The always-brilliant Dr. Joe Schwarcz, the director of McGill's Office for Science & Society and a chemist, has once again done what he does best: hunting down junk science (not much of a challenge) and excoriating it.
This time he takes aim at the animal rights zealots at PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals), a radical animal rights group that is sometimes sardonically referred to as People Eating Tasty Animals.
PETA doesn t want you to eat chicken (or anything else that was either an animal product, or even came from an animal, such as milk and eggs, for that matter), but the tactics used in their latest volley are simply laughable. As well as pitiful. They really have hit the junk science jackpot this time.
What is junk science? Dr. Joe says, I see it as any argument that claims to have greater support than the evidence actually justifies, usually to advance a political or commercial agenda or to buttress a personal conviction.
And if this PETA example doesn t fit this definition, then nothing does. Here is what they tried to pull off:
There is a family of chemicals called phthalates, which are used to soften plastics (the most important use being IV tubing). They are also used in a wide variety of other plastic products, so it is not surprising that all of us have minuscule amounts of these chemicals in our bodies.
We won t go into details of the controversy about the health risks of phthalates here, but they are generally considered to be very small (or zero), and this depends upon which (of many) phthalates is being used. Suffice it to say that the science behind the risk of phthalates is shaky at best.
But this isn t even the story. PETA takes junk science to a new level.
Dr. Joe explains: Gentlemen, don t look now, but if you are coming up short in your shorts, it may be because your mother ate too many chicken wings while she was pregnant. At least that was the message delivered to the organizers of the National Buffalo Wing Festival by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, the extremist animal-rights activist group. PETA claims that findings published by the Study for Future Families showed that eating poultry during pregnancy may lead to smaller penis size in male infants. Actually the study showed no such thing. There is no mention of poultry at all. PETA is guilty of spreading junk science.
ACSH s Dr. Bloom elaborates: What PETA did was to imply that since chicken (like pretty much everything on earth) contains tiny amounts of phthalates, that pregnant women who eat it are exposing their babies to a chemical that is known (no it isn t) to affect sexual development. The risk comes from the gloves of butchers and the plastic wrap it is sold in. If you substitute steak, frog legs or pterodactyls for chicken, their claim is just as valid. Maybe their acronym should stand for People Embarrassing Themselves Always.
You can read Dr. Joe s Montreal Gazette commentary here.