by Robert Gelfand
American Reporter Correspondent
San Pedro, Calif
Jan 5, 2004
MICHAEL FUMENTO AND MYTH-BUSTING
SAN PEDRO, Calif. -- Michael Fumento is a crusading reporter who thinks the media have been way too easy on the Atkins diet, Erin Brockovich and the Gulf War Syndrome. Fumento is a one-time paratrooper turned attorney turned science journalist who has managed to irritate a hefty fraction of Left wing activists and a pretty good fraction of the Right wing to boot. What's not to like?
Fumento is a prolific author with publications on many subjects. Our interest here is in what he has to say about the state of scientific and medical reporting in the major media.
Fumento's short biographical sketch on his Website at www.fumento.com explains that he finished college during his army service, went on to law school, and eventually became a newspaper reporter about the same time his first major book, "The Myth of Heterosexual AIDS," appeared in print.
The book, first published in 1989, analyzed what was known at the time about AIDS and presented it in a clear and readable way. Fumento came to the conclusion, controversial at the time, that AIDS was not about to explode into the non-drug-using heterosexual population (hence the book's title). Heterosexual AIDS, he explained, was largely a myth, and the majority of the population did not have to live in fear of catching it. Today, Africa has many millions of cases of heterosexual AIDS, but that is not true in the IUnited States, Europe and Asia.
Sp, our experience in America over the next 15 years has largely validated Fumento's predictions. In early 2004, many of us may be concerned about the flu epidemic, but for the most part we don't worry about catching AIDS from a handshake or a sneeze or from being served a cup of coffee at the local diner.
According to Fumento's account of how his book was originally received, he took grief from both the Right and the Left. Even before publication, he lost a grant from a conservative group (intended to give him time to finish the book): the grant was canceled right after he published an article in The New Republic which criticized some conservative positions on AIDS. He details how, months before its publication date, AIDS activists tried to keep the book from seeing the light of day and were effective enough that many bookstores would not carry it. He also lost his newspaper job. The story is available at his site.
If true, it is a chilling indictment of some very real censorship that was not, strictly speaking, governmental or rightist or leftist. As described by Fumento, it was an example of a scientific question being politicized so badly that the truth or falsehood of important questions could no longer be treated fairly in public discourse.
In any event, the book did get published and distributed. I remember encountering it in the Cerritos Public Library here sometime in the early 1990s. I spent the next couple of hours reading most of it on the spot. It did not seem to me to be homophobic or merely axe-grinding.
The book made sense from the scientific standpoint. Although I don't claim to have special expertise in the details of viral infection, my graduate training was in molecular biology, I have an advanced degree in biochemistry, and at the time I was doing research in the field of molecular endocrinology. It was a breath of fresh air to read a layman's book about a serious scientific question that was neither patronizing nor embarrassingly ignorant.
In short, my first experience of Michael Fumento revealed a serious mind capable of distilling a large mass of scientific literature and communicating it in a way that would make sense to a non-scientific audience.
The critical issue is why only Michael Fumento managed to look at what was known about AIDS and come to the reasonable conclusion that he did. It is not as if the media were ignorant of the existence of AIDS. Rather, it had by then become something of an obsession, yet the mainstream media held to the notion that "everyone is at risk," the conventional wisdom of the day.
Fumento explains that this book was not so much about science as about the fact that a particular scientific subject had been hijacked by political considerations far beyond the bounds of science. In a 2000 interview, he said, "I wrote "The Myth of Heterosexual AIDS" because I saw even back in the 1980s that the AIDS epidemic, especially regarding its impact on non-drug-using heterosexuals, was being grossly politicized and sensationalized."
The politicization of human health has become a staple of Fumento literature. In 1993, "Science Under Siege" analyzed other purported dangers including dioxin, electromagnetic fields, food irradiation, agricultural pesticides, and Alar (remember Alar?).
In each case he argued that mass media overreacted to what were modest or nonexistent risks, sensationalizing them far beyond what was justified, and provoked panic and anger from the people who were near to the alleged dangers. This in turn resulted in another round of sensational news stories and a continuing spiral of panic.
Some may disagree with Fumento's danger assessments but the critique of media laziness, the willingness of news outlets to simply repeat the story going around rather than view it thoughtfully, is worth considering.
Reading Fumento's numerous articles and books, one repeatedly comes across a particular argument that goes something like this: Just because somebody has a particular ailment does not make him an authority on the cause of that ailment. No matter how much we may sympathize with the parents of a child who has come down with leukemia, we should not automatically accept their statement that power line electromagnetic fields, or the Love Canal or the Beverly Hills High School oil well caused the disease.
The argument is summarized nicely in a piece titled How to Understand Scientific Studies and Epidemiology, also on his site. The essay, explains why so much of what we read in the newspapers and see on television news is just intellectual garbage.
Fumento's recent targets include the Atkins diet and Erin Brockovich, each a sacred cow to large numbers of people.
The Atkins diet is not exactly beloved by the medical profession. In attacking Atkins (before Dr. Robert Atkins' fatal accident), Fumento was defending the legitimacy of orthodox science as he interpreted a large body of research tending to disprove the long-term effectiveness of the Atkins approach for the majority of dieters. A New York Times Sunday Magazine cover story that rigorousl;y reviewed the same information came to a much different conclusion, as have at least one major study whose results were not known at the time of Fumento's article.
The Erin Brockovich story is of particular interest to media watchers
because of all the favorable publicity that came along with the movie
In recent years Michael Fumento has made himself into something of an
Internet bad boy as he responds to angry email messages. Some of the most
colorful come from people who resent his argument that
Gulf War Syndrome does not exist. He displays several of these
(among many others) on his Website in the part called Hate Mail.
Suffice to say, the language of his detractors often exceeds
what is permissible in The American Reporter. His responses, also
colorful, tell a story of their own, and that story is the epidemiology
of a syndrome that he says cannot be conclusively demonstrated.
It is perhaps not surprising that some people hate him for saying
something they may find painful. After all, Fumento is
in the self-chosen business of explaining that there is no Santa Claus.
In recent years Michael Fumento has made himself into something of an Internet bad boy as he responds to angry email messages. Some of the most colorful come from people who resent his argument that Gulf War Syndrome does not exist. He displays several of these (among many others) on his Website in the part called Hate Mail. Suffice to say, the language of his detractors often exceeds what is permissible in The American Reporter. His responses, also colorful, tell a story of their own, and that story is the epidemiology of a syndrome that he says cannot be conclusively demonstrated.
It is perhaps not surprising that some people hate him for saying something they may find painful. After all, Fumento is in the self-chosen business of explaining that there is no Santa Claus.