Thursday, March 02, 2006

Michael Fumento: Fraud

A recent article by Michael Fumento that was picked up by Powerline concluded that, based on Fumento's terribly inaccurate investigation, science is just not to be trusted at all (but I suppose we can still trust the pronouncements of ideological think tanks). It has been thoroughly ripped apart by Tim Lambert, Chris Mooney, and PZ Miers.

I thought I would add my own ripping, focusing on one lone part that PZ touched on briefly. Fumento writes:

Consider a report by three environmentalist authors back in 1988 in Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), analyzing male-female birth ratios between 1970 and 1990. The authors found male births declining, and predictably blamed man-made chemicals. Yet public data going back to 1940 showed gender ratios are always changing, for no obvious reason. Years that disproved their thesis were simply sliced out.
If we follow the link to the article that Fumento attacks, we can see that almost nothing he writes is true. First of all, he gets the date of publication wrong. It was 1998, not 1988. I can excuse that as a typo. Secondly, he gets the dates of analysis wrong. For the US and Canada, the data set was between 1970 and 1990, but for the Netherlands and Denmark, it was between 1950 and 1994. That cannot be excused as a typo. The nicest thing we can say about this is that it was sloppy reading on Fumento's part. Had he read more carefully (it's right in the abstract for god's sake), he'd have seen that his accusation of slicing out inconvenient data is flat-out wrong (and somewhat amusingly ironic). But more importantly, we need to know if the authors "predictably blamed man-made chemicals". They did not.

The authors of the study find that there is a significant decline in the proportion of male births (meaning a statistically significant decline -- whether or not it's significant to you or me is another story). They then go on to list a variety of possible causes, noting man-made chemicals among them. Importantly, they point out that some chemicals are known to alter male-female birth ratios and thus list these as possible contributing factors. But they do not conclude that these are responsible, only that they might be responsible, and that more work is needed to figure it out. Here's what they say in the conclusions and the comments leading up to it:

The study of sex determination remains a field full of speculation and with limited empirical evidence. As a consequence, factors that affect the sex ratio remain poorly understood. Many of the causes of reduced male births that have been identified, such as stress of fathers, in vitro fertilization, less frequent intercourse, and multiple sclerosis, are unlikely to account for the time trends that have recently been observed in several industrial countries. Several specific workplace and environmental exposures have altered the sex ratio in those who were highly exposed to some pesticides and other general environmental contaminants. Whether these agents could account for some of the recently observed patterns is a matter of considerable concern.
We propose that reduced male proportion at birth be viewed as a sentinel health event that may be linked to environmental factors. To determine the value of this suggestion, it will be important to answer a number of questions: Do the trends in sex ratio reported for the United States, Canada, Denmark, and the Netherlands parallel similar changes in other countries? Are regional differences in the proportion of males consistent with environmental factors or other known causes of alterations? Does other evidence confirm that occupational cohorts with exposures to smelting operations, pesticides, inorganic borates, lead, solvents, alcohol, and other such workplace hazards have produced children with reduced male proportion?

To resolve these matters, it will be important for public health researchers to conduct a number of assessments, examining patterns, and time series of state, regional, and national birth registries.

Gee, sounds pretty measured to me. Reading Fumento, you'd get the impression that the authors immediately blamed man-made chemicals rather than taking the careful route of discussing a variety of possible factors, noting that man-made chemicals are one possible factor, and then saying that we need more study to determine if these chemicals are indeed responsible.

How about that report Fumento links to which suggests that gender ratios are always changing? He gets that wrong too. First of all, the data in that report are limited to the United States. Secondly, while the trend in sex ratios changes over the long-term, the overall trend has been downward:

And third, the claim that these ratios have changed "for no obvious reason" is contradicted by the text of the report, which lists several known contributing factors, including environmental toxins.

The sad thing is, it takes several paragraphs like this to correct just one paragraph of misinformation from the likes of Fumento, which has already been picked up by Powerline and spoon-fed to who knows how many unsuspecting victims. Fumento and his ilk don't care if their critiques are accurate or not, they only care if they succeed in furthering their political agenda, which is ironically the very thing they falsely accuse scientists of doing. These guys suffer from a massive case of projection.

One other fun note: Fumento was recently fired from his job because he failed to disclose the fact that he had accepted payments from Monsanto to write a book that was pro-biotech (and in many respects reads like an advertisement for Monsanto). Rather than face up to the fact that he had committed an egregious violation of journalistic ethics, he defended his actions. His excuse was, in part, that people should judge his articles on the quality of the arguments contained therein, not on the fact that a corporation is paying him to put forth a predetermined set of arguments that favor their business. Putting aside the fact that this is irrelevant to the issue of disclosure, one should indeed judge the quality of a work on its merits, and not on its source. But that is precisely what Fumento and Powerline are telling not to do when it comes to science. We are told to greet any scientific article that may intersect with a political issue (almost all of them) with skepticism, in spite of the rigorous standards employed by scientific journals. But if an author who writes about biotech receives payments from a biotech corporation? Nah, no reason for skepticism there.