A long time ago in a galaxy far far away, I was a 21-year-old journalism student spending a couple of weeks as an intern at Science Dimension, a government-funded magazine (there weren’t any private science magazines in the country). I was assigned two short features while there: one on canola bioengineering and another on Canada’s asbestos industry. Both amounted to free publicity for industries heavily supported by the Canadian taxpayer, but I think the canola story withstood professional scrutiny. The asbestos piece? Not so much.
That story continues to haunt me. The only good thing I can say about it is I learned a hard lesson about the need for skepticism, especially when tasked with interviewing scientists whose livelihoods depend on something other than following the facts wherever they might lead. I bring it up thanks to Jon Stewart’s Daily show team, who recently discovered that Quebec and Canada continue to dump the province’s asbestos onto developing nations despite the overwhelming consensus of the medical and scientific communities that it’s a powerful carcinogen.
Back then I really had no idea that government-supported scientists, such as the people working at what was then known as the Asbestos Institute, would feed me a pack of lies. I knew they worked for asbestos miners, but I figured that surely the Canadian government wouldn’t support something that killed people. So when I was told that Quebec asbestos, known as chrysotile, was actually safe, unlike the cancer-causing amphibole variety that everyone else produces, it didn’t occur to me to challenge my sources.
Fortunately, that story never saw the light of day. My editors weren’t quite as gullible as me. Given that the story was their idea, I suppose they might have been testing me. If so, they never gave me any constructive feedback, though — something that annoyed me for ages. I even remember doing another story a few months later on asbestos for the university newspaper, and I still hadn’t figured out that the gang at the Asbestos Institute (now renamed the less-ominous Chrysotile Insitute) were lying.
Only much later, when I had learned to check the scientific literature itself, instead of trusting someone else to explain it to me, did I learn the facts about asbestos. The short story is this: No one doubts that amphibole asbestos is dangerous. Chrysotile is similar in structure; different enough to pose questions but not so different that it makes sense to assume it doesn’t post comparable risks. What evidence exists does not warrant concluding it is safe. And most chrysotile products are contaminated to some degree by amphibole fibers. Logically, then, to tell a 21-year-old journalism student — or anyone else — that your product is perfectly safe is tantamount to lying. Here’s an excerpt from a Canadian Medical Association Journal review of the subject:
The fact that chrysotile can be contaminated with amphibole is an inconvenient truth that is often overlooked in industry-funded studies (see related News article, page 886). It is only by discounting the industry-funded publications that a clearer picture emerges. In studies of exposure to putatively pure chrysotile, there is a lesser, but still significant, rise in lung cancer and mesothelioma. In the latest meta-analysis, some chrysotile sources appear equally potent as amphibole in causing lung cancer. It is no wonder that WHO recommends that “the most efficient way to eliminate asbestos-related diseases is to stop using all types of asbestos.”
That was written in 2008, but the facts weren’t any more in industry’s favor back in the 1980s. See, for example, the 1986 Asbestos Convention and the U.S. Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act of 1986. There remains plenty of work for researchers interested in nailing down just what chrysotile exposure can do to us, but no one can sincerely argue that it is “relatively safe.” It is a classic application of the precautionary principle. We don’t have all the facts (because we never do) but what facts we have warrants avoiding the stuff.
Kind of reminds me of global warming. Do we have all the facts about the consequences of fossil-fuel combustion? No (see the preceding paragraph). But there is a widespread consensus about what we do know. And what do we do know warrants taking steps to stop burning oil, coal, and gas as soon as we can.
The asbestos analogy may not resonate with everyone. But for me, it was particularly instructive. I am now skeptical by nature, thanks in no small part to my experience with the asbestos propagandists. When anyone, particularly those who owe some or all of their livelihood to corporate interests, argues that everyone else is wrong and they are right, I tend to doubt that they are telling the whole truth, or even a part of it. Most such claims are best ignored. Until some other more-gullible reporter gives it unwarranted attention in a high-profile outlet and someone has to set the record straight, of course.
Second, I learned that science journalists need to be able to read the primary literature and not rely on others’ interpretation. In my own case, that meant I needed to return to school and get another degree, one in a hard science. I am not suggesting that every science journalist needs to have a science degree. There are plenty of excellent examples out there to prove the contrary. But for me, it made a crucial difference. And given the incredible amount of disinformation about climatology that finds its way into the so-called respectable news outlets these days, it only seems reasonable that the onus should be on a journalist to demonstrate at least some understanding of a beat before he or she is granted the privilege of being paid to cover it.
For those who haven’t already seen it, here is the Daily Show segment: