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A Philanthropist Advances the Cause of Science, the New York Times Doesn’t

Over the last week or so, I have been following and shooting down the various attacks the Left has launched against the Koch brothers and their company, Koch Industries. These attacks have ranged from unfair to lunatic, and have originated mainly in the fever swamp of far-left web sites. A commenter on one of my posts said he was disappointed to see me spending my time rebutting the uninformed kids at Think Progress. I was sympathetic to his point, and it isn’t something we usually do.
But here’s the problem: it is getting increasingly difficult to distinguish the crazy left from the ostensibly respectable left. What is on Democratic Underground or Think Progress today is in Paul Krugman’s column tomorrow. Or, worse yet, in news stories in liberal papers like the New York Times.
A case in point: yesterday Think Progress, in one of its daily attacks on David Koch, claimed that “Koch Industries has lobbied aggressively to stop the government from recognizing their chemicals, like formaldehyde, as carcinogenic.” Today the same claim popped up in a New York Times news story on Mr. Koch.
David Koch is one of the world’s great philanthropists. Among other things, he has donated many millions of dollars to cancer research. (He himself is a cancer survivor.) The point of the Times story was to report on the opening of the new David H. Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, to which Mr. Koch contributed $100 million. The Times story was largely positive, as one would expect from a report on such an event. But even here, the paper cannot resist importing its own political biases into its reporting:

And while he has become a major financier of cancer research around the country, one of his companies, Georgia-Pacific, which produces formaldehyde, has been trying to convince the government not to list formaldehyde as a human carcinogen.

I have no idea whether formaldehyde is a carcinogen, and it is safe to say that the Times reporter, Michael Cooper, has no idea either. But let’s just pause for a moment. Cooper implies that there is a contradiction between David Koch’s interest in cancer research and Georgia-Pacific’s position that formaldehyde has not been shown to be a carcinogen. But that is wrong. Wasting resources based on bad science does nothing to advance the fight against cancer. An anti-cancer activist should want regulations to be based on realistic scientific assessments, not hysteria or bad science.
It takes only a few minutes of research to determine that there is a legitimate scientific debate over whether formaldehyde is a carcinogen. You probably didn’t know–I didn’t–that the human body naturally produces formaldehyde. Naturally-produced formaldehyde is present every time you exhale. Formaldehyde exists naturally in many foods, including fish. Many scientists–not just Georgia-Pacific or other producers of products that include formaldehyde–question whether there is compelling evidence that it is carcinogenic. Both the Defense Department and NASA questioned EPA’s proposed carcinogenicity finding, along with various industry groups.
The Formaldehyde Council sets out the case against the EPA’s proposed finding in summary form here. Formaldehyde is a tremendously useful substance; in recent years, around 5 million tons have been produced annually in the United States. Because it has long been known to be toxic in sufficient doses, formaldehyde is heavily regulated by a variety of federal and state agencies. Whether any additional regulation that would follow from designating the substance as carcinogenic would contribute to health and safety, and whether any such contribution would be outweighed by additional costs to consumers, are wide-open questions on which a high-level scientific debate is proceeding.
If the EPA over-regulates any chemical based on faulty science, with the effect that the cost of products that include that substance increases, those increased costs are not borne primarily by companies like Georgia-Pacific. Rather, they are passed on to consumers. There is nothing noble about imposing useless environmental regulations, and there is nothing dishonorable about debating the scientific basis for heightened regulations. It is unfortunate that the New York Times joins with know-nothing internet leftists in trying to demonize honest scientific debate.

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