Environmental Cancer: A Political Disease

Americans Have Been Dumbed Down with Environmental Falsehoods

Environmental Cancer: A Political Disease, by S. Robert Lichter and Stanley Rothman, is a studied attempt to prove that the phrase “environmental cancer” has been used insincerely by activists, politicians, and the media in an attempt to further public-policy agendas that often undermine individual freedoms. Lichter (president of the Center for Media and Public Affairs) and Rothman (director of the Center for the Study of Social and Political Change at Smith College) have created a tightly written, highly readable examination of the controversy surrounding environmental cancer and the great abyss between the realities of hard science and the cancer “crisis-of-the-week” reports from assorted activist groups and journalists.

The authors begin with an environmental history lesson and proceed to explain the biological and medical understanding of cancer. Second, they address the relative importance of various environmental causes of cancer and examine some of the scientific and political controversies. Third, they review the uses and abuses in the analysis of environmental cancer data. Finally, they describe the “issue network” of interest groups, politicians, journalists, lawyers, and others involved in environmental regulation. It is a thoroughly valuable effort.

Of particular merit in the attempt to separate fact from fiction are the surveys of cancer researchers and environmental activists. The authors identify the sharp differences between the two groups’ views and compare them to the content of media accounts over two decades. That comparison shows that the media frequently cite the views of environmental activists as if they were the views of the scientific community.

The skewing of scientific data is accomplished not just by the choice of stories to report, but also a reporter’s selection of “experts” to quote. Two “experts” frequently cited are Sidney Wolfe of Public Citizen and Samuel Epstein of the University of Chicago. Both claim that just about everything in the environment causes cancer and that private enterprise is usually responsible. Yet three of four cancer researchers surveyed express little confidence in the work of Wolfe and Epstein.

We also learn scientists are not happy that their scientific findings are distorted and misreported to the public. Using an example of three natural carcinogens—tobacco, sunlight, and radon—half of the scientists surveyed believe the media’s presentation of cancer’s causes and risks is unfair and inaccurate.

In addition, the studies reveal serious differences attributed to the news media: 72 percent of the scientists surveyed found the New England Journal of Medicine highly reliable, while less than a fourth found the New York Times trustworthy. Since the general public does not read the Journal it is fair to say many Americans have been dumbed down with environmental falsehoods, and the authors conclude that misplaced fears about the risks of environmental cancer have seriously distorted public policy.

“Environmental cancer,” the authors write, “is ambiguous, conveying quite different meanings to cancer researchers and lay audiences. This confusion about definitions provides a partial explanation for the sometimes exaggerated charges made against consumer goods, industrial products, pesticides and herbicides, food additives and preservatives, and air and water pollutants, among other things.”

The scaremongers have done great damage—the Alar campaign is a case in point—but Lichter and Rothman conclude on a modestly positive note: “practicing scientists have begun to take a more active role in publicly assessing risks from various activities and substances. In some respects segments of the public are gradually taking a more realistic view of environmentally triggered cancer.”

That optimism, however, is tempered by the fact that most Americans are scientifically ignorant. Reflecting on a 1996 National Science Foundation study, the authors write, “only 9 percent of adult Americans know what a molecule is, and only 5 percent can give an explanation of acid rain. More startlingly, less than half know that the earth orbits the sun annually. It is little wonder that the struggle against the bending of science to serve ideal or material interests never ends.”


Conrad F. Meier is health policy adviser for the Heartland Institute in Chicago and assistant in research at the Center for Advanced Social Research, University of Missouri-Columbia.

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