, as follows:
“Believe none of what you hear and only half of what you see.”—Benjamin Franklin
Editor’s note: Ken Root has been an agricultural reporter for 39 years. Root now does daily radio and television programming and is a columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or send mail for him to High Plains Journal.