This weekend 60 Minutes broadcast a report about the dangers posed by phthalates. Phthalates are chemicals found in flexible plastic consumer items like shower curtains, vinyl raincoats, and even rubber duckies. Research by University of Rochester professor Shanna Swan has shown that exposure to phthalates interrupts the production of testosterone in young boys, leading to misshapen sexual organs.
Dr. Swan’s research is a good example of the power of medical research. It has led to a federal law banning the use of phthalates in the manufacture of toys.
At the same time, the 60 Minutes piece demonstrates the dangers of scientists bringing their findings to the public. Lesley Stahl follows the media rule of showing both sides to every argument whether they are balanced or not. She interviews a businessman who must spend $8,000 to test a toy microscope for the outlawed toxin. She also talks to a scientist who says that experiments done in rats do not necessarily apply to humans.
When biomedical scientists communicate their conclusions more broadly, they have to be aware that not everyone understands what proof means in a research setting. They have to be particularly careful to specify what their findings can mean and to educate reporters about the tentative nature of scientific knowledge.