Worst Memo of the Year, Inbreeding Edition

The law firm of Crowell & Moring, which represents the National Mining Association, was none too pleased with a new West Virginia University study showing that mountaintop removal mining may cause birth defects in people who live nearby. So four of the firm's lawyers prepared a memo to undermine the study--a memo that claimed the university's researchers had ignored a significant cause of West Virginia's birth defects: inbreeding.

The study failed to account for consanquinity [sic], one of the most prominent sources of birth defects.

The lawyerly term for inbreeding is "consanguinity." And that's not a charge taken lightly in West Virginia! Crowell & Moring hastily removed the offending memo from its website. But not before quick-thinking Charleston Gazette reporter Ken Ward Jr. preserved a copy. You can read his story here and download the memo here (Word file).Crowell & Morning issued Ward a lawyerly statement that concludes:

We can appreciate the view that our alert may not have provided enough context to explain the scientific points we aimed to address, and so have removed it from our site.

Ward, who's nothing if not diligent, took the story a step further, digging up a memorably titled anthropological study of 140 years of Appalachian marriage records, "Night Comes to the Chromosomes: Inbreeding and Population Genetics in Southern Appalachia." It concludes that "inbreeding levels in Appalachia ... are neither unique nor particularly common to the region, when compared with those reported for populations elsewhere or at earlier periods in American history."

You'd like for the conclusion to maybe be a little more air tight than that, but hey, props to Ward for a great piece of reporting.

(via Morning Energy)

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Joshua Green is a former senior editor at The Atlantic.

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