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Let Us Stray (from the facts)

By Steven | August 19, 2009

Sigh. Let Us Spray producer Keith Slater has given an interview on MediaWatch, defending the documentary Let Us Spray after the BSA upheld complaints against it.

Well, that’s his right. And plainly, he still thinks the documentary was right. But he’s still making statements that strike me as just as misleading as the programme was. (Disclosure, again: I acted for the Ministry in this complaint, though the views here are mine).

For instance, he says that the Leonard report demonstrated that ESR’s serum study (a blood test to determine dioxin levels) was seriously flawed. Leonard wasn’t too sure himself, but suggested that his findings be reviewed by a biostatistician. They have been, and they’ve been found essentially wrong. An expert recommended by the WHO also looked at Leonard’s criticisms of the study (and was given the data the serum study was based on) also concluded that the study was fine. Those reviews are on the Ministry’s website, as is trenchant rebuttal from the study’s author, Dr Jeff Fowles. Oh, and you’ll also find the three expert peer reviews of the original serum study. (TV3 will tell you that those reviewers were not given “Appendix O”, a fact which formed the “gotcha” moment in TV3’s interview with the Ministry’s spokesperson, who didn’t know what information the peer reviewers had been given. Appendix O was a compilation of the raw data from the serum study – raw data that the ESR team had been working from. True, Appendix O got contained misaligned data. That was a result of a computer glitch when the information was transferred. But there was no conspiracy to keep this information from the reviewers. Peer reviewers aren’t given data like this. They don’t want it. They don’t expect it. Their job is to review the methodology, not check the adding. The Ministry asked TV3 to name any other study in the world in which peer reviewers were given the data to check, and they didn’t respond. Anyway, if they had been given Appendix O, what would have happened? The reviewers might have raised a question about the figures in it. ESR would have realised the mistake, provided the accurate data, and assured the peer reviewers that their calculations had been based on the raw data, not the mangled table.)

Mistake number two: Keith confidently asserted that dioxin exposure is clearly scientifically related to neural tube defects. Maybe Keith was one of the mysterious scientific experts consulted by TV3 for the programme. The Ministry kept asking, but TV3 never named the experts it had talked to in the making of the documentary. One might have hoped that anyone truly independent would have referred TV3 to the Institute of Medicine’s reports on the lastest scientific evidence on the links between dioxin and various health conditions. Birth defects? They’re in the category of “Inadequate or insufficient evidence to determine association” (except spina bifida). Hmmm. So who do you trust? TV3 or the panel of expert scientists convened every two years to examine the latest research data? But didn’t much of the emotional clout of the documentary hinge on those shocking images of babies with birth defects, you say? Well, exactly.

Finally, Keith tells us that the Ministry and ESR changed their position on the serum study after the documentary. TV3 suggests that this is an acknowledgement of a screw-up and an admission that the exposure was much higher than the study said. Wrong. TV3 has got the wrong end of the stick from some further calculations performed by Dr Fowles some time after the study was released. He drew on newly published research about how dioxin is processed in the body and was able to perform some new calculations using the data from the serum study. The serum study itself aimed to measure dioxin exposure among residents. It also tried to identify the peak exposure period, but could not do so with confidence. Dr Fowles’ new calculations allowed him to estimate peak exposures in the late 1960s and 1974. It is important to understand – as TV3, ostrich-like, refuses to do – what these new calculations are not about. They are not inconsistent with the study, which did not identify a peak exposure period. They do not change the findings on the level of exposure of the residents.  They do not affect the findings on the health risk to residents. (Note that the study did in fact estimate a 10% increased risk of death by cancer – something that the documentary, in its anxiousness to portray officials as wilfully blind to the risks, did not explain to viewers).

In short, the new calculations do not affect the validity of the study at all. TV3 have been repeatedly told this. They have never given any indication that they have taken it on board, constantly portraying it as a u-turn by the officials. This must be terribly frustrating for Dr Fowles, who is being treated as if he has criticised the study that he led, when all he was trying to do was gain some more refined information.

Why is TV3 being so intransigent? Don’t know. I can only guess that they are so convinced about the evilness of the Ministry and ESR that they simply don’t believe any explanation they’re given. I suspect they’re in the thrall of the advocates for the residents. I doubt they really understand the science involved. In addition, it is hard not to be sympathetic when confronted by the awful medical conditions of some of the residents, and it’s easy in this age to be suspicious of the effects of a nearby dioxin factory. Then there’s the temptation to go for the jugular and produce a compelling doco, rather than muddy the waters with inconvenient complexities. Worked for the Qantas judges. Didn’t serve the public so well, I think.

In any event, one can instructively contrast TV3’s incredible prickliness when their professionalism is challenged with their readiness to suggest that a range of officials have acted incompetently and corruptly, callously standing by while Paritutu residents die. 

Topics: Broadcasting Standards Authority | 3 Comments »

3 Responses to “Let Us Stray (from the facts)”

  1. ross Says:
    August 21st, 2009 at 8:33 am

    Steven,

    Correct me if I am wrong but hasn’t the govrnment told affected residents that the government will assist them? Governments usually don’t pick up the tab if they’re not required to or if they’re blameless (for want of a better term).

    I tend to be mistrustful of the Ministry of Health. Since their introduction of the MenZB vaccine a few yearsa go, which saw Mark Jacobs and other officials make false and misleading statements to justify introduction of the vaccine, the Ministry has lost a lot of credibility. For example, the Ministry advised the government of the day that the vaccine would “save” dozens of lives. More recently, researchers have calculated that maybe one death was prevented. Bear in mind that vaccination cost between $200-250 million.

    If you want to defend the Ministry, that of course is your right. But I wouldn’t be so keen to defend an organisation that has shown itself to be economical with the truth. That in no way is a defence of TV3 and its conduct.

  2. ross Says:
    August 21st, 2009 at 8:45 am

    Here are a couple of links regarding the false and misleading statements to which I referred.

    http://www.scoop.co.nz/stories/GE0506/S00125.htm

    http://www.scoop.co.nz/stories/GE0506/S00023.htm

  3. Steven Says:
    August 21st, 2009 at 5:10 pm

    The whole point of the serum study was to see whether the residents of Paritutu had higher rates of exposure than the rest of us, with a view to setting up a health support programme for those who had. That’s what the Ministry is for, I would have thought. The Ministry accepted that it would have been better if the testing had occured earlier. I don’t know anything about the MenZB vaccine. But the Ministry has certainly not been economical with the truth in any of my dealings with it.

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