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Doomsday Cultists in Science

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Other than a few of the world’s dimmer bulbs who actually donated money to him, not many people hold Harold Camping’s, um, faulty mathematics against him. Camping is the evangelist from California who twice this year – and 12 times since 1978 – has predicted with disconcerting precision the end of the world. He had it down to the minute – 5:59 p.m., on May 21, then was slightly less specific, giving us just the day, on Oct. 22.

But Camping is 89 and not as good with figures as he once was. And besides, he’s just trying to save our souls, and his faulty predictions don’t really hurt anyone.

Frederick vom Saal, who is wrong with the same consistency and regularity, is another story. vom Saal is the University of Missouri researcher who has created a mini-industry of opposing use of the chemical Bisphenol A or BPA. It helps plastic harden, is used for food can safety liners and in shatterproof baby bottles which can withstand the hundreds of trips through dishwasher they must endure. A lot of hard-plastic water bottles contain BPA. So do cans of every sort – vegetables, beer, all of them.

vom Saal claims BPA disrupts the endocrine system, which can cause, among other things, excessive release of estrogen. He claims hermaphrodite fish are on the rise in our rivers because of it and once claimed that letting your baby drink from a plastic bottle is the equivalent of giving her a birth control pill because of BPA. So strident is vom Saal in his belief, he’s referred to BPA as the global warming of biology.

But like Harold Camping, vom Saal can’t quite make the numbers work. His theory depends first on BPA detaching from products made with it and second, it has to enter the body’s blood system. Every scientist not affiliated with vom Saal who tries this finds it detaches in miniscule amounts and that it – to put it bluntly – all comes out in our urine. Even the EPA has given up on this one; a study funded by the agency earlier this year showed that no BPA could be detected in the blood of the overwhelming majority of people fed a diet rich in BPA.

Last week, Forbes magazine ran a story by science journalist Trevor Butterworth at George Mason University that cast some light on the activities of vom Saal during his two-decade-long jihad against BPA. It turns out there may well be, as Steve Martin said in The Jerk, a profit thing.

According to one conflict of interest statement, vom Saal “consulted for an attorney involved in civil litigation regarding the health effects of BPA.” Another conflict of interest statement from 2008 showed that vom Saal had been, “serving as a consultant for in-preparation litigation regarding BPA; serving as chief executive officer of XenoAnalytical LLC, which uses a variety of analytical techniques to measure estrogenic activity and BPA in tissues and leachates from products.”

For all the vitriol spewed against studies and researchers with even the most tangential connection with the plastic industry, how is it that vom Saal escapes criticism with his direct involvement with trial lawyers and labs that stand to make a profit from demonizing BPA? Another potential motivating factor is the fact that junk science showing harm from BPA is one way to keep a controversy – and the research money that goes with it – alive.

He even argues his case the same way global warming advocates argue theirs. Any study that supports him is accurate, regardless of methodology, assumptions, expertise or execution. Any that opposes him is discredited – compromised by ignorance, influence from the evil chemicals industry or willful neglect.

The problem, of course, is these controversies take on a he said/she said character that assumes the data is more or less equal on both sides. And this is simply not the case with BPA. The study that led to vom Saal’s takedown in Forbes illustrates the point. The research – conducted by scientists at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Food and Drug Administration on behalf of the EPA – found the levels of BPA in the blood claimed in vom Saal’s studies simply weren’t possible. And if scientists couldn’t detect BPA in all those people who were put on a high-BPA diet, there was no way the chemical could pose a threat to humans.

It’s like the old studies that said shampoo could cause cancer... if you drank 98 bottles of it per day. Or saccharin... if you drank 158 cups of coffee a day. OK, that second one could be a problem.

Poor Frederick vom Saal. His evangelical belief in the harm of BPA, which has been disproved time and again by independent research, has turned him into the Harold Camping of science. Prophesies of doom, whether from Camping or vom Saal, are always more likely to get traction in the media. But at what cost to consumers and science itself? Many people of faith have denounced the false pronouncements of Camping and it will be interesting to see if the scientific community follows suit with vom Saal.

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