Public-health advocates have to rally popular sentiment and political support to achieve many of their goals -- but increasingly, they seem to put politics before science.
Threats such as AIDS, smoking and a potential flu pandemic demand careful weighing of facts and evidence -- it is a disservice to the public to approach them in any other way. That's why recent absurd, unscientific and highly politicized actions in the name of promoting public health are so troubling.
Take Iowa's recent ban on use of the preservative thimerosal in childhood vaccines, and the twenty-plus states considering similar laws: The mainstream medical community is unanimous in finding the additive safe. Activists claim the preservative causes autism, but studies show no connection.
The Iowa ban is popular with anti-vaccine conspiracy theorists but makes it more difficult to protect children and adults from diseases -- such as a possible avian flu pandemic.
But the fight against obesity is based on good science, right? Well, when schools around the nation banned soda, many saw it as a step in the right direction. But banning specific foods won't stop kids from eating other foods, and it's their total calorie intake (vs. calories burned off through exercise) that matters, not a few "evil" foods. And here's a clear sign that the soda ban is more politics than science: Schools are even forbidding diet soda -- and replacing it with calorie-laden fruit juices. That makes no sense from a fat-fighting perspective, but if people think soda is "bad" and fruit juice is "good," it works well as a cheap political stunt.
And if government pushes nonsense, it should hardly be a surprise when the public turns to outright crackpots. Public-health advocates should be very troubled by the fact that Kevin Trudeau's book Natural Cures "They" Don't Want You to Know About is one of 2005's best-selling advice books. Trudeau argues that "medical science has absolutely, 100 percent failed in the curing and prevention of disease" and that pharmaceutical companies are conspiring to keep us sick by covering up the successes of herbal remedies and the like. He also says that tap water can kill you and that organic food is our only hope for healthy eating.
Will institutes of higher learning save us from such pap? Not likely. Harvard's School of Public Health this fall bestowed its highest award for public-health achievement on environmental activist Erin Brockovich, who claimed trace levels of the chemical chromium-6 in the water supply caused diseases in a California community. She orchestrated a $330 million settlement from a utility company -- pocketing a couple million herself. There was no evidence the chemical traces made anyone sick, but that didn't deter Harvard from honoring her for "efforts on behalf of all of us."
If even revered public health institutions like Harvard School of Public Health refuse to base their work on sound science, who will save us from the quacks?