Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Who Else is in the Doubt Industry?

According to the film, The Merchants of Doubt are pundits-for-hire who say what their corporate masters wish.  These shill scientists cast doubt on genuine scientists who say the corporations’ products are dangerous. The film cites the tobacco industry, the flame retardant industry, and the fossil fuel industry’s climate change deniers.  By now, mainstream science has established that tobacco smoking is a major risk factor for lung cancer and that human emissions of carbon dioxide are a major factor in the current warming.  
I inferred from the film that corporations hired the scientists in the Doubt Industry to substantiate the conclusions already arrived at by the corporations. However, in at least two cases the scientists arrived at their conclusions first.  Dr W C Hueper published his findings before the tobacco industry hired him.  The same thing is true of eminent statistician Ronald A Fisher (1890-1962) who believed the statistical evidence damning smoking wasn’t strong.  
Fisher postulated there may have been a third factor linking cancer and smoking, the way ice cream eating and drowning are linked to each other, because they share a common cause – summer.  Or the data could even indicate that lung cancer causes smoking because an inflammation that would lead to cancer would make a person want to smoke, says Jordan Ellenberg in How not to be Wrong.   Fisher, as a eugenicist, believed that genes were a strong factor. Turns out he was right; there are genes that increase susceptibility to lung cancer and genes that protect against the disease. 
A pattern emerges.  Corporations deny the danger of their products, hire scientists to establish doubt about these products, but genuine hero scientists refute the corporate line.  
Two new issues have emerged: genetically modified foods and the vaccination-autism link.  If we stick to the same pattern, the 89%  of scientists who say GMOs are safe, would be part of the Doubt Industry for Monsanto and Syngenta, notwithstanding the two thousand global studies confirming the safety of GM foods.  Moreover, a couple of million children die every year because anti-GMO activists fight golden rice that could save them from blindness and death.
Of course, as the Precautionary Principle claims, nothing can be proved absolutely safe for all people and all species under every conceivable circumstance into the indefinite future.  But if we lived by the Precautionary Principle, we wouldn’t drive cars, use antibiotics, or eat anything. 
Big Pharma pushes vaccinations and denies they cause autism.  So are anti-vaccination activists hero scientists against Big Pharma’s Doubt Industry?  I don’t think so; anti-vaxxers advance disease and death. 

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Who's in the Doubt Industry?

Dr. Wilhelm C. Hueper, Chief of Environmental Cancer at the National Cancer Institute from 1938-64, believed cigarette smoking was not all that dangerous. Writing in 1955, he claimed, “The data . . . unmistakenly suggest that cigarette smoking is not a major factor in the causation of lung cancer.”
Dr. Hueper allowed the tobacco companies to use his work for their own ends.   According to Oreskes and Conway in Merchants of Doubt: “When the Tobacco Industry Research Committee learned about [Hueper’s talk questioning the tobacco-cancer link], they contacted Hueper who agreed to allow them to promote his work.”  It looks as though Hueper had joined the evil Doubt Industry.
Digging deeper into Hueper’s past we find that he was one of the first scientists to discover the links between pollution, occupational chemicals like asbestos and cancer.  Rachel Carson in her acknowledgments to Silent Spring, the book that launched the modern environmental movement in 1962 says, “I could not have completed the book without the generous help of these specialists: [including] . . . W. C. Hueper MD of the National Cancer Institute . . .”  Now it looks as though Hueper was on the side of the angels.
The discrepancy between Hueper’s support of tobacco and his struggle against the chemical industry is resolved when we learn that Hueper believed that pesticides and occupationally used chemicals, rather than tobacco, were causing the 20th century increase in lung cancer.
Sometimes people and issues are more complex than they appear at first glance.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Being Human Means Overcoming Nature’s Limitations

Scott Gerard Prinster, in his Fall 2015 UU World article “Better Than Human,” discusses the ancient Greek Icarus myth, which asserts that humans deserve punishment for trying to become like gods by overcoming nature’s limitations.  To me, the Icarus myth is just that, a myth, and not one to live by.
In the case of eugenics, the officials who ran the sterilization programs believed they could eliminate hereditary lack of fitness in people to preserve the race.  Since “shiftlessness” was believed to be hereditary, the eugenicists disproportionally targeted the poor and minorities.  Sadly, contemporary Unitarians bought into eugenics with a vengeance. (The UU principle of the inherent worth and dignity of every person wasn’t adopted until many years later.)  Unitarian Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr approved the state sterilization programs in Buck v Bell, saying, “Three generations of imbeciles are enough.”   Once the Nazis appropriated eugenics and implemented the Holocaust, eugenics “science” got a bad name.
Of course eugenics wasn’t really science because it would have taken several hundred years into the future to gather enough data to test the hypothesis. However, there was a real life experiment happening at the time.  Australia had been settled by convicts and prostitutes, prime material for eugenic sterilization.  By 1900, this riffraff had formed a parliamentary democracy, the Commonwealth of Australia, still thriving.
By the way, a better example than eugenics of earlier lack of scientific ethics is the Tuskegee experiment (1932-72) in which scientists watched the untreated progression of syphilis in African-American men.  
Kalle Lasn, who believes we have too much stuff, says technical developments serve only the interests of corporations and the article says medical advances benefit only the rich.  Both are correct at the time the advances first come out.  For instance, when Benjamin Franklin invented bifocals in the late 18th century, contemporary slaves and servants could not have afforded them.  But as Robert Bryce points out in Smaller, Faster, Lighter, Denser, Cheaper, everything gets smaller, faster, better, and cheaper, for instance televisions, calculators, and computers.  Eventually, nearly everyone has access.  In 2015, reading glasses can be purchased for a few minutes work at minimum wage.
  Although I agree that it takes too long for technological advances to trickle down to the masses. collective technological progress is what separates humans from other species.  We transform nature for our common good.
The article quotes Bill McKibben who says, “Down the path of [technological progress] lies the death of . . . human meaning.” Would McKibben want to keep developmental disabilities like Down syndrome from being prevented or cured in order that the affected families might live more meaningful human lives?  McKibben may be an environmental activist, but I don’t think he is any more of an ethicist than the Rev Thomas Malthus who, in order to prevent overpopulation, denounced “specific remedies for ravaging diseases.”

Monday, August 31, 2015

I Don't Get Vaccinated in the iWorld!

As I drive up to the intersection, a sensor trips the light green and I sail through.   Perfect! I’ve entered the iWorld where I always go to the head of the line, noisy neighbors move away, and roads I want to drive on are never being repaired.
In the iWorld, everybody but me gets vaccinated.  I benefit from herd immunity because everyone else is vaccinated, yet I don’t risk any side effects from the procedure.  It’s only fair.           Wait a minute! What everyone reasoned like that? What about the seven billion other people in the world who are just as worthy as I am?  As Steven Pinker puts it, “I can’t act as if my interests are special just because I’m me and you’re not.”*
We can all win, just not all at the same time.  By waiting our turn we can all go through intersections.  By getting vaccinated we contribute to herd immunity and as a bonus, we’re protected from preventable diseases.  
*Pinker: The Better Angels of Our Nature  p 182

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Bigfoot is a GMO!

Bigfoot is a legendary giant humanoid living in the forest of the Pacific Northwest.  There’s no reliable evidence such as skeletal remains that Bigfoot actually exists, only sightings and footprints that could be faked.  Hence Bigfoot is probably a myth, but there’s no way to prove that something doesn’t exist.
I can’t prove Bigfoot doesn’t exist nor anyone can prove GMOs are safe for every individual under every conceivable circumstance.   Twenty years of uneventful GMO use should be sufficient evidence of their safety, but apparently not for some people.  
Maybe Bigfoot is a GMO himself?   Genetic modification with gorilla and Neanderthal genes would explain his great size and strength.

Monday, August 3, 2015

Class matters in Off Course by Michelle Huneven

UU World Summer 2015 says, “[Michelle Huneven] writes real literature about characters who believe that spirituality matters.”   Hoping to meet characters who exemplified UU spirituality, I borrowed Off Course from the library and found spirituality barely mentioned.  Instead, I found Cress Hartley the most amoral protagonist I’ve spent time with since mobster Tony Soprano, who was at least aware that he had moral failings.  Not only does Cress justify her affair with another woman’s husband, “Her sympathies were definitely with the mistress [in Fatal Attraction] who was up against the bland and blameless wife,” she’s lazy, she lies, she judges, she steals, and she’s a snob.
However, maybe Off Course was never meant to be about spirituality or morality at all.  On my second reading I saw the book in another light, namely, that the book can be interpreted as an allegory about class.   Cress, a graduate student, is slated to be an heiress.  In the mountain community where she is supposed to be writing her dissertation, she interacts with working people: waitresses, cleaners, as well as the married carpenter she has an affair with.  She faults his past participles, “Have you wrote much lately?” and sneers at his wife’s taste in decor. “As if [Cress would] sit on the cheap ugly couch with the ever-flowing mill wheel!”   Later, Cress’ perceptive best friend Tillie asks her, “Don’t you think its high time you ended your little love affair with the working class?”  By the end of the novel, our heroine gets back on course by marrying an internist turned hospital director and dedicating herself to environmentalism.

Friday, July 10, 2015

Let's Trust the Dawning Future

The line, “trusts the dawning future more,” from “As Tranquil Streams” (#145 in SLT),  was written in 1933 during the bad times of the Depression and Dust Bowl.  But the sentiment sounds out of place in Unitarian Universalist circles today.  Who can trust a future fraught with the dangers of  climate change, frankenfoods, and pandemic superbugs?   Pessimism, especially eco-pessimism, has become fashionable, nay politically correct, in liberal and Unitarian Universalist circles.
The trend began just after World War II, with books like Our Plundered Planet by Fairfield Osborn and Road to Survival by William Vogt, published in 1948, Spaceship Earth by Barbara Ward in 1966, and The Population Bomb by Paul Ehrlich in 1968, and Limits to Growth by the Club of Rome in 1972. These books all contended that too many people are using up too few resources.
Unitarian Universalists bought into the Malthusian mind set implicit in these works.  At the 1970 General Assembly, they cited two hundred UNESCO scientists from fifty different countries who in 1968 had come to the conclusion “that within a period of approximately twenty years the life process on earth will be seriously threatened if not in fact dead, unless major changes are made immediately.”   As we noticed, life was still flourishing in 1988.
The 1970 UUs were “convinced that man’s survival as a species is imperiled by his mushrooming technology and his excessive breeding rate.”  They claimed “many distinguished ecologists believe that environmental problems are not ultimately solvable by mere [sic] science and technology.”
The 1970 UUs didn’t understand that technology and ecological carrying capacity are inversely related.  For instance, the Green Revolution saved a billion people who would have starved without its technology.  According to Vogt. “It is obvious that fifty years hence the world cannot support three billion people.” Maybe the world couldn’t have supported three billion people with 1948 technology, but with better technology it supported seven  billion people sixty years later with a smaller fraction of them in poverty than in 1948.  Life expectancy has increased; infant mortality and family size have decreased.  
Instead, the UUs claim, to solve environmental problems: “A new religious emphasis is needed which includes a deep reverence for the diversity of life and understands people’s dependence on the planet’s life system.  Such an awareness would lead to a new life style which is balanced ecologically.”  How this would play out is unspecified.  On a practical level, UUs were supposed to bear no more than two children, as well as campaign for more environmental legislation and support the UUSC in its population control efforts.
Small Is Beautiful by Fritz Schumacher in 1971 advocated small local economies to address environmental problems.  Forty-five years later UUs believe the economy should be local based rather than world based even though we have an historical example of local based economies.  These local economies were called the Dark Ages for good reasons: famine, illiteracy, violence, and religious wars.   Belief in the food mile fallacy (buying local saves fuel) is rampant in UU circles despite the math that shows big trucks can transport more pounds of food per gallon of fuel than the family car traveling to a family farm.
Books predicting imminent catastrophe continued to be published by such authors as Al Gore, Bill McKibben, James Hansen, Vandana Shiva, and David Korten.   These doomsayers have been so persuasive that a cottage industry to cure environmental despair has emerged, for example Joanna Macy’s Active Hope groups.  However, in these groups the participants are not  confused with the facts of decreased poverty and infant mortality, increased wealth and life expectancy since 1970.
History shows Unitarian Universalists could have trusted the dawning future in 1933 and in 1970.  I believe the future can still be trusted in 2015.