His words hit the jury like a drug. even on videotape, Donald Bennett was a commanding witness. Four science degrees, an unflappable doctor1s demeanor, a top job at the American Medical Association. He also had once been a pharmacologist for the Dow Corning Corporation, which explains why he was testifying in this breast implant case. Because until the mid-'70s he had participated in a variety of Dow research projects on silicone. Because, as he was telling these jurors in 1995, he had quit in frustration with Dow's limited curiosity about the safety of its silicone products.
The suit had been brought against Dow Corning and its parent The Dow Chemical Company by Charlotte Mahlum, a Nevada wife and mother who had gotten breast implants ten years earlier, after a double mastectomy at age 36. Initially, Mahlum was thrilled just to look and feel normal again. But in 1990 an array of baffling symptoms began-blinding headaches, fatigue and aching joints, dry eyes and mouth. At the same time, her implants were behaving strangely. Shifting up near her shoulder one day, under her arm the next. The skin covering them would alternate between a yellowish color and black and blue.
By the time Mahlum had the implants removed in 1993, the left one was ruptured and silicone had spread through her body, embedding itself in soft tissue. Her doctor told her that he had suctioned as much of it as he could scrape off her ribs, but that some would remain inside her forever. Pieces of crystallized silicone started pushing through her pores, like slivers of glass. Still, that wasn't the worst of it. She was diagnosed with an autoimmune disorder that brought on bowel incontinence, tremors, and mental confusion. Now she is forced to wear diapers and to get around with a walker or cane. Talking to her on the phone, you'd swear she was pushing 80.
Although Dow did dispute some of Mahlum's ailments, what was really at issue was whether they had any connection to her implants. The jurors listened to four weeks of scientific testimony. They heard about the latest epidemiological studies that had found implants don't raise the risk of connective-tissue autoimmune diseases, like rheumatoid arthritis or scleroderma. They also heard about the limitations of those studies, and the fact that implant manufacturers had helped finance all of them, for the admitted purpose of using them as a defense in these suits. They heard from doctors who had examined hundreds of implant patients with complaints similar to Mahlum's. And, most damningly, they heard about studies that Dow itself had done on silicone-and later kept secret-that showed it to be an effective insecticide, an immuno-stimulant, a cell irritant.
It took the jurors only a few hours to decide unanimously against Dow.
It took the press barely any longer to decide the jurors were too dumb to understand the evidence.
A Detroit News editorial, "Greed Triumphs Again," argued that the Mahlum jurors had "rendered meaningless basic principles of science and law." Newsweek declared the facts "no match for Mahlum's neighborly appeal." As the Rocky Mountain News saw things, "It made no difference to the plaintiff, her attorneys, the judge, or the jury that all of the major scientific studies of the past few years have found not one iota of evidence that breast implants cause connective tissue disease..."
The theme of much of the commentary-greedy plaintiffs, an out-of-control tort system, so-called junk science-had been playing out in the media since the summer. Ever since, in fact, The New York Times's Gina Kolata wrote a 3,300-word piece on June 13, 1995 titled "A Case of Justice, or a Total Travesty?" about what she called the "growing waves of panic whipped up by lawyers eager for huge fees" that dragged Dow Corning, "a large and thriving company," into bankruptcy.
"I think she singlehandedly turned the tide in favor of Dow Corning," says John Byrne, a senior writer for Business Week and author of Informed Consent, a book about Dow's history with breast implants. "All those years Dow created, sold, marketed these devices and didn't have the studies to prove they were safe. And then you have Gina Kolata contending that Dow has been convicted on junk science."
By Sheryl Fragin
AS A SCIENCE REPORTER FOR WHAT IS ARGUABLY THE MOST important science-news forum in the country, if not the world, Gina Kolata has tremendous influence. Her stories run verbatim in some of the 350 news outlets that subscribe to the Times wire service, and many more adopt her point of view in their own reports or even quote her. That1s not counting the doctors and scientists who rely on her summary of a study before their medical journals arrive in the mail, and sometimes after. It1s not at all unusual for a scientist to say in an interview, "I never read the study, but based on what I saw in the Times..."
Silicone breast implants were suspended from the market by the Food and Drug Administration in 1992, a time when thousands of women were complaining of the kinds of symptoms seen in autoimmune diseases. Two years later, the first of the epidemiological reports began coming out. In May and June 1994, there were two new studies looking at large groups of women to see whether silicone implants cause scleroderma, which can harden the skin and cripple internal organs, or other connective-tissue autoimmune diseases. Both found no evidence of a relationship.
It was at this point that Kolata seemed to begin making up her mind. In her June 16, 1994 piece about the latest study, from the Mayo Clinic, she presented the findings as fairly conclusive, particularly when lined up next to similar results from the universities of Michigan and Maryland. The only voices of disagreement-at least included in the story-were plaintiffs lawyers who "angrily insisted that the evidence that implants cause harm was as strong as ever."
What she also left out was that the Mayo and Maryland studies took funding from the American Society of Plastic and Reconstructive Surgeons Inc., a group that not only funneled more than $1 million from implant manufacturers into grants under its name, but consulted with those manufacturers and their lawyers about which studies to support. The lead scientist on the Maryland study even agreed to alter his research protocol "in response to the thoughtful critique provided by scientists at Dow Corning," as he himself put it in a friendly letter to the company that later came out in court. As for the Michigan study, it was financed by Dow, something Kolata did note in a previous piece but not in this one.
It is important to say here that drug and chemical makers routinely underwrite studies of their own products or relevant issues, and scientists at universities can gratefully accept such funding without selling their souls. But the implant studies were being done in the midst of litigation, making the money trail rather pertinent. And Kolata was scrupulous about pointing out any money a scientist might have taken from the plaintiffs1 side.
These kinds of criticisms, implying that she somehow favors one side over another, both offend and irritate Kolata, who believes they come from "people with agendas" who know nothing about the subject matter. "My only concern is with whether there is a body of scientific evidence to support an assertion and, if so, what the science says," she explains in faxed answers to prepared questions, the only way she would agree to comment for this article.
"Sometimes, however, groups who are convinced of a hypothesis in the absence of scientific evidence have tried to make me the issue when I have reported that evidence is lacking."
According to her detractors-and there are many, among scientists, doctors, and fellow journalists covering the same beats-she is precisely the issue. Her opinions seem to color a lot of her stories, particularly those on highly charged topics like breast implants. "I think what happened with Miss Kolata was she began selecting sources who echoed her point of view," says Norman Anderson, an associate professor of medicine at Johns Hopkins University and chairman of two FDA panels that looked into the safety of breast implants. "It's my belief that she began reporting editorials as news. I also was really disturbed when I saw the credence she gave to the spinmakers at Dow Corning, as opposed to the FDA."
FLAWED SCIENCE AT THE TIMES
By Sheryl Fragin
THAT SAID, IT IS EASY TO SEE WHAT THE TIMES VALUES IN GINA Kolata. She is fast and enthusiastic. She is a facile writer with a gift for translating dense scientific material into everyday language. And she is a thinker-a rarer gift among reporters-who challenges her readers with ideas.
Perhaps what sets her apart even more is her willingness to stake out unpopular positions on contentious issues, something her superiors have admired and encouraged. "From an editor's point of view, Gina is a delight to work with," says Nicholas Wade, the Times's science editor from late 1990 to 1997. "She's very original and very willing to challenge orthodoxy. The fact that she took on difficult tasks that other reporters wouldn1t touch is all to her credit. She1s sure enough of her own judgment that she frames and runs with a story no matter whom it may offend."
Kolata is not without fans outside the paper who share that sentiment. There's no question that the medical community could use some shaking up, and she sometimes turns over just the rock that no one else has noticed. This February she wrote a tough story about an annual cardiology convention where manufacturers of expensive, high-tech devices aggressively peddle their wares to doctors. At least one cardiologist in that piece, who has enjoyed working with her on other stories, was particularly impressed that she threw out his juiciest quotes because he insisted on anonymity. "I don't think I can ask any more of a reporter," he says. "I really believe in what you guys do. I believe in the dialogue. And for that dialogue, we need the Gina Kolatas of the world. The fact that she is proactive and searches out the story behind the story is very important."
Where it becomes tricky is when reporters get addicted to standing out on that limb alone. Most struggle with a powerful urge to seek out the contrarian angle, not only to distinguish themselves from their peers, but also because they're trained to be suspicious of dogma. Few reporters haven't succumbed, sometimes unconsciously, to writing the "Guess what?" story. But that's where editors are supposed to come in-questioning and challenging why their paper's take on an issue is so different.
In Kolata's case, some have suggested that this critical check was missing for much of her tenure at the Times, until Wade stepped down and returned to reporting in January 1997. "Nick Wade, I think, in many scientists' opinions and in many science journalists' opinions, also consistently had a tendency to emphasize one side of a story, to almost emphasize whatever side of a story everybody else didn't emphasize," says Barbara Culliton, former news editor of the prestigious journal Science, where Wade and Kolata previously worked as reporters. "It's almost like he wanted to be contrary for the sake of being contrary."
Culliton, now editor in chief of the Journal of Investigative Medicine, remembers Kolata as "very quick to make up her mind" without doing the necessary legwork. "It was not uncommon for me to say something like 'This story is very one-sided; you've only got quotes from these people,'" she says, adding that Kolata was then equally quick to remedy the situation, and that the two had a good relationship. "My own experience as a science journalist...left me skeptical of conclusions she drew. It's not that I doubted that her quotes were correct; I had doubts about the overall credibility of a story. It was a question of judgment and context." For her part, Kolata says she doesn't recall any such problems with her reporting at Science, and that at the Times, many editors besides Wade reviewed her work.
Like anyone who synthesizes information for a living, Kolata brings something of herself to the table. As she told William Powers in the National Journal in January, "People have this idea that when you do a news piece, you give this side and you give the other side, and the truth is in the middle. I don't agree." Neither do many other good reporters, who consider it their job to lead the reader through the muck, deciding what facts to use, who to interview, what the real issues are.
Throughout Kolata's controversial decade at the Times, there has been endless speculation about her "motives" for leading readers down the particular paths she chooses. She has been accused of propping up the medical establishment and drug companies (in a recent article in The Nation), of hyping stories to promote her own book projects, of carrying out this or that political agenda. None of this really holds up against her body of work or the obvious sincerity she has for her craft. If Kolata can be accused of any allegiance at all, it is to a narrow and traditional view of scientific evidence, where nothing is real until documented by large epidemiological studies or lab experiments.
"As I've said before, I have no agenda," she repeats like a weary mantra. Her criteria for stories is simple: "I distinguish between anecdotes and case reports, which are hypothesis-generators, and controlled studies, which are hypothesis-testers." Her stand, though, ignores that some of the most important public health discoveries of this century-those that connected thalidomide and birth defects, DES and vaginal cancers, vinyl chloride and liver cancer, aspirin and Reye's syndrome-came from scientists open-minded enough to take case reports seriously and to follow their own common sense.
FLAWED SCIENCE AT THE TIMES
By Sheryl Fragin
THINGS REALLY GOT ANTAGONISTIC ON the breast-implant front in mid-1995, when Kolata wrote five major articles between May and September, all painting the same black-and-white scenario: scientists and truth in one corner, lawyers and innuendo in the other. Typically she would frontload a story with quotes from scientists attesting to the strength of the epidemiological studies, follow that with a dismissive "But plaintiffs insist..." sentence, and only toward the end of the piece allow rebuttal from a lawyer or activist or dubious doctor-anyone but a leading scientist with an opposing viewpoint.
For example, in "Legal System and Science Come to Differing Conclusions on Silicone" on May 16, 1995, Kolata spent several paragraphs establishing that "scientists" no longer believed implants were dangerous. Pitted against them were "medical experts summoned by the plaintiffs" (also scientists, but never referred to as such) waving evidence from mouse experiments. If that weren1t ridicule enough, she noted that the scientists "regard the medical experts who testified for the plaintiffs as hired guns...."
Curiously, the first of those real scientists turned out to be a hired gun for implant manufacturers, though Kolata never mentioned it. John Sergent, whom she described as a professor of medicine at Vanderbilt University and former president of the American College of Rheumatology, was also a $500-an-hour consultant and/or expert witness for Baxter Healthcare, Dow Corning, 3M, and Bristol-Myers Squibb, according to court papers. In June 1995, he was featured in her "Justice or Total Travesty?" piece, again without mention of his connections. None of the newspapers who picked up his quotes from Kolata1s stories mentioned them either.
Although Kolata has chosen not to answer questions about Sergent, she insists she "specifically sought out scientists who were not expert witnesses on either side." And Wade, her editor at the time, calls such scrutiny of her work nitpicky and irrelevant. "Even if [her omissions] happened exactly as you1ve described, these are second-tier attributes of these stories," he says. "The bottom line is I believe she was right on these stories."
That Sergent was paid to give his opinions on a subject he seemed to care deeply about should not necessarily discredit what he had to say. But that kind of uneven reporting-which epitomized Kolata1s breast-implant coverage after 1994-left the impression that the science was clear-cut, and that only doctors who chose to sell themselves could still say implants were risky.
In fact, there were many scientists and doctors who kept pointing out the flaws in the epidemiological studies, which by 1996 also included two Harvard studies. The chief objection: All of the studies focused on classic connective-tissue diseases, like rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, or scleroderma, even though most of the women1s complaints fell into a new category that didn1t typify any known disease. What you don1t look for, critics argued, you won1t find. The other major problem was that all but the second Harvard study were too small for such rare diseases to show up anyway.
As for that larger Harvard study, it had "so many problems," says Sander Greenland, a professor of epidemiology at UCLA who is currently working on a new silicone study funded by Dow. "The response rate was so low, something like twenty-five percent. We don1t know who responded-whether women who had problems were overrepresented, or whether their lawyers advised them not to respond....What do you make of such a study? You certainly can1t say there is no effect."
FDA scientists, including then-commissioner David Kessler, echoed those objections in a report published in the Annals of Internal Medicine in April 1996. Reviewing all of the breast-implant literature to date, they documented the flaws in each study, concluding that none was adequate to rule out a link to either classic or atypical diseases, although there probably wasn1t a large risk of the classic ones.
Kolata, on the other hand, reported on every new study as if it were unassailable, arguing today that none of them would have passed peer review if they were so troubled. When the first Harvard study came out, she called it the most "definitive" one yet-so "compelling" and "consistent" with the others that some leading rheumatologists believe the issue "can now be considered closed." (In case there was any doubt about Kolata1s influence, a Chicago Tribune columnist, Joan Beck, had this to say three days later: "The results are so definitive and consistent with earlier research that many health experts now consider the case closed.")
By contrast, Thomas Burton1s June 22, 1995 story in The Wall Street Journal pointed out the study1s limitations, including a caveat written by the Harvard authors themselves:"our study cannot be considered definitively negative." Burton also saw fit to note that Dow Corning had retained one of the authors as a consultant and subsidized the tuition of a second and the salary and benefits of a third. Kolata only mentioned funding from the National Institutes of Health, even though the Dow connection was spelled out on the front page of the study. In fact, that link was even stronger: Brigham and Women1s Hospital, Harvard1s partner in this and the larger study, had received $9.7 million in research grants from Dow Corning in 1994 and a $1.2 million gift in 1992.
Kolata will not address the details she left out, except to repeat that "the study was financed by the National Institutes of Health." And once again, her editor at the time isn1t bothered by her reporting choices. "I didn1t study [Burton1s] stories carefully, so I can1t comment specifically," says Wade. "But one would expect the Journal would put more emphasis on the money side of an issue, and we would focus on the science."
Sticking strictly to the "science," there was another issue that got lost in the smoke. Didn1t the opinions of doctors who actually examined these women count for anything? All of the epidemiological studies were done from records and questionnaires, and researchers often don1t see patients or hear the litany of familiar complaints: joint aches and fatigue, dry mouth and eyes, thinning hair. Nor do they see the masses of silicone that harden in up to 70 percent of the women1s chests over time. "Any physician who1s seen a dozen of these women knows there are illnesses caused by implants," says Gary Solomon, associate director of rheumatology at New York University1s Hospital for Joint Diseases Orthopaedic Institute.
Solomon sees a lot of women with implant problems, often by referral from lawyers, which landed him in a September 1995 story by Kolata and Barry Meier about doctors and lawyers cashing in on implant suits. Ironically, Kolata had written about Solomon eight years earlier-that time as a hero who solved an AIDS medical mystery. "In the breast-implant litigation, it was mandated that if you wanted to file a claim, you had to see a rheumatologist," he says. "Then anybody who has seen them in that situation is painted as biased. Some of the people they consider to be experts have never seen patients with the illness."
Needless to say, Solomon wasn1t pleased to find himself lumped in with doctors running diagnosis mills, his name juxtaposed against the "large numbers" of patients he1d seen and the "lucrative" nature of the business. "I included him because he was so well-known as a doctor whom the lawyers relied on to help make their cases," explains Kolata.
"I want to be fair; I1ve read Gina Kolata1s stories for years and she1s been an excellent and capable reporter," Solomon says. "She1s done a very good job in stories that aren1t politically charged. But on the breast-implant issue I think she has an agenda, and her stories are all geared toward proving it. She has consistently failed to present any of the science behind the problems with silicones and instead has chosen to focus on abuses in the legal and medical systems."
The debate over whether implants are health hazards is still raging, and readers of The New York Times might never guess that there1s more to it than courtroom shenanigans. Last year the Mayo Clinic team published a follow-up to its 1994 study, showing that nearly one in four women with implants needs additional surgery within five years because of a rupture or other complications. Kolata, who frequently cited the first Mayo study, didn1t cover the follow-up. Then, this July, she wrote yet another story about the opposing agendas of science and the courts, where she quoted a legal expert "who has no connection to the implant litigation" about the greed that1s driving the implant suits. The supposedly impartial expert, Bert Black, actually has been representing the Chemical Manufacturers Association-of which Dow Chemical is a prominent member-in recent product liability cases.
Due out next year are the results of the most extensive study to date, a five-year investigation by the National Institutes of Health that was ordered by Congress. It is the first designed to examine long-term effects, the first to focus on atypical disease, and the first to avoid special-interest money. "I think it1s still an open book," says Louise Brinton, the study1s lead investigator and chief of the environmental epidemiology branch of the National Cancer Institute. "I don1t think the previous research was defined enough to answer the big questions."
Her piece, while raising a significant issue, had an oddly combative tone. A lineup of researchers was brought in to argue against parallel track, with only a lone AIDS activist to defend it. There was no real discussion about the patients who couldn't qualify for the clinical trials and would have been out of luck otherwise. Kolata's stand won her the wrath of ACT UP, the militant AIDS group, which plastered stickers all over New York saying she was the worst AIDS reporter in America.
On March 12, 1990, Kolata seemed to have the proof that she had been right: Patients taking the first drug released under a "new and controversial distribution system" were dying at ten times the rate of patients in the standard clinical trials, she wrote. According to a Harvard research administrator quoted high in the story, the 290 deaths on parallel track were "an absolute disgrace" and "a painful way to learn the lesson." (The researcher happened to be a pioneer of randomized clinical trials, but readers weren't told about that bias.)
Kolata's alarming numbers stood out against the Los Angeles Times, The Wall Street Journal, the Chicago Tribune, and The Washington Post, which all reported six or seven deaths. That's because her colleagues counted only those attributable to the drug, not to AIDS-related infections. Patients on parallel track were vastly sicker than their counterparts in the clinical trials, and many more deaths were to be expected. While Kolata alluded to that in her story, she buried it ten paragraphs inside and gave it so little credibility-from the mouth of a drug-company flack-that it didn't register. "At the time I wrote the story, it was not clear which deaths were attributable to the drug," she says now, even though other reporters were able to get the figures straight.
Panic broke out almost immediately. Patients started dropping out of the trials and abandoning the drug. Mathilde Krim, the AIDS researcher and cofounder of AmFAR, shot off a protest letter to the Times, as did several physicians and activists. Other papers did stories about the scare set off by "a published report." Only through a tremendous public relations effort by Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, was the drug trial salvaged. The drug, DDI, is now one of the standard choices for AIDS treatment.
"In general, there was a sense that Gina was viewing things with a very different perspective than I was, or most of the other reporters covering it," says Laurie Garrett, a Pulitzer Prize-winning science reporter for Newsday. "It seemed her reporting was filled with a high index of suspicion-at the very time the leadership in the AIDS community was beginning to develop a coalition or shared mission with the scientific community. As a biologist trained in immunology, I realized this thing was going to be a monstrous problem to solve. I didn't see how anyone would be served if I searched for scandal."
Replies Kolata: "It is a reporter's job to be skeptical, if that's what
she means by a high index of suspicion."
The obvious question is: How did she hold on to her beat, not to mention her job? Philip Boffey, who was the Times's science editor until late 1990, was concerned enough at the time to have conducted a review of her AIDS work, according to someone with direct knowledge of it. But no action was ever taken, and the issue eventually faded away. Kolata claims she never felt any pressure from above to stop writing about AIDS.
"The Times is an institution that's completely cut off from the world, so it's very easy to be defensive," says one science reporter for the paper. "There wasn't a sense of worrying about whether Gina was right or wrong, but whether they wanted to protect the Times from criticism."
Of course, it is almost an axiom of the profession that the louder the outcry over a story, the more likely journalists are to believe it is dead-on accurate. Someone is always complaining, often just because the reporting exposed some secret, flaw, or lie. So it probably wasn't that hard for Times editors to reassure themselves that the protests were coming from people with their own agendas.
One thing they couldn't explain away was the number of mistakes Kolata made in her reporting. She is famous for mixing up states, schools, hospitals, and affiliations. From 1990 through this April, the Times ran 62 factual corrections on her articles-not counting another 15 in charts or editing-with 12 correcting two mistakes at once. One corrected five in a single story, and wound up being lampooned in another science writers' newsletter. In fact, Kolata made roughly five times as many errors as her colleague Natalie Angier did during that same time period. "I write more stories than most reporters," Kolata says, "many of which are written under extremely tight deadlines."
Sloppy mistakes would worry any editor; "Seattle" not "St. Louis," "Berkeley" not "Stanford" does little for credibility. But the ones that really should have raised flags were those that hinted at an intellectual bias. In June 1996, for example, Kolata wrote back-to-back page-one stories dismissing all forms of alternative medicine, equating acupuncture and chiropractic treatment with coffee enemas. Her second piece went after the Office of Alternative Medicine at the National Institutes of Health, particularly what "some academic scientists" called its "questionable standards" for awarding grants. Contrary to usual NIH practice, she wrote, these grant applications weren't reviewed by outside experts but by staffers and advisers who either practiced alternative medicine or were already true believers.
Two weeks later the Times corrected itself: Not only do alternative-medicine grants undergo review by outside experts, but they also must pass an advisory board at an NIH division-all before reaching that board of "believers."
There is no doubt where Kolata stands on the subject. All five of her stories on alternative medicine have been about hoaxes, hazards, and quack doctors, in stark contrast to health columnist Jane Brody, who recently urged readers to consider some of the same therapies Kolata ridicules. It's hard not to question, then, whether her mistake was a result of straining to make the evidence prove a point.
"She's a very enthusiastic person and has a lot of good ideas for stories," says the Times science writer. "But when she gets on a story, she's unable to change her mind as she goes along. Whatever she starts out with, she enthusiastically sets out to prove. She's capable of letting someone take apart her thesis and then ignoring it."
Perhaps that was the case in April 1992, when she made a mistake that triggered one of the strangest mea culpas in Times history: a page-one story by Kolata attacking her own reporting from the day before, and even quoting her editor, Wade, for elaboration. The subject was DNA fingerprinting, something she had frequently criticized in the past. This time she wrote that an expert panel of the National Academy of Sciences, in a highly anticipated report, had suggested barring DNA evidence from trials "unless a more scientific basis is established."
Actually, the panel made the opposite recommendation and endorsed DNA fingerprinting as a powerful tool for solving crimes. Making this whole episode even more bizarre, after starting out her apology story with "Contrary to a report in The New York Times...," Kolata then went on to defend her original interpretation. At one point in the article she gathered several lawyers to plumb the subtext of what the panel really said-much to the frustration of the panel chairman, who apparently wasn't entitled to have the final say on what his own words meant.
Kolata, on the other hand, saw it as more junk science. In the lead paragraphs of her first of two stories about the book that day, she framed the debate as activists and celebrities versus credible scientists, a technique she used to great effect in her breast-implant stories. Although she granted that the book was endorsed by 'several' biologists and toxicologists, she never allowed any of them to speak. Instead, she handed most of the story over to critics, introduced as 'leading scientists.'
If the intent was to present an impartial review, these particular scientists weren't the obvious choice. The most inflammatory remark in the piece-'It's a political movement and it's based on lousy science'-came from Bruce Ames, a biochemistry and molecular biology professor at the University of California at Berkeley and a board adviser at The Advancement of Sound Science Coalition. That coalition has itself been accused of being a 'political movement,' run by a lobbyist for the EOP Group, whose clients include Dow Chemical and the Chlorine Chemistry Council, according to a 1997 directory of registered lobbyists. There's no question that Ames is a respected biochemist. But his views on this subject are extreme and emphatic enough at least to have warranted a disclaimer.
The same holds true for another of Kolata's sources. Stephen Safe, whom she identified simply as a toxicology professor at Texas A&M University, sits on the advisory board of the American Council on Science and Health, which was the subject of a scathing Consumer Reports profile in 1994-'Forefront of Science, or Just a Front?' As the magazine pointed out, the group has been kept afloat by the generosity of corporations like Union Carbide and Dow, and by industry-backed foundations. At the time of Kolata's piece, Safe's own research was being subsidized by the Chemical Manufacturers Association.
'The story was very slanted, and it was one of those not-so-unusual situations where someone goes seeking people who agree with their belief, and then quoting them in order to bolster what they thought upfront,' says J. Routt Reigart, director of general pediatrics at the Medical University of South Carolina. Reigart, who the Times once quoted in a story as a medical expert, sent a letter to the paper protesting Kolata's piece. It never ran. In frustration, the Environmental Information Center, an advocacy group that helped promote Our Stolen Future, bought an ad on the op-ed page to criticize Kolata's reporting.
Endocrine disrupters had been a hot issue before the book came out, ever since alligators and fish heavily exposed to hormone-mimicking chemicals wound up crossing gender, becoming sterile, having babies without sex organs. No one disputes that the threat to wildlife is real. The big question is whether small quantities of these chemicals can affect humans as well, since our natural hormones are thousands of times more potent than any one of the imposters. Then again, we're typically exposed to chemicals in combinations, which changes the equation a bit.
'A lot of the stuff around endocrine disrupters is very, very subtle,' says Richard Jackson, director of the National Center for Environmental Health at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 'They are things that make scientists very uneasy, because they're very difficult to quantify.' Jackson, who calls Our Stolen Future 'a seminal book,' created a special research group at the CDC to study endocrine disrupters. Last year the group was able to quantify a possible effect: The number of boys born with hypospadias, an abnormality of the penis, had doubled in the U.S. since the 1960s. 'A very powerful finding,' he says. 'I find there is something real here. It is an important and reasonable thing for people to be looking at.'
results. In her piece, "Sperm Counts: Some Experts See a Fall, Others Poor Data," Kolata again collected some "leaders in the field" to dispute the reports in Our Stolen Future, and again neglected to contact any scientists in defense. Her introduction was withering: "Overnight, say many male-infertility experts, and largely on the basis of one controversial paper, a conviction has been born. Just as DDT caused birds' eggs to shatter, proponents of the theory say, something in the food, or water or perhaps the plastics people use with such abandon is decimating sperm counts."
As her experts correctly pointed out, none of the studies was ideal. Working with sperm isn't like analyzing blood; the only places to find samples are places that can bias the study. Sperm banks, for instance, don't keep many specimens from infertile men. But the new studies that Kolata countered with were also flawed, though this time there was no mention of "serious methodological problems."
Her first expert, Richard Sherins, a former NIH endocrinologist, was brought in to refute a connection in the book between infertility and DES, a potent estrogen mimic. DES was widely prescribed to pregnant women in the '50s and '60s to prevent miscarriage. Not only didn't it work, but it later caused vaginal cancers in their daughters who had been exposed in utero. Now it is often held up as a warning against other estrogenic chemicals. But Sherins pointed to research on men whose mothers tookDES-"the largest, most carefully conducted" study of DES sons, as Kolata put it-that showed no drop in their fertility.
Actually, that study had problems, too. The men were simply interviewed about children they had fathered, which said nothing definitive about their sperm levels. In addition, their mothers were part of a DES trial group that took the drug later in pregnancy than usual, according to Shanna Swan, chief of reproductive epidemiology at the California Department of Health Services. But never mind the sons' sperm. The study also found that they had three times as many genital deformities as men whose mothers didn't take DES, a fact that Kolata left out of her story and that made Sherins's example a less-than-shining defense of estrogenic chemicals.
Next, she called on Larry Lipshultz, a urology professor at the Baylor College of Medicine, to comment on the Danish study that started the debate. Though readers would never know it, Lipshultz already had published an analysis of that study the year before, where he concluded the Danes were wrong. The author address on his report? The Dow Chemical Company, Midland, Michigan.
Lipshultz, Sherins, and other experts saw no "reliable" evidence that sperm counts were dropping. In fact, Kolata noted, "that was also the consensus" among scientists who had met in Houston a few months earlier to discuss the issue. But as the trade magazine Chemical Week reported about that conference, it was "entangled in controversy," none of which Kolata brought up. First, it was sponsored by the Chlorine Chemistry Council and seemed timed to blunt the publicity for Our Stolen Future. Second, one of the dissenters-Niels Skakkebaek, leader of the Danish study-complained that any consensus was meaningless since the organizers controlled who was invited.
Over the next two months, April and May 1996, Kolata wrote two more stories with the same message and cast of characters: Sherins, Lipshultz (in one of them), and another urologist, Harry Fisch, who had just completed a study of three U.S. cities that showed no change. All three men were on the list of recommended scientists put out by the Chlorine Chemistry Council to rebut Our Stolen Future.
"I never pick experts solely from a list handed to me by a special-interest group," Kolata says. "Instead, I select scientists who know the data and who are experts in evaluating it. It may be that a special-interest group also recommends those scientists-in fact, it is to be expected if those scientists are among the best and if they happen to support the interest group's point of view. But that does not mean that the scientists' views have been bought."
Among the scientists who have never appeared in any of Kolata's pieces are Skakkebaek, the authors of the other European studies, and Swan, who was asked by a National Academy of Sciences committee to make sense of all of the contradictory evidence. Swan went back to the original data from the Danish report-all 61 studies-and set out to control for every criticism ever raised. To address the biggest concern-that most of the early numbers were just from the U.S.-she mapped separate curves for the U.S., Europe, and elsewhere.
In her preliminary report to the Academy, Swan suggested that Skakkebaek was wrong. "I thought the criticisms that were raised were reasonable, and that probably the criticisms would explain the decline," she says. But what Swan found surprised her. In both the U.S. and Europe, the declines were even steeper than in Skakkebaek's report. As for other areas, there wasn't enough data to say.
When Swan published her analysis last November, The Washington Post, Newsday, the Chicago Tribune, and other newspapers ran stories. Kolata, who has had more to say on this issue than almost any other reporter, never mentioned it.
And yet her ideology sometimes appears to be rooted more in personal antagonism than in anything truly calculated. There is an underlying anger in her stories on breast implants, on the environment, and on alternative medicine that is especially striking in contrast to her gentle demeanor. On the Charlie Rose show in January, for example, where she discussed cloning, Kolata was charming and girlish, sparring playfully with the host. In initially turning down an interview for this article, she called back promptly and politely because she "didn't want to be rude." So it's hard to know what to make of the loaded, caustic words she chooses for so many of her stories.
Last October Kolata reviewed an HBO film, Rachel's Daughters, that followed seven breast cancer "detectives" as they searched for the cause of their own disease. The concept was gimmicky, but the filmmakers brought together an impressive group of scientists and surgeons-from Harvard, Stanford, Tufts, Berkeley, and the National Cancer Institute-to discuss the role chemicals may play in rising breast cancer rates. Some of them were scientists that Kolata had used in her own pieces; one was a coauthor of her favorite breast-implant study. But this was not a subject she has had much patience for, so here's what she told her readers about Rachel's Daughters and a related show on Lifetime:
"The women on these television programs are far removed from the universe of scientists and others who make distinctions between hypotheses and evidence, who believe that speculation is not proof and that when evidence fails to support a hypothesis, the hypothesis should be abandoned. The women on these programs believe none of the above. Their universe is emotional and scary, filled with corporate bogeymen and toxic wastes and young women dying of a dread disease."
Seven months earlier, Kolata's sister Judi Bari died at 47 of breast cancer, which Bari believed might have been triggered by chemicals and toxic wastes. In fact, she was a leader of the radical environmental group Earth First! and held many of the same opinions that Kolata has attacked so ferociously in her reporting. As a 1991 article by Bari, "Why I Hate The Corporate Press," asked: "Who needs a virus to kill humans when the real mad scientists have given us nuclear holocaust, toxic waste, deforestation, ozone holes, and the greenhouse effect?"
"I remember one thing Judi would say was that she and Gina were put on earth to cancel each other out," says Bari's ex-husband, Mike Sweeney. The sisters, he claims, had endured a stormy relationship since childhood. To the point where one of Bari's last requests was that Kolata not attend the funeral, according to friend Darryl Cherney. Kolata did nonetheless attend, and, understandably, will not discuss her sister or their relationship.
A review like the one of Rachel's Daughters is the rare opportunity for a Times reporter to sound off in her own voice. But there are always ways to steer a news story. One way, clearly, is to present scientists with extreme views as if they were in the mainstream. On the subject of breast cancer and pesticides, Kolata returned to Texas A&M's Safe and Berkeley's Ames-who had appeared together or separately in four other stories-despite their links to the chemical industry.
This time they showed up in her article on a new Harvard study, released a few weeks after Rachel's Daughters aired, that found no evidence of a link between DDT or PCBs and breast cancer. Safe, who was given a lot of space in Kolata's story, had written an editorial in The New England Journal of Medicine that accompanied the study. It was, to say the least, unusually provocative: "Chemophobia, the unreasonable fear of chemicals," Safe began, "is a common public reaction to scientific or media reports suggesting that exposure to various environmental contam inants may pose a threat to health."
Some scientists were more shocked by Safe's editorial than by the study results. "He's making very, very strong political statements about the whole field, that, given the amount of information out there, I find astonishing," says Frederick vom Saal, a biology professor at the University of Missouri who studies endocrine disrupters. "To call this chemophobia? To say that in a medical journal is not just a trivial use of the term. Those are statements that you don't typically see a scientist making." As The Boston Globe reported, the journal took some heat for running Safe's editorial without a word about the money he'd been getting from the Chemical Manufacturers Association. Yet somehow that wasn't an issue at the Times, and Kolata has chosen not to explain her thinking.
A big part of the problem is that she keeps trying to force a conclusion onto stories that are still unfolding. In the "Week in Review" section after the Harvard study came out, Kolata wrote, "One more environmental scare bit the dust last week..." Did it really? There have been a number of breast cancer studies, some finding an association with DDT, some not, and some still in progress. Possibly we will learn that DDT is not a chemical related to breast cancer, since, as vom Saal suggests, it breaks down in the body to a metabolite that may actually be protective. Either way, we don't know enough yet to be so dismissive.
"It's a deep-seated human prejudice; they just don't want to believe there is a problem," says Greenland, the UCLA epidemiologist. "They're ready to close the books now. The whole history of science is marred by that." Greenland likes to tell his students about the nineteenth century scientist who warned against making "nonsense correlations"-like assuming that people got typhus from lice on immigrant ships just because the two things coincided. That, of course, turned out to be exactly how immigrants were getting it. "Epidemiology isn't rocket science," he says. "It's just that these people get up in public and in the press and in court and are so sure of what they're saying."
It's ironic that it was Kolata who created such a fuss in May with her excitement over Judah Folkman, the cancer researcher who came up with the ingenious idea to focus on a tumor's food supply rather than the tumor itself. For most of his career he was ridiculed, rejected by scientific journals, denied grant money. Now he's being mentioned in the same breath as Charles Darwin. As big as the cancer story is, maybe Folkman's bigger contribution to science reporters like Kolata would be to persuade them to keep an open mind