Next time headlines wax hysterical about global warming, fracking or other eco-scares, remember the recent Times of London article that claimed "a toxic cocktail" of chemicals is "destroying Britain's amphibians."
Studies show even low concentrations of pesticides and other chemicals have a "powerful effect" on amphibian immune systems, causing diseases that have been around for decades to "suddenly become much more deadly," the story said. It quoted Elizabeth Salter Green, director of CHEM Trust, which sponsored the "research," as saying "the European Union needs to take a lead on both identifying and controlling the risks."
The plausible-sounding story has some credibility problems, however. CHEM Trust is financially supported by Greenpeace, which spends millions of dollars annually opposing pesticide spraying to prevent malaria that kills nearly a million people annually; genetically modified Golden Rice, which contains a Vitamin A precursor that can save millions of children in the developing world from blindness and death; and fossil fuels that enhance, safeguard and prolong lives everywhere.
Were CHEM Trust industry-funded, the Times would almost certainly have noted that affiliation, regardless of how scrupulous and transparent the work might have been. This time, though, it promoted environmentalist assertions as unimpeachable science.
Moreover, the CHEM Trust paper was an advocacy brief — a summary of research papers and conclusions selected to support claims that chemicals pose unacceptable risks. As Ms. Green suggested, its purpose was to promote tougher EU chemical laws, under the "precautionary principle."
That arbitrary standard focuses on risks of using chemicals — but never on risks of not using them. It spotlights risks a chemical might theoretically cause, but ignores risks it would reduce or prevent. It is another potent weapon for anti-technology activists: whatever they support complies with the precautionary principle and whatever they oppose violates it.
The Times article was apparently based on exclusive access to the embargoed report — recalling the infamous 2012 Seralini case, involving anti-biotechnology activists purporting to prove genetically modified foods cause cancer in rats. Accompanied by gruesome photographs of lab rats with massive tumors, the study was released under an "embargo" to selected journalists, who signed an agreement not to show the paper to outside scientists before the media covered the story.
That meant the journalists could not seek unbiased comments or provide any balance or corrections to the activist storyline. Within 24 hours after the embargo was lifted, independent scientists exposed almost every aspect of the "study" as flawed and even fraudulent. New York Times blogger Carl Zimmer called the episode "a rancid, corrupt way to report about science."
But Gillis-Eric Seralini got the headlines he wanted, as "mainstream" news outlets ran the story. In this case, so did Greenpeace and CHEM Trust.
Making this latest debasement of science and journalism even more disturbing, it is merely the latest in a long line of pressure group "studies" that "prove" modern technologies are killing amphibians. Previous alleged perpetrators have included pesticides alone, acid rain, ozone depletion and global warming — whatever the groups calculated would attract donations, expand their political power and help enact punitive laws and regulations.
Meanwhile, the real causes of disappearing amphibians receive insufficient study and attention, in time to prevent extinctions.
For example, scientists are desperately trying to save dwindling Panamanian rain-forest frog species such as the golden frog, which has not been seen since 2009. However, there are virtually no pesticides or other chemical pollutants in these habitats. Disease is the real culprit, in this case the "Bd fungus," which has been decimating amphibians in Panama, the United States and elsewhere for years.
For several decades, African clawed frogs were imported into the United States and other countries as pets and scientific research animals. Unfortunately, because they are largely immune to the fungus, they are effective carriers. When they escape or are released into the wild and migrate into other habitats, they spread the fungus. People hiking in those habitats pick Bd up on their boots and shoes, spreading it even further. Clawed frogs have been implicated in the decline or extinction of some 200 frog species worldwide.
Native to eastern North America, American bullfrogs are raised as food and pets in factory farms in the United States, China and other countries. These disease carriers are likewise largely immune to Bd and other chytrid skin fungus diseases, which cause amphibians' skins to thicken and can lead to cardiac arrest.
In high enough concentrations, pesticides and other chemicals can certainly kill wildlife. Lower concentrations could theoretically reduce immunities to fungal and bacterial agents, though the jury is still out. They might also cause genetic deformities and other abnormalities — but so too might other chemicals that are rarely mentioned in activist press releases or media stories: birth-control medicines that are flushed down toilets or discharged in urine.
Good science and journalism make clear what is verifiable fact, as opposed to what is simply hypothesis, conjecture or rank opinion, and what is outright, disingenuous activist advocacy.
It's dangerous to base conclusions on cherry-picked studies disseminated by the likes of CHEM Trust, Greenpeace — and even the Environmental Protection Agency, which until recently was the abode of climate-change "analyst," supposed CIA operative and convicted fraud meister John Beale.
Paul Driessen is senior policy adviser for the Committee For A Constructive Tomorrow (CFACT.org) and author of "Eco-Imperialism: Green Power — Black Death" (Merril Press, 2010).