It should be no surprise to viewers of the hit movie "Erin Brockovich" that the science portrayed in the movie is not really science. After all, this is a major motion picture coming out of Hollywood. It comes from a fairy-tale land where women are abnormally beautiful, men are lusciously handsome, where sex is unusually profligate and violence casual and frequent.
So if audiences are willing to suspend disbelief in every other arena, why should anyone care about something so dull as the veracity of a film's scientific methodology?
Yet many scientists are offended by the movie, and it is worth asking why. The problem, they say, is not that they cannot enjoy a good yarn in which virtue triumphs over evil and the little guys win. It is not that they want to take sides in this litigation from years past.
Their complaint is more subtle: While it is easy to see that the sex and violence in movies are fantasies, it is hard for any but scientists to discern when science in movies crosses the line from verity to hyperbole and indoctrination.
And when the movie is based on a true story about a woman who really is named Erin Brockovich, the questions of what is real and what is not become further muddled. Scientists suspect that audiences will decide that the fiction is that Erin Brockovich does not actually look like Julia Roberts, who plays her, but that they will assume that the science, of course, is fact.
That, to many scientists, is a tragedy that spoils the movie. In science, how you reach a conclusion really matters. It is hard for scientists to enjoy watching a movie that ignores, as though it is irrelevant, the hard-won but ultimately glorious knowledge of how to decide when perceived risks are real and when they are not.
In the movie, Brockovich is a law office file clerk with a high school education who stumbles upon a group of people in Hinkley, Calif., who have been visited by a Job-like plague of ailments. Their illnesses include uterine cancer, breast cancer, Hodgkin's disease, cancer of the brain stem, gastrointestinal cancer, miscarriages, chronic nosebleeds, asthma, heart failure and immune system disorders.
It turned out that the ground water in Hinkley was polluted with trace amounts of chromium (VI), a heavy metal. The polluter was Pacific Gas & Electric.
In the movie, the case was clear. As Brockovich in the movie gathered medical histories from more than 600 Hinkley residents, she never seemed to doubt that every ailment was caused by chromium (VI). In the end, Pacific Gas & Electric paid $333 million to settle the case.
But, scientists said, the movie encouraged exactly the wrong way to think about data, elevating individuals' medical histories to the level of proof and distorting the notion of risk.
Scientists, seeing the evidence that so infuriated Brockovich, would be much more cautious -- and skeptical. The first question to ask is whether residents of Hinkley really did have more sickness than people living elsewhere. And, if so, what illnesses are being discussed?
"Everyone has symptoms," says Dr. John C. Bailar III, a professor of health studies at the University of Chicago. Half the adult population eventually gets cancer. One out of every 700 children gets cancer before age 15, he says. Vague complaints, like aches and pains and difficulty sleeping are ubiquitous. If people look for diseases, they will find them.
The next red flag is the sheer number of diseases. "Any time I see half a dozen diseases attributed to some exposure, I get very nervous," Bailar says. Biological agents, he says, "are very well-targeted."
Vinyl chloride has been shown to cause liver cancer, but not asthma. Asbestos has been shown to cause lung cancer, but not breast cancer or brain cancer. The list of illnesses that any chemical is known to cause is very short, says Dr. Stephen Safe, a toxicologist at Texas A&M; University. "The list is not 10,000 diseases," he says.
Scientists would also ask if it is even plausible that chromium (VI) in drinking water was making hundreds of people gravely ill.
Of course, both sides in the litigation that ensued over the Hinkley ground water contamination brought in their own scientific experts (although that was not pursued in the movie), but federal agencies whose scientists were not involved in the litigation said evidence was lacking that chromium (VI) in ground water caused a myriad health problems. The chemical's main problem, they said, is that it can cause lung cancer if workers inhale it as particulates in large doses for long periods of time.
Dr. Lois Swirsky Gold, who directs the carcinogenic potency project at the University of California at Berkeley, notes that Erin Brockovich is billed as fiction. So she has one wish for its audiences.
"They should ask, 'Does the science support the conclusion?' " she says.
Pub Date: 04/16/00