'Tainted Truth' finds unreliable 'facts'

June 16, 1994|By Hal Piper | Hal Piper,Sun Staff Writer

"Truth shall make you free," it says in the Good Book, just a few pages from where it asks, "What is truth?"

Now, at last, we can answer the question. "Truth is what sells," Jules Henry has observed. "Truth is what you want people to believe. Truth is that which is not legally false."

Thus it is true that 60 percent of the respondents in one survey thought Merit cigarettes "as good as or better than" a competing brand. That includes 26 percent who liked Merit better and 34 percent who thought the two brands equal. But 30 percent preferred the other brand, so it is also true that 64 percent thought the competing brand "as good as or better than" Merit. But Merit commissioned the survey, so guess which truth got trumpeted in the advertising?

And it is true that one out of 50 adult Americans (3.7 million) may have been kidnapped by space aliens. A Roper poll asked 6,000 people if they had had certain experiences like sensing a strange presence in the room, losing track of time or finding puzzling scars on the body. When 119 people said they had had several of these experiences, it was simple arithmetic to work out the astounding truth about possible alien abductions.

It is even true that Retin-A reverses wrinkles, but it helps to know several additional truths, not initially publicized. The study consisted of only 30 hospital patients and lasted only four months. Half the patients used Retin-A, the rest a placebo. Eleven of the 15 Retin-A users developed such severe side effects, including skin irritation, that they needed steroid creams to counteract them.

If truth has become "tainted," Cynthia Crossen writes in this book, it is because truth is no longer the object of research: "More and more of the information we use to buy, elect, advise, acquit and heal has been created not to expand our knowledge but to sell a product or advance a cause."

Ms. Crossen, a reporter for the Wall Street Journal, leads us through a series of case studies that made headlines we all remember: oat bran, apples and Alar, disposable diapers or cloth, the Dalkon contraceptive shield, silicone breast implants. It is not only the Tobacco Institute that can produce research to suit its corporate needs.

Policy advocates, too, can prove whatever needs proving: There are 3 million homeless, or there are only 230,000. Inflation will be 2 percent next year, or it will be double that. There are a million more songbirds in America than when Columbus came, or more than half the bird species in North America are losing population.

Money, prestige and the fate of the Earth, or at least of the cause, depend on getting one's own truth out ahead of the other xTC side's truth. But belief in truth itself is the casualty. "If nothing is true," writes Ms. Crossen, "how can one solution be better than another?"

She indicts the news media for failing to sort out conflicting claims of truth. Dan Rather led off a news cast one evening in 1991 with the ominous statement: "One out of eight American children under the age of 12 is going hungry tonight." This terrifying information came from a study primarily funded by the Kraft General Foods Foundation, whose corporate parent, Ms. Crossen points out, is a major beneficiary of government food subsidies.

The questions were designed to maximize the number of hungry families: "Did you ever rely on a limited number of foods to feed your children because you were running out of money to buy food for a meal?" Is this hunger or budgeting?

At that, the study didn't show that one of eight children was hungry "tonight." It said one of eight had been hungry at least once in the past year. Mr. Rather, or his writers, simply hyped the story.

The news media are biased, all right, Ms. Crossen says, but not toward the left or right, not reflexively for or against business, government or any particular cause. The bias is toward an attention-grabbing story: Movie popcorn is bad for you, red wine reduces cholesterol; milk may give children diabetes; a new drug may cure AIDS.

In fact, Ms. Crossen writes, "90 percent of the new drugs touted in newspaper reports never reached the market or were driven from it because they were ineffective, too toxic or both."

In fact, most newspaper stories include such information as the size of a polling sample or the paymaster of a scientific study. Still, she says, more skepticism is needed from both reporters and the public about scary statistics and amazing scientific breakthroughs. For as St. Augustine wrote 1,500 years ago, "When regard for the truth has been broken down or even slightly weakened, all things will remain doubtful."

BOOK REVIEW

Title: "Tainted Truth: the Manipulation of Fact in America"

Author: Cynthia Crossen

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Length, price: 272 pages, $23

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