Another False Debate01-30-2014 | Matthew Podolsky
One would think that I’d be happy to see the lead poisoning issue for condors continue to get attention from the press. This week USA Today ran a story focusing on the Arizona/Utah condor population and it’s continued struggle with this issue. My problem with this article: it could have been run over a year ago – it contains no new information. If anything we have seen a regression in the way this issue is presented by the media over the past year. Despite the fact that both the NRA and the National Shooting Sports Foundation have publicly stated their support for AZ Game and Fish Department’s voluntary lead reduction program in the past, all we get in this article is the same line from our buddy Larry Keane, “We think there are serious questions about the purported science.”
The fact is that articles like this are exactly what the NRA and NSSF want. They want people to think that there is an active debate within the scientific community over where the lead is coming from. If the public perceives that there is an ongoing debate over the science behind lead poisoning of wildlife, it is a hell of a lot more difficult to implement both voluntary and regulatory action. The longer it takes to implement serious action to resolve this issue, the longer the lead ammunition industry can continue to rake in record profits.
This is the oldest trick in the book and the lead industry has been hammering us over the head with it for almost a century. Lead has been known to be a dangerous neurotoxin for well over a hundred years, yet when GM discovered in 1921 that tetraethyl lead reduced engine knock they began a large-scale pro-lead PR campaign. The introduction of this toxic chemical into gasoline was very controversial – a handful of workers at a Standard Oil lead plant died of lead poisoning that same year, and many others suffered acute and irreversible damage from working with the lead (including the GM worker who discovered how lead could reduce engine “knock”). Leaded gasoline was banned in a few Northeastern states in the early ‘20s. However, it wasn’t until GM and Standard Oil hired their own team of “scientists” who were paid to prove that leaded gasoline was harmless, that this new product finally started to catch on.
It was this false debate, fabricated by corporate interests that led to the public’s reluctant acceptance of both leaded gasoline and leaded paint in the 1920s. It took more than half a century of fighting for the scientific community to prove to the public that the lead found in these products was poisoning an entire generation of people, literally shifting the bell curve for IQ across the globe and having large-scale societal consequences that we are only just now beginning to comprehend (Be sure to read Kevin Drum‘s excellent article explaining the possible connections between lead poisoning and crime). How is it that the NRA and the NSSF continue to get away with these same tactics almost 100 years later? Have we learned nothing?
The sad but truthful answer to this question is that it appears as though we have in fact learned nothing at all from the early days of leaded paint and gasoline. Now more than ever corporations are using this same tactic to delay and/or prevent meaningful action on a wide variety of public health issues, climate change being the most significant. So why are we duped again and again by this age-old trick?
Those of us who work in the media understand the importance of controversy and debate – this is what makes a good story, and more importantly this is what sells a good story. But are we too rash to present stories as controversial when in reality they might be quite simple and straightforward? Could I be guilty of this as well in my telling of the story presented in Scavenger Hunt? Maybe I should have ignored the radical perspective of the NRA and the NSSF in the film?
Ultimately I believe that those of us in the media have to approach our stories from a more scientific perspective. In order to publish scientific research one must go through a rigorous and often quite challenging peer review process. This process, while it can be frustrating at times, filters out studies that have no basis in the scientific method while dramatically improving many more studies by forcing the researchers to answer unaddressed questions.
We desperately need something akin to the scientific peer review process for journalism. If I were sitting on the peer review panel for the USA Today article published earlier this week I would have had a long list of comments, corrections and suggestions for further investigation. My top concern for this article would read: are we playing into the hands of the ammunition industry by continuing to print the same two lines of propaganda that they’ve been feeding us for the past 5+ years?
Instead let’s have an announcement of consensus within the scientific community – lead fragments from spent ammunition have been proven beyond any doubt to be the primary cause of mortality for California condors and the one factor holding populations back from reaching a self sustaining level. We could add that the only “scientists” who seem to disagree with this are clearly doing so because their paycheck depends upon it.