03/1999 Junk Science Update

Published March 1, 1999

Junk scientists take to heart the sports adage, “Winners never quit and quitters never win.” As this column goes to print in late January, efforts are underway to resurrect two major junk science issues–silicone breast implants and endocrine disrupter synergy.

Breast Implants under Siege

Early February will see the publication of a new study in Environmental Health Perspectives reporting that cyclosiloxanes, chemical compounds found in silicone breast implants, caused fatal lung and liver damage in mice. There can be little doubt that plaintiff attorneys, aided by well-funded advocacy groups, will use the report to shake-down implant manufacturers for even more than the tentative $3.2 billion settlement reached at the end of 1998.

In addition to claiming the compounds were lethal to mice, the researchers also allege the compounds can migrate out of implants and become widely distributed in organ systems and persist for up to one year. There is good reason, however, to question those claims.

Studies on humans–as opposed to mice–have yet to find significant health differences between women with silicone breast implants and those without. About one million women have implants. If implants caused harm, it would have been detected by now.

Endocrine Disrupter Theory Returns

February will also see the return of the claim that combinations of manmade chemicals are more potent than individual chemicals in disrupting hormone systems. The first claim of synergism was made in June 1996 by researchers at Tulane University. Following on the heels of the book Our Stolen Future, the study received quite a bit of attention.

Congress embraced the Tulane study and included in the Food Quality Protection Act of 1996 a requirement that the Environmental Protection Agency develop a program for screening and testing chemicals for their potential to interfere with hormone systems. EPA is now in the process of developing that multi-billion dollar program.

But a year after the study was published, it was retracted. Independent laboratories around the world could not replicate its results–such replication being necessary for the study to be considered “science.” The science is gone . . . but the law remains.

The forthcoming endocrine disrupter study involves injecting natural estrogens–not manmade chemicals–into turtle embryos to alter sex development. The researchers report that in 2 of the 15 trials with combinations of natural estrogens, male embryos developed into female turtles at a significantly greater rate than expected.

In addition to the thinness of the claimed results–just 2 trials of 15 appeared to produce significant support for the endocrine disrupter theory–the study’s statistical analysis appears to contain errors that, when corrected, would make these weak results even weaker.

It’s not surprising the study has major flaws. The researchers acknowledge they consulted with the Tulane researchers whose original synergy study had to be retracted.

JAMA Editor Fired

The hot news for January, though, has got to be the firing of Dr. George Lundberg, editor of the Journal of the American Medical Association.

On Thursday, January 14, the Junk Science Home Page broke the story that JAMA was about to publish a 1991 survey of college students reporting that 60 percent did not think that oral sex constituted “having sex.”

It seems clear that Lundberg timed the publication of this study to coincide with President Clinton’s impeachment trial. The study was submitted to JAMA in early December and published less than one month later. The more typical turnaround time is roughly six months between submission and publication.

The American Medical Association fired Lundberg on January 15, noting, “Dr. Lundberg, through his recent actions, has threatened the historic tradition and integrity of the Journal of the American Medical Association by inappropriately and inexcusably interjecting JAMA into a major political debate that has nothing to do with science or medicine. This is unacceptable.”

The Problem Remains

And so we say goodbye to Lundberg, an editor with a penchant for junk science. But there is no saying goodbye to the problem of prestigious science journals inappropriately involving themselves in political debate.

The prestigious journal Nature has taken a pro-global warming position–and shamelessly pushes studies that support global warming advocacy. JAMA and the New England Journal of Medicine regularly advocate gun control through flawed studies and related editorials.

Science magazine has placed itself on the side of the Clinton Administration, advocating statistical sampling in the year 2000 census. The magazine’s January 22 issue carried an article by the Census Bureau’s chief of statistical research, who claims the 1990 census–which used “actual enumeration”–undercounted the U.S. population by 4 million.

Apparently, Science hopes to influence public opinion and even the Supreme Court, now reviewing a Clinton Administration claim that statistical sampling should be allowed to supplement the constitutionally required “actual enumeration”–i.e., counting the population. While it may or may not be true that statistical sampling would produce a more accurate population count than actual enumeration, Science‘s advocacy is inappropriate political meddling.

Editor’s note: The Supreme Court has since ruled against the use of statistical sampling for apportioning congressional seats among the states, though it did allow sampling for distributing federal spending and other purposes.