posted by Carl V Phillips
I run into quite a few people who want there to be some authoritative honest broker who can provide a “neutral” opinion about THR. (Actually, we see this all the time regarding most controversial subjects, and it fails for basically the same reasons. But I will stick to talking about THR and you can extrapolate to other topics.) Everyone defers to authority or conventional wisdom for the overwhelming majority of what they do and think — that is the only practical way to exist. But when there is political controversy and the issue is important to your own health (or public health, for those making public health pronouncements), it is time to stop deferring and recognize that there often (perhaps usually) are no neutrals.
This is clearly the case when it comes to THR. While these observations are probably obvious to anyone who is invested in this topic, it might provide some useful information for those trying to begin to understand it.
A favorite target to defer to on matters of health (even by many non-Americans) is the US government. Deferring to them in this cases consists of thinking: “They say e-cigarettes and smokeless tobacco are very very bad for you, so it must be true. After all and they would not mislead me.”
Really? Does anyone really believe that the government would not be biased or try to sell you on a particular belief system? Almost no one would ever make such a claim, and yet many people act as if they believe it.
I hope it is obvious that our government is not an unbiased neutral broker of information when it comes to, say, the Department of Defense opining on the usefulness and ethics of assassination-by-drone-aircraft, or the Drug Enforcement Agency offering its assessment of the Drug War. The retort I might expect to that is that, FDA and CDC are supposed to be looking out for our best interests, not pushing an agenda. But I would expect that the people at DoD and DEA also think that they are looking out for our best interests.
The government, of course, is not a unitary actor, but consists of a lot of operations that each have their own mission. When officials create a particular unit or a particular assignment, they have a goal in mind, and it is seldom to create a neutral arbiter. But even when that is the goal, the well-known phenomenon of “agency capture” means that the people who join the agency or exert the most effort to influence it will be those who are highly focused on the issue, which is basically synonymous with “interested in a particular outcome”.
Most of the time, the capture is by an industry that stands to make or lose profit based on agency actions. Sometimes not. Theoretically, the government units that deal with tobacco could have been captured by the tobacco industry, but instead they were captured by the tobacco control industry. Why that happened is no mystery, but it is sufficient to just observe that it happened. So, there are revolving doors (people moving between the tobacco control industry and government agencies that support them) and iron triangles (a generalization of Eisenhower’s “military industrial complex” concept, which is basically the epitome of capture) everywhere you look. No agency employee would dare contradict the government anti-THR lies, let alone say that perhaps people can rationally choose to use tobacco rather than not.
Trusting government agencies to be neutral — on most anything — is simply absurd. It is generally safer to assume the opposite. In this case, it is easy to see who controls the agencies. But it should be equally clear that for an issue like this, these observations about government generalize to any supposedly neutral committee (made of people with an interest in the issue, chosen by someone who has an opinion) or organization (which generally exist to advocate a particular position).
Moreover, for the case of THR, being neutral makes about as much sense as being neutral about the shape of the Earth. Someone who claims the Earth it is flat is an outlier who apparently is unfamiliar with evidence, or is just lying for some purpose. But someone who “sees that both sides have merit” is also a nutcase (or worse, an irresponsible journalist trying to provide “balance”). It would certainly be possible for someone to present the arguments from the flat-earther alongside the rest of the evidence. But anyone who did not then arrive solidly at “spherical” should not be considered a trusted source of information.
People who learn and understand the truth about THR — and tell the truth about it — invariably come down on the pro-THR side, or at least admit that it offers clear benefits for public health, overall welfare, and individual rights. The honest brokers might recognize nuances and caveats that are absent from extreme pro-THR positions, but frankly there are not very many people who exhibit extreme pro-THR positions.
It is theoretically possible for someone to take an honest neutral position on THR or even an honest anti-THR position, but I am aware of nobody who does. It is possible to argue “there is overwhelming evidence that the risk from smoke-free tobacco/nicotine products is very low, and there is no reason to believe that encouraging their substitution for cigarettes will have negative effects on health, but I oppose [or, am on the fence about] providing accurate information and legal access to these products because….” The “….” would have to be a statement like “I do not really care about health outcomes, but only care about hurting the tobacco industry” or “I am more worried about whether other people sully their bodies by using a drug then their happiness or health”.
You never hear such honestly, but it is theoretically possible. The one version of the “….” that you almost see sometimes is “I care more about whether people are ‘addicted’ than the effects of that behavior”, but even this it is never stated so honestly, and is never coupled with the honest presentation of the health benefits.
The truth has an overwhelming pro-THR bias, and those who would attack THR implicitly acknowledge that fact by avoiding the truth. Everyone who is anti-THR, or even claims to be neutral, whatever their real motivations might be, lies about the health science and bases their stated oppositions on those lies. So they clearly fail the “honest broker” test.
But there is still a useful guide to finding the truth in this, but (like any other useful guide) it is not as simple as “just trust the government”: When you observe:
- everyone of any visibility on the anti side repeatedly makes claims that those on the pro side point out are lies, often based on easily verifiable information
- those on the pro side consistently acknowledge and respond to the claims made by the antis
- while those on the anti side never engage in dialog, not even so much as to dispute the substantive statements made on the pro side, but instead just keep repeating the zombie lies
- some of those on the pro side try to police their side’s information, while those on the anti side virtually never criticize anyone on “their team”,
- and those on the pro side can explain and document the motives of the antis to lie, while the antis can only resort to (unsubstantiated, and indeed easily refuted) sputtering protests about the other side consisting entirely of some secret industry cabal (for a non-existent THR industry, no less!),
well, then, I really think that it is not too difficult to figure out where to find the honesty.