Published July 02, 2004
I was much amused last year at this time when the junk science-fueled Center for Science in the Public Interest announced that the University of Pittsburgh's Herbert Needleman would be honored with CSPI's inaugural "Rachel Carson Award for Integrity in Science."
The recently-announced honoree of the second annual "Integrity in Science" award is no less comical — Theo Colburn, co-author of the infamous 1996 book, "Our Stolen Future: Are We Threatening Our Fertility, Intelligence and Survival." Her book's theme is that man-made chemicals are causing a myriad of diseases and conditions ranging from cancer to infertility to attention deficit disorder.
When "Our Stolen Future" was published in early 1996, the environmental extremist movement launched a mega-publicity campaign for the book. Then-Vice President Al Gore wrote the book's foreword in which he likened "Our Stolen Future" to Rachel Carson's 1962 book "Silent Spring," (search) which set off panic about the insecticide DDT (search).
I guess Al Gore was right for once.
Like "Silent Spring," Colburn's book is nothing more than a slapdash collection of inane factoids and half-told anecdotes woven together with scary overtones.
Colburn wrote that 80 percent of Florida's bald eagles were sterile in the mid-1950s, implying that man-made chemicals were to blame. What was her source for the estimate? How about a banker whose science credential was his claim to be an amateur bird watcher?
Now that's authority.
Based on nothing more than bold-faced assertion, Colburn linked the decline of a particular otter population with a pesticide. Far more probable causes for the decline — overhunting or disease — were ignored.
The mid-1960s crash of a captive mink population near Lake Michigan was attributed by Colburn to the minks' diet, which included fish containing chemicals called polychlorinated biphenyls (search) or PCBs. But Colburn never scientifically linked the PCBs with the population crash while, once again, overlooking other possible explanations. In a subsequent unrelated passage in the book, however, she noted that it is, in fact, normal for animal populations, particularly those in captivity, to peak and then crash.
She wrote about observations of seagulls living in "lesbian relationships," which were attributed to chemicals without the slightest bit of credible evidence.
Colburn also tried to promote the notion that man-made chemicals caused a decline in human sperm counts — a myth that has since been discredited by research questioning whether sperm counts have even declined.
Colburn tried to sucker readers into believing that the link between man-made chemicals in the environment and these "omens," as she portentously described them, was strengthened by the fact that drugs such as thalidomide (search) and diethylstilbesterol (search) (DES) were proven to disrupt hormonal processes to cause birth defects and cancer, respectively, in humans.
Colburn cavalierly ignored the fact that, with prescription drugs, people generally take very high doses in chemical forms that are designed to be readily absorbed and metabolized by the body— a phenomenon that is totally different from environmental exposures to chemicals. Environmental exposure occurs at far lower doses and in chemical forms that are less likely to be absorbed and metabolized by the body.
"Our Stolen Future" gave me such a chuckle at the time that I was inspired to parody it in "Our Swollen Future: The 60 Minutes Interview," which is still available on the Web.
The "Our Swollen Future" character Andy Looney sums up the nonsensical nature of Colburn's theory at the end of "Our Swollen Future" as follows: "Did you ever wonder why Barbie and Ken, who have been a hot item since the 1960s, have never had any children? Could it be because they were made out of plastic? All those nasty man-made chemicals you know."
In the more than eight years since the publication of "Our Stolen Future" and untold millions, if not billions, of dollars spent researching Colburn's ideas, no credible science supports any of her allegations.
In 1999, an expert panel of the National Academy of Science's National Research Council (search) found no persuasive evidence that the trace levels of chemicals typically in the environment are disrupting hormonal processes in humans or wildlife.
Perhaps I should honor Colburn also — along with Rachel Carson, Herbert Needleman and CSPI. How about the Junk Science Hall of Shame?
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).