The Alkaline Paper Advocate

Volume 3, Number 6
Dec 1990


"Big Fears... Little Risks - A Report on Chemicals in the Environment" (Videotape) 30 min. 1990. Presented by the American Council on Science and Health (ACSH), narrated by Walter Cronkite. [For ordering information, see P. 35 in the August 1990 issue of this Newsletter.]

by Ellen McCrady

I keep hoping to find the makings of a dialog on the issue of dioxins and related environmental issues--some kind of c cation between the concerned public on the one hand and credible, reliable sources of information on the other. So far I have been disappointed. But I keep hoping. This video promised, by its title, to address the anxieties of the public in a responsible way, and I watched it through twice with the purpose of evaluating its credibility and effectiveness. In my judgment, it rated only a "B." Perhaps it could have done better if it had been longer, but I had the feeling it was not as persuasive as it might have been because it did not take its audience seriously enough. Let me offer some examples.

It describes the growing ease with which small amounts of chemicals can be detected, and gives analogies (e.g., one part per billion is like 16" between here and the moon) to illustrate how small these amounts are. It became possible to measure amounts as small as one ppm in 1950, one ppb in 1965, one ppt in 1975, and one part per quadrillion in 1990. We are supposed to believe Walter Cronkite when he says that chemicals present only in very small amounts couldn't possible hurt us; but when we turn on the evening news, we may hear Walter Cronkite's successors telling us about the incredibly small amount of nerve gas it takes to kill a person instantly. Which are we to believe?

The ACSH throws away some of its credibility and shows lack of respect for the viewer by making use of unnecessary exaggeration and sweeping generalizations:

"To achieve absolute zero [contamination by trace elements] we would have to destroy all the matter in the universe."

"You'd have to breathe all the air of Los Angeles to get the pollution in one pack of filter-tip cigarettes."

"Environmental organizations make a living convincing reporters that's a big thing [i.e., cancer from trace elements]."

This approach is wrong. If you are serious about changing somebody's mind, and not simply proving them wrong, you have to put yourself in their shoes. You look at the evidence available to them, find out why they and their friends and family feel the way they do, and work through existing information pathways. There are books written about this. A summary of the research on what it takes to get people to accept new knowledge is in a book now unfortunately out of print: Putting Knowledge to Use: A Distillation of the Literature Regarding Knowledge Transfer and Change, by the Human Interaction Research institute and the National Institute of Mental Health (1976).

I have to give the ACSH credit for pointing out the continuing effect of older beliefs about cancer testing and causes of cancer, which once reflected scientific consensus. Toxicologists used to have no alternative to expensive and time-consuming animal tests, but since the early 1970s they have also had the fast, cheap and humane Ames test, which measures carcinogenicity of a substance by how many mutations it produces in bacteria. Labs are using it all over the world and accumulating data rapidly on a large number of substances. They have found that 58% of all substances tested are carcinogenic or mutagenic. This raises the question, Why are there so many of us still alive today? The answer given is that the human has defenses that can take care of these natural poisons, that have been doing this all along. "Dr. Ames," says Walter Cronkite, "has concluded that trace levels of natural and man-made chemicals are not causing any cancer or other health problem." This too is a rather sweeping statement. If Dr. Ames retains the right to define "trace levels," then of course it is true; but if he is actually trying to tell us something about the external world that we ought to know, what does he have to say about the documented cases of children who are now mentally retarded simply because when they were little they crawled around on the floor in a house that had once been painted with lead paint, but was redecorated before they moved in? What about all these other effects of trace levels of toxins we have been hearing about from credible sources? If there is to be a dialog, each of these effects has to be discussed. Otherwise nobody's mind will be changed--or not enough people's minds to make a difference.

Returning to the topic of older beliefs and animal tests: The ACSH makes the point that animal tests do not carry the weight they once did with scientists, because so many cases have been found in which they did not give the same results as human studies. (This does not mean that they are not useful; it just means that some of them have to be confirmed by other means, and that we should not accept uncritically the results of animal tests.) The results of animal tests with dioxin are ambiguous because some animals are affected by it and others are not. Man is apparently an animal that is not seriously affected by it, even in very large doses.

Another older belief mentioned in the video is that most cancer is caused by industrial pollution. Now we have reason to believe that much of it (the video says "most of it") is caused by factors under the control of the victim: diet, tobacco, drugs, alcohol, cultural or sexual habits, and exposure to sunlight. Before the 1950s, cancer was blamed on viruses. Well, those older beliefs may be overlaid by more up-to-date ones, but will never be entirely replaced by then, in my opinion, because they require a new world outlook - People would have to see themselves as captains of their own fate, instead of victims of industry, government and technological progress. Actually, there is evidence that both views are correct to some extent.

Dr. Ames himself sums up the arguments made by different speakers interviewed, and tells viewers at the end that life expectancy keeps going up, so people should quit worrying. But they are not worrying because they are thinking of life expectancy figures; they are worried about the radon in their basements, PCBs in their hamburger and the as-yet-undiscovered toxins that they will hear about on the radio or TV next year.

A factor in uncritical absolute environmentalism not mentioned explicitly in the video is what mathematician John Allen Paulos calls "innumeracy," or a profound inability to deal conceptually with proportion, size, probability or anything that is usually measured in numbers. Innumeracy, which corresponds to illiteracy, would certainly prevent a person from understanding the relative importance of parts per million and parts per billion, and would tend to encourage a kind of rigidity in thinking, the kind that gives rise to taboos and compulsive codes of belief if given time. Paulos says innumeracy is due to the neglect of instruction in mathematics in this country.

The reasons all these beliefs and attitudes among uncritical Environmentalists are troublesome, though, is not that they are wrong, but that we live in a democracy, and the beliefs of the populace influence the government by means of the vote, pressure groups, lawsuits and the media. When those beliefs are uninformed and there is no organized opposition, what usually happens is that things will finally go too far, causing people to take a second look at what they are doing. The opposition then finds its voice, a reaction sets in, and if we are lucky, a balanced outlook is eventually reached. Perhaps this video represents the first part of the second stage, in which the opposition starts to find its voice.

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Timestamp: Sunday, 03-Mar-2013 21:41:42 PST
Retrieved: Saturday, 18-Nov-2017 12:04:27 GMT