The monkey and the organgrinder

At Wikipedia, the fight against pseudoscience and Republican antiscience across a range of articles from global warming to passive smoking to Intelligent design to AIDS reappraisal, is continuous and bruising.[1]. Editors have learned to detect bogus sources of information almost immediately. One of my fellow-editors at passive smoking pointed me to an interesting letter to Science (paywalled, but I’ve quoted the important nit), shedding unintentional light on the way the disinformation machine operates. It’s from William G. Kelly of the Center for Regulatory Effectiveness the front organization founded by legendary Phillip Morris shill, Jim Tozzi (Kelly is employed by Tozzi’s lobbying outfit, Multinational Business Services

Responding to criticism of the infamous Data Quality Act (for more on this see the Crooked Timber seminar on Chris Mooney’s Republican War on Science) Kelly offers a classic non-denial denial, saying

Neither Phillip Morris (a multiproduct company) nor any other tobacco company (or nontobacco company for that matter) played a leadership role in the genesis of the DQA. While working with the Center for Regulatory Effectiveness in Washington, DC, I was personally involved with the development of the DQA, and no industry entity contributed to its formulation.

While we’re at it, can I point out that Henry II was nowhere near Canterbury Cathedral when Thomas Becket met with his unfortunate end. The whole point of having people like Tozzi and Kelly, and groups like CRE is that corporations don’t have to play a leadership role in promoting their own interests in Congress.

This kind of thing is the reason why I’m so unimpressed by Cass Sunstein’s arguments about political polarisation and the Internet. The Republicans had established a complete parallel universe long before the Internet was a significant factor, and the Internet, through efforts like Wikipedia and Sourcewatch has done much more to expose this than Sunstein’s “fair and balanced” mass media. The suggestion that presenting the lies of groups like CRE (or CEI, Heritage, AEI, TCS and the rest of the alphabet soup) as one half of a ‘debate’ over scientific, social, economic or political issues promotes some sort of useful consensus is just silly.

fn1. Between them, Steven Milloy’s aptly-named Junk Science and Tom Bethell’s Politically Incorrect Guide to Science (apt if you scan it as “incorrect for political reasons”) give the anti-science position on all four issues, though Bethell doesn’t appear to cover passive smoking and Milloy avoids AIDS reappraisal. These writers provide the basis for mainstream Republican views on most scientific, environmental and health issues, propagated through thinktanks and media outlines like CEI, Cato, Fox News (all of which have employed Milloy), Regnery, Hoover and the American Spectator (which have published or employed Bethell).

30 thoughts on “The monkey and the organgrinder

  1. jim, I agree that there are grey areas where informed choice theory falls down. There are certainly conceivably drugs that are so dangerous that permitting their unrestricted usage would be hard to justify. But whatever way you look at it, attempting to ban the recreational drugs that are still in common usage today has been a spectucular failure.

  2. Sure, that’s an important practical consideration. No government would want to blow valuable resources on useless activities unless absolutely required for achieving the right democratic outcomes.

    I’m just arguing that the despite enjoying illusion of being the captain of the aircraft we are often in a position a little like the tail gunner; not quite in control of the flight path, but happily blasting away at things. In cases where it matters, we would be better to rely on the best science rather than a libertarian ideology based in a Cartesian view of the self as a kind of locally omniscient, locally omnipotent being.

  3. What are the “right” democratic outcomes though?

    Are you saying that it’s not right to legalise drugs until the majority accept it?

    I agree that a party whose platform included decriminalisation of the entire recreational drugs industry is not going get many voters.

    But I think if the ALP included decriminalisation of prescribed marijuana for medical use as part of its policy platform, it wouldn’t risk many votes either. It would be a useful first step.

  4. That was a throwaway cynical comment that the government will very likely spend up big on useless activities if they think it will go down well with the electorate, eg terrorist spotter fridge magnets.

    Drugs are well in the tabloid zone so I wouldn’t expect policies to be strongly reality based.

  5. To what extent is AIDS reappraisal part of the same movement as the others? I’d love to be able to pin that piece of pseudoscience on them, but Mbeki isn’t part of that crowd afaik, and at least some of the reappraisalists seem to be from the left.

    I didn’t know Bethell was an AIDS reappraiser, but it takes more than one common figure to link the two. I wouldn’t have thought there were major business interests in denying HIV as the cause of AIDS, though I imagine at least some of the Republicans would be pretty happy to see it run wild through Africa and the US Gay community.

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