Come for the Politics, Stay for the Pathologies

Thursday, December 18, 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

Ah yes, Mr. Twain’s observations on the truth and consequences of various forms of intellectual inquiry.In two brief thoughts he demonstrates why we need to be skeptical.

And make no mistake: these are dangerous times to be intellectually lazy, which is what foregoing skeptical evaluation  is. If you rely on the media, or the intelligentsia, to do the heavy lifting to rut out the truth you’re  delusional as well as lazy. If we allow half-truths and outright lies to dictate public policy and establish new law the world your children and grandchildren inhabit will suffer a severe reduction in freedom and liberty as well as the diminished prosperity that accompanies them.

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. The rest of you might wish to listen up.

We’re surrounded by Chicken Littles: emotional alarmists who simplistically misinterpret data, either accidentally or on purpose. There are a few true Cassandras out there who warn us of real, unanswered threats but their warnings fall on deaf ears. Unless it’s concern voiced by all the 24/7 broadcasts ex-politicians looking for a new multi-million gig and the enlightened Hollywood elite, the majority doesn’t pay attention.

History is littered with Chicken Littles, still clucking about the sky falling. Let it be noted however that the Trojans were actually destroyed by Greeks bearing gifts, as Cassandra warned. Learning to differentiate between real and imagined threats is worth the price of being accused of being a skeptic.

Skeptics are the 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 took a somewhat grim (although not altogether unfounded) view of human nature. It’s a bum wrap: skepticism is simply a method of obtaining knowledge through systematic doubt and continual testing. In short, rational thinking – a habit, along with scientific method, very much out of style, but still quite valuable.

We are barraged with drivel from mainstream print and broadcast media 24 hours a day. Aside from “breaking news” such as car chases, hostage takings, and school shootings 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 either not paying attention, you don’t care, or you are one of the “vested interests”.

To the degree people are skeptical at all, it’s likely to be regarding viewpoints that they are predisposed to distrust. If they are inclined to test their skepticism, they might go to the Internet. But with the incomprehensible amount of data available, it’s likely they will self-select the sites that support their predisposition. So at the end of the day they wind up knowing for sure  exactly what they knew for sure at the beginning of the day, only now they are confident that a preponderance of data supports their belief. It’s a bit like the age-worn anecdote about Pauline Kael’s reaction when told that Richard Nixon had won the 1972 election: “He couldn’t have!” she allegedly proclaimed, “I don’t know one person who voted for him!” I don’t even know if that story is true, but 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 MSM outlets daily to download their opinions on everything from political candidates to recycling. Special interest groups (included in this category are politicians, all government agencies and any organization - corporate or “non-profit” - that has a lobbyist) are keenly aware of this phenomenon. Many have found a special bond with the MSM, both right and left. Their like-mindedness on many issues such as politics and the environment, has created a symbiotic relationship in which the 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” argument. In the process, the repeated retelling of “facts”, myths and stories turn into immutable truths. Before you know it, the debate is over.

Don’t think so? Take a look at a few of the incontrovertible truths that have been established over the past few decades.. 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! 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. It has been debunked repeatedly, but if you ask anyone they will tell you that DDT kills birds by making their eggs fragile.

1969: Cyclamates are killing dieters! It wasn’t, the study that determined it to be a carcinogen was questioned by many scientists, including the one who headed up the study. and although it has remained in the European and Canadian food chain for the past 35 years, it’s still banned in the USA.

1976: Red dye # 2 is killing strawberry 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# 2 again in the US, although it, too, is still in use in Canada and Europe.

1977: Saccharin is now killing the diet conscious, if they were lucky enough to have survived the ingestion of cyclamates in the 1969 calamity. It wasn’t killing anyone 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. But in order to save face, it remains classified by the EPA as a “hazardous substance. (update 1/11: Saccharine removed from EPA’s toxic chemical list)

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. Apparently dioxins aren’t as deadly as we thought.

1979, Three Mile Island –nuclear energy - 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! “When are we going to stop killing our children!” Meryl Streep demanded from a Congressional panel that she testified before. Perhaps the point at which celebrities with a cause and very little brains were given a pulpit to spread their junk science beliefs via a very compliant media. Al Gore was paying attention. By the way, Alar was later proved to be harmless, but not until after it bankrupted many apple growers as fear of apples spread like malaria without DDT.

1989, Electric Blankets are causing cancer. They weren’t, unless perhaps they were powered by nuclear generated electricity.

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. (update 07/09: Mercury based fillings pose no real health risk)

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, research indicates genetics play a large role. The huge recent increase is at least partially 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 none of you committed a felony while estrogen deprived.

Each of these health 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 “proving” 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 (e.g. An Inconvenient Truth) and a “concensus.”

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 they’re ignorant. Or lazy. Maybe promoting a certain agenda gives them access to power or influence or money, or all of the above. Or maybe they’ve just heard it so often they know it to be true.

Scientific “research” no longer starts with a clean slate. 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, how the dog’s been trained and which ones are just there for a fight. 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) of anything you see or hear. 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. Do your own 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 flowing to 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 with either their constituents or 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 examples as well).

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), and what is their agenda? (Extra credit 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: Feminists don’t think Menopause is a disease. You shouldn’t have to take medication for a natural phenomenon.)

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 take 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 has rightly earned the first posthumous Cassandra award.

UPDATE: You may find my American Thinker post: Postmodernism: A Unified Theory of All the Trouble in the World on Post-normal science interesting as well.