Rumor Mongers

"Neutral" technocrats sign on to anti-technology smear campaigns.

If you want to hurt an upstart product, one of the most effective techniques is to start an unfounded rumor--to play on public suspicions and force the maker to prove its innocence. You can start spreading the word, for instance, that urine got into the beer or that the soda pop makes black men sterile. You can taint your target even among people who don't quite believe the allegations. Why, after all, should they take a chance?

Such rumors have hurt actual products; the beer and soda examples are real. But those rumors have gotten harsh treatment in the press. Debunkers attack the stories as malicious and paranoid. And any competitor caught spreading such falsehoods would be subject to serious civil action.

If, however, you are attacking not just a single product but a whole technological category, everything changes. Then you're an idealist. You don't have to keep to the shadows. You can take out full-page ads in newspapers and plant stories with TV news magazines. You can block innovations you dislike by falsely accusing them of terrible dangers. And you can get the government to help you.

Back in 1970, that's what people who hated the birth-control pill did. Under the leadership of Sen. Gaylord Nelson (D-Wisc.), an anti-technology ideologue now known primarily as the father of Earth Day, the Senate held hearings that scared the hell out of American women. Their message was that the pill was highly dangerous, a threat to women's health, even to their lives.

The lead witness, Dr. Hugh J. Davis of the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, denounced oral contraceptives as a "medically unsound" interference with nature: "The synthetic chemicals in the pill are quite unnatural with respect to their manufacture and with respect to their behavior once they are introduced into the human body....It seems to me extremely unwise to officially license, sponsor, and encourage a long-range experiment such as we have now in progress on the effects of chronic ingestion of synthetic hormones by millions of women." In particular, he invoked "the nagging specter of cancer," breast cancer in particular. Use of the pill plummeted overnight.

Today, about a third of women tell pollsters that they associate oral contraceptives with increased cancer risk--although the link to breast cancer has never been proven, and oral contraceptives actually prevent ovarian and endometrial cancer. By avoiding the pill, American women are increasing their cancer risk. And because they believe the pill is far more dangerous than it is, they undergo sterilization surgery at a much higher rate that their European counterparts. A generation after Nelson's hearings, the pill still suffers a stigma.

Few people remember the source of that stigma, or the role that an anti-technology senator played in fostering it. Fewer still know that Davis, the medical professor who did so much to smear the pill, was the inventor of the Dalkon Shield.

That's the great thing about rumors: Once they're loose, their propagators don't have to bear any responsibility for their consequences. Innuendo means never having to say you're sorry. Plus, the stigma is likely to be permanent. Your target can never prove a negative; there's always another possible study that might finally find that cancer link.

Today's anti-technology crusaders are a lot savvier than Nelson and Davis were in 1970--the pill, after all, is still on the market. Nowadays, rumor mongers don't settle for mere defamation or rely on inconclusive congressional hearings. Instead, they turn to the supposedly disinterested technocrats in federal agencies. These officials have the aura of neutral expertise and the executive power to act. Their mere suggestions carry enormous weight. Enlist such an agency in spreading a malicious rumor, and you can destroy just about any innovation, either through direct bans or subsequent litigation.

Consider two remarkable scientific reports released in early December. Each examined the factual basis for a campaign to smear a technology. The first was a comprehensive analysis of the research on silicone-gel breast implants. The report was prepared by a science panel appointed by the judge coordinating the class-action suits against three implant makers. Both sides in the litigation agreed on the panel's members, who are specialists in epidemiology, immunology, and toxicology. Both sides furnished them with information and studies. Yet the panel's conclusion entirely favored the defense: There is no credible evidence that silicone-gel breast implants cause disease. The claim that they do has all the foundation of an urban legend.

The damage, however, has been done. The three implant manufacturers have already agreed to pay out huge sums to settle the suits: $5,000 to $100,000 per plaintiff, with tens of thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands, of women signing on. The only remaining issue is how many plaintiffs will take the settlement cash instead of trying to win more money at trial. A few weeks before the report was released, a fourth manufacturer, Dow Corning, proposed a $3.2 billion settlement plan in its separately consolidated case.

Most significantly, silicone-gel breast implants are essentially off the market in the United States, made illegal for most purposes by the Food and Drug Administration. Even if the FDA changes its mind, it's unlikely that any company would take a chance on reintroducing this once-popular product. Women who want silicone-gel implants are out of luck, unless they leave the country. The campaign against the technology worked.

The second study covered a more recent rumor: allegations by Greenpeace and others that a plastic used in squishy children's toys causes kidney and liver damage, including cancer, when ingested. High doses of the chemical, diisononyl phthalate, have been shown to cause tumors and other organ damage in rats and mice. Since kids tend to chew these toys, some of which are designed as teethers, the charge is a serious one. And, like the campaign against silicone-gel breast implants, it turns out to lack foundation.

On December 2, the Consumer Product Safety Commission released a huge, eye-glazing study demonstrating that the amount of chemicals children ingest by chewing on these toys is way, way below anything approaching a dangerous dose. Kids simply can't get enough of the chemical into their system to cause any damage. A child is about as likely to be seized by evil spirits in the Teletubby doll he's chewing as he is to absorb enough diisononyl phthalate to create health problems.

The international campaign against the toys spreads superstitious anxieties about synthetic chemicals and, by extension, about industry and technology in general. Fear, not health, is the point. And despite the CPSC's report, the anti-phthalate campaign has won.

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