Science and the Perils of a Parable (The Talk of the Town)

It is unusual to find responsible journalism about science, and especially commentary that contradicts the current negative view of chemistry in the popular culture. Malcomb Gladwell addresses the poor science that is the crux of the very popular John Travolta movie, "A Civil Action". The whole premise of the movie and the Jonathan Harr best-seller on which it is based is that trichloroethylene is a potent human carcinogen. In the book and movie, evil chemical companies are dumping it and other toxics into the water supply of a town. In fact, the connection between TCE and cancer is complex and ambiguous (as are many things in science). Ambiguity is not often tolerated by movie producers and pulp novelists, who want their bad guys to be easily identifiable. The second topic dealt with in this Commentary is the breast implant controversy that forced four manufacturers to pay 4.25 billion dollars to settle a class action, and Dow Corning into bankruptcy. In this case, the best available research showed no scientific basis for the claims. What a pleasure it is to find at least one article where chemistry treated is in an even-handed and fair manner.

P. S. In the January 25 issue, an exchange of letters between Tracy Kidder and Malcomb Gladwell is published. There Mr. Gladwell acknowledges that, in Jonathan Harr's book, the connection between TCE and cancer is "less than conclusive". As usual, the book is probably better than the movie.

Pick Attribution: 

Malcolm Gladwell

Publication Date: 
Monday, January 11, 1999