Thursday, May 03, 2012

How Nicholas Kristof's Column on Chemicals Affects Us


Of course I'm crying! You're doing nothing for my body image.
Should the New York Times hire a science editor to fact-check Nicholas Kristoff?

How Chemicals Affect Us by Nicholas Kristof, New York Times, May 2

More like how Kristof's column on chemicals affects me and not in a good way. Someone please tell me why Kristof gets to write completely out of his area of expertise? Although I often enjoy his devotion to social justice and global health he needs to stop the anti-chemical crusading. I know the newspaper gods are creating havoc and all but honestly, what's next, political reporting from the sports section? If the NY Times can't get it right, is there any hope for the rest of the media?  

True, there is some very good research begging us for a closer look at the possible pernicious effects of chemicals. I certainly understand why Kristof is motivated to challenge the FDA and others to take a stronger stance on chemicals. Personally I don't microwave anything in plastic, don't allow my husband to even think about fertilizer and don't like my daughters using nail polish but this article lacks nuance. I know it's an opinion piece.

Well here's my opinion: 

It's not that Kristof gets the evidence wrong. It's just not quite right as in not the entire story.

Take the twin studies that he refers to as evidence for the powerful effects of chemicals on pregnant women, fetuses and young children. Oh wait, that's right, the twin research he cites doesn't address artificial toxins but natural hormones, testosterone:
Scientists have long known the tiniest variations in hormone levels influence fetal development. For example, a female twin is very slightly masculinized if the other twin is a male, because she is exposed to some of his hormones. Studies have found that these female twins, on average, end up slightly more aggressive and sensation-seeking as adults but have lower rates of eating disorders.
Those twins sharing the womb with a brother enjoy a lower risk for an eating disorder?

Sounds odd, right? I bet you're wondering how on earth researchers came up with that off-the-wall hypothesis.

It seems female rodents exposed in utero to testosterone ate more and weighed more than other females. So hey, why not take a giant leap to disordered eating and test the theory in humans because we all know eating disorders have so little to do with social-cultural or interpersonal factors.

Thus a 2008 study showed that a twin girl with a twin brother was indeed at lower risk of an eating disorder (as reported on a survey) than a twin girl with either a twin sister or non-twin brother.

But Kristof didn't tell us about the other study. 

The one that failed to replicate those results.

Yeah a 2009 study that found no such testosterone "effects" as in significant differences in eating disorders between same-sex and opposite-sex twins.  It took me all of 20 seconds to find it after reading the first one. 

Anyhow, I just wish we could trust the accuracy of claims in the New York Times.  I for one don't have time to check all the claims. Not when I have to scrub the burnt remnants of dinner off my stainless steel pans and figure out if any ingredients in my face cream are going to make me look 10 days younger or kill me. 

Cheers. 

Hey, ladies out there with a twin bro, you got any speeding tickets lately? Gambling lately? How much you eating these days? Forgetting to pick up any wet towels?

PS This is not the Mr. Kristof's first foray into speculative science surrounding toxic chemicals.  Exhibit A: His botched piece on autism and toxins - see my previous post. Or this one.  Fortunately he doesn't venture into these unfamiliar waters very often.

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