by Carl V Phillips
The New York Times is a reliable mouthpiece for various powerful political factions but, frustratingly, is also a great source of information. As a result, we are forced to read it much the way that Soviet citizens learned to read Pravda — the information is there, but you have to learn how to read between the lines. A clever reader (h/t Gil Ross) spotted the NYT pointing out that FDA was blatantly hypocritical when they hyped the claim that “e-cigarettes contained antifreeze” during their attempt to ban them in 2009 (and — even worse — keep reporting that lie).
Background: In 2009, in an attempt to smear the e-cigarette companies that were suing them for illegally seizing products, FDA conducted studies of some of their liquids. They discovered a trivial contamination with diethylene glycol (DEG), in one unit, at a level that Burstyn has pointed out posed no concern. They tried to fool the public into believing this was a substantial hazard.
Of course, the NYT would never actually speak truth to power by pointing out blatant hypocrisy — certainly not a power they politically agree with. It was an accident that they told us this, recently reporting that in 2008 (note the timing) FDA discovered that a laxative that is routinely given to medicalized children, even though it is not approved for use in children, (and similarly given to adults) was contaminated with DEG and ethylene glycol (EG). You might recall FDA holding a press conference to report this discovery like they did with e-cigarettes a year later. Oh, wait, no you won’t, because it did not happen. In fact, FDA hid the information about the product, Bayer’s Miralax, not reporting it at all. The information only came to light because FDA finally became sufficiently concerned, following reports of adverse reactions in children that match the effects of children poisoned with DEG and EG, that they have commissioned a study.
The small volume of liquid consumed by (normal) vapers means that quantity consumed of a low-level contaminant is very small, but many medicines are consumed in much greater volume. Naturally, the NYT was not so helpful as to report quantities or useful perspective. (Their health news gathering protocol, much like their political reporting, consists of: (a) write down whatever government officials say without question; (b) ask someone from one of their favorite organizations or politically-connected academics to comment; (c) repeat (a) and (b) if more text is needed; (d) under no circumstances, talk to consumer advocates, sophisticated consumers, or any genuinely expert scientist who can provide useful perspective.) But the dosage for the drug in question turns out to be 17 g per day (which translates into roughly that many ml), so we are talking a rather larger quantity than vaping, and we are talking about smaller bodies.
The take-away advice from the story itself (which, of course, the NYT also avoided mentioning — the medical industry is part of their peeps, after all) is that if your child is under medical supervision, do not let them just pump him full of whatever drugs they find convenient to keep him a “regular” cog in their machine. Deeper probing reveals the message that FDA really only cares about DEG contamination when it is of no health consequence but politically convenient for them. Otherwise, they might get around to addressing it, maybe, eventually, after kids get sick for six years.
Moving on to other useful observations the NYT offers, if you know how to read it, they recently offered great advice for dealing with tobacco control and other “public health” sociopaths. Of course …you know where this sentence is going… they did not actually say such things (“public health” are their peeps, after all) — you had to infer it.
“When I watch Americans use words like cowardly, barbaric, murder, outrageous, shocking, etc., to describe [an] extremist organization’s actions, we are playing right into the enemy’s hands,” General Nagata added. “They want us to become emotional. They revel in being called murderers when the words are coming from an apostate.”
He continued: “We have to remember that most of their messaging is not for us. We are not the target. They are happy to see us outraged, but they are really communicating to people we are being drawn to their banner.”
Ok, you might guess from the “General” and “apostate” bits that this is not actually about tobacco control, but rather is in the story “In Battle to Defang ISIS, U.S. Targets Its Psychology“. But the similarities are uncanny. This should not be unexpected: The weapons and details are different, but both represent an extremist minority who are willing to do most anything within their power in pursuit of their goals, in particular manipulating public opinion and the media. In both cases, their communications are designed to win over impressionable adolescents and uninformed, disaffected adults. In both cases, they revel when their enemies point out what is wrong with their messages, their goals, and their morality itself.
Why? Because they mostly define themselves in terms of their enemies. Yes, they theoretically have some affirmative goals, but mostly they find the excuse for their existence based on hating and being hated. Tobacco control people fancy themselves as being hated by the fictitious monolith they call “Big Tobacco”. The reality is that, to the major tobacco companies, they have become just part of the market landscape; yeah, they cause specific headaches every now and then, but it’s just business. Indeed, now that tobacco control has morphed into being more about stopping harm reduction than about stopping smoking, it may well be doing more good than harm for the cigarette companies. So tobacco control really doesn’t get much hate from the major companies — they have had a detente for almost two decades now — and thus need to find their hatred among the consumers. Vocal e-cigarette consumers are finally giving them the hate, and target for hate, that they have been craving. Of course, it kind of throws a wrench in tobacco control’s fiction that what they are doing is for the benefit of consumers, but they can manage to doublethink their way around that.
Bottom line: When fighting hate-motivated extremists, do not believe that responding to them with the serious opprobrium they deserve is useful. They get off on that.
So what can we do? Well, among the various useful strategies is an endorsement of my preferred approach from the pages of the NYT, albeit from one of its few genuinely expert and intellectual corners. The war that macroeconomist Paul Krugman has waged against anti-scientific actors in his realm is amazingly similar to the battle against anti-THR lies. (It truly does amaze me — he is worth following if you want to understand more about such battles. If you are not interested in the subject matter, just skip over the technical bits and follow his meta-analysis of the war itself.)
The hatred element is less (though not absent), but the relentless lies, zombie ideas, special-interest politics, capture of government institutions by anti-scientists, and the like are all there. In particular there is the phenomenon where real scientists and real science are simply absent from the other side of what is supposedly a scientific argument (tobacco control could make some legitimate arguments for some of their points, but they do not manage to do even that). It is because the people who are pretending to be scientists are really showmen (or, in Krugman’s words, “flim-flam” men). In this context, simply rebutting the lies is not adequate because this does not slow down the sociopaths who are telling them. In his NYT blog, he summed up his explanation of the phenomenon and strategy for responding to that (using the hook of how television’s Dr. Oz has been shown to be constantly convincing people of nonsense):
Thinking about Dr. Oz also, I’d suggest, helps explain a related puzzle: even if you grant that the right wants alleged experts who toe the ideological line, why can’t it get guys who are at least competent? Why do they recruit and continue to employ people who can’t do basic job calculations, or read their own tables and notice that they’re making ridiculous unemployment projections, and so on?
My answer has been that anyone competent enough to avoid these mistakes would also be unreliable — he or she might at some point actually take a stand on principle, or at least balk at completely abandoning professional ethics. And I still think that’s part of the story.
But I now also suspect that the personality traits you need to be an effective entertainer on inherently not-so-much-fun subjects like health or monetary policy are inherently at odds with the traits you need to be even halfway competent. If Dr. Oz were the kind of guy who pores over medical evidence to be sure he knows what he’s talking about, he probably couldn’t project the persona that wins him such a large audience. Similarly, a hired-gun economist who actually knows how to download charts from FRED probably wouldn’t have the kind of blithe certainty in right-wing dogma his employers want.
So how do those of us who aren’t so glib respond? With ridicule, obviously. It’s not cruelty; it’s strategy.