A Nashville editor for whom I once toiled demonstrated soon after World War II that he was no rocket engineer. He was informed that the mysterious plant at Oak Ridge had helped produce the atomic bomb; a press tour was scheduled. Perhaps visualizing a watermelon, he summoned a photographer:
"The first shot I want is a picture of that atom when they put it up on the table. After they split it, shoot the insides."
Newsrooms tend to be more sophisticated now. Some are stocked with specialists in science, medicine and other arcane callings. Still, we are on occasion too much impressed by people in white coats and overly dependent on them as suppliers of meaning in this age of high technology. We forget that they, like the rest of us, can be fallible and contentious and rarely sure (in a manner of speaking) if the Earth is round, flat or ovoid.
We have followed them, in recent years, down many a garden path, reporting -- usually on our front pages and in prime time -- the miracle of nuclear fusion in a beaker of cold water, a genetic solution to the mystery of manic-depression, the deadly perils to the human race from Alar in apples, nitrites in bacon, carcinogens in cyclamate and saccharine. These stories were later repudiated by "the scientific community" or vitiated with revisions and qualifiers, but each left its little legacy of hope or fear.
The arms controllers, perpetually at war with one another, regularly frighten or reassure us, leaving more confusion than light in their wake. So, too, the environmentalists whose views of the planetary condition range from apocalypse now to the dawn of New Eden. Newsweek, relying on a "new study," recently revived the old John Birch Society line linking cancer to fluoridated water. The report later was labeled "much ado about nothing" by the Environmental Protection Agency.
The EPA, of course, is not sacrosanct; its own "science" is often questioned. The Post in April purchased and published an article from a free-lance writer titled, "The Gassing of America." It contained a quotation from an EPA official, Dick Wilson: "Most people, when they think of toxic chemicals, imagine them spewing out of plants and factories. But it turns out that over half of the cancer incidence is caused by air pollution coming out of cars."
His statement is easily misinterpreted to mean that half of all cancers are caused by automobile emissions. This, various epidemiologists report, is preposterous, and Mr. Wilson does not disagree; he was referring only to cancers believed to be caused by air pollutants. Estimates of that number range from about 100 to more than 2,000. No matter. The Smith quotation was used in the congressional debate over automobile emission standards and is used in advertisements by interested lobbyists.
"Scientific findings," with heavy "media" promotion and federal hype, can have significant financial effects. Panic over the presence of absestos in schools, office buildings and factories has led to needless removal programs that may cost as much as $150 billion, slightly more than the lost principal in the savings and loan bailout scandal. At the same time, these programs are creating among removal crews real cancer risks from prolonged and aggravated exposure. But for the average schoolgoer, according to the current wisdom, high school football is "many times" a greater risk than asbestos in classroom ceilings.
Something similar has happened with the chemical dioxin, once called the most potent carcinogen ever tested. Billions have been spent to rid the environment of dioxin traces and more billions may be spent on Vietnam veterans as a result of its use in the defoliant Agent Orange. Yet its potency is now downgraded; no evidence has linked it to a life-threatening disease.
The public's consideration of these and other scientific issues is often contaminated (and often with help from the "media") by politicians and their powerful allies among the special interests. Vast sums from the public treasure are at stake: billions for veterans claiming harm from atomic tests, dioxin or other exposures; billions for defense contractors building a fail-safe Star Wars defense, billions for the farm lobby to "clean the air" with ethanol, billions for asbestos entrepreneurs.
They demonstrate year after year that politics is the preeminent science of Washington -- the science of who gets what.