Come for the Politics, Stay for the Pathologies

Monday, December 1, 2008



“It ain't what you don't know that gets you into trouble. It's what you know for sure that just ain't so.”

“Get your facts first, then you can distort them as you please.” – Mark Twain

Mr. Twain’s comments contain truth, and imply consequence. Make no mistake: you need to be skeptical. These are dangerous times to be intellectually lazy. If the truth is not rutted out, if half-truths and outright lies are allowed to proliferate, the world inhabited by the next generation will be greatly impoverished by reduced freedoms and its accompaniment: diminished prosperity. Read no further if you believe that the United States doesn’t deserve it’s global preeminence; that we should equalize the status of all nations not by raising the bar – nor even by leveling the playing field – but by putting speed bumps on America’s turf. For you people, I don’t believe any degree of healthy skepticism will be adequate. For the rest of you, listen up. We’re surrounded by Chicken Littles: emotional alarmists who simplistically misinterpret available data. There are a few true prophets out there; Cassandras who warn us of unanswered threats that bid our doom, but their counsel falls on deaf ears. Just for the record: the sky has yet to fall, but the Trojans were destroyed by Greeks bearing gifts.

Skeptics have become the neo-pariahs of the 21st century: unwilling to quietly sign on to all the prevailing beliefs and theories so carefully thought out by the A-list illuminati. They’ve come to be lumped together with the old-school pariahs, the cynics, who indeed take a somewhat grim (and not altogether unfounded) view of human nature. Yet skepticism is simply a method of obtaining knowledge through systematic doubt and continual testing: in short rational thinking – a habit very much out of style, but always appropriate. Any intelligent person should be proud to be considered a skeptic.

We are barraged with drivel from mainstream print and broadcast media 24 hours a day. Aside from “breaking news” such as car chases and hostage takings, much of what they would have us accept as gospel has been picked up from press releases (can you say “vested interests?”) or from “major studies” (can you say “ other vested interests?”). Instead of presenting facts, news has become a portal for talking heads to present arguments based on “facts” selectively gathered by like thinking activists. If you’re not skeptical, then you’re just not paying attention, you don’t care, or you are one of the “vested interests”.

To the degree most people are skeptical at all, they do so with a superficial questioning of viewpoints that they do not agree with before dismissing them. An honest pursuit of countervailing viewpoints prior to reaching a conclusion is rare. If they are inclined to test their skepticism, they might go to the Web. But faced with the incomprehensible amount of data available, most choose to visit the sites they’ve found to be, well, familiar. As in like-minded. So at the end of the day what they know for sure is exactly what they knew for sure at the beginning of the day. Not a very good use of their time, but since this type of selection tends to reinforce what they already believe, they are confident in declaring that a preponderance of data supports their belief. It’s not unlike the age-worn anecdote about Pauline Kael’s reaction when told that Richard Nixon had won the 1972 election: “He couldn’t have! I don’t know one person who voted for him!” At the time, Ms. Kael was the film critic for the New York Times. I believe that sufficiently explains the conceit.

If you hear something often enough, even if it’s from like-minded bobble heads, you are apt to believe it to be true. I know this is shocking, but people with agendas have tapped into the fact that people with overbooked lives and minimal intellectual curiosity turn to the mainstream media (MSM) daily to download their opinions on everything from political candidates to recycling. Special interest groups (included in this category are all politicians, all government agencies and any organization that has a lobbyist – did I leave anyone out?) are keenly aware of this phenomenon. Many have found a special bond with MSM. Their like-mindedness on many issues (politics and the environment, just to name a couple of inconsequential ones) has created a symbiotic relationship in which MSM vets stories, data, and studies provided by a labyrinth of government agencies, university studies and think tanks. People who do not sign on to the proscribed script (skeptics and cynics) are given, at best, token time to state their position before they are derided for their mean spiritedness and hit over the head with the “preponderance of evidence.” In the repeated retelling, “facts”, myths and stories assume the mantel of immutable truth. Repeating something often enough is as good as making it so.

Don’t think so? Take a look at a few of the incontrovertible truths that have been established over the years. At one time you might have believed (or may still believe) that these were true:

· 1962, DDT is killing the bald eagle - our national symbol 1962, DDT is killing the bald eagle – our national symbol! (With all due respect to the sainted Rachael Carson, this was never true, but the US ban led to a world-wide ban that has since resulted in a resurgence of malaria that has killed millions of people in underdeveloped countries.)
· 1969, Cyclamates are killing the diet conscious (It wasn’t, and although it has remained in the European and Canadian food chain for the past 35 years, it’s still banned in the USA.)
· 1967, Red dye # 2 is killing red soda fans and those that favor a maraschino cherry in their Manhattan (It wasn’t, but numerous, more expensive, replacements were developed and you’ll never see it again, although it, too, is still in use in Canada and Europe
· 1977, Saccharin is killing the diet conscious , if they were lucky enough to have survived the ingestion of cyclamates in the 1969 calamity (It wasn’t either, and although the FDA proposed a ban, Congress soon learned that you just don’t mess with women on diets. They settled for a printed warning, later withdrawn when no reputable study could demonstrate harm.)
· 1977, Hair dye is killing the prematurely gray (It wasn’t, to the vast relief of the baby boomers.)
· 1978, Love Canal is killing its residents (It wasn’t, but that didn’t prevent the US government from establishing the Super Fund for toxic cleanup – $10 billion and growing annually – and spending $55 million to relocate 400 families and clean up the site.)
· 1979, Three Mile Island will kill us all (It didn’t, but it did provide the plot for a great movie, and destroy the nuclear power industry in the US – the best source of non-polluting power yet discovered, if you’re worried about Co2 emissions – and who isn’t?)
· 1981, Coffee is causing pancreatic cancer (It wasn’t, nor did it cause breast cancer, colon cancer, heart disease, or infertility as claimed at various times – and oh, by the way, now it’s good for you.)
· 1989, Alar on apples is killing our children (It wasn’t, but it temporarily killed the apple industry—you’d of thought they were coloring them with red dye # 2.)
· 1989, Electric Blankets are causing cancer (They weren’t, unless they were powered by nuclear generated power)
· 1990, Amalgam (mercury) dental fillings are killing us (They weren’t, but maybe giving up that healthy apple-a-day habit wasn’t such a good idea for our teeth.)
· 1993, Cell Phones are causing brain cancer (They weren’t, they just make you stupid)
· 1998, Vaccines are causing huge increases in Autism (They aren’t, even the CDC – reluctantly – admits: ”The weight of currently available scientific evidence does not support the hypothesis that vaccines cause autism.” While nobody knows what causes classic autism, the huge recent increase is primarily due to the reclassification of children diagnosed with ADD and ADHD as falling within the “Autism spectrum disorder” – but that’s another story.)
· 2002, Hormone Replacement Therapy is causing increased heart attack risks in women (it wasn’t, in fact it actually improved heart health in women taking hormones at the time of menopause. Whoops! Sorry about that ladies- hope nobody got killed.)
Each of these scares, and numerous others, has been debunked. Yes that’s right, debunked – by real science! Not the junk science that launched the original hysteria. Bad scientific methodology, such as force-feeding lab rodents huge doses of a suspected substance and using the results to extrapolate results stating the substance causes cancer in humans (ignoring the basic principle of toxicology that “the dose makes the poison”) led to many of the scares in the past. Rather than eliminating bad science, the scientific community has allowed bad methodologies to proliferate. Now in order to induce mass panic you can dispense with scientific method all together; now all you need is a scary movie.
But just because these health scares have been exposed as false, that doesn’t mean that the debate is over. Why? Several reasons, not the least of which is the MSM, along with vested special interest groups continue to propagate these debunked myths as though they were true. Again you may ask, “why?” I can’t say for sure, maybe because they’re ignorant, or lazy. Maybe promoting a certain agenda gives them access to power or influence. Or maybe they’ve just heard it so often they think it’s true.
Neither journalists nor researchers are tabulae rasae. Every study is funded and/or conducted by someone with a dog in the fight. I’m not saying that’s necessarily a non-starter, but you should be aware of who owns the dog, and which dogs have been trained to bite. Likewise, the fact that the majority of journalists are, by their own admission, liberals, doesn’t matter unless you are unaware that liberals have specific beliefs and positions. I’m sure there was a time when “objective journalist” was not an oxymoron, but you and I probably weren’t alive so be wary (i.e. skeptical). And on the outside chance that you were unaware of the left-leaning proclivity of most research scientists in major universities, be aware that they too may have predetermined notions. Don’t believe me? Good! You’re well on your way to becoming a skeptic. But you do the research.
And while we’re on the topic of research, where do you think all the money for major university funding comes from? Yes, that’s right, you and me – in the form of government research grants. And since research academics are pressured to maintain or increase the amount of grants coming into their departments there is pressure to research things that someone is interested in funding. Those “some ones” would be members of Congress, who spend more time meeting with lobbyists than they do on the floor of their respective houses. The best way to get legislators to fund a study is to: a) lobby for it with meaningful dollars and/or a large constituency of potential voters (anything teachers want qualifies on both fronts), or, b) research anything that will scare the crap out of millions of people, and be discussed all day on CNN (global warming so obviously fits this category it makes my teeth hurt, but there are hundreds of other candidates too). If you want to know what’s driving the results of “major studies,” always, repeat always follow the money (it’s usually your money anyway.) Who’s providing the funding (directly or indirectly through lobbying), and what is their agenda? Homework assignment: see if you can figure out who/what was behind the original release of data related to the use of hormones for menopause. Hint: Menopause is not a disease! If you still don’t think “desirable outcomes” can be achieved in a “scientific” study, you, my friend, need to do some remedial work before you move on to Skepticism 101.
No matter how many embarrassing reversals, the mass health/environmental hysteria will continue unabated. It’s fueled by huge government funding programs, aided by research scientists using questionable methodologies (tune in later for more on epidemiological studies and their inherent errors), and abetted by the useful idiots looking for the next 24/7 news cycle: a combustible pile of hazardous waste if ever there was one. As noted by H.L. Mencken early in the last century: “the whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety), by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.” Dead for over 50 years, this man rightly earns the first posthumous Cassandra award.