Tuesday, January 25, 2005

False impressions

In an earlier post I discussed the European Union's implementation of the precautionary principle with regard to chemicals. In essence, the EU is making manufacturers prove the safety of chemicals already in use. Those not tested or found to be unsafe will be banned and phased out. When reporters talk about such issues they need to be careful not to be misled by false analogies and industry-funded propaganda. The Star-Ledger in New Jersey gets misled on both counts in this recent piece entitled "Europe finds you can be too careful."

The article contrasts the EU approach with the American approach as follows: "Americans ascribe to a more science-based approach for regulating food and technologies, more like 'innocent until proven guilty.' One notable exception is pharmaceuticals, where drug makers have to prove safety in extensive trials." The description has two problems. First, it implies that the EU approach is not science-based. Incredibly, this claim is made even though the reporter points out in the very next sentence that the Food and Drug Administration requires prior approval for drugs. Would the reporter claim that the FDA's decisions are not based on science? This is essentially what the EU wants to do with chemicals. It sounds like science to me. Second, the reporter uses a false analogy. She analogizes the American chemical regulatory system to a principle deeply held in American life, namely, "innocent until proven guilty." But, this principle applies to people, not to chemical substances. No one believes that chemicals should have the same rights as people. Chemicals are tools. Like any tool, they need to be used safely. If they aren't safe, they shouldn't be used. In this case the safety of people should trump the rights of chemicals (and chemical companies).

The reporter also quotes an official from the International Policy Network who is skeptical of the precautionary principle. The group sounds impressive, doesn't it? What readers don't learn is that it is heavily financed by ExxonMobil and other oil and chemical companies. In saying this, I'm not saying the organization has no right to speak or be quoted. It may have something valid to tell us. I'm only saying that the organization's funding and bias should be disclosed.

If the reporter committed these errors and omissions without knowing it, she was just plain sloppy. If she knew what she was doing, then she should be drummed out of the reporting profession.

(Comments are open to all. After clicking on "Comments," click on "Or Post Anonymously" if you don't have an account. See the list of environmental blogs on my sidebar.)

No comments: