In the short term, at least. A hundred years from now all of their mishaps will be dismissed as quirks and their legacies will remain.
Not so with Dr. Fred vom Saal of the University of Missouri-Columbia. He has no solid work to rest on in the future. His reputation lives and dies on endocrine disruption, drastic changes in our hormones, being caused by trace levels of chemicals. Which means he lives and dies on homeopathy. And to create a legacy about his belief that there is a u-shaped curve for plasticizers like BPA he is getting more and more bizarre, as a recent paper shows.
A u-shaped curve is just what it reads like. We know any chemical will be harmful at high enough levels, so that curve is the right side of a horseshoe or U - "the dose makes the poison" as Paracelsus showed - and that is why scientists create conservative "safe" levels for exposure. For Dr. vom Saal and his fellow pseudo-homeopaths, even if a chemical is safe at normal exposure or even very low levels (the bottom of the U) it might have a drastic effect at very, very tiny levels, way over on the left side of the U of exposure. And they may only show up over time, in some sort of miracle of "bioaccumulation."
Like, he bizarrely claims, creating insulin resistance and thus type 2 diabetes.
Fred vom Saal. Credit: MU News Bureau
For Dr. vom Saal's newest front in his war on chemicals like bisphenol A (BPA), he did a study of his own design in order to confirm his belief that all of the scientists at FDA, EPA, and the U.S. National Toxicology Program are wrong and he is right. And he got it published in the toxicological equivalent of a UFO magazine, Journal of the Endocrine Society. The science is he gave BPA equivalent to 50-µg/kg body weight per day to mice and humans and then looked at any alteration of insulin release.
Well, he is already on shaky scientific ground. Possible dietary intake of BPA is less than 0.000118 mg/kg body weight/day. That is 400 times lower than the maximum acceptable ("reference" dose) for BPA of 50-µg/kg body weight per day that the Environmental Protection Agency established as a very conservative No-Observed-Adverse-Effect-Level (NOAEL). So vom Saal and collaborators magnified exposure by 40,000% just to hope to claim that hormones changed. We are talking about 8 people, one of whom was a co-author self-experimenting.
Only in mice did BPA exposure result in any change in insulin resistance. There was no difference in change in humans any more than if the test subjects had eaten a donut. The authors of the paper ignored the fundamental rule of biology: mice are not little people. An animal study can rule out a hazard in humans but it can never show it. They still wrote the paper suggesting BPA was causing type 2 diabetes in humans while using the weasel term "exploratory" down at the bottom because they know many journalists don't know what that means.
Do we have more type 2 diabetes today than 70 years ago? Yes. Do we have more BPA? Also yes. Correlating those is classic magic rock thinking. Find two events and link them. If I sell you a magic rock and you aren't attacked by a bear, if I were like vom Saal I could claim my rock prevents bear attacks. Used just as ridiculously the other way, to show harm, it's a systemic conspiracy catch-all. Such simple curve fitting of two unrelated events will work, journalists with no science background like Paul Thacker, Liza Gross, Charlie Seife, and Dan Fagin will rush to embrace it because they want to believe in homeopathy for modern chemicals and they love conspiracies.
That doesn't make them real, any more than a magic rock will keep you from being bear food in the forest.
Given his penchant for doing increasingly shoddy work to shore up his claims, vom Saal is not going to have the future star power of Margulis or Pauling, he will instead be regarded as a 20th century version of Samuel Hahnemann