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. I think it was G.K. Chesterton who once said something to the effect that “a lie has got halfway around the world before the truth has got its boots on”. However, he was writing in pre-internet times. I am sure the lies will have gone many times around in the electronic age.
    Thanks for the link to Wikipedia on global-warming. It’s very interesting and looks very throughand well researched.

  2. yes, the rich with their warriors and their lawyers are a blight on the human race. i can’t think why we humble generous tolerant middle class saints don’t turn on them and rend them into dog food.

    it’s probably because we’re too busy fending off those lazy brutal animals below us on the ladder.

    the rich have shaped western society into a commercial society, with only enough political constraints to keep the poor in their place, while ‘money talks’ on the national scale. it is not to be wondered at that the rich use their money to get what they want. this is life’s ‘rule 1.’

    as long as the political society (oligarchy) mimics the economic society (corporations), the powerful will bend reality to their will.

    if you want a better result, you need a better system. fortunately, there is one. it’s called “__________”. if you have been paying attention, you can fill in the blank without my getting in further trouble with the management.

  3. Records suggest that the cigarette companies knew of the damages of passive smoking in the 1950s and that they had replicated in laboratories the effects of smoking damage on animals – at the same time that they were publicly criticising these same experiments.

    This was not anti-science of course but naked self-interest that resulted in a known toxic product being sold to consumers for a further 50 years.

    THe anti-science message was generated by these same companies. As it became increasingly difficult to conceal the truth the strategy came to be one of persuading the public that smoking was an issue of ‘freedon of choice’ and that by smoking you were indicating your freedom from fear and your individuality.

    This line is faithfully endorsed by the local libertarian lobby – one of whose candidates started smoking during the last election to convince the world how free he was.

  4. The health sector is ripe for this sort of thing. Pharmaceutical companies and drugs are a great one (cholesterol and statins for low-risk people are a case in point).
    Then there are the diet companies and the funding and misreading of research that feeds the hysteria about The! Obesity! Epidemic!. How big are the sample sizes? What do they really find, not just what will make good copy? Sites like go some way to addressing the need for sanity, but there are still two questions that are vital for all of us to remember as we read:
    1. Who paid for it?
    2. Who benefits from it?

  5. John,

    There are people who hold minority views on GW, passive smoking, intelligent design, etc., who are not part of some vast Republican conspiracy. Your insults and ad-hominem attacks might play well with the locals, but they drive a wedge between you and thinking people who are less willing to draw strong conclusions on limited evidence.

  6. This line is faithfully endorsed by the local libertarian lobby – one of whose candidates started smoking during the last election to convince the world how free he was.

    You will be pleased to know that at the end of the 2007 campaign John Humphreys stopped smoking again.

    To be clear the “local libertarian lobby” were not refuting that smoking is bad for your health nor were we refuting that passive smoking is bad for your health. There was no anti-science in our position on smoking.

    To be really, really clear. It is my personal belief that smoking tobacco has a high probability of causing diseases such as lung cancer, cardiovascular disease and that it shortens your life expectancy. I also believe that regular exposure to passive smoking entails pretty much the same risks. I have never encountered anybody in the LDP or the broader australian libertarian movement that has suggested otherwise.

  7. Terje – why even enter into such a silly debate. You’re on a hiding to nothing. Rather heed Mises’ 1922 advice (in English translation)

    If a man thinks alcohol and nicotine harmful, let him abstain from them. Let him try, if he will, to convert his fellows to his own views on abstinence. What is certain is that he cannot, in a capitalist society, whose basic principle is the self-determination and self-responsibility of each individual, force them against their will to renounce alcohol and nicotine. If this inability to impose his will on others causes him regret, then at least he can console himself with the thought that neither is he at the mercy of the commands of others.

  8. Sinclair, how does heeding Mises’ advice tie in with the known risks of passive smoking that a smoker is passing on to the involuntary recipient?

    No one has banned smoking in the home.

  9. That’s exactly the point about smoking, Sinclair – peoples’ right to smoke stops at the point where other people (including their children) have to breathe their noxious emissions.

    The more general point is one that was argued at length on catallaxy – that it is not an ad hominem fallacy to deeply mistrust the arguments of people paid to argue in bad faith.

    As JK Galbraith once said, think tanks that parrot the prejudices of rich old men will never want for funding.

  10. That’s exactly the point about smoking, Sinclair – peoples’ right to smoke stops at the point where other people (including their children) have to breathe their noxious emissions.

    I’d agree with the qualification being that if a pub owner decides to permit smoking within the pub you don’t “have” to visit the pub.

  11. I find Mises’ advice absurd (quoted in 8 above). It is quite reasonable for a person in a democratic society to exercise his/her rights and argue for restrictions on harmful products and substances. If enough people come to agree with these arguments then the restrictions will be imposed.

    Modern capitalistic societies ban many products from free domestic trade and thank goodness they do so. There is no free trade in weapons in Australia. You can’t go down the road and buy a bunch of AK-47s and rocket launchers. You can’t buy a private M1-A1 Abrahams tank even if you are rich enough. You can’t sell crystal meth (not legally anyway).

    If enough people considered nicotine dangerous enough then its trade could and would be banned. Simple.

  12. My apologies but it was not exactly a typo. Calling an Abrams tank an Abrahams tank was a clear Freudian slip on my part.

  13. “If enough people considered nicotine dangerous enough then its trade could and would be banned. Simple.”

    Perhaps – but ultimately it comes down to what result you are trying to achieve. If you want to create an unregulated black market and an organised criminal underworld dealing in tobacco, then I fully agree with banning its trade.

    Banning products for which there is high demand and no easy substitute is almost always a bad bad idea, not out of any sort of libertarian ideals, but because it creates a far worse problem than the one supposedly being solved.

    On that basis, I would much rather see crystal meth legalised than nicotine banned.

  14. To my mind these things are never as clear cut as sensible people making a rational choice. The capacity for people to do things that are harmful to self and others is clear and abundant, irrespective of proviso’s such as informed consent. The power of the advertising industry to persuade people to consume what is unhealthy, to give in to that urge to, for example, eat the three essential and enticing fast food groups (fat, salt and sugar) is very clear to me. When it’s a substance that is highly addictive like nicotine, it’s all very well to say it’s your choice, but compulsive behaviours too easily overwhelm a weaker compulsion to do what is sensible and resist that urge. If only willpower and persistence were available across the shop counter! And were widely advertised and marketed.

    I started smoking at age 12, in an era of pervasive and persuasive advertising that, in hindsight, was often aimed at kids. I recall some pointed comedy close to the time when TV advertising of tobacco was nearing it’s end – Gary McDonald in his Gunstan role, pining for that pinnacle of success for a media personality – the high paid cigarette commercial. It took more than 10 years of off and on effort for me to break that addiction, (after 15years of smoking “pleasure”, which provided no real pleasure only momentary satisfaction of a strong addiction).

    Sensible people, all making clear and rational choices – sounds about as close to reality as those places in the world that have weak and ineffective central governments being libertarian utopias.

  15. “Sensible people, all making clear and rational choices”

    Strawman argument. It’s the equivalent of saying that social democrats believe that people are never sensible, all making muddled and irrational choices.

    People make stupid decisions all the time. It is impossible to prevent this, even if we wanted to.

  16. … it is not an ad hominem fallacy to deeply mistrust the arguments of people paid to argue in bad faith.

    That is true enough. I also worry about people who argue in bad faith for purely ideological reasons.

  17. Ken, informed consent to me is key – as long as people are well educated of the dangers of a particular behaviour, but take it up anyway, then providing it doesn’t directly impinge on others, there is no excuse for banning it. Where it only indirectly impinges on others (e.g. smokers driving up the cost of publicly funded healthcare), then taxation is usually sufficient.
    Education has proved time and time again far more effective at reducing harmful behaviour than banning. The government can have an important role to play to ensure that the population are well educated, but that there’s very rarely good cause for going further.

  18. wizofaus, I pretty much agree that banning doesn’t work, however control over accessibility has a valid place. That most tobacco sellers of my pre and teen years had no qualms about selling to me, although I think there may have been a not-under-16 rule at the time, is merely indicative of people acting in the interest of their business, without regard to those of customers – who were not be fully informed or in the case of children, even capable of making an informed choice. Companies will bring what influence they have to bear when it comes to regulations impacting their business. They will deny there is scientific evidence of the harmfulness of their products even when their own research confirms it, will use arguments such as yours about free informed choice to deny any responsibility for such harm, and will continue to use the psychological tricks inherent in marketing and advertising to promote the use of their harmful products. And tobacco is addictive, and addicts are remarkably immune to reasoned choice.

    The kinds of tactics JQ’s post highlights are the antithesis of informed choice – discrediting valid science using front organisations with the pretense of scholarly respectability, the cross-mixing of the rhetoric of free choice with deliberate misinformation, pressing peoples emotional buttons in order to evoke impulsive reactions and prevent thoughtful, reasoned responses.

    Education is crucial but regulation, if only to prevent deliberate efforts to actively promote and market products that are harmful or that keep consumers – and regulators – uninformed or misinformed are also necessary. An almost unreadable product disclosure at the bottom of a TV screen or on the back of the packaging is not sufficient to absolve them of responsibility.

  19. I think education has had a far greater impact on reducing smoking in the young than regulation. It is still trivially easy for any teenager to get cigarettes if they really want to.

  20. The problem with that informed choice theory is that it doesn’t square with what is known about brain architecture: in fact, no-one is actually informed about the choice. The reasons people continue to smoke have very little conscious “mind” content. The drug acts at unconscious levels of the brain effectively lying about it’s benefits. With a good addictive drug, this lie effectively acts as a difference function to whatever is going on. Normally, we have a reasonably effective way of evaluating what we are doing and so stop eating when we are sated, sleep when we are tired, etc. Addictive drugs beat the system by always supplying the positive value illusion, even when we are destroying ourselves. They are basically operating at a level we are not conscious of, so to speak of informed choice is crazy. You might be informed about some long term statistical effects of taking the drug – and humans are notoriously useless at making good choices on long term and low probability events – but you are not clearly not informed about what’s really happening when you take the drug, it’s happening outside of what you are biologically equipped to know. (And for good biological reason too, imagine if we had the potential to play directly with our benefit/pleasure function, we’d all be instant junkies.)

    So what about the person who takes up smoking, can they make an informed choice? Maybe, occasionally. More likely, not. Why do people take up smoking? You’ll find that things like “peer pressure” are common reasons. This doesn’t mean that your friends said they’d punch your lights out if you don’t have a smoke, it’s just that we have, again, basically unconsciously, a desire to conform. We don’t really know why, it comes from unconscious parts of the brain, we just do it and rationalize what bubbles up into the mind afterwards. There’s other factors, of course, but advertisers are experts at manipulating these things, to put a healthy glow around basically very unhealthy activities.

    This is, of course, how we work, for better or for worse. (It is increasingly the domain of brain physiologists, rather than philosophers, a positive development in my estimation.) Where it works, well and good. But where it fails, a good system will add supplementary controls.

  21. The pseudoscience and antiscience charge cuts both ways on Wikipedia (and in other forums). It is sometimes used ideologically by editors to supress legit but inconvenient science that doesn’t support their own partisan view. I speak from some experience of Wiki edit wars in a particularly controversial area of medical science. The technical ignorance (and frequently disreputable debating tactics) of some of these self-appointed establishment guardians of the scientific standard is both appalling and revealing.

  22. This doesn’t mean that your friends said they’d punch your lights out if you don’t have a smoke, it’s just that we have, again, basically unconsciously, a desire to conform.

    Speak for yourself. 😉

    I think a very large quantity of our decisions are based on primitive pleasure versus pain evaluations coupled with emotional associations that we have created through conditioning or experience. And I fully accept that drugs directly effect our pleasure zones in ways that are outside our conscious control. None of that stacks up in my book as a convincing argument in favour of government intervention.

  23. Your desire to not-conform probably has major unconscious origins. I figure mine does 🙂 Isn’t that what that rugged individual, Mr Marlbro Man was all about, consumption of mass produced toxic drugs notwithstanding.

    More to the point, a rational decision to start smoking is like a rational decision to set fire to your own hair; it doesn’t really exist (any more). Further on, a free rational decision to continue smoking could only be made by someone whose dopamine circuits weren’t susceptible unaffected by nicotine (probably no one), or someone with brain damage.

    Supposing there was a party drug that gave you 60 hours of bliss, followed by a (say) 20% chance of spending the rest of your life gaga in a hospital bed. Would you supress it? At what percentage chance?

    I think that the appearance of such a drug would see a lot of libertarians shift camps, especially if they a relative or close friend involved, or even if they had to pay the bills. There would always be a few hard nuts left, of course.

  24. 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.

  25. 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.

  26. 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.

  27. 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.

  28. 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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