This is a column about the role of information in risk management. If your managers read, this column applies to YOU...
In the longtime favorite TV series Boston Legal, the closing courtroom scene with attorney Alan Shore was always the climax. And in that climax, Shore would inevitably rant in support of his weekly tilt at windmills that everyone knew that “studies show...” one compelling thing or another.
Well, since we probably haven't read and perhaps wouldn’t understand, those “studies,” just where do we (and imaginary characters like Alan Shore) get the information which supports our views (and those of the writers of shows like Boston Legal)?
WITHER GLYCIDYL METHACRYLATE?
Back in the 1970s at a chemical plant, I was responsible for coordinating a full-scale plant test in which a copolymer would be made using the monomer glycidyl methacrylate. At the time we were all learning about the science associated with cancer. Professor Bruce Ames had just published his groundbreaking paper which claimed that carcinogens were mutagens. And glycidyl methacrylate had just flunked Ames’ test: the chemical caused bacteria to mutate.
My managers nearly went ballistic! They had read in the press that 80% of the chemicals which flunked Ames’ test were actually carcinogens, and some thought carcinogens were “super-toxic” chemicals which killed after a single exposure.
A lot of explaining was necessary to justify that plant trial.
STATS, a nonprofit, nonpartisan research organization affiliated with the George Mason University, and the Society of Toxicology (SOT), the professional association of that scientific discipline, recently conducted a telephone survey of the Society’s approximately 3,600 members; about 1,000 members responded. The survey results were released at the National Press Club in Washington on May 21, 2009.
The purpose of the survey was to learn whether toxicologists believe that the media is providing the same perspective to readers and viewers as held by professional toxicologists.
There was a clear outcome: toxicologists responding to the survey overwhelmingly said they believed that the media does a poor job covering basic scientific concepts and explaining risks of managing chemicals.
Toxicologist respondents overwhelmingly rejected the notion that exposure to even the smallest amounts of harmful chemicals is dangerous or that the detection of any level of a chemical in your body by biological monitoring necessarily indicates a significant health risk — views often found in print.
The clear theme of the survey outcome is that toxicologists believe that risk in managing and using chemicals is overstated. Table 1 shows how SOT members believe the pronouncements of various organizations unscientifically overstate chemical risks.
Being noted for exaggeration isn’t a recipe for credibility. Only 15% or fewer of the approximately 1,000 survey respondents describe as accurate the overall portrayals of chemical risk specifically found in The New York Times, Washington Post, and Wall Street Journal. “New media” is thought by professional toxicologists to more accurately represent the overall risks about chemicals, with Wikipedia at 21% and WebMD at 29%.
IF IT BLEEDS, IT READS
Should this be surprising? In a sense, no. Newspapers (and TV) have long believed bad news sells newspapers. And advocacy organizations are not representing their members if they undersell anything similar to their named point of view. It is not their job to be fair, but to agitate for “change.”
SCIENCE IS ABOUT CONSENSUS
A fundamental tenet of toxicology is that “the dose makes the poison” — that is, if you take enough of anything, it can harm you. Three out of four toxicologists responding to the survey complain that news organizations don’t know or accept that in their writing and editing. More than 95% of SOT members responding to the survey believe the media poorly understand absolute vs. relative risk, can differentiate correlation from causation, good studies from bad studies, and especially that it isn’t one study which makes science — it’s the consensus of nearly all about all studies!
We who manage chemicals in cleaning or other operations probably understand the point of view of toxicologists. But those who observe, use, regulate, and manage our activities almost certainly don’t if they get their information from news sources. What can we do about that?