LA Times editorial about dishonest public health (ok, not really)

by Carl V Phillips

I have already noted on this page the “welcome to my world” feeling of the press and others complaining about the Trump administration, and its deluge of disinformation and dumb policy proposals, fueled by both unforgivable ignorance and ideological extremism. When newspapers and pundits complain about this, I often find myself thinking, “gee, why don’t you exercise these critical skills when you report on the issues I work on?”


(For those who might not know why that was fake news and want to learn, see this.)

Today the Los Angeles Times published a scathing critique of Trump and his administration, “Our Dishonest President”, which is getting an enormous amount of attention. Actually, I (and those tweeting that it pulls no punches) probably overstate that a bit; let’s call it “scathing by the standards of insider elites who seldom say anything that is brutally honest, no matter how much it needs to be said.” Anyway, several parts of struck me as just so “welcome to my world” that I thought maybe I should rewrite it a bit. What I came up with appears below. You might not fully appreciate just how similar to the original it is reading them serially, so I have also posted a marked up version that shows all my edits to the original.

The latter is a bit of a pain to read, of course; if you choose to read just the clean version below, know this: Every single sentence is from the original work that I am criticizing and parodying, pointing out their hypocrisy in not offering similar scrutiny elsewhere (just a little note there for LAT’s copyright enforcers :-). No sentence has been omitted. My version of every sentence maintains the theme of the original (but re-aiming it, of course).


a parody and critical political commentary by Carl V Phillips, based on a work  By THE TIMES EDITORIAL BOARD

It was no secret for years that many in tobacco control and similar branches of U.S. public health are narcissists and demagogues who used fear and dishonesty to appeal to the worst in people. (The Times, however, and in common with every other major news outlet, has allowed this to pass without seriously criticizing it; it never called them unsuited for the job they do, and certainly never said that a particular policy would be a “catastrophe.”)

Still, nothing prepared us for the magnitude of this train wreck. Like millions of other Americans, we clung to a slim hope that public health activists would turn out to be all noise and bluster, or that the people around them in universities and governments would act as a check on their worst instincts, or that they would be sobered and transformed by the awesome responsibilities of influencing policies that have huge effects on people’s lives.

Instead, about two decades into the time of extreme activist public health — and who knows how much time to go before they are stopped — it is increasingly clear that those hopes were misplaced.

Public health social activists have taken dozens of real-life steps that, if they are not reversed, will continue to rip families apart, lower people’s welfare, in many cases actually harm public health, and profoundly weaken the quality of American public education.

Their attempt to ban e-cigarettes for millions of people who had finally quit smoking and, along the way, enact a massive transfer of wealth from tobacco product users to the government and cigarette manufacturers might still be stopped. But they are proceeding with his efforts to grant further arbitrary powers to the government’s regulatory agencies and bloat their budget.

These are immensely dangerous developments which threaten to weaken the moral standing of our government and real public health, imperil freedom and reverse years of slow but steady gains by marginalized or impoverished Americans. But, chilling as they are, these radically wrongheaded policy choices are not, in fact, the most frightening aspect of the ascendence of this brand of “public health”.

What is most worrisome about these people are these people themselves. They are so reckless, so petulant, so full of blind self-regard, so untethered to reality that it is impossible to know where their policies will lead or how much damage they will do to our welfare. Their obsession with fame, wealth and success, determination to vanquish enemies real and imagined, craving for adulation — these traits were, of course, at the very heart of their David-Goliath-myth outsider campaign; indeed, some of them helped them secure the power they have today. But in a real position of power, they are nothing short of disastrous.

Although the activists’ policies are, for the most part, variations on classic real public health positions, they become far more dangerous. Many people, for instance, support restrictions on where you can light-up and educational efforts to encourage healthy eating, but modern public health’s cockamamie tobacco “endgame” fantasies and impracticable campaigns to change human nature turn presumptuous and pushy policy into appalling imposition of an extremist minority view.

In the days ahead, The Times editorial board will look more closely at this, with a special attention to three troubling traits:

1. Shocking lack of respect for those fundamental rules and institutions on which our government and scientific community is based. They have repeatedly disparaged and challenged those entities that have threatened their agenda, stoking public distrust of essential institutions in a way that undermines faith in science and democracy. They have questioned the qualifications of scientists and the integrity of their analyses, rather than acknowledging that politics must submit to the rules of nature. They have clashed with their own honest experts, demeaned consumers and questioned the credibility of anyone who does not share their politics. They have lashed out at bloggers and other journalists, declaring them “industry shills,” rather than defending the importance of a critical, independent free press. Their contempt for the rule of law and the norms of government are palpable.

2. Utter lack of regard for truth. Whether it is the easily disprovable boasts about the miraculous effects of smoking bans or the unsubstantiated assertion that soda taxes improve health, they regularly muddy the waters of fact and fiction. It’s difficult to know whether they actually can’t distinguish the real from the unreal — or whether they intentionally conflate the two to befuddle the public, deflect criticism and undermine the very idea of objective truth. Whatever the explanation, they are encouraging Americans to reject facts, to disrespect science, documents, nonpartisanship and the mainstream media — and instead to simply take positions on the basis of ideology and preconceived notions. This is a recipe for a science-free power struggle in which differences grow deeper and rational compromise becomes impossible.

3. Scary willingness to repeat conspiracy theories, misleading memes and crackpot, out-of-the-mainstream ideas. Again, it is not clear whether they believe them or merely use them. But to cling to disproven “alternative” facts; to retweet celebrities with nothing useful to contribute; to make unverifiable or false statements; to buy into discredited conspiracy theories first floated on fringe websites and in deranged University of California blogs — these are all of a piece with antivax or miracle-cure claptrap that, but for some quirk of fate, these same individuals might now be peddling to come to political prominence. It is deeply alarming that a supposedly respectable and science-based movement would lend credibility to ideas that have been rightly rejected by every honest expert who has looked closely.

Where will this end? Will public health moderate their crazier positions as time passes? Or will they provoke a permanently destructive loss of faith in real science and health advocacy? Or, alternately, will the system itself protect us from them as they alienate more and more allies, step on their own message and create chaos at the expense of real public health goals? Already, the approval rating for their policies, among people who really know about them and the alternatives, has been hovering in the mid-30s, a shockingly low level of support for rules that are ostensibly intended to benefit the public. And that was before the new “war on sugar” that is bleeding over from the UK.

Fifteen years ago, it was not yet time to declare a state of “wholesale panic” or to call for blanket “non-cooperation” with the public health activists. Despite plenty of dispiriting signals, that is still our view. The role of the rational opposition is to stand up for the rule of law, the scientific process, and the role of institutions; we should not underestimate the resiliency of a system in which laws are greater than individuals and voters are as powerful as presidents. This nation survived John Harvey Kellogg and Carrie Nation. It survived bloodletting therapy. It survived Prohibition. Most likely, it will survive again.

But if it is to do so, those who oppose the reckless and heartless agenda must make their voices heard. Protesters must raise their banners. Voters must turn out for state and local hearings. Members of Congress must find the political courage to stand up to them. Courts must safeguard individual liberties. State legislators must pass laws to protect their citizens from meddling. All of us who are in the business of holding leaders accountable must redouble our efforts to defend the truth from their cynical assaults.

Science-based policy is not perfect, and it has a great distance to go before it fully achieves its goals. But preserving what works and defending the rules and values on which it depends are a shared responsibility. Everybody has a role to play in this drama.

8 responses to “LA Times editorial about dishonest public health (ok, not really)

  1. Chris Lalonde

    The “marked up” version appears to be a clean copy of the LAT editorial…

    • Carl V Phillips

      Hmm. Strange. Ok, I just converted to PDF (new link) so it should definitely show up the same for everyone now.
      Thanks for letting me know.

  2. Roberto Sussman

    Very interesting approach to force public health to see itself in the “alternative facts” mirror. However, public health claims to uphold “real facts” (science) and declares that its outside critics are the ones voicing “alternative facts”, and here by “critics” I do not mean those disputing minor details and/or policy tactics but disputing deep fundamental issues utilizing well grounded scientific arguments (to exclude naturist sects or crackpots). I wonder, what is the public perception of this in the USA? are there sociological studies of this? My perception, as a foreign visitor (which can be subjective), is that academics and liberals (specially in California) tend to be more “true believers” of public health recommendations than (say) republican voting Texans.

    Another issue is an undesired political alignment that could occur if being a “true believer” of public health becomes identified with opposing Trump. We still don’t know what is the position of Trump and his administration on public health issues, but suppose (just for the sake of the argument) that the Trump administration undertakes concrete policies that go against some public health “sacred cows”. Suppose the new head of the FDA (say Steven Gottlieb) appointed by Trump eliminates the “deeming” regulations on e-cigs and Ben Carson repeals the intrusive HUD smoking ban. This would not be taken lightly by the public health bureaucracies and could probably result in a wholesale rebellion (gathering all anti-Trump forces). This rebellion would certainly use the “alternative facts” accusation against Trump on these issues, based on the success of invoking this accusation on other issues (Russia, banning visitors from some Muslim countries, the wall in the Mexican border). There would be a deep irony in accusing Trump of peddling “alternative facts” if he happened to support Gottlieb and Carson, since on these issues Trump would be supporting real facts and its accusers would be peddling “alternative facts”.

    In other words, “good guys” claiming that 2+2 is 5 are wrong even if those claiming that 2+2=4 are “bad guys”. Unfortunately, a lot of folks decide who is right/wrong depending on whom they consider the “good/bad guys”.

    • Carl V Phillips

      Well, let’s see… The liars calling liars the people who correctly identify them as liars is another commonality, not a contrast.

      In terms of sociological knowledge, I would not place much faith in someone’s attempt to do “a study” of such a thing. But the proper methodology certainly has been done — call it feature journalism, or just observing life. First, there is a lot of talk from outsiders (be they Brits, Mexicans, or just non-academics observers living in Pennsylvania with average attentiveness) about the geographic and political party contrasts. These are overblown. Yes the San Francisco area is somewhat different — or was until it just became Silicon Valley, but there are still echos of what it once was. But California is not that different from Texas on average (imagine that I just drew two normal distributions whose means differ by less than half an SD). Even less so universities in those places, and even less less so public health people. The recent Surgeon General report attacking ecigs was a product of Texas, not California, after all. I would not venture to guess which major party affiliation is associated with being more credulous to public health lies. I am sure those who listen to right-wing “news” are less likely to believe public health messages, but that applies to both the messages that are right and the ones that are wrong (more the ones that are inconvenient for the Koch brothers et al.), so I would not exactly call that recognition of the lies.

      I suspect most every influential individual who support public health lies is already about as anti-Trump as can be. And they are not exactly already sparing in their attacks or use of “alternative facts”. So not much can change there.

      As for the last point, yes, definitely. That extreme polarization is the core problem in U.S. politics right now.

      • natepickering

        “But California is not that different from Texas on average”

        California is what Texas was in 1960: a state where multiple decades of one-party rule have made the other side’s voters increasingly apathetic about showing up at the polls. To an outside observer looking only at electoral results, this creates the false image of a politically homogeneous society.

        If you’re not in Frisco, Sacramento, downtown LA, or on a UC campus, the idea of this state being monolithically liberal breaks down pretty quickly.

    • As the Times article shows, they’ve already thrown every epithet at Trump (and elsewhere he’s been called a psychopath and a Nazi) , and he just keeps rolling so I doubt a few more slings or arrows would ruffle him. As for CA and TX, there are divisions w/i each state, therefore, not only the Calexit movement but ideas to split the state itself in two, most likely along east/west rather than north/south. The CA coast, with SF, Silicon Valley. Hollywood and enclaves like Santa Barbara and all those precious correct communities that proudly ban smoking as well as vaping on every inch of beach and in private apartments are mostly coastal. Inland rural is another story. (Read some columns by Victor Davis Hanson) As for Texas, cities like Austin are blue but the ranching part is red. Same here in NY. Manhattan is deep blue; Staten Island is red, and upstate, with its economic devastation, is red but it’s always outnumbered and outvoted by downstate.

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