]]]]]]]]]]]]]]]       WHO SPEAKS FOR SCIENCE?       [[[[[[[[[[[[[[[[[[ 
                         by Dixy Lee Ray                     (8/31/88)

   Published by IMPRIMIS (Hillsdale College, Hillsdale, MI 49242),
                         August 1988

[***Please note!!!  This file has 371 lines - 17 screenfuls.]

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Governor of Washington from 1977-81, Dixy Lee Ray is
the former chairwoman of the Atomic Energy Commission, assistant 
secretary of state in the U.S. Bureau of Oceans, and director of the 
Pacific Science Center in Seattle. From 1945-76, she also served on 
the Zoology faculty of the University of Washington. Recongnized by 
numerous scientific and civic organizations, she was also voted Woman 
of the Year by Ladies Home Journal in 1973, the same year she was 
awarded the United Nations Peace Medal. Four years later, Harper's 
named her among the top ten most influential women in the nation.
     Repeatedly, over the past few years, the American public has been 
subjected to a litany of catastrophe -- to predictions of impending 
disaster that are claimed to be unique to modern civilization. The 
oceans are dying, the atmosphere is poisoned, the earth itself is 
losing its capacity to support life. The reported "hole" in the ozone 
layer is the most recent scare. Cancer, generally blamed on man-made 
chemicals, is rampant -- so the doomsayers say. Warnings that in the 
past came from the pulpit and called for eternal punishment in the 
sulfurous fires of hell have been replaced by equally dire predictions 
that come from alarmist environmentalists who call for spending bil-
lions of dollars in order to avoid doom from the sulfurous effluents 
of industry. The anticipated catastrophes are our own fault, of 
course, blamed on the greedy and perfiduous nature of modern man.
     Well, it's all pretty heady stuff, but is it true? As with so 
many issues that involve technology, the answer is yes -- and no -- 
probably rather more "no" than "yes." What are our real environmental 
concerns? Cancer-causing chemicals? Radiation, including radon? Carbon 
dioxide, ozone, and the "greenhouse effect"?
     Let's take a brief but hard look at each of these examples. First:

                    CANCER-CAUSING CHEMICALS
     Recall that, with the exception of childhood leukemia (always 
tragic but relatively rare), cancer is a malady that afflicts 
predominantly older adults and the aged. For most cancers -- and there 
are many different kinds -- the causes are complex, interactive, and 
may include genetic factors. If we look at the fatality records, the 
facts show that the total of carcinogenic substances targeted by the 
Environmental Protection Agency, including chemicals in the workplace, 
in the environment, in food additives, and industrial products, cause 
fewer than 8 percent of all cancer deaths in America. The best scien-
tific evidence points to diet, viruses, sexual practices, alcohol, 
and, above all, tobacco as accounting for nearly all of the remaining 
92 percent. Yet the public, by constantly reported innuendo against 
industrial chemicals and radiation, is encouraged to believe other-
wise. Moreover, a proper look at cancer statistics shows that, aside 
from a sharp increase in lung cancer caused by cigarette smoking, 
there have been no significant increases in the rate at which people 
die from any of the common forms of cancer over the past 50 years. In 
fact, there have been significant decreases in some types of cancer, 
e.g. stomach cancer, during these decades of rapid industrialization 
and the introduction of new manmade chemicals.
     Most of the public believes that cancer is caused by toxic sub-
stances created by industry. Why? Because they listen to the wrong 
spokesmen. And national television has elevated sob-sister journalism 
to a new dramatic high, with emotional, heartrending stories about 
cases of childhood leukemia and other individual or family tragedies 
as if they were epidemic. These stories capture public attention and 
play on natural sympathy -- these reactions in turn affect the deci-
sions and budgets of government scientific agencies. In an internal 
memo the EPA admits, with remarkable candor, "Our priorities, [in 
regulating carcinogens] appear [to be] more closely aligned with pub-
lic opinion than with our estimated risks" -- and with scientific 

     The simple fact is, we live in a radioactive world -- always 
have, always will. Our bodies receive the impact of 15,000 radioactive 
particles every second; we don't feel them or suffer any ill effect 
from such bombardment. One of the difficult aspects of radiation pho-
bia is that our ability to measure radiation has become so accurate 
and precise that it is now possible to detect unbelievably small 
amounts, e.g. one part per billion. How much or rather how little is 
that? How can we visualize one part per billion? One way is by analogy 
-- one part per billion is equivalent to one drop of Vermouth in five 
railroad carloads of gin! (A very dry martini?) Or -- look at it 
another way -- there are now about five billion people living on this 
planet. Therefore, one family of five persons represents one part per 
billion of the entire human population.
     And what about one part per trillion? That would be one thousand 
times less. When radioactivity from the Chernobyl accident in the USSR 
in April 1986 reached the West coast of the United States, the popular 
press warned residents about the dangers of possible fallout, speaking 
of the number of picocuries of radioactivity detected in the high 
clouds, without ever explaining that one picocurie is one part per 
trillion and to receive from that "Chernobyl cloud" as much radioacti-
vity as a patient would get in a diagnostic test for thyroid problems, 
a person would have had to drink 63,000 gallons of the "radioactive" 
rainwater -- a formidable task!
     Remember, everything is radioactive -- our homes, buildings, 
everything we use. So is the forest primeval, our lakes, our streams, 
the ocean, and even our gardens. Because we have no human sense to 
detect radioactivity (no smell, sound, or sight reveals it), it has 
been like magnetism, gravity, or molecules; undetectable until instru-
ments were built that can measure it with incredible precision. Now we 
know that even the ground we walk on is radioactive. In the words of 
Walter Marshall, Lord Marshall of Goring:
     "In my own country, the United Kingdom, I like to point out that 
the average Englishman's garden occupies 1/10 of an acre. By digging 
down one metre, we can extract 6 kilograms of thorium, 2 kilograms of 
uranium, and 7,000 kilograms of potassium -- all of them radioactive 
waste, not man-made, but the residue left over when God created this 
     It is radioactive decay that keeps the earth's core molten and 
provides warmth from inside that makes planet Earth habitable. It is 
the heat of radioactive decay that provides the driving force for 
movement of the earth's surface plates, and keeps the continents 
slowly moving and in turn contributes to both earthquakes and volcanic 
eruptions. Information about the essential and beneficial aspects of 
radioactivity, particularly in medical life-saving procedures, never 
reaches the public. Only the alarmists are heard. The negative effects 
of their warnings are serious. And, on the other hand, radon has 
become a national health problem because of our well-meant but stupid 
insistence on sealing up our homes and buildings to conserve energy, 
without consideration of possible ill-effects. Fear of radioactivity 
rests squarely on ignorance.

     The current scare is about carbon dioxide buildup, and the 
"greenhouse" effect." It is true that the concentration of carbon 
dioxide in the atmosphere has been increasing. It is also true that 
the rate of carbon dioxide increase (and methane, hydrocarbons, sulfur 
oxides, nitrogen oxides, and a few other substances) is now approxi-
mately 1 percent per year. Since increases of carbon dioxide have also 
occurred in the geological past, without the help of human industry, 
it is unclear whether the burning of fossil fuel is the cause of the 
present increase, however much it may be adding to the current totals. 
Moreover, it is not known what the consequences, if any, of this 
increase may be or how long it may last. But this does not stop the 
doomsayers from hypothesizing radical climate transformations and 
other adverse effects in the future.
     It is prudent to recall that the climatic history of our planet 
is one of often quite dramatic change. There have been ice ages, and 
warm periods lasting 800 years. There have even been shifts in the 
earth's polarity. And we know that drastic changes in climate can 
affect all living creatures, including humans. What we do not know is 
what caused severe climatic changes in the geological past, but we can 
be sure they were not due to human industrial activity. Most likely, 
the causes were and still are colossal cosmic forces, quite outside 
human ability to control them. Now that we live in an industrial, 
technological society, there is no reason to believe that such cosmic 
forces have ceased to exist. Why must we always blame modern man?
     In these three areas of environmental concern (and in many 
others, including acid rain, the ozone layer, and pesticides), there 
is clearly a dichotomy between what is known and understood by the 
predominant body of scientific experts -- and what the public believes 
because of the information it gets. But what the public perceives to 
be true, even if it is wrong, has enormous consequences since it is 
public opinion that determines how public funds are spent.

                       EDUCATE THE PUBLIC
     The answer to this vexing problem of what the public believes is 
always the same: Educate the public. To which I respond with a simple 
question. How? It seems so reasonable to conclude that once people 
understand how good and safe and environmentally benign a technology 
is, they will accept, if not welcome it. It seems reasonable to expect 
the public to be grateful for techniques that can mean responsible 
cures for environmental problems. But clearly it doesn't work that way 
because calm reason and alarmist environmentalism do not co-exist.
     Also, how is the public going to know that the technology under 
consideration, like nuclear power, for example, is good and safe and 
environmentally benign? Will the public believe it on your say-so? Or 
on mine? -- assuming of course that we have some way to communicate 
directly with the public. Is the plant manager a credible source of 
assurance to the public? Or do you think that:
     * the generators of electricity are credible?
     * the nuclear industry is credible?
     * the chemical industry is credible?
     * the representatives of government agencies are credible?
     * research scientists and engineers are credible?
     The course of public events, especially in nuclear science and 
now increasingly in the chemical industry as well, has, over the past 
10-12 years, demonstrated that none of the groups just listed are 
trusted. The public is far more likely to believe the opponents of 
science and technology than to believe its supporters. If you are 
reluctant to accept that proposition, consider for a moment how you 
would fare on Sixty Minutes or 20/20 or Crossfire or on any of the 
many television and radio programs where controversial issues, even 
highly complex technical ones, are treated in an adversarial debate-
like format as if questions of scientific fact could be settled, not 
by evidence, but by argument. I have likened this way of informing the 
public in scientific matters to a hypothetical situation in which a 
television broadcast program on criminal justice features a "balanced" 
panel made up of three judges and three criminals. That, of course, is 
being fair -- presenting both sides. At least that is the way it works 
in science and technology. In such a format, the opposition always 
"wins" because whoever is against any technology has only to make a 
charge, however, preposterous; he doesn't have to prove it. The burden 
falls on the supporter of science to prove that the charge is ground-
less. It is a difficult situation, and it is one that we tend to 
handle badly.
     There was a time, in my long-ago youth, when experts were 
believed. It was a time when most people and most institutions were 
presumed to be well-meaning and honest until and unless proved to be 
otherwise. It was also a time of unprecedented increase in our know-
ledge about the world, of belief in ourselves, and in our ability 
through understanding and logic to provide adequate solutions to 
technical problems. It was a time of optimism and progress. It was a 
time of improvement in the conditions of living that made our society 
and our nation the envy of the world. It was a time when the use of 
knowledge was expected, when the myriad applications of science 
through technology made living on this earth easier and better, and 
gave us more time to enjoy it by increasing our life span beyond three 
quarters of a century. The funny thing is, it's still that kind of 
time...but it seems that hardly anyone enjoys it anymore. Too many 
people have exchanged confidence for despair, too many have come to 
fear technology and to hate and reject anything nuclear or chemical-
related. Despite all the evidence of our physical well-being beyond 
the dreams of all previous generations, we seem to have become a 
nation of easily frightened people, the healthiest hypochondriacs in 
the world!
     What has brought this condition about? What has made us lament 
rather than rejoice, so quick to believe the worst about ourselves and 
so reluctant to recognize the good? Well, among other possible expla-
nations, we have simply done a rotten job of teaching science. Oh, not 
to those students who will become scientists -- we're quite good at 
that -- but at the equally important job of teaching science to all 
those others, the overwhelming percentage of the student population 
who will not enter science or engineering as a profession; there we 
fail miserably.
     And so, we must ask further, if not from the schools and col-
leges, where do most people get their information about science and 
about important applications of technology in modern society? The 
answer is easy: mainly from television, and, to a lesser extent, from 
the print media and radio. Who decides the content of this informa-
tion? Not scientists, but reporters, news directors, and editors. It 
is said that Professor John Kemeny, chairman of the President's Enqui-
ry into the accident at Three Mile Island, commented after dealing 
with the press about his report:
     `I left Washington fully expecting to read the following story 
someday in one of our morning newspapers. "Three scientists named 
Galileo, Newton and Einstein have concluded that the earth is round. 
However, the New York Times has learned authoritatively the Professor 
John Doe of Podunk College has conclusive evidence that the earth is 
flat." '

     If we want people properly educated in science and therefore more 
competent to make rational decisions on technical matters that affect 
them, then we must learn more about the different worlds in which 
scientists and reporters live and work. We have to recognize that 
scientists, technologists, and engineers do not and cannot inform the 
public directly. The media informs the public. And in doing so, the 
media acts as an information filter. The bottom line is that science 
and the media must learn to work together for a common purpose, be-
cause there is simply no other mechanism that can provide the neces-
sary scientific information to society for social decision-making. So 
far, unfortunately, this rapport between science and the media shows 
no signs of developing. 
      Consider the differences in the ways of working, of motivation, 
and of rewards for scientists and for reporters. First, the scien-
tists. For them, the volume of work is far less important than its 
quality. Scientists work at their own pace. There is no intractable 
daily or weekly deadline. Scientists work within a well-recognized 
discipline which is only a small part of the scientific whole. A 
scientist's work is judged by his peers, and unless peer-approved, it 
won't be published. For a scientist, all funding and professional 
advancement is based on peer-reviewed work. For all of these reasons, 
therefore, scientists are very careful about making claims. Those who 
value their standing in their peer community will be cautious not to 
overstate, and feel compelled to provide context for what they say. 
This is often interpreted by the non-scientific community as uncer-
tainty, doubt, hedging, or even as evidence of disagreement among 
     In the media, however, a reporter's key to advancement is the 
volume of his work, maximizing minutes of air time or inches of print. 
Competition for time and space is fierce. For the reporter, deadlines 
are externally imposed, are short, and must be met. Narrow disciplines 
in journalism are non-existent; a reporter must cover them all. A 
reporter's work is judged not by his peers, but by an editor or news 
director and what attracts attention is of paramount importance. Good 
reporting is compact, without space for qualifications and context. On 
television, 60 seconds is the usual maximum for a story. Under such 
circumstances, reporters cannot read scientific papers. Most of their 
work is done on the telephone and they search out "experts" who will 
give them good one-liners.
     Remember that the media are self-appointed defenders of the pub-
lic faith, and most accept them in this role. Reporters inform the 
public about peril because this is what the public expects. The 
fastest way for a reporter to succeed, to become established and 
recognized, is to raise the specter of imminent peril and then take up 
the cudgels on behalf of society to deal with it.
     There could hardly be two more diverse professions and it is no 
wonder that misunderstanding and misrepresentation arise. The good 
scientist strives to be precise by qualifying his statements and stay-
ing within the context of a scientific discipline. This is usually 
done in a deliberated manner. The good reporter strives for a fast 
response, for a compact statement that is reasonably accurate. Above 
all, a good reporter makes his statement in a manner designed to make 
the greatest impact on the audience. Therefore, information flowing 
from the scientific environment to the media environment inevitably 
suffers alteration and filtration and this affects public perceptions. 
In this regard, there appear to be three main problems:
     1. An understandable, though unfortunate, emphasis on conflict 
between technology and social interest makes good press, but often 
unnecessarily heightens anxiety. The public will accept bad news, but 
it has been conditioned to reject good news as whitewash.
     2. The persistence of false, exaggerated, or misleading informa-
tion made believable by constant repetition. This leads to 
dissemination of what we call "factoids."
     Examples of factoids are:
     * PCBs cause cancer
     * any level of radiation is harmful
     * acid rain is caused by sulfur dioxide from burning coal
     There are dozens of such factoids, that is, beliefs that have no 
evidence to support them. Some come about from the mistaken assumption 
that if two phenomena occur together or follow one another, they must 
represent cause-and-effect. Some come from an initial distorted opi-
nion of a scientist desiring publicity for a cause or political posi-
tion or from a zealous reporter trying to make a name for himself.
     3. Since good scientists limit their remarks within disciplinary 
boundaries, and good reporters extrapolate into a broad or common 
context, the result is often misinterpretation. "I was misquoted" says 
the scientist -- and vows never to talk to a reporter again. Such a 
reaction is a mistake because it leaves the responsibility of communi-
cating with the media to those scientists who avoid peer review for 
their work, have a mission or "cause," or are charlatans or quacks. 
Science has its quota of the latter just as does every profession.
     It is up to good scientists to weed these phonies out, but we 
don't do it. Rather, we allow, by our silence, such renegade organiza-
tions as the Union of Concerned Scientists to present itself as the 
"voice of the scientific community." They back up the Helen Caldi-
cotts, Barry Commoners, Paul Ehrlichs, Amory Lovinses and other pre-
tenders. While the respected scientific community judges very strictly 
those at the top of their profession, they simply ignore the incompe-
tents and no-goods at the bottom. It is left to others of courage like 
the Hon. Patrick F. Kelly, of the U.S. District Court in Kansas, to 
say in November of 1984 what we should have been saying all along:
     This Court rejects the opinion testimony of Dr. Karl Morgan and 
Dr. John Gofman because they both evidence an intellectually dishonest 
invention of arguments to protect their opinion....This is not a situ-
ation where the scientific community is equally divided between two 
respected schools of thought. It is a case where there is a small but 
very vocal group of scientists including Dr. Morgan and Dr. Gofman, 
that holds views not considered credible by experts in the field...
     Dr. Ernest Sternglass, much quoted by the media on radiation 
matters, has never published his claims about the effect of low-level 
radiation in a peer-reviewed journal. In an article in Esquire 
magazine published in 1969, Dr. Sternglass predicted that all children 
in the United States would die as a result of fallout from nuclear 
tests. Twenty years have passed and unfortunately for his credibility 
but fortunately for children, he was, and is, wrong. But his opinions, 
long since dismissed by knowledgeable scientists in his field, are 
still actively sought and quoted by the popular press. Until respected 
scientists, perhaps through their professional societies or through 
the National Academy of Science, identify the purveyors of misrepre-
sentation, we have only ourselves to blame for fear, misunderstanding, 
and the rejection of technology.
     We should be very jealous of who speaks for science, particularly 
in our age of rapidly expanding technology. A misinformed or unin-
formed public can stop anything even when it is clearly in society's 
benefit. How can the public be educated? I do not know the specifics, 
but of this I am certain: The public will remain uninformed and unedu-
cated in science until the media professionals decide otherwise, until 
they stop quoting charlatans and quacks, and until respected scien-
tists speak up.

Return to the ground floor of this tower
Return to the Main Courtyard
Return to Fort Freedom's home page