Dog food and car interiors. What do they have in common? Both products have been in the news recently. But, more specifically, both stories are hard to understand because media reports on the topics seem too simplified, and scientific experts quoted give contradictory explanations. I'll call them "whose science do you believe?" stories. The pet food story is a good example. A week ago, the Food and Drug Administration said melamine in certain brands of pet foods was killing dogs and cats. FDA linked melamine to wheat gluten from China, and announced that companies had voluntarily recalled certain products. In the past week, the news wires have been filled with stories and updates. Various experts have either disputed or confirmed FDA's theory. It's not clear to pet lovers whether melamine is to blame, and, if so, where it came from. It's all very confusing. The other "whose science do you believe?" story is the result from a report from a Michigan group called the Ecology Center that charges that plastics in car interiors emit toxins. The group's newest report ranks cars, so that consumers can avoid cars that emit the most and worst toxins. Here's what a typical news story, from CBC News, had to say about the report:
A new report from a U.S. environmental group suggests the "new car smell" long beloved by the purchasers of vehicles could be a sign of harmful chemicals inside the car. Much of the smell comes from plastics and materials used inside the car, from the steering wheel to the dashboard to the carpets — parts often made with chemicals including flame retardants, plasticizers and other chemicals that can give off gas or leach into the environment.However, shortly after that report was released, another came out with the opposite conclusion.
Toxicologist Jeroen Buters at the Technical University of Munich in Germany and his colleagues investigated the health effects of volatile organic compounds that cars emit. They focused on conditions mimicking those where the molecules would likely get emitted most in cars—when parked in hot sunshine. ... New car smell does not appear to be toxic, the scientists found. Air from the new car did cause a slight aggravation of the immune response that could affect people with allergies, but the same was not seen with the older vehicle.Which report should we believe? It's hard to tell. One place I like to check is www.stats.org, which is affiliated with the Center for Media and Public Affairs at George Mason University. The site monitors the media to expose abuse of science and statistics. (The site has a post on the "new car smell" toxin story that's worth reading.) But if most of the news media won't bother to put these "whose science do you believe?" stories into the proper context, we certainly can't count on most consumers to do it themselves.