Excerpt: 'Myths, Lies and Downright Stupidity'

Read an excerpt from the book you built.

ByABC News
April 27, 2006, 6:16 PM

-- In his latest book, "Myths, Lies and Downright Stupidity," John Stossel expands on his popular "Myth" segments on "20/20" and unearths truths often distorted -- or disregarded -- by the media. Below is an excerpt:


Clueless Media

Thomas Jefferson said he'd rather live in a country with a free press and no government, than in one with a government but no press. "The only security of all is in a free press," he wrote. "It is necessary, to keep the waters pure."

I couldn't agree more. Without media to tell us about the excesses of government, the risks of life, and the wonderful new ideas that emerge constantly from every cranny in America, our lives would be narrow, and our freedom diminished. The Fourth Estate both informs and protects us. "Where the press is free, and every man able to read," said Jefferson, "all is safe."

However, thirty-six years working in the media has left me much more skeptical of its product. Reporters are good at telling us what happened today: what buildings burned down, what army invaded, the size of the hurricane that's coming. Many reporters take astonishing risks to bring us this news. We owe them thanks.

But when it comes to science and economics, and putting life's risks in perspective, the media do a dismal job.

MYTH: The media will check it out and give you the objective truth.

TRUTH: Many in the media are scientifically clueless, and will scare you to death.We don't do it on purpose. We just want to give you facts. But the people who bring us story ideas are alarmed. Then we get alarmed, and eager to rush that news to you.

We know that the scarier and more bizarre the story, the more likely it is that our bosses will give us more air time or a front-page slot. The scary story, justified or not, will get higher ratings and sell more papers. Fear sells. That's the reason for the insiders' joke about local newscasts: "If it bleeds, it leads."

Also, raising alarms makes us feel important.

If we bothered to keep digging until we found the better scientific experts, rather than the ones who send out press releases, we'd get the real story. But reporters rarely know whom to call. And if we did, many real scientists don't want to be bothered. Why get involved in a messy debate? It might upset someone in government and threaten the scientist's grant money. "I'd rather be left alone to do my work, and not have to babysit dumb reporters," one told me.

One real scientist, Dr. Bruce Ames of the University of California, Berkeley, did make the effort. He urged a skeptical reporter (me) to be more skeptical of pseudologic from pseudoscientists: "The number of storks in Europe has been going down for years, the birth rate's going down for years," Dr. Ames pointed out. "If you plot one against the other, it's a beautiful correlation. But it doesn't mean storks bring babies."

We've been swallowing the storks-bring-babies kind of logic for years. (My favorite version: I see fat people drinking diet soda; therefore diet soda must make people fat.) For instance, stories about pesticides making food carcinogenic would fill several pages of a Google search. To the scientifically illiterate, the stories are logical. After all, farmers keep using new pesticides, we consume them in the food we eat, and we keep hearing more people are getting cancer. It must be cause and effect! Get the shovel.

MYTH: Pesticide residues in food cause cancer and other diseases.

TRUTH: The residues are largely harmless.

Ames laughs at the claims of chemically induced cancers, and he should know-he's the one who invented the test that first frightened people about a lot of those chemicals. It's called the Ames Test, and its first use in the 1970s raised alarms by revealing there were carcinogens in hair dye, and in the flame retardants in children's pajamas. Ames helped get the chemicals banned.

Before the Ames Test, the traditional way to test a substance was to feed big doses of it to animals and wait to see if they got cancer or had babies with birth defects. But those tests took two to three years and cost $100,000. So Dr. Ames said, "Instead of testing animals, why not test bacteria? You can study a billion of them on just one Petri dish and you don't have to wait long for the next generation. Bacteria reproduce every twenty minutes."

The test proved successful. It was hailed as a major scientific breakthrough, and today, the Ames Test is one of the standards used to discover if a substance is carcinogenic.

But after getting the hair dye and the flame retardants banned, Dr. Ames and other scientists continued testing chemicals. "People started using our test," he told me, "and finding mutagens everywhere-in cups of coffee, on the outside of bread, and when you fry your hamburger!"

This made him wonder if his tests were too sensitive, and led him to question the very bans he'd advocated. A few years later, when I went to a supermarket with him, he certainly didn't send out any danger signals.

DR. AMES Practically everything in the supermarket, if you really looked at it at the parts per billion level, would have carcinogens. Vegetables are good for you, yet vegetables make toxic chemicals to keep off insects, so every vegetable is 5 percent of its weight in toxic chemicals. These are Nature's pesticides. Celery, alfalfa sprouts, and mushrooms are just chock-full of carcinogens.

STOSSEL Over there it says "Organic Produce." Is that better?

DR. AMES No, absolutely not, because the amount of pesticide residues-man-made pesticide residues-people are eating are actually trivial and very, very tiny amounts! We get more carcinogens in a cup of coffee than we do in all the pesticide residues you eat in a day.

In a cup of coffee? To put the risks in perspective, Ames and his staff analyzed the results of every cancer test done on rats and mice. By comparing the dose that gave the rodents cancer to the typical exposure people get, they came up with a ranking of the danger. Pesticides such as DDT and EDB came out much lower than herb tea, peanut butter, alcohol, and mushrooms. We moved over to the mushrooms as the cameras continued to roll, and Dr. Ames put his mouth where his convictions were.

DR. AMES One raw mushroom gives you much more carcinogens than any polluted water you're going to drink in a day.

STOSSEL So you're saying we shouldn't eat fresh produce?

DR. AMES No. Fresh produce is good for you! Here, I'll eat a raw mushroom even though it's full of carcinogens.

Dr. Ames is widely respected in the scientific community, but he is not on many journalists' electronic Rolodexes. He's the real deal, and no help at all if you're looking for screaming headlines.

MYTH: Radioactivity is deadly; keep it away from food!

TRUTH: Food irradiation saves lives.

A classic example of journalists falling for a stunningly stupid scientific scare-falling en masse and really hard-was the outcry over treating food with radiation.

The irradiation process would give consumers wonderful new options: strawberries that stay fresh three weeks, and chicken without the harmful levels of salmonella that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says kill six hundred Americans every year, and cause countless cases of food poisoning. (The last time you thought you had the flu, you may have really been sick from bacteria on chicken-this is no myth! Wash the counter, your hands, and everything that touches raw meat, because they are all crawling with potentially dangerous germs.)

But reporters and environmental activists don't worry much about the horrible toll from bacteria. For some reason, even when bacteria pose a far greater risk, the media obsess about chemicals and radiation. Radiation! Horrors! Three Mile Island! Jane Fonda! Nuclear bombs!

They don't worry much about bacteria because bacteria is natural. But radiation is natural too. We are exposed to natural radiation every minute of our lives: cosmic radiation from space, radiation from the ground, and radiation from radon in the air we breathe. Every year, the average U.S. citizen is exposed to natural radiation equal to about 360 dental X-rays.

The reporters and protesters probably didn't know that, but even if they did, they'd still be upset because irradiation plants propose passing radiation through food.News stories featured Dr. Walter Burnstein, founder of a "consumer group" named Food & Water, saying, "This will be a public health disaster of the magnitude we have never seen before!" I have to admire the activists' skill in naming groups: Food & Water. What reporter could argue with a group with a name like that? They must be the good guys, right? I interviewedDr. Burnstein and his "political organizer," Michael Colby.

MR. COLBY If you look at the existing studies on humans and animals fed irradiated food, you will find testicular tumors, chromosomal abnormalities, kidney damage, and cancer and birth defects.

STOSSEL Caused because somebody ate irradiated food?

MR. COLBY Absolutely. Absolutely.

STOSSEL [Food & Water claimed an Indian study had said that, but we called the author and she told us she didn't conclude that at all.] We just talked to her and she says she didn't say that! She never said those kids were developing cancer.

DR. BURNSTEIN These are pure scientists and she doesn't want to make that break. We are taking it the extra inch. We're saying to people, "Don't-don't be put to sleep by people who work in test tubes-don't." I don't need proof that it goes to cancer. We already know it leads to cancer.

Reporters gave Burnstein and Colby's dubious claims so much credulous press coverage that politicians in Maine quickly banned food irradiation. New York and New Jersey followed suit. That spread fear to other states. I went to Mulberry, Florida, to report on a protest against Vindicator, a plant that proposed using radiation to kill germs on strawberries. When I got there, demonstrators were marching with picket signs, chanting, "Don't nuke our food! Don't nuke our food!" Their campaign persuaded the state of Florida to put a moratorium on Vindicator's opening.

DR. BURNSTEIN Vindicator will go out of business, and not only Vindicator. That'll be the end of the entire irradiation industry ... When we go to talk to people, we don't have to break their arms to convince them not to eat irradiated food. We just say, "Irradiated food," and people go, "What? Who wants the food irradiated?"

The fact that Dr. Burnstein was not a research scientist, but rather an osteopath with a family practice in New Jersey, didn't diminish the respect he got from the media. His protests drew headlines and TV coverage. Reporters knew radiation was bad for humans, and therefore bad for food.

One woman stood outside the Vindicator plant shouting angrily, "How much pollution are we going to put into our mouths?!"

"None," is the answer. People think food irradiation makes food radioactive, but it doesn't; the radiation just kills the bacteria, and passes right out of the food. That's why the FDA and USDA approved the process a long time ago. Spices have been irradiated for more than twenty years. Irradiation is good for us. If it were more common, all of us would suffer fewer instances of food poisoning and we could have fruits and vegetables that stay fresh weeks longer. But scaremongering has kept it from catching on.

Food & Water told people that the AMA and the World Health Organization did not approve of irradiation, but that was a lie. Both organizations did approve. WHO told us irradiation is as important as pasteurization.

Pasteurization also met public skepticism when it was introduced. Louis Pasteur discovered that heating milk would kill bacteria, but critics charged that pasteurization was "meddling with nature," and that it might change the properties of the food-or contaminate it. The U.S. dairy industry actually promoted raw milk as more acceptable than pasteurized milk. Only the persistence of scientists and medical experts allowed pasteurization to become standard practice. Irradiation might save as many lives, if the scaremongers would just get out of the way.After three years of delays, the Vindicator plant finally was allowed to open. But fear of radiation has kept this good idea from spreading across America. Only a tiny fraction of American meat is irradiated today.

If 50 percent were irradiated, the CDC says nearly a million cases of bacterial infections could be avoided and 350 lives could be saved every year. 350 lives! Why isn't the press screaming about that? Because reporters and legislators look for danger in the wrong places.

Many reporters believe the activists because "something must be causing the cancer epidemic." Mysterious and unnatural additions to our environment are an easy suspect. After all, during the past fifty years, Americans have been exposed to chemicals and forms of pollution and radiation that humans have never experienced before. "No wonder there's so much more cancer!" say reporters. Get the shovel.

MYTH: Chemical pollution is the cause of the cancer epidemic!

TRUTH: There is no cancer epidemic.

You wouldn't know it from the media, but there has been no surge in cancers. The death rate due to cancer has been declining for more than ten years. You might argue that fewer die from cancer today simply because there are better treatments for the disease, but look at the cancer incidence rate.

The incidence of prostate and breast cancer is up, but that's only because there's more early detection. In the 1980s more men starting getting PSA tests, and more women had mammograms. Lung cancer increased in women because more women took up cigarettes, and skin cancer increased because of lunatic sunbathing. But overall cancer rates have not been rising, and lots of cancers, like stomach, uterine, and colorectal cancer, are on the decline.

We think there's a cancer epidemic because we hear more about cancer. Cancer is a disease of an aging population, and fortunately, more people now live long enough to get cancer. More talk about it too. Many years ago people who got cancer were secretive about it.

The other big reason we think there is an epidemic is that the media, suspicious of chemicals, hype dubious risks.

Almost every week, there is another story about a potential menace. Reporters credulously accept the activists' scare stores: While I've been a reporter, I've been asked to do alarmist reports about hair dye, dry cleaning, coffee, chewing gum, saccharin, cyclamates, NutraSweet, nitrites, Red No. 2 dye, electric blankets, video display terminals, dental fillings, cellular phones, vaccines, potato chips, farmed salmon, Teflon, antiperspirants, and even rubber duckies.

I refused to do most of those stories, and now I have to ask, if the scares were valid, where are the bodies? If one-tenth of what the reporters suggested was happening did happen, there would be mass death. The opposite is true: Despite exposure to radiation and all those nasty new chemicals, Americans today live longer than ever.

The media hysteria may be nonsense, but our fear is real-and contagious. That can be deadly.

MYTH: DDT causes all kinds of cancers, and nearly wiped out every bird in the world.

TRUTH: DDT saves lives.

Malaria will kill more than one thousand children before you finish reading this book. The chemical DDT is at the core of the problem-not the use of DDT, but the failure to use it because of media hysteria. In Uganda alone, said minister of health Jim Muhwezi, "We are losing between two million and three million people a year." Think of it: Millions die because the media gets it wrong.

You are probably saying, "What is he talking about? DDT is awful!" But it isn't. DDT is capable of doing far more good than harm. You just don't know that, because some people, including reporters, are terrified of DDT.

Here's how it happened: Fifty years ago, Americans sprayed DDT everywhere. Farmers used it to repel bugs, and health officials to fight mosquitoes that carry malaria. Nobody worried much about chemicals then. It was a shock to watch the old videos my producer found: People at picnics just sat and kept eating while trucks sprayed thick white clouds of DDT on top of them. In fact, when the trucks came to spray, some people ran toward them-as if an ice cream truck had come-they were so happy to have mosquitoes repelled. Tons of DDT were sprayed on food and people.

Despite this overuse, there was no surge in cancer or any other human injury. Scientists found no evidence that spraying DDT seriously hurt people.It did cause some harm: It threatened bird populations by thinning the shells of their eggs.

In 1962, the book Silent Spring by Rachel Carson made the damage famous and helped instill our fear of chemicals. The book raised some serious questions about the use of DDT, but the legitimate nature of those questions was lost in the media feeding frenzy that followed. DDT was a "Killer Chemical!" and the press was off on another fear campaign.

It turns out DDT itself wasn't the problem-the problem was that much too much was sprayed. That's often true with chemicals; it's the dose that matters. We need water, for example, but six feet of it will kill us.

In the 1950s we sprayed DDT indiscriminately, but it only takes a tiny amount to prevent the spread of malaria. If sprayed on walls of an African hut, a small amount will keep mosquitoes at bay for half a year. That makes it a wonderful malaria fighter. But today DDT is rarely used to fight malaria because environmentalists' demonization of it causes others to shun it.

That frustrates Dr. Amir Attaran, who researched the issue at Harvard University. "If it's a chemical, it must be bad," he told us. "If it's DDT, it must be awful. And that's fine if you're a rich white environmentalist. It's not so fine if you're a poor black kid who is about to lose his life from malaria." Uganda's health minister angrily asked us: "How many people do they want us to lose before we use DDT?"Good question.

The U.S. government does spend your tax dollars trying to fight malaria in Africa, but it has not spent a penny on DDT. The money goes for things like mosquito netting over beds (even though not everyone in Africa even has a bed). The office that dispenses those funds, the Agency for International Development, acknowledges DDT is safe.

I went to the State Department to interview the USAID official in charge of international health. With a straight face, she denied that their no-funds-for-DDT policy had anything to do with being "environmentally correct." I felt like I was talking to a robot.

DR. ANNE PETERSON I would recommend that if those who want to use [DDT for] indoor spraying, that they can and should. And it is definitely less harmful than dying and being exposed to malaria.

STOSSEL But you won't pay for it?

DR. ANNE PETERSON Currently we don't pay for it.

STOSSEL This is pathetic. Millions of people are dying and you, to be politically correct, are saying, "No, we don't want to pay for DDT."

DR. ANNE PETERSON I believe that the strategies we are using are as effective as spraying with DDT. And we are getting them out as far and as fast as we can. So, politically correct or not, I am very confident that what we are doing is the right strategy.

The right strategy? Dr. Attaran has a better perspective: "If I were to characterize what USAID does on malaria, I'd call it medical malpractice. I would call it murderous."

After my interview with Dr. Peterson, USAID said it has reconsidered its policy, and it may fund spraying of DDT.

We'll see. For now, millions die while USAID dithers.

The agency was simply responding to media hysteria. Media hysteria invites politicians to do the wrong thing. In this case, the result of the media getting it so wrong is millions of deaths.

Media attention also kills reputations, particularly when sensationalism and the herd mentality are in play. Serious subjects, worthy of careful examination, are often treated with a kind of journalistic shorthand that cheats readers and viewers, while ruining lives. In this next example, innocent children became unknowing pawns.

MYTH: "My teacher molested me." Kids wouldn't make up stuff like that!

TRUTH: Yes, they would.

This trendy media scare sent people to jail. Many were innocent of any crime, but they were convicted by the court of public opinion. The witnesses against them were children who testified to horrible events-events which, in many cases, never happened. But when the media express gets rolling, people get run over.

One victim was Kelly Michaels, a New Jersey preschool teacher convicted in 1988 of molesting twenty children in bizarre and sadistic ways. She spent five years in prison before an appeals court ruled that prosecutors had planted suggestions in the minds of the children who testified against her.

I don't blame the kids; I blame the prosecutors and the media. Reporters' imaginations and keyboards were fired up in 1983 by accusations of sodomy and satanic abuse at a California day-care center called the McMartin Preschool. The woman who started the barrage of charges was later discovered to be a paranoid schizophrenic. Her claims of devil-worship and sadism were outlandish on their face, but never mind: It was "good copy." Headlines blared, prosecutors roared, and seven people were charged in a total of 135 criminal counts.

It was nonsense. But the defendants had their lives ruined. The case against them was cooked up by therapists and social workers who planted suggestions in the minds of impressionable children, who then told horrendous tales to prosecutors. The prosecutors also listened to the drumbeats of the media, which stirred a different witches' brew for every news cycle.

Kids are highly impressionable. We know that, but psychology professor Stephen Ceci proved it in a study at Cornell University. He told me, "We are now discovering that if you put kids who were not abused through the same kind of highly leading, repetitive interview, some of those children will disclose events that seem credible but, in fact, are not borne out in actuality."

Ceci set up an experiment where he and his researchers asked kids silly questions like:

RESEARCHER Have you ever had your finger caught in a mousetrap and had to go to the hospital?



At first, the kids say no. Then, once a week for the next 10 weeks, the researchers ask the question again.

RESEARCHER You went to the hospital because your finger got caught in a mousetrap?

BOY And it-RESEARCHER Did that happen?

BOY Uh-huh.

By week four or six or ten, about half of the kids say, "Yes, it happened." Many give such precise information that you'd think it must have happened.

RESEARCHER Did it hurt?

BOY Yeah.

RESEARCHER Yeah? Who took you to the hospital?

BOY My daddy, my mommy, my brother.

RESEARCHER Where in your house is the mousetrap?

BOY It's down in the basement.

RESEARCHER What is it next to in the basement?

BOY It's next to the firewood.

By the time I met that boy, weeks after the experiment was over, he still "remembered" convincing details about things that never happened.

STOSSEL Was there a time when you got your finger caught in a mousetrap and had to go to the hospital?

BOY Uh-huh.

STOSSEL Who went with you to the hospital?

BOY My mom and my dad and my brother Colin, but not the baby. He was in my mom's tummy.

What he told me was even more remarkable because just a few days before, his father discussed the experiment with him, explained that it was just a test, and that the mousetrap event never happened. The boy agreed-it was just in his imagination.

But when he talked to me, the boy denied the conversation with his father, and insisted the mousetrap story was true.

STOSSEL Did your father tell you something about the mousetrap finger story?


STOSSEL Is it true? Did it really happen?

BOY It wasn't a story. It really happened.

STOSSEL This really happened? You really got your finger caught? This really happened?

BOY Yeah.

Why would the boy lie to me? I said to Professor Ceci that I assumed he wasn't intentionally making up the story. Ceci said, "I think they've come to believe it. It is part of their belief system."

Some molestation "experts" thought they'd come closer to the truth by giving kids anatomically correct dolls. With dolls, the social workers wouldn't have to ask so many questions. They could just say, "Imagine you are the doll; what did the teacher touch?" Lawyers argued that kids "wouldn't make up" what had been done to the doll. But Ceci's colleague Dr. Maggie Bruck conducted tests that showed that they would.

Bruck had a pediatrician add some extra steps to his routine physical examination. He measured the child's wrists with a ribbon, he put a little label on the child's stomach, and he tickled the child's foot with a stick. Never did the doctor go anywhere near the child's private parts. Then, a few days after the exam, using an anatomically correct doll, Bruck and the child's father asked leading questions about the doctor's exam. We caught it on tape.

FATHER So what did he do?

GIRL He put a stick in my vagina.

FATHER He put a stick in your vagina?

GIRL Yeah.

[Then the girl claimed the doctor hammered the stick into her vagina. And she said the doctor examined her rectum.]

DR. BRUCk He was where?

GIRL In my hiney.

None of it was true. But when dolls were used, half the kids who'd never had their private parts touched claimed the doctor touched them. The tests made Dr. Bruck question her prior faith in the testimony of children. She told me she thinks dozens of innocent people are in jail.

Dr. Ceci told me their leading questions were mild compared to what the investigators asked: "What we do . . . doesn't come close, for example, to what was done in the Kelly Michaels case."

The appellate court decision that set Kelly Michaels free garnered just a smidgeon of the media attention her trial and conviction got. After she was freed, she told me about her nightmare.

MS. MICHAELS One day you're getting ready for work and making coffee, minding your business, trying to get along as best you can, being a reasonable, decent, honorable citizen, and the next minute you are an accused child molester with the most bizarre-