Thursday, July 2, 2009

New York Times' Gina Kolata fails to do her homework

A couple of days ago, Times science writer Gina Kolata, who was filling in for John Tierney on his blog TiernyLab, linked to a report by the organization STATS which argues that the chemical bisphenol-A, or BPA, which is used to make plastic bottles and other products, is not as harmful to health as numerous scientific studies have found. Kolata described STATS as "a nonpartisan, nonprofit group," which indeed is how the organization describes itself on its Website.

Far from it. STATS is affiliated with George Mason University in Virginia, and its president is S. Robert Lichter, a professor at George Mason and also president of the university's Center for Media and Public Affairs, which also describes itself as "nonpartisan." The Center has long been supported by funds from numerous right-wing donors, particularly the Scaife Foundation and the Olin Foundation. Some of the background to this is provided in the Center's Wikipedia entry, which is a good place to get started, as well as Sourcewatch's profile of the organization; other background was provided by Michael Massing in a 2005 article in the New York Review of Books and a letter exchange with Lichter, who had written to criticize Massing's characterization of CMPA. As Massing put it in that exchange:

In my article, I described how the Center for Media and Public Affairs was set up with conservative foundation money in the mid-1980s as part of a growing effort by the right to portray the American press as liberal and out of touch with mainstream America. In a phone conversation, Robert Lichter acknowledged to me that the center's funding in its initial years came almost entirely from conservative sources, with Olin and Smith Richardson in the lead. Beginning in 1991, the center became a regular beneficiary of two foundations controlled by the very conservative Scaife family. According to, CMPA since 1986 has received $1,172,000 from Scaife, $730,000 from Olin, and $417,000 from Smith Richardson. The other institutions Lichter cites became supporters much later, and their contributions have been dwarfed by those from these highly conservative groups. It's also worth noting that, at the time Lichter was setting up CMPA, he was a fellow at the conservative American Enterprise Institute.

Furthermore, a survey of the articles that Lichter wrote in the period under discussion shows that they were overwhelmingly—indeed, almost exclusively—conservative in orientation. In contributions to The Wall Street Journal's editorial pages, for instance, Lichter condemned the press for writing too negatively about nuclear energy, too favorably about Anita Hill (a reflection of "the growing influence of feminists at major media outlets"), too critically about Dan Quayle, and too much about the homeless (a "blueprint of advocacy journalism".)

(Back in the early 1990s, the media watchdog group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting--full disclosure, it has a left bias--published its own analysis of Richter's criticisms of PBS for being too liberal.)

The STATS report on BPA begins with the disclaimer that "Neither nor the author [of the report, Trevor Butterworth, editor of and a senior fellow at the organization] received any payment from any industry or other source associated with the manufacture, use, or distribution of bisphenol a." But that statement is an obfuscation, because both Butterworth and Lichter have taken a strong advocacy position against BPA's critics.

Kolata could have found all this out for herself in a matter of minutes, and she owed it to her readers to do so. Indeed, any time an organization calls itself "nonprofit and nonpartisan," as so many chemical industry and other corporate groups do--often hiding behind names that obscure the organization's true motives and identity--the first instinct of a journalist should be to ask whether or not that is really true.

I personally have no strong views on whether BPA is dangerous or not, because I have not studied the matter. But I do know that given the source of the STATS report, I should read it skeptically. It's just too bad that I had to figure that out on my own.

Followup. Please see the comments section below for an exchange with Trevor Butterworth about this blog post. Criticisms of Gina Kolata's sometimes problematic science journalism have a very long history. For more details, please see this entry at SourceWatch.

More on missing the Madoff machinations. If you get a chance to read today's story in the Washington Post about SEC lawyer Genevievette Walker-Lightfoot, who was suspicious of Madoff back in 2004 but told to investigate something else, be sure to get as far as this part:

Walker-Lightfoot's supervisors on the case were Mark Donohue, then a branch chief in her department, and his boss, Eric Swanson, an assistant director of the department, said two people familiar with the investigation. Swanson later married Madoff's niece, and their relationship is now under review by the agency's inspector general, who is examining the SEC's handling of the Madoff case.

And also to this part:

At least five times over nearly 20 years, the SEC has investigated Madoff's business, but it never discovered the tremendous fraud. In 2007, for instance, the agency reviewed his activities after warnings from a one-time rival, Harry Markopolos, that Madoff was probably running a Ponzi scheme.

Actually Markopolos was warning the SEC about Madoff long before 2007, as those who have followed the case closely know (I know it and I am not following it all that closely.)

Israeli war crimes. Amnesty International is the latest human rights group to weigh in with an investigation into Israel's actions in Gaza. The report also condemns Hamas for firing rockets into Israel and killing civilians.


Trevor said...

If you bothered to read the article, instead of rushing to an ad-hominem attack on our motives, you might have discovered that the article on BPA is reported - and the critics of the anti-BPA stance are, in fact, world leading toxicologists, principally, the lead author of the European Union's risk assessment, and the lead author of NSF International's risk assessment. If you had also bothered to read the actual material on our site, you might also have realized that our evaluation of the science on BPA is also driven by a survey of toxicologists (with academic toxicologists being slightly oversampled relative to industry toxicologists), the results of which further underscore why this issue has been distorted by the media and activists. You might have also noted via Sourcewatch that we have taken on the right and the left wherever the data and the science have been unequivocally against their respective ideologies (teenage wilderness programs, for instance being dear to many Republicans). So I think it's you who needs to do their homework, not a world-class science reporter like Kolata.

Michael Balter said...

The purpose of my blog post, as I made very clear, was to criticize Gina Kolata for her failure to point out the well-known ideological biases and histories of the producers of the report; rather, Kolata simply transmitted STATS' own misleading characterization of itself to the reader. My purpose was not to evaluate the worthiness of the report itself, as I also made clear.

Claudia said...

Michael - Good call. I actually downloaded this tendentious polemic masquerading as a "report" in an effort to find out who this Trevor person is, since he fails to provide any affiliation with a science institute or statistics department...

It's clear from the hyperbolic mischaracterization of the writer's opponents, the public, and journalism in the first pages that this is NOT a scientific report, but a political tract. The use of science and statistics (if there ever is any; I was too turned off by the right-wing ranting to read further) is simply at best, post hoc support, and at worst, an attack on science itself.

That the essay in nonscientific, and directed at audiences similarly unaware of or uninterested in the essentials of scientific method is clear from uncritical use of pro-BPA quotes like "Reliable studies have concluded that baby bottles containing bisphenol-A are innocuous” (p.2). Anyone who was paying attention in science class (or logic) knows that scientific studies cannot prove anything innocuous - they can merely fail to prove harmfulness.

Briefly skimming it, this looks simply to be a long piece of journalism criticizing other journalism. It reads like the right-wing science nerd's version of Rush Limbaugh: the "media raged," whipping the public into "unremitting panic," and there's no sign that this attack on journalist's for being unscientific intends to be any less unscientific, or whip up any less "rage."

Ironic that the essay is itself journalistic in style, lacking the features of scientific or standard scholar presentation such as tabular summation of data, objective consideration of alternative hypotheses, citations for even major claims, or avoidance of emotionalism and polarizing rhetoric. I do appreciate good analysis of media discourse, but this lacks the hard statistics that good discourse analysis also requires, substituting instead cherry-picked quotes and sarcastic commentary. Lots of effort here, but it's not scholarly work, just one journo nit-picking other journos for not doing peer-reviewed science instead.

Ah, the journalism wars! Which brings me back to your main point, Kolata's uncritical citation of this "report." I agree - even a cursory glance at the first few pages should have sent her suspicions of this group's claims into overdrive.

From a science studies POV, the salient features of this controversy, IMO, are its use by anti-modern extremists in both left and right wing groups as more fodder in their attack on science, and use by some scientists for status- (funding, promotion, etc.) seeking attacks on other scientists. I'm not against BPA because it's proven harmful - or "proven" not harmful. I'm against the proliferation of plastic bottles because they're an unnecessary expense to both humans and the environment. I'm against both journalists and polarizing activists such as Trevor using BPA or any other environmental science as an instrument of self-aggrandizement, political polarization, and continued evasion of environmental and social crises.

Good call, Michael. Science is hard to report in a journalistic format, what with needing to get it in print, in short articles, written accessibly. It's easy to nitpick almost all of it for failing to reach perfection under these constraints. When science is subordinated to politics - including by scientists themselves - mistakes and misreporting are a given.

C. Pine

Anne Gilbert said...

I think the New York Times or someone,came out fairly recently with cautions about using plastic bottles and things like sippy cups, for small children, just because there are questions about its safety w/regard to young children. This is hardly "anti-science" or "anti-modern",and, I think, under the circumstances, fair enough. You want to give your child or children, the best start in life that you can. I know I certainly felt that way about my daughter when she was young. At the same time, I'm quite well aware of the "fanatics" on either side of issues like the use of BPA, and,for the record, I'm more or less "agnostic" about some of this. Similar fights are going on over the use of genetically modified plants and other organisms. And I'm "agnostic" about that, too.
Anne G
Anne G

jqb said...

"If you bothered to read the article, instead of rushing to an ad-hominem attack on our motives"

First, the claim that MB didn't read your article is an ad hominem attack that, regardless of whether it is true, has no bearing on the content of his article. Second, his factual, documented statement that you and Lichter have taken a strong advocacy position against BPA's critics is in no way an ad hominem attack, as it is directed at Kolata's characterization of your interests, not at the validity of your claims.

"So I think it's you who needs to do their homework, not a world-class science reporter like Kolata."

Ad hominem, false dichotomy, red herring. And FWIW, MB is himself a world-class science reporter -- or didn't you do your homework?

jqb said...

"Anyone who was paying attention in science class (or logic) knows that scientific studies cannot prove anything innocuous - they can merely fail to prove harmfulness."

To be fair, the statement you quoted wasn't about proof, it was about a conclusion -- scientific conclusions that something is innocuous are common and not at all a violation of logic. Of course, like all scientific conclusions, they are necessarily tentative and can be reversed given additional evidence.

P.S. When it comes to "tendentious polemic", a phrase about a mote and a beam comes to my mind.