Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Some Petty Sniping

Tonight I was prowling around the web and stumbled across the American Council on Science and Health's website (http://www.acsh.org/) which is a non profit that describes itself as:

“...a consumer education consortium concerned with issues related to food, nutrition, chemicals, pharmaceuticals, lifestyle, the environment and health.”

Their basic viewpoint seems to be don't sweat the small stuff in terms of health risks but keep focused on the big stuff and that is reflected in their risk assessment website (http://riskometer.org/index.html) which indeed is lot's of fun.

What caught my eye is a bit of sniping going on in the science policy advocacy world. On the main ACSH page is a link CSPI vs ASCH (http://www.acsh.org/about/pageID.86/default.asp). CSPI is the Center for Science in the Public Interest (http://www.cspinet.org/new/index.html). It turns out that CSPI attacked the credibility of ACSH in a press release. The press release deals with a very important problem in evaluating credibility science reporting, especially alleged scientific information put out by advocacy groups- namely who do these groups really represent?

Here is what CSPI says about ACSH in its news release(http://www.cspinet.org/integrity/press/200407071.html):

“...news accounts often fail to identify the funding sources of ostensibly independent nonprofit organizations that are quoted on health and medical issues. For instance, a real group called the American Council on Science and Health is largely funded by chemical, food, and agribusiness companies and is widely quoted downplaying various risks to public health or discrediting studies indicating risks to health. In the pages of The New York Times it is sometimes blandly cited as a "science advocacy group," a "private health education group," or a "group that describes itself as 400 doctors and scientists who release position statements on science and the environment." Elsewhere, the Times more helpfully has described the group as a "consumer foundation in Manhattan that is in part financed by industry," or as a group that is "financed in part by the food industry. “

Well ACSH of course fired back:

“ACSH has a long history of going where the science takes us, even when that science is counter to the interest of its funders.

For instance, ACSH regularly criticizes industries who are guilty of

· making unscientific and overstated health claims
· promoting dangerous natural supplements
· failing to tell the truth about scientific issues, as in the case of industry's failure to defend the safety of genetically modified foods.

Of course, we are known for pointing out the dangers of tobacco in all its forms: Smoking is the #1 public health threat in the world (you wouldn't know this from listening to CSPI). But it's not just tobacco. ACSH regularly criticizes all of those responsible for distorting the truth about important public health issues -- including those who demonize specific foods as causes of obesity, a favorite tactic of CSPI.”

Ouch.

And ACSH then goes on to note:

“We encourage reporters and the public to consider sources of bias beyond corporate funding alone. For instance, from which foundations does CSPI gets its money? Do reporters ask about their project-specific funding from left-wing foundations whose stated goals are to increase governmental regulation and take away choices from consumers?”

Of course if ASCH were so concerned about this maybe they ought to take the lead and be more transparent in how they report their funding sources on their web site. About all I can find in terms of funding from their annual report (http://www.acsh.org/docLib/20070313_2007AR_final.pdf) is that ASCH received about 2,879 million dollars in revenue, 2,470 of which comes from funders as opposed to memberships and sales. It might be nice to have a better idea who those funders are.

How about CSPI? CSPI has a full page devoted to its funding sources (http://www.cspinet.org/about/funding.html) and states:

“CSPI is primarily funded by the 900,000 subscribers to its Nutrition Action Healthletter and individual donors. Private foundation grants make up approximately 5% to 10% of CSPI's annual revenue of $17 million. Nutrition Action Healthletter accepts no advertising, and CSPI accepts no corporate funds or government grants. CSPI's audited financial statements and its IRS Form 990, both of which conform to Generally Accepted Accounting Principles established by the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants, are available for inspection. CSPI also maintains a strict conflict of interest policy for its staff and board members. CSPI extends its sincere gratitude to those foundations and to the thousands of individuals who provide support for its advocacy programs. “

The list of foundations hardly seems to be left wing, so I wish ASCH would have been more specific about which organizations have a goal of increasing government regulation. Clearly these two organizations ASCH and CSPI have different political slants, different funding sources and play to very different audiences. I wish reporters ask more questions about funding sources, but advocacy groups of all stripes ought to take the lead and be open about where they get their funding. Personally I believe ASCH when it claims to be relatively independent of their funding sources, and CSPI implicitly makes the same claim, and they are probably correct in doing so.

But from my perspective neither organization ought to be engaged in the sort of over the top sniping of the other and stick to the important health issues at hand. So a pox on both their houses.

In the interest of full disclosure, I am a real person who receives no funding from industry or wacko private foundations on the left or the right and I occasionally eat hot dogs, foods with trans fats and enjoy taking risks by eating genetically modified corn and using a cell phone though I rarely use pesticides and believe the case for global warming is pretty solid. Oh yes, I I'm pretty liberal and a registered Democrat.


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