Published July 11, 2003
The Center for Science in the Public Interest (search) (aka the “food police”) is holding a big conference in Washington, D.C., July 11 titled, “Conflicted $cience: Corporate Influence on Scientific Research and Science-Based Policy.”
Though it escapes me how they can assert with a straight face that scientific research funded by corporations is “conflicted” yet scientific research funded by activist groups or the government is not, that is not the topic of this column.
Suffice to say, scientific research should be judged on its merits, not on who pays for it.
But I had to chuckle when I saw that one of the conference speakers is the University of Pittsburgh’s Herbert Needleman (search). Not only will Needleman be presenting a talk entitled, “Poisoning our minds: Industry attempts to silence the science of childhood lead poisoning,” but he will be receiving the inaugural “CSPI Award for Integrity in Science in honor of Rachel Carson.”
Oh my. Where to start? Well, I’ll leave Rachel Carson (search) alone since she’s been debunked many times in this column. CSPI has been addressed in earlier columns on Olestra, Quorn, French fries and potato chips, soda, and pizza, to name a few.
That leaves Needleman, who gained national attention in 1979 with a study claiming that children’s exposure to low levels of lead harmed their intelligence and behavior. Needleman testified before Congress, and consulted for federal agencies such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (search) and Environmental Protection Agency (search).
But researchers soon discovered a variety of problems with Needleman’s research, including his failure to report data and results inconsistent with his conclusions.
An EPA panel first rejected his research, stating that, “the Committee concludes that the study results, as reported in the Needleman paper, neither support nor refute the hypothesis that low or moderate levels of [lead] exposure lead to cognitive or other behavioral impairments in children.”
Needleman was subsequently accused of scientific misconduct. A full investigation was recommended by a University of Pittsburgh inquiry panel that stated, “… it is doubtful whether [Needleman’s study] represents a fair and accurate ascertainment of the relationship between IQ and [lead levels].”
After a politically charged O.J. Simpson-like investigation and trial, Needleman was ultimately found not guilty of scientific misconduct.
But like O.J., he was hardly vindicated.
As pointed out in the New England Journal of Medicine (search), University of Pittsburgh and federal investigators determined that Needleman’s work involved a “pattern of errors, omissions, contradictions and incomplete information” in the original and subsequent publications.
The University of Pittsburgh found that Needleman engaged in “deliberate misrepresentation” and “substandard science.” The university referenced Needleman’s dismissal of critics as lead industry representatives and further noted his attempts to intimidate investigators.
The federal Office of Research Integrity (search) said Needleman’s results were “difficult to explain as honest error.”
Are you getting the picture? Well, there’s more and it’s particularly ironic since Needleman is featured on the “Silencing Scientists” panel at the CSPI conference.
In 1990, prior to the misconduct investigation of Needleman, scientists Claire Ernhardt and Sandra Scarr (search) were retained by a defendant in a toxic waste case pursued by the EPA. Needleman had been hired by the Department of Justice on behalf of EPA.
Because Needleman would be relying on his own data, the court approved the defendant’s request to let its experts examine his data.
When Ernhardt and Scarr visited Needleman’s office to review the data, he refused them access to his raw data or to a codebook for his computer printouts. What Ernhardt and Scarr were allowed to see, they were not allowed to photocopy. They could only copy by hand page after page of data.
The Justice Department attorney present at the visit asked Ernhardt and Scarr not to discuss their findings outside the case being tried. Ernhardt refused the request and left the premises.
Shortly before the case was settled in November 1990, the Justice Department, acting on behalf of Needleman, sought to have Ernhardt and Scarr return or destroy their data and reports.
In April 1991, a federal judge ruled in favor of Ernhardt and Scarr stating, “The pursuit of scientific knowledge is, in theory, an open process. There is something inherently distasteful and unseemly in secreting either the fruits or seeds of scientific endeavors … The only harm of prejudice asserted by Dr. Needleman appears to be the risk of academic criticism.”
I guess the judge had no idea that Needleman might really have feared being investigated for scientific misconduct.
Steven Milloy is the publisher of JunkScience.com, an adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute and the author of Junk Science Judo: Self-defense Against Health Scares and Scams (Cato Institute, 2001).