Tackling chemophobia

The need to face facts, and not pander to prejudice.

Todd Seavey

Topics Politics

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Nobody thinks routine daily exposure to synthetic chemicals causes cancer in humans.

Or rather, few who are experts in epidemiology, cancer etiology, or toxicology think so. But you wouldn’t know that from the political and media debates on the topic, which often make it sound as if there’s a greater than 50 percent chance that chemicals are responsible for an epidemic of cancer and other mysterious diseases.

The evidence – as found in legitimate, peer-reviewed science journals, not the screeds of the environmental movement – suggests that:

(a) the synthetic chemicals found in our environment are in minuscule, harmless amounts;

(b) natural chemicals are no safer than manmade ones, despite the aura of purity around all things ‘natural’ and ‘organic’;

(c) even when massive amounts of some chemicals induce negative health-effects in laboratory rats, it’s not clear that this should be interpreted as a warning sign for humans in their everyday lives, who are exposed to far smaller amounts; and

(d) once you adjust the numbers for population ageing and for smoking, it is questionable whether there has been any increase in cancer rates anyway.

In purely scientific circles, or if it were judged by purely scientific standards, the anti-chemical movement could not even continue to exist.

So what explains the gap between the real scientific consensus and the consensus of fear that dominates public opinion and – even more so – the opinions of political and media elites?

The dynamics of media ‘objectivity’

I worked for the news division of one of the USA’s largest TV networks for six years. Even when TV news producers make a sincere effort to be balanced and objective (which is by no means all the time), I noticed that they tend to treat any two opposed factions as moral and intellectual equals. This has helped the anti-chemical groups to put themselves on apparently equal footing with real scientists. When activists such as the Environmental Working Group release a statement about some purported new threat, reporters often treat the issuers of the alarm with the same level of respect as the federal agency Centers for Disease Control or the World Health Organisation. To reporters, they’re all just important-sounding organisations with potentially interesting things to say on camera.

The activists are happy to exploit this unnaturally level playing field and, quite often, are more adept than the scientists at crafting an alarming soundbite or making a dramatic argument. And anti-chemical groups also gain from the deep resentment of modernity that is loose in the world – it sometimes requires only a thin veneer of intellectual respectability to tap into that resentment.

The invisible omnipresence of ‘unnatural’ chemicals makes these substances effective propaganda tools for activists eager to depict science as a metaphorical and literal poison in the world. Doomsday warnings make for great TV ratings, while dry science journal articles usually do not – and never will, whether we like it or not. I say this as a TV veteran who spends a large part of his time fighting the environmentalist tide, but knowing that for every sceptical, scientific show I worked on, there would be a dozen others crafted by the scaremongers and pandering to paranoia.

Aesthetics with facts

While I think facts must never bend to ideology, the media tactics and psychological warfare used by environmentalists must sometimes be fought, if not on the same terms, at least with broad philosophical arguments and basic principles instead of highly technical, piecemeal science-journal commentary. The greens deserve to be exposed for the image-conscious foes of modern civilisation that they are, and that may require shaking ourselves out of sleepy acceptance of the complex set of aesthetic signifiers that have been drummed into everyone’s subconscious: evil smokestacks, brave Greenpeacers in their dinghies, cold-blooded transnational corporations.

A culture that fully understood and appreciated how it has benefited from science and industry might develop a subtly different entertainment culture as well. This year’s crop of science fiction blockbusters brings new reminders that Mary Shelley’s anxiety about science is alive and well, in the radioactive mutants of the new X-Men and Incredible Hulk films and the homicidal machines of the new Terminator and Matrix films. You’d think that directors might feel a bit more embarrassed and hypocritical about using sophisticated technology to produce what are, in effect, anti-technology fables.

Most people, inevitably, read or watch the news – including political and scientific debates – as another form of entertainment. And no matter how seriously they take the subjects being discussed, most people will always be inclined to think like storytellers and story-listeners, not philosophers. They fall prey to the greens’ stories now – and news producers find green-dominated stories easy to craft – because such propaganda jibes so well with current aesthetic expectations.

Those expectations should be challenged. When people start seeing skyscrapers as achievements again instead of as wounds upon nature, when we see robots as more beautiful than hippies, when we once more see humans as the best nature has to offer rather than as the Great Destroyer, we may be ready to listen more carefully to environmental debates and ask sceptical questions of the scaremongers, instead of accepting the latest pronouncement of creeping chemical doom as if it were a familiar and trusted sermon.

You can’t please everyone

We need to confront the anti-technology attitudes that allow environmentalists to tap so effortlessly into timeless human fears: of things that are dirty, of things that are unnatural, of things that faceless conspiracies may wish to foist on the common man.

Instead of cowering when these threats are conjured, we would be wiser to fear anti-chemical propaganda and worry about how we are being deprived of vast benefits by excessive regulation, excessive lawsuits, and romantic agrarian activism that even in its most harmless and ineffectual forms wastes so much youthful energy.

The truth about chemicals is in the science journals to be read by anyone who really cares. The stories that popular culture tells about chemicals are another matter, and it’s time those stories were rewritten.

Todd Seavey edits, webzine of the American Council on Science and Health, and is speaking at the spiked-conference Panic attack: Interrogating our obsession with risk, on Friday 9 May 2003, at the Royal Institution in London.

Read on:

Household products – toxic shocks?, by Bill Durodié

Gender-bending chemicals: facts and fiction, by Bill Durodié

Let us spray, by Roger Bate and Richard Tren

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Topics Politics


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