Blog Action Day tip: Know your source

Blog Action DayToday is Blog Action Day, an event created to draw the attention of the blogosphere as a whole to one particular issue. Today, bloggers around the world will turn their attention to this year’s theme: the environment. Parenting bloggers, tech bloggers, health bloggers and a multitude of others will be writing about environmental issues as they relate to each niche.

But us… we’re an environmental blog. The environment is our niche. We passed ideas around: do we distill our entire message down into one post? Offer a single remarkably useful consumer tip? Offer a roundup of our favorite posts from the past year? In the end, we decided we had a timely message to convey, not just to the environmental community but to the blogosphere at large.

When you’re dealing with environmental science – when you’re dealing with almost any science at all – you’re also dealing with politics, and if you don’t know your source then you don’t know your facts.

What does it mean to “know your source?” In the environmental movement, it can sometimes be very easy. If Big Petro puts out an ad campaign claiming to the most earth-friendly, eco-conscious, “green” company on the planet, I imagine you’d naturally be suspicious. The same would go for any corporation tooting it’s own green horn.

But it isn’t always so clear. What if a nonprofit think tank came out in support of that corporation? And what if they backed it up with statistics, saying they’d done an analysis and found that in fact Big Petro is the most earth-friendly, eco-conscious, “green” company on the planet? Would you take it at face value? If you did a little digging, you’d probably find some connection – like, oh, money – between the “think tank” and the corporation it endorsed.

It gets even more complicated when the industry that benefits isn’t patently obvious. We don’t have to look far for an example in this case; a couple of weeks ago a coalition of scientists, non-profits, and government agencies released a report directly in contradiction with current government recommendations. Pregnant and nursing women, the report said, should be eating at least 12 ounces of fish per week; never mind that this might expose women to extremely high levels of mercury, one of the most toxic substances in our environment. The recommendations appeared to amount to a complete reversal from the government; the FDA recommends no more than 12 ounces of fish per week, but the Centers for Disease Control and several NIH agencies were listed as part of the coalition that produced the report.

The Washington Post splashed it across their front page: “Mothers again urged to eat fish,” the headline read, and in smaller print below that “Advisory at odds with FDA stance.” Plenty of other credible news sources jumped on the story as well, referring to “the new recommendations” as though they were a mandate from on high rather than a cherry-picked literature review. NPR thought something seemed, well, fishy, and sure enough it only took a couple of phone calls before the entire thing began to unravel.

Aspects of the review had been funded by the seafood industry. The press had been informed of the funding conflict, but none of them chose to pass that information on to the rest of us when they made their reports. Meanwhile, calls to government agencies and respected non-profits like the American Association of Pediatrics revealed that these coalition members had not seen the report, knew nothing about it, didn’t endorse it.

So what did mainstream media do? They added a sentence to subsequent reports: “Some point out that seafood industry funding helped to pay for the report, but the coalition insists that their science is sound.”

And so the seafood industry succeeded in their goal; the report has created confusion around the issue of mercury exposure from seafood, especially during pregnancy. Although the “new recommendations” aren’t likely to be taken seriously, the junk science steals credibility from the real science of mercury exposure by creating the illusion of conflict in the scientific community, when in fact there is no conflict. Any good scientist, any good doctor will tell you that while omega 3s are important to developing brains, it’s a useless venture if of babies are being born with dangerous amounts of mercury in their bodies. Following FDA recommendations, women should choose fish low in mercury and high in omega 3s, and look for other sources of the fatty acids as well.

And what can you do? Know your source. When a new study comes out and completely counters old research, don’t reject it out of hand or accept it blindly. Instead, give some thought to who stands to gain, ask questions, and always demand that mainstream media tell you the whole story.

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