Now that the age of newspeak is firmly upon us, it’s not suprising that an organization with a seemingly straightforward name like “Center for Consumer Freedom” is not a consumer protection group. CCF is a lobbying group that has, among other things, worked for the tobacco industry to thwart smoking bans. Its latest target is the Environmental Working Group, and the subject is EWG’s recent report involving the use of vitamin A in sunscreens.
According to SourceWatch, CCF’ usually positions itself as an authority on an issue and then undermines the credibility of scientific research on that topic. They’ve used this approach to attack research on issues ranging from obesity and mercury poisoning to pharmaceuticals and pesticides, and the vitamin A issue looks like a textbook case of their methodology.
Vitamin A and Sunscreens
CCF’ put out a press release on August 16 that starts off with a general attack on EWG’s entire body of work before declaring that “Not even vitamin A is safe from EWG’s poison pen.” Basically they’ve set EWG up to look laughable for making us scared of vitamin A. Well actually, something you take orally can have very different effects if you slather it on your skin. More to the point, the stuff used in some sunscreens is a form of vitamin A (not just plain old “vitamin A”), and there are other forms of vitamin A such as retinol that work as a skin irritant, and any decent online health adviser will warn you to avoid the sun when using skin products that contain retinol, so no, it is not laughable to take a look at research from the Food and Drug Administration that explores the potential health impacts of overusing skin products that contain a form of vitamin A, which is what EWG did.
Pitting Scientists Against Each Other
CCF also declares, without citation, that 70 percent of the members of the Society of Toxicology have a general problem with EWG. Setting aside the question of how reliable that figure is (and what it actually means), a quick search of the ol’ tubes reveals bad blood between the Society and EWG on an unrelated matter, so it’s not entirely clear that a survey of Society members is a reliable indicator of EWG’s professional standards.
The takeaway: when reporting on science issues, it’s a cop-out to seek two opposing sides and give each equal credibility. Instead of achieving journalistic objectivity, the failure to investigate and weigh sources is itself a powerful form of bias, which plays right into the hands of front groups by providing one side’s position with a force that is not borne out by the facts.
Image: Sun on skin by Jessica Rabbit on flickr.com.