Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Do It Yourself Expertise

Ask Moxie had a post earlier this week about the trace amounts of melamine found in a few US formula brands. You can read the CNN story about this, or visit the FDA's page about the Chinese formula melamine contamination, which includes a discussion of the FDA's US testing program.

Some of the comments on Moxie's post got me thinking about the decline of the expert in US culture. Many of the commenters clearly did not trust the FDA when it said that the amounts of melamine found in US formulas was not enough to be a threat to the health of infants drinking the formula. It wasn't always clear whether the commenters thought that the FDA scientists were incompetent or under the influence of industry lobbyists or both. Regardless, it is a sad statement on our society when we won't believe the decisions of the experts we've hired to ensure that our food is safe.

I don't think that our food safety system is set up as well as it could be. Read anything by Marion Nestle if you want an expert's opinion on what is wrong with our system. But I don't think the FDA is turning a blind eye to harmful industrial chemicals in baby formula. In fact, I think this is an example of the system working: a new contaminant turned up in another country, so the FDA tested for it here. Trace amounts were found, and that was publicized, which in and of itself will probably motivate the companies involved to find the source of this trace contamination and remove it- this is a public relations nightmare, if not a public health one. At the same time, the FDA determined that the amounts found were not a threat to human health, and announced that, to try to prevent nervous parents from panicking about what to feed their babies.

Except it didn't work- some parents are still panicking, which is really too bad.

This isn't the only example of this phenomenon. The idea that vaccines somehow cause autism (see this Quackwatch debunking if you want a review of the scientific evidence against this theory) is probably the most pernicious example.

I completely understand parents wanting to be very conservative about exposing their children to potential risks, and I also understand wanting to review the evidence yourself to make yourself comfortable with the decisions you are making. I even understand being angry that any melamine showed up in the formula. It has no business being there. But I don't really understand the complete distrust of the experts when they determined that this wasn't a threat to health. It is like we all want to be the experts. The only problem is that delving into the scientific literature to fully evaluate a controversial subject takes a lot of time, and specialized knowledge of various experimental techniques is usually required. Let's face it- most of us don't have the training, experience, or time to critically review all of the scientific evidence. So we are left making decisions based on news reports and what we read on the internet.

Why do we trust some blogger whose real name we don't even know over the scientists who have trained in the appropriate subjects and whose job it is to read and evaluate all of the papers, and perhaps even do relevant experiments in their own lab? Maybe it is the general decline in trust in the government that I'm told started with Watergate. Maybe it is the easy availability of so many opinions and authoritative looking sites on the internet. It is probably both of these things. However, I think there is also a general distrust of the "educated elite" that has made its way into our society. I'm not a historian or a political scientist, so I won't try to pinpoint when it started. But I'm pretty sure it has gotten worse under George Bush. Sharon Begley at Newsweek has an excellent article about the impact of the Bush administration on science policies. I think the problem goes beyond just science, and I'm not sure whether President Bush is the symptom or the cause. I just hope that we can reverse the trend. If we don't, good scientists won't want to work for the government- why work for less money than you can make in industry in a job that has diminishing influence and where your best efforts are subjected to distrust and derision? And if the good scientists go elsewhere, we'll really have problems with food and drug safety.


  1. Anonymous4:48 AM

    I really appreciated your comments at Ask Moxie. I think for many people the emotional reaction trumps all - and also, a lot of people really don't fundamentally understand science, especially its ambiguities, things like percentage of risk.

  2. I believe that the "media" also play a part in this public mistrust as they have often sensationalized many of the stories, whipping the public up into a frenzy with their headlines and often misleading reporting.

  3. Can you fix the link to the Begley article? As a gov't scientist, I am very interested.

  4. @badmomgoodmom- the link is fixed. Sorry about that!

  5. Anonymous1:54 PM

    You make a very good point. I had the same reaction to the discussion around trace amounts of BPA in baby bottles.


Sorry for the CAPTCHA, folks. The spammers were stealing too much of my time.