Monday, January 09, 2006

First 'Chock Full of Lying Crap' award of 2006

... Goes to David Usborne of the New York bureau of U.K.'s Independent Online, for a story about endangered polar bears headlined:
Toxic waste creates hermaphrodite Arctic polar bears

Wildlife researchers have found new evidence that Arctic polar bears, already gravely threatened by the melting of their habitat because of global warming, are being poisoned by chemical compounds commonly used in Europe and North America to reduce the flammability of household furnishings like sofas, clothing and carpets.

A team of scientists from Canada, Alaska, Denmark and Norway is sounding the alarm about the flame retardants, known as polybrominated diphenyls, or PBDEs, saying that significant deposits have recently been found in the fatty tissues of polar bears, especially in eastern Greenland and Norway's Svalbard islands.

Studies are still being carried out on what impact the chemicals might be having on the bears, but tests on laboratory animals such as mice indicate that their effects can be considerable, attacking the sex and thyroid glands, motor skills and brain function.

There is also evidence that compounds similar to the PBDEs have contributed to a surprisingly high rate of hermaphroditism in polar bears. About one in 50 female bears on Svalbard has both male and female sex organs, a phenomenon scientists link directly to the effects of pollution.

Read closely. The story says PBDEs have had detrimental effects on mice. The story says evidence points to compounds "similar" to PBDEs that contribute to a high rate of hermaphroditism in polar bears. That's a lot of qualifiers.

What it boils down to is that there is no smoking gun, no actual proof, and thus the story headline is completely false.

Also, if one in 50 female bears is hermaphroditic, that's 2 percent. Were any studies done in past decades that show a smaller percentage of hermaphroditism, or is 2 percent "the norm" for polar bears?

In other words, is there any damn proof that anything has changed?

Furthermore, the story says nothing about male polar bears experiencing any change. That would indicate that perhaps as few as 1 percent of all polar bears are thus affected, or at least a percentage smaller than 2 percent, depending upon the normal ratio of males to females in the bear population.

Even furthermore, does the hermaphoditism affect polar bear fertility? The story does not say. If the bears can still produce offspring, then what we have is an unusual situation that has no impact on bear reproduction, or perhaps polar bears who are unsure of their sexuality.

If there is an impact, then by all means say so.

This is poor research, poor headlining and poor writing. But it's presented as if the damage is a done deal and, once again, modern Europeans and Americans are to blame.

Most people are not insensitive to environmental damage. We want a cleaner, healthier world. That also includes a cleaner and healthier process of telling the truth in research articles and the reporters who quote from them. Sensationalism and half-truth does the cause of environmentalism no long-term good. It's not good science; it's not good journalism. Perhaps it's good for fund-raising.

Eliminate the hyperbole, the outright misrepresentations and plug the holes in the research, and maybe we'll take you seriously.


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