Science Policy

Elizabeth Whelan, Fierce Fighter Against Junk Science, Is Dead.



Elizabeth Whelan, founder of the American Council on Science and Health, died yesterday. Whelan had devoted her life to combatting the misinformation and disinformation that are all-too-often peddled by activist charlatans. I could count on her and ACSH to steer me right when reporting on public health, environmental, medical, and regulatory issues.

Whelan's characteristic scientific insight is fully on display in her co-authored 1984 Reason article, "Sweet Truth," which called into question the validity of animal testing for determining the likelihood that various substances cause cancer in human beings. She used the FDA's attempt to ban the sweetener saccharin to illustrate just how wrong-headed and unscientific reliance on such tests is. After reviewing all of the data, she concluded: "Saccharin presents a risk to humans that in all likelihood is negligible, if not nonexistent."

The article concluded:

In the tradition of individual rights and limited government, it is the business of government to protect individuals from being harmed by others. It is not the business of government to prevent individuals from pursuing actions that may result in harms only to themselves. Such restrictions erode freedom of choice and individual responsibility, essential ingredients of a free society.

Just so.

Thirty years after the FDA first tried to ban it, saccharin was delisted in 2000 from the U.S. National Toxicology Program's Report on Carcinogens, where it had been listed since 1981 as a substance reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency finally got around in 2010 to agreeing to no longer list saccharin and its salts as hazardous.

The notice of Whelan's death over at ACSH notes:

Beth was a giant in the annals of public health. With postgraduate degrees from Yale and Harvard, she grew increasingly frustrated with the discrepancy between what she knew to be fact-based scientific truth, and the distorted information that the public was hearing and reading from the media. Unlike many of her colleagues, however, she resolved to do something about it. That's how ACSH was born.

By sheer force of will — despite her youth and inexperience with any sort of activism —she recruited several towering figures in epidemiology, science and public health. These included Nobel Peace Prize laureate Dr. Norman Borlaug, father of the Green Revolution—the man who is credited with saving more lives than any other human being— and Dr. Fredrick Stare, the founding chairman of the Harvard School of Public Health Nutrition Department. Other scientists and policy experts, now numbering close to 350, flocked to join the nascent nonprofit's Board of Scientific Advisors and Policy Experts.

At the same time, she assembled and led a coterie of scientific professionals at the ACSH headquarters in New York City. Before long, publication after publication—all strictly devoted to the concepts of sound science and independent peer review—began to flow. These continue to this day. Every effort she inspired promoted the mantra of evidence-based science, while at the same time countering the hysteria and hyperbole spread by the media and agenda-driven activists. Beth firmly believed that the nonsense and destructive myths posing as science were only allowed to exist because of what she termed "mute science": competent, expert scientists failing to speak up to dispute the junk science advocacy agenda that permeated the media. Beth led the way in urging scientists to speak out against the fallacies that are all too pervasive in our culture.

Beth's legacy will live on long past her all-too-brief sojourn on Earth. Her commitment to the precepts of sound science have been passed on to all who knew her.

She will be sorely missed.

Disclosure: I have worked on a couple of projects for ACSH in the past, including my report, Scrutinizing Industry-Funded Science: The Crusade Against Conflicts of Interest.